Is there a Future for Audiobooks?

According to The Bookseller, only 7% of books have an audio counterpart. Audiobooks were first available to the public in the 1930s, long before ebooks arrived on the scene. In 2014, Futurebook consensus figures revealed that, while 90% of publishers sell ebooks, only 40% sell audiobooks. The unpopularity of audiobooks among publishers can be attributed to a lack of adequate financial return. Recording audio can be expensive and requires staff with a different skill set than traditional publishers; this explains why the audiobook market is currently being dominated by a few companies.

A large majority of audiobooks now exist only in the digital sphere; listeners can buy audiobooks online and download or stream them to smart devices without leaving the house.

However, the digital age has opened new opportunities for audiobooks. In 2013, Deputy Features Editor at The Bookseller, Felicity Wood, explained ‘the shift to digital has had a huge impact on the publishing industry across the board, but for the audiobook market it has been completely transformative.’ A large majority of audiobooks now exist only in the digital sphere; listeners can buy audiobooks online and download or stream them to smart devices without leaving the house. Digital formats of audiobooks are cheaper to produce because companies no longer have to pay for warehousing, postage and packaging, and materials. Audiobook digitalisation has been the making of some businesses and the downfall of others, showcasing why publishers need to think ahead when it comes to emerging technologies.

Futurebook consensus figures showing the percentage of publishers that create ebooks, compared to the percentage that make audiobooks.

The percentage of publishers that create ebooks, compared to the percentage that make audiobooks.

Audiobook Consumers

There is an incorrect assumption that the audiobook market is limited to those who struggle to read printed text. Blogging for The Bookseller, Rebecca Fenton describes how ‘a kind of snobbery has always plagued audiobooks, which have been perceived as a bit “easy” or an inferior/ less intellectual way of accessing books.’ Former librarian and audiobook columnist at Book Riot, Rachel Smalter Hall, explains ‘my absolute number one reason for loving audiobooks is that they let me keep right on reading whether I’m walking, running, driving, knitting, cooking, canoeing, or folding origami peacocks.’ Competent readers can use audiobooks to incorporate more books into their busy lifestyles, explaining why Amazon created Whispersync, which allows consumers to switch effortlessly between ebooks and their audio counterpart. According to a survey by Bowker, commuters make up 47% of the audiobook market.

An infographic showing when consumers listen to audiobooks

When do consumers listen to audiobooks?

Digitalisation has increased the popularity of audiobooks. In his guide, How To Create Audio Books, Billy Matts states ‘audiobooks gained popularity with the increase in the pace of technological advancements.’ Digital formats are cheaper than traditional audiobook formats, and online subscription services are making audiobooks a viable alternative to both physical books and ebooks. Bardowl offers unlimited access to their collection of audiobooks for £9.99 a month, while Audible customers can pay as low as £3.99 for one audiobook monthly. It is slightly disconcerting that subscribers to audiobook platforms can pay less than those accessing the same content though reading. Along with reduced prices, digitalisation has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of unabridged audiobooks; many audiobooks had previously been abridged in order to fit them onto a limited number of CDs. Unabridged audiobooks are popular with consumers, because they are not losing out on content, through opting for audio over print.

Audiobook Publishers

Walkman Cassette Player

Before MP3s, listeners would access audiobooks through bulky cassette or CD players.

In 2007, Tom Tiverton wrote, ‘audiobooks are not on the public’s radar, do not receive adequate visibility in shops and are perceived as too expensive.’ Since then, the audiobook industry has evolved, overcoming these hurdles. The additional costs involved with retailing audiobooks in bookshops means that successful audiobook companies now tend to exist almost entirely on the internet. Previously traditional publishers, such as BBC audiobooks, held the majority of the audiobook market, now online companies, such as Audible, have a stronghold. Features writer at The Independent, Simon Usborne, explains, ‘everything has changed and publishers are racing to catch up.’

Audible

Audible has the world’s biggest audiobook directory, containing over 170,000 titles; it holds almost a complete monopoly over the audiobook industry. Founded in 1995 by Donald Katz, the company was brought by Amazon in 2008 for £150m. Audiobooks can be purchased at the set retail price by non-members, however, there are numerous incentives to encourage customers to subscribe, such as a free audiobook on joining, exclusive member discounts and sales. Audible members pay a monthly subscription charge, which allows them to download the audiobook of their choice, regardless of its retail price. Membership prices are competitive, with 1 book monthly membership costing £7.99 a month.

Audible members pay a monthly subscription charge, which allows them to download the audiobook of their choice, regardless of its retail price.

Audible has been criticised for its frequent discounting of audiobooks. When rights holders allow Amazon to sell their product, they have no choice over the price that it is retailed at. This means that authors have little control over how much profit they will make for the sale of each audiobook.

ACX

ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) is a solution for unused audio rights. Launched in May 2011 by Amazon, ACX enables authors to create their own audiobooks, which will then be sold by Amazon, iTunes and Audible. Head of ACX, Jason Ojalvo, explains that it was designed to be ‘a match maker for audio rights holders [authors, agents, publishers] and audio producers [narrators and studio professionals].’ Ojalvo explains that, ‘a very limited of audiobooks get made … Publishers, agents and authors are sitting on lots of audio rights, and ACX offers them a way to exploit those and get more titles out there.’ Since its launch ACX has added over 16,000 audiobooks to Audible’s virtual library.

Using ACX, right holders can choose how to pay their producers, opting between a one-off payment and a 50-50 royalty share. Because producers do not have to be paid initially, the ACX platform gives self-published authors an opportunity to create audiobooks with minimum cost. When asked on Twitter, @ACX_com replied that the main benefits of ACX for self-published authors included ‘creative collaboration with professional actors’and ‘additional revenue stream.’

BBC Audiobooks

In 2007, BBC Audiobooks was the biggest audiobook retailer in the UK. However, the company struggled to maintain profit dues to the major switches in formats of audiobooks. The Bookseller reported that the shift from cassette to CD caused the revenue of BBC Audiobooks to drop by almost £2.6m. BBC Audiobooks attributed the loss of profit with ‘strategic realignment as the UK market phased out audio cassettes.’ At this time digital formats only accounted for 15% of the company’s turnover. In 2010, BBC audiobooks became AudioGO, due to AudioGO securing a majority share of the company. Due to the rise in popularity of digital formats AudioGO, and other audio retailers, were forced into spending time and resources digitalising backlists. In October 2013, AudioGO went into administration, causing 57 redundancies. 5000 of its non-BBC titles were brought by Audible while the BBC titles are now being distributed by Random House Audio. There have been similar stories among other traditional audiobook publishers.

Bardowl
The logo for Bardowl, an audiobook company.

Bardowl Logo

Launched in 2012, UK company Bardowl pitched itself against Audible as a ‘Spotify for audiobooks.’ Bardowl is a subscription service; consumers pay £9.99 a month for unlimited streaming of audiobooks onto their iPhone or iPad. The app also supports 3 hours of downloaded material. In 2011, Bardowl was awarded Bookseller FutureBook Praize for Best Technology Innovation.

At its launch Bardowl had support from Penguin, Macmillan, AudioGo, Wiley, Summersdale, Creative Content, Faber and Faber, and Canongate who supplied Bardowl with a wide range of audiobooks. The pioneering audiobook app has proved popular and has been endorsed by celebrities such as Stephen Fry on Twitter.

Authors and Narrators

In his book, From Papyrus to Hypertext, Christian Vandendorpe describes how ‘writing lacks the whole intimate dimension conveyed by the voice, with its vibration, its trembling , its hesitation, its silences, its false starts, its repetitions, its tensions.’ Good narrators breathe life into stories, giving audiobooks a dimension that written text lacks.

Colin Firth, An audiobook narrator whose audiobooks feature on Amazon's Audible

Celebrities Narrators, such as Colin Firth, are increasing the popularity of Audiobooks

Celebrity narrators can increase popularity of titles; in the past two years Colin Firth, Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslett have all narrated audiobooks. There are lucrative opportunities for actors in the audiobook industry; according to The Independent, ACX is the biggest employer of actors in New York. Narrators and producers should be wary of accepting royalty shares as payment, as this might give a small return in comparison to the time they have invested.

Unfortunately, publishers often sit on audio rights without exploiting them, in a market that can be lucrative. On the ACX website, bestselling author, Scott Sigler, explains ‘Random House Audio simply chose to not put out the audiobook. Since they owned the audio rights, I couldn’t record it and release it on my own … So we asked them: if you’re not going to release an audiobook, can we have the rights back? Happily, they said “no problem.”’ This allowed Sigler to produce his own audiobooks through ACX, a profitable venture that has led him to sell thousands of audiobooks. Publishers’ lack of enthusiasm for creating audiobooks is one of the factors that have allowed Amazon to build a monopoly in the audiobook landscape.

The Future for Audiobooks

While many publishers have been distracted by the arrival of ebooks, the audiobook industry has been booming. Figures from Good e-Reader  show that in 2007 just 3,073 audio titles were produced, compared to over 35,000 released in 2014.

A graph showing the number of audiobooks created per year, suggesting that the audiobook industry will continue to grow in the future.

The number of audiobooks created per year.

Companies such as Bardowl and Audible are proof that there is a strong market for audiobooks in the digital age. These companies currently rule the audiobook market and traditional publishers have little chance of competing. Listening to audiobooks is becoming increasingly mainstream, there are no reasons to suggest that the growth in the audiobook sector will slow down in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Is there a Future for Audiobooks?

  1. Thank you for the encouraging and comprehensive information. Before I became a self-published author, I knew I wanted to create an audiobook which I did. Originally I tried to use ACX but ran into problems. I’m glad I did because I discovered Gumroad instead. Gumroad allows me to name my own price. I’ve just uploaded it, so I can’t add more about my experience, but thanks again for posting. Will share.

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