At a time when the publishing industry faces intense economic pressures, audiobooks have become a rapidly expanding – and lucrative – revenue stream.
A few weeks ago, the Association of American Publishers reported that in 2017, publishers witnessed a 29.5% increase in net audiobook revenues over 2016. During the same period, e-book revenues declined 4.7%. The Audio Publishers Association bolsters this data’s claims, estimating that audiobook sales increased 22.7% in 2017 over 2016. Whichever way you cut it – audio is on the rise with audiobooks and podcasting at the forefront.
Even though the availability of audiobooks in digital format is relatively new, their origins date back as far as the 1930s when they were sold as analog cassette tapes and vinyl records and used as an educational medium in schools and libraries. Since the shift to digital, the audiobook market has grown exponentially with new entrants jostling for market position.
The undoubted leader is Amazon-owned Audible, the world’s largest producer of downloadable audiobooks. Since its 1995 launch, Audible’s library includes more than 200,000 audio programs covering all genres – subscribers downloaded 725 million hours of audio last year, almost double that of 2011.
But the market has opened up. Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller argued back in 2014 that audiobooks are “following almost the exact pattern and trajectory as e-books in that we are seeing a massive explosion in response to a switch to digital. But it’s also more exciting because you can do so much more with audio – it’s not just a facsimile of the print book.”
Spotify is the latest example of a company leveraging audiobooks, partnering with UK-based Bloomsbury Publishing to offer the 131-book 33 1/3 series focusing on music titles. The audiobooks, which are non-fiction explorations of popular music that take a deep dive into a single album, will be offered through Spotify’s service in “a variety of formats,” Reuters reports.
Another notable market entrant is Audiobooks.com, which whilst relatively new to the audiobook industry is quickly experiencing rapid growth. Launched in the UK last year and rolling out in other markets in quick order – highlighting the growing potential in the worldwide audiobook market – the Canadian service now has 11,000 titles available (in contrast to Audible’s 100,000). Of the 360 publishers on its books, 15% are UK-specific including HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House.
Audiobooks.com has witnessed double-digit growth in the last year alone. In a recent interview with Forbes, Audiobook’s CEO Ian Small explained the reason behind the industry’s double-digit growth saying, “Audiobooks.com’s YOY growth is very much in line with the industry, which is so exciting to see and that ‘quality narration is what elevates and distinguishes the audiobook listening experience from the print reading experience, in often extraordinary ways’.”
“To keep that momentum going, we’ve expanded into new markets, specifically Australia and the United Kingdom, and we’re also excited about the upcoming launch of the Spanish-language Audiolibros.com, our first non-English-language product”, he said.
What’s next for audiobooks?
The market for audio publishing is clear – it is the fastest growing sector in digital publishing – and its rapid expansion is opening up a myriad of opportunities for publishers to tap into.
Although pure-play audiobook providers like Audible and Audiobooks.com are satisfying generic consumer interests, other publishers can enter the segment by identifying the niches they are renowned for and leveraging them.
Indeed, whilst big publishers and audiobook specialists are building new studios to meet demand, smaller publishers can harness their specialised knowledge on chosen subjects and leverage them by offering audiobook downloads through affiliate partnerships, content partnerships with publishers, or even produce niche audiobooks themselves. Spotify’s harnessing of music audiobooks through their content partnership with Bloomsbury is a standout example that other publishers can replicate.
The evolution of smart home technology is also likely to play its part. People can now listen to audiobooks throughout the home, and with eighteen percent of Americans now owning smart speakers, the distribution of audiobooks is set to only expand further. In fact, the future of the audiobook industry is intertwined with the future of tech itself: As voice assistants become more popular, audiobooks will have another channel to reach their audiences.
As Ian Small, CEO of Audiobooks.com, told Forbes, “What we know for sure is that connected devices and spaces are becoming more mainstream, and with them, new listening opportunities in new environments,” he says. “With the more recent adoption of smartwatches, smart home speakers, and other connected devices, audiobooks are able to integrate with people’s lifestyles more than ever before, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”