Golden Headsets: Audiobooks’ Growth Is Music to Publishers’ Ears

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson7 Comments

At this week’s FutureBook conference in London, a new specialized track on audiobooks will give attendees a chance to focus on the born-again format that keeps racking up sales.
Image - iStockphoto: Junce

Image – iStockphoto: Junce

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The Comeback Format
Involved with the Audio Publishers Association (APA) since 2001, Michele Cobb has been the organization’s executive director since March 2015. Her nonprofit trade organization has existed to promote the audio publishing industry and its players since 1987.

futurebook-audio-revolution-logo-linedAnd when Cobb joins a panel on Friday (December 2) at The FutureBook conference in London, she’s likely to do little to dim the optimism of the session’s title: “Soundscapes: The Rise and Rise of the Audiobook.” The discussion, chaired by The Bookseller editor Philip Jones opens the “Audiobook Revolution” track of the day. It and  a simultaneous “EdTech for Publishers” track will run parallel to the main program as options from 11 a.m.

Cobb will tell the assembly on Friday that the APA estimates that in 2015, audiobook sales totaled more than $1.77 billion (£1.42 billion) in the States—and that’s up 20.7 percent over the association’s 2014 figure. Unit sales, the association’s figures indicate, were up 24.1 percent in 2015.

In the UK, The Bookseller reports in its FutureBook conference material that audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of the digital content market for trade publishers, with the overall audio digital download market “said to be worth close to £100 million (US$125 million) per year.”

At the turn of the century, “there were only 3,000 or 4,000 audiobooks produced per year. Now we see 36,000 titles per year.”Michele Cobb

And according to Nicholas Jones of London producer Strathmore Publishing, downloaded audio sales in the UK were up 29 percent in 2015 over 2014. He writes that releases of audiobook editions of titles “is almost always simultaneous with the publication of the printed book, which means that the audiobook benefits from publicity at the time of print publication, but it also reduces the time available for audio production.”

In the States, the APA’s member-publishers who report their figures have seen 20-percent or better increases in audiobook sales for two years, 2014 and 2015, making it the kind of sector in publishing that many publishers, weary of the hobbled progress of recent ebook markets, understandably welcome.

In the perception of the organization, the recent magic behind audiobooks, of course, is digital downloads and streaming. “Sales of digital downloads continue to rise,” the organization’s press materials say, “showing an increase of more than 34 percent in both dollars and units sold from the previous year.”

Audiobooks aren’t new, after all, but no longer are tied to cassette tapes or CDs. They snuggle as comfortably on digital devices as do podcasts, music, and videos. And tech like Amazon’s Whispersync can make them ebook-friendly, too, for those who want to both read and listen.

apa_logo-linedThe APA’s figures say that American audiobook sales have increased by 29,374 annually in just five years. In 2015 alone, the APA’s figures show, the US published 35,574 audiobooks, up 9,630 over 2014’s total.

In 2011? The organization tracked only 7,237 titles produced as audiobooks.

While the APA doesn’t break out these figures by genre, it does see adult titles accounting for 90.4 percent of overall audiobook sales.

Fiction leads, with some 76.3 percent. And consumers tell the APA that they prefer the unabridged editions of books they listen to: 96.3 percent of audiobooks sold in complete editions.

When Publishers Weekly’s Shannon Maughan looked at these numbers in June, they stood beside the Association of American Publishers‘ (AAP) StatShot report indicating that publishers who report figures to that analysis had seen adult audiobook downloads go up 38.9 percent between 2014 and 2015. Publishers told Maughan then that they’ve increased production of audiobooks steadily, Penguin Random House and HarperAudio executives talking about 10 percent more titles produced in 12 months; Macmillan’s folks citing a 28-percent rise.

In self-publishing, Publishers Weekly has reported that Audible’s ACX platform—which brings together independent authors and narrators—may see as many as 30,000 titles produced this year, compared to 20,000 in 2015 and 13,600 in 2014.

Can the golden headsets keep delivering this kind of growth?

‘Everything Old Is New Again’
Michele Cobb

Michele Cobb

“We” in audiobooks “were before the curve of ebooks at the turn of the century,” Cobb says. “But then, the problem was that there were only 3,000 or 4,000 audiobooks produced per year. Now we see 36,000 titles per year.”

The US-based Cobb’s career in audio dates back to a position as vice-president in sales and marketing for AudioGO, formerly BBC Audiobooks America. And she tells Publishing Perspectives that her organization’s focus is on educating its membership, doing research, and providing networking opportunities for members.

Those members, she says, are of two types: “We have regular members, who are the publishers, themselves. And then we have associate members—wholesalers, retailers, studios that produce audiobooks, and narrators who record them.”

What do the publishers want to know? “Trends. Everyone has their own data but not industry data. So we compile sales data each year and consumer data every other year.”

The last APA consumer survey, conducted by Edison Research, puts several talking points onto the table:

  • 41 percent of respondents said they’d listened to an audiobook at some point;
  • 70 percent reported having listened to three or more audiobooks in the past year;
  • Mysteries, thrillers, and suspense led the audiobook genre designations among surveyed listeners, with history, biography, memoir, and popular fiction following;
  • A third of frequent audiobook listeners said they were between 25 and 34 years old;
  • 61 percent said they listen at home, one out of four using a laptop; and
  • 63 percent of respondents said the subject matter of a book is the most important criterion to them in choosing an audiobook.

In answer to our question, Cobb says that it does seem that more audiobooks are produced nowadays with “production elements,” as in radio drama—sound effects, multiple voices, music such as the New Zealand-based Booktrack‘s Paul Cameron produces, and so on. The apparent rise in such production, though, she says, might be “just because there are more titles being done [as audiobooks] in general.”

“When I started in the industry 20 years ago, I had to explain what an audiobook was.”Michele Cobb

Publishers, she says, are becoming better at spotting which titles might need such higher-level production. And that stands at the opposite end of the production spectrum from “people producing their own audiobooks at home,” often in their closets with hanging clothes serving as sound-absorption material.

To her credit, Cobb hesitates when asked what happens next for audio? In the world of digital reading, for example, we can look to such events as this month’s Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco for its ongoing exploration of “the networked book” and efforts to put reading into a digital context.

But for audio?

“It’s a good question,” she says. “We know what’s next” in audiobooks “in a way, because everything old is new again” in this aural format. But while digital delivery is boosting audiobooks’ success, there’s been less of the kind of out-of-the-box experimentation that enhanced ebooks have represented.

Asked about innovations, Cobb mentions “illustrated audiobooks,” which, she says, “are more like children’s read-alongs” for picture books, and so forth.

But to some degree, audiobooks are simply what they are: you listen rather than read. And you have to wonder if the basic familiarity of that factor—and the relatively few options available for its production—might not be part of the appeal.

“When I started in the industry 20 years ago, I had to explain what an audiobook was,” Cobb says. “Book on tape,” she said to folks who were new to the idea.

“Not anymore.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International,, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.


  1. Great and informative article! This was exactly what I was looking for!

    I’m doing research into the seemingly mysterious realm of Audiobook Publishing and production.

    Thank you.


  2. Quote: “In 2015 alone, the APA’s figures show, the US published 35,574 audiobooks, up 9,630 over 2014’s total.”

    Needless to say, that’s a tiny slice of the book market. A visit to Audible will suggest why. Prices are typically too high for any but upscale readers. Customers tend to view audiobooks like they view ebooks, as something that’s insubstantial and can’t be passed around.

    Take a current bestseller, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and notice how odd the pricing is at Amazon, particularly for a book that has been out over three years.

    Audiobook: $11.32
    Kindle ebook: $10.99
    Hardcover: $10.62
    Paperback: $6.77

    The audiobook is the most expensive, the ebook is a close second, followed by the hardcover, with the paperback coming in the cheapest by a substantial margin. I’m sure Amazon and the publisher have their reasons, but those prices are likely to strike the public as weird.

    Perhaps that’s why the library copy I’m reading now is the paperback. A librarian made the same decision I would make. Buying the paperback at almost half the price of the audiobook makes the most sense.

    Publishers who want to increase their audiobook sales need to take a look at their pricing. They should keep in mind that, because listening takes place in a different context from reading, gaining an audiobook sale doesn’t necessarily mean a lost sale in a reading format. Audiobooks are often sold to people who’re communting, exercising, or working around the house. That’s a different market.

    –Michael W. Perry, author & publisher

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comment, Michael.

      It’s pretty easy to see, even for many consumers who have no insight into publishing, that an audiobook requires a different form of production, and the costs of that production, from anything that goes into a print or ebook edition. Instead of transferring text from one visual format to another, voice must be hired. Instead of another visually read surface, the book’s content is translated into an audio format, production must be done.

      Whatever pricing policies a publisher or self-publisher might use, I think it’s reasonable to understand and expect that a different and additional set of costs are brought to the table when a book is produced as an audio product. I’m neither defending nor condemning audiobook pricing here (and the example you quote seems to me a relatively good price for an audiobook edition of “Mrs. Peregrines”), but a different pricing structure in audiobooks seems logical in terms of the fundamental requirements of the medium and something worth taking into consideration: that cost may not be as easily amortized into the original production costs of a book, which underlie hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats.

      Thanks for reading us and commenting.

      On Twitter: @Porter_Anderson

  3. @ Michael W. Perry

    Unless the publisher is paying a royalty to the person doing the actual reading (doubtful), the audio books have just one more one-time cost than the ebooks do before you can sell as many of them as you’d like. The reason the cost ‘more’ than their printed brothers is because the publishers don’t want to lose their little printing empires – though they are anyway.

    I couldn’t help but notice the OP whines about the “hobbled progress of recent ebook markets” without recognizing that it was those same publishers that did the hobbling of their own ebooks by going ‘agency’ to force Amazon and others to sell them at the prices the publishers themselves set. (You can see this hit the big 5 as their contracts with agency added kicked in.)

    You might wonder why if agency pricing was such a good idea that the big 5 didn’t agency their printed books as well? Simple, no one would buy their print books at the posted price. (And B&N couldn’t mark books 20-50% off under agency pricing, only the price on the cover.)

    All this and poor contracts is why so many new and old writers are trying out that indie/self-publish thing. A few one-time costs (editing/cover and the reading for the abooks) and any profits from sales are theirs to keep.

  4. I listen to 3 or 4 audiobooks a week. I listen mostly on my iPhone with books from the Public Library on Overdrive or OneClick Digital. I also listen on cds and oddly enough the quaint audiotape format.
    Although I also read books, audio while walking or driving keeps me going.

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