Germany’s Audiobook Renaissance

In Europe by Amanda DeMarco

Digitization and professionalization have significantly raised the profile — and sales — of audiobooks in Germany.

By Amanda DeMarco

Drei Fragen audiobooks

If you want to send a German into a nostalgic childhood revery, just bring up The Three Investigators audio dramas (Die Drei???Die Drei Fragezeichen). Audiobooks and dramas have long been popular for children in Germany, but in the last five to ten years, the audiobook market has developed rapidly, with increasing professionalism and industry awareness, better press-coverage, and of course higher sales.

Stephanie Mende, director of Audio Media Publishing, and spokesperson for the Professional Association of Audiobook Publishers (Arbeitskreis Hörbuchverlage), confirmed, “You might say that the audiobook is ‘all grown-up,’ and finally isn’t a kids product anymore.” Nonfiction titles, in addition to thrillers and mysteries, are rapidly gaining steam.

The German Audiobook Prize, which has been given since 2003, is one initiative that’s brought esteem and visibility to the field. Why give prizes to audiobooks in particular? According to Mende, “There are things that are more successful as audiobooks — because of their outstanding narrative accomplishment — than in their corresponding book-form.” Audio-specific prizes, such as “best performer,” are also given.

Audiobooks are less and less considered a peripheral or niche market, and more and more an alternate form that will mostly be consumed along with traditional books, e-book, and apps. Mende commented, “Avid readers are often avid listeners, which means the audiobook is recognized as its own full-fledged media form, and is no longer considered a ‘subordinate publication’ to books.” Nor must they necessarily compete with them. “Audiobooks are often the purchasing impetus for books. Audiobooks frequently make poetry more accessible, for example.”

The Leipzig Book Fair was a sort of debutante-ball moment for audio-publishers. 26 exhibitors, many of them newcomers to the fair, shared 1,300 square feet around the Audio-Arena. Standing-room only crowds came to hear authors as well as performers and producers.

Among the exhibitors was the newly-founded Ohja! Publishing, presenting an audio drama for young adults (and adults young at heart). Their discussion was giddy, full of energy, if a bit chaotic, and perfectly emblematic of the breakthrough atmosphere in the market. Mende says the audio-environment is a positive one for new initiatives because of its heterogeneity. There’s room for new ideas: “It’s definitely not easy to go up against established publishers, but the diversity in the audiobook/audio drama field makes it possible for newcomers to also have lasting success.”

Audiobooks lie somewhere between the book industry and the music industry in terms of how they’ve survived the digitalization crisis. Illegal downloading, while not as intense as the music industry suffers, is still greater than that of e-books (for now), and Germans are less addicted in general to illegal downloading than their English-speaking counterparts, so download sales are healthy. “The market for downloads is growing constantly. With regard to the entire audiobook market, though, its share is relatively small . . . You can’t really talk about setbacks right now. To the contrary, we’re tapping into new target groups for audiobooks via the download market,” said Mende

Mostly, the German audiobook market has benefited from how easy omnipresent technical devices make it to listen to books. It turns out generation ipod is also generation audiobook. As long as customers keep paying for what they listen to, digitalization has been a very positive development for German audiobooks.

One challenge still facing the German audiobook market is in its wildly variable pricing scheme, which can be confusing. There is a logic behind the system — the level of involvement (and cost) of a short audiobook is much less than that of a complex, well-produced audio drama. Börsenblatt recently reported on the issue, with the interesting example that Ken Follett’s World Without End is available as a German audiobook for “9.95 Euro. But also for 99 Euro. Or for 29.95 Euro.”

Customers want that range, but they also need to understand exactly what they’re getting. As more adult customers turn to audiobooks, they’ll need to get used to the idea that, just as they may have to choose between a hardcover, a paperback, a mass-market paperback, and an expanded edition; or an e-book, an enhanced e-book, and an app; they’ll be greeted with analogous audiobook options.

A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits and contributes to Readux: Reading in Berlin.

DISCUSS: Is Audiopiracy More Insidious Than E-book Piracy?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.