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

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

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 has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.