Audio Publishers Association: Third Year of Strong US Audiobook Sales Growth

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Estimates show 2016’s audiobook sales growth expanding by almost 20 percent again. The APA cites 24 percent of Americans saying they’ve completed an audiobook in the last year.

In newly released survey results, the Audio Publishers Association sees 56 percent of frequent audiobook listeners identifying as male, 44 percent female. Image – iStockphoto: Chalabala

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

Not All Multitasking: 56 Percent ‘Just Listen’
In covering the BookExpo conference session “Consumer Centric Data: The New Currency of Publishing,” Publishing Perspectives referenced a coming report from the Audio Publishers Association (APA), which has been released today (June 7).

The association’s Michele Cobb delivered at BookExpo some of the most compelling observations of the day in terms of consumer response to audiobooks, as well as the kind of upbeat numbers we’ve come to expect from audiobook publishing.

The association conducts its annual survey with the research firm Management Research, which polls industry sales data “including gross sales, sales by various formats, and channel discounts,” covering the national APA audio-publishing membership.

What’s more, Cobb’s information is based on a survey from January and February in which Edison Research was commissioned to survey 2,000 respondents via telephone, establishing the US audiobook market’s outlines on the basis of such parameters as (a) how many said they’d ever listened to an audiobook; (b) when these respondents said they’d last listened to an audiobook; and (c) the number of audiobooks they said they’d listened to in the previous 12 months.

“Forty-eight percent of frequent listeners are under the age of 35…If we capture them now, we can keep them listening for the rest of their lives.”Michele Cobb

In terms of the gender of audiobook consumers, men comprise 48 percent of listeners, and women comprise 52 percent. However, “when you look at frequent listeners” to audiobooks, she said, “which means those who have listened to at least four audiobooks in the last 12 months, you start to see 56 percent male listeners and 44 percent female”

And in terms of age, Cobb’s message was especially hopeful. “Forty-eight percent of frequent listeners are under the age of 35. If we capture them now, when they’re young and have a little bit more time and a few more dollars, we keep them listening for the rest of their lives.”

Podcasting listenership, Cobb said, can become the “gateway” to audiobook listenership that many have hoped it might be, a factor you’ll find referenced below in responses that show

One of the most helpful things the association does is estimate the growth of the audiobook market. In an industry in which “consumer centric data” is not always available–the terminology of “estimates” is welcome.

Image: Audio Publishers Association, BookExpo 2017 presentation

Sales Up 18.2 Percent Over 2015, Units Up 33.9 Percent

“Based on information from responding publishers, the APA estimates that audiobook sales in 2016 totaled more than $2.1 billion, up 18.2 percent over 2015, and with a corresponding 33.9 percent increase in units. This is the third consecutive year that audiobook sales have expanded by nearly 20 percent.”

The top-line findings from the research go on to indicate that “24 percent of Americans (more than 67 million people) have completed at least one audiobook in the last year, a 22-percent increase over the 2015 survey.”

Below are some of the survey’s additional findings, which marketing and audience-development professionals will find particularly interesting.

Image: Audio Publishers Association, BookExpo 2017 presentation

Who Listens to Audiobooks?
  • “Nearly half (48 percent) of frequent audiobook listeners are under 35.
  • “Audiobook listeners are often also podcast listeners. Respondents who consumed both podcasts and audiobooks listened to twice as many audiobooks in the past 12 months as non-podcast consumers.
  • “Avid readers are also listening. Audiobook listeners read or listened to an average of 15 books in the last year, and 77 percent of frequent listeners agreed or strongly agreed that ‘audiobooks help you finish more books.'”

Image: Audio Publishers Association, BookExpo 2017 presentation

How and Why Were They Listening?

Michele Cobb

In what may be one of the most striking findings of the survey, the APA was told by 56 of its respondents that when they listen to audiobooks, they’re not doing anything else, “just listening.” This will come as a surprise to many of us who are accustomed to thinking of audiobook listening as something done with other activities–commuting, working out, and so on.

After all, 78 percent of respondents said that they enjoy listening to audiobooks “because you can do other things while listening.”

In her presentation at BookExpo, Cobb stressed the relaxation element in “just listening,” not least because it might be perceived by some consumers that listening is “easier” than reading, as watching a film is often considered “easier” than reading a book. It would be great to have more insights in the future into this pattern of “just listening.”

More points from the new release of results:

  • “Far more listeners are saying they use their smartphone most often to listen to audiobooks than before–29 percent in 2017 vs. 22 percent in 2015.
  • “A majority of audiobook listening is done at home (57 percent), with the car being the second most frequently-cited location (32 percent). • 68 percent of frequent listeners do housework while listening to audiobooks. Other multitasking activities among frequent listeners include baking (65 percent), exercise (56 percent) and crafting (36 percent).
  • “The 2017 survey asked about voice-enabled wireless speakers (such as Amazon Echo or Google Home) for the first time, with 19 percent of all listeners reporting using them to listen to an audiobook in the last year. Among frequent listeners, that rises to 30 percent.”

Image: Audio Publishers Association, BookExpo 2017 presentation

Further Observations

Cobb appeared on the “Consumer Centric Data” panel with OverDrive‘s David Burleigh, and was able to agree with him, as you’ll see in the first point below, on indications that book discovery is occurring at libraries.

  • “Libraries remain major access channels and important drivers of audiobook discovery. Twenty-seven percent of people said borrowing from a library or library site was very important for discovering new audiobooks.
  • “Of the more than 50,000 titles produced on audio in 2016, the most popular genres were mysteries/thrillers/suspense; science fiction/fantasy; and romance.
  • “The top three reasons why people enjoy listening to audiobooks are: (1) they can do other things while listening; (2) audiobooks are portable and people can listen wherever they are; and (3) they enjoy being read to.”

Image: Audio Publishers Association, BookExpo 2017 presentation

The Educational Edge

In question-and-answer after the BookExpo panel, Cobb revealed that the association’s input indicates that listeners can consume a book “that’s two years beyond what you can read with your eyes,” she said. “It helps you understand context, vocabulary, and pronunciation,” which, of course, could be potentially critical in the challenges of some who have reading disabilities.

In answer to another question, she said that the association is seeing an increased number of celebrity narrators at work in audiobooks, some of whom are attached to their own projects (memoirs, etc.) and some of whom are simply able to raise a book’s profile, as in the case of Reese Witherspoon’s narration of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman for HarperCollins.

More information on audiobooks and the APA is at its site.

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.