Google Play Store Now Selling Audiobooks and Boosting Content on Voice-Activated Devices

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Expanding the content offering on its devices integrated with the voice-activated Google Assistant, Google has started selling audiobooks in its Google Play Store.

Some available titles as Google Play begins offering audiobooks. Image: Google Play

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

Highlighting Google Assistant Integration

This week, Google added audiobooks to its Google Play Store, an announcement that many in publishing have been anticipating.

“After various hints online, and in a move publishers have been waiting for,” writes Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, “Google Play officially launched digital audiobooks, offered for sale in 45 countries and nine languages: English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Polish.”

In fact, at Techcrunch, Federic Lardinois writes, “The addition of audiobooks feels like a natural progression, but I was actually surprised to hear that these weren’t in the store already. What took the company so long?”

The addition of audiobooks to the Google Play Store is another step in the race between Amazon and Google to provide more content on their voice services and voice-activated devices, like the Google Home and the Amazon Echo. Earlier this year, Google announced that its voice-activated Assistant technology was available on 400 million devices, and that it had “sold tens of millions of all our Google devices for the home.” Just after the holiday season, Amazon announced that it “Amazon Devices also had its best holiday yet, with tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide.”

On Tuesday (January 23), Greg Hartrell, who leads product management at Google Play Books, explained on Google’s The Keyword blog how audiobooks are integrated into the voice-activated Google Assistant, both on Android devices and Google Home devices:

Greg Hartrell

“Just say ‘Ok Google, read my book’ to listen to your favorite audiobook hands-free with the Google Assistant on your phone or speaker, like Google Home. Try “Ok Google, who is the author?” if you need a refresher, or ‘Ok Google, stop playing in 20 minutes’ to set a timer for bedtime reading.

“For now, the Google Assistant integration with audiobooks is available on Android phones and smart speakers globally in English.

“It will be coming soon to the Assistant on Android Auto in the US.”

And it’s interesting that Google Play isn’t only doing without a subscription for now but citing this as a virtue.

Some of the most successful audiobook programs are unlimited subscription programs—most notably, Amazon’s Audible, as well as services like Stockholm’s Bookbeat and Storytel. It’s interesting that Storytel is also in nine international markets.

And CEO Jonas Tellander told us in December, “We always provide an unlimited subscription and have done this since 2006.” Google Play, by contrast, brags, “Listen without a subscription.”

Google’s initial titles are available, with a selection of high-profile titles on a limited time offer of less than US$10 each, plus a promotional 50-percent off on a new listener’s first audiobook.

From Google Play’s new audiobook offering

Sounds of Success

Of course, audiobooks are the fastest growing format in the US and UK markets, and the growth has been sustained across several  years now. Quickly, some points of reference, in case you’d like to review.

What happened? Freeing the form from its earlier plastic—those CDs, and before those the cassette tapes—seems to have had a lot to do with the turnaround in consumer interest.

Downloads and streaming audio now are in sway, and as Nielsen’s Andre Breedt said to Publishing Perspectives in September, audio tends to widen the readership by engaging new readers and even wooing back readers who had wandered off to other entertainments.

Here’s how Breedt put it to us before his appearance at Frankfurter Buchmesse in The Markets conference:

Andre Breedt

“The uptake of audiobooks is almost entirely device-led. And I think we have to see this as an example of a format and a business model that’s been all but revolutionized. And it’s helped the book industry find new readers.

“And if I had a theme here, I’d say that rather than fighting with each other for market share, the book industry has to remember that it’s fighting for share of attention and share of mind. And it should rather aim to actually grow the pie.

“That’s the exciting thing about the audiobook: it’s getting people to listen to audiobooks who weren’t reading very much, it’s having a very positive impact in that way. It’s bringing in new readers–or bringing back readers who’d stopped reading.”

The Bookseller in London has established an entire audio track for its annual The FutureBook conference. In December, the 2017 edition of the show featured a dedicated ticket option for conference-goers who wanted just to have access to the “Audiobook Revolution” track, as it was branded.

In the States, Jenni Laidman at the Chicago Tribune wrote in November about a “straight-to-audio” trend in which Hachette Audio is asking its key authors for unpublished works that might be suitable to be produced originally as audiobooks.

In the US market, Laidman wrote, “Audiobook listeners are a hot demographic, with almost half—48 percent—younger than 35. Edison Research reported listeners completed an average of 15 books in 2016, marking them as avid ‘readers.’ Plus, there’s room for growth in the audiobook segment; 24 percent of Americans listened to an audiobook in the past year,” and 2016 represented a third year of robust growth in the sector for the American market.

And The New York Times’ Alexandra Alter, in her engaging “Tech We’re Using” piece of last week (January 17), mentioned that among theories for why ebook sales have been easing in the past couple of years, one idea is that “some ebook readers have switched to audiobooks, which are easy to play on your smartphone while you’re multitasking.”

From Google Play’s new audiobook offering

Listening In to Data

Where some in the business are looking now has to do with a parallel to ebooks. You’ll remember that the Amazon Chart bestseller lists are being created thanks to Seattle’s ability to track not only which books are selling but also which ones are actually “most read” in Kindle editions and most listened to in Audible audiobook editions.

Electronic formats bristle with data and in Sweden, the Bonnier subsidiary BookBeat’s unlimited audiobook streaming service for smartphones is no exception. Here’s the UK site, as a point of reference, launched in 2017. The Swedish and Finnish BookBeat sites were launched in 2016.

Niclas Sandin

We bring up this service because in a timely essay for The FutureBook on Wednesday (January 24), BookBeat CEO Niclas Sandin has produced an essay in which he describes the BookBeat strategy and its emphasis on data: “The strategy behind BookBeat is to be data-driven from day one, with a focus on understanding the listener and what they listen to, and using that data to deliver the best discoverability and the most relevant content in the service.”

Sandin offers three predictions based on the data BookBeat is gathering and parsing from consumer usage patterns. Here’s the top line for each, and his article has plenty of discussion on all three.

  • Prediction 1: “The female demographic is a sleeping giant for the UK audiobook market.” In this point, Sandin shares the discovery that while in Sweden women “make up 75 percent of BookBeat’s users,” in the UK, more males are listening. This supports the contention from Nielsen’s Breedt about audio’s appeal to male consumers who may otherwise be “reluctant readers.”
  • Prediction 2: “What people listen to will be more important than what they buy.” Not unlike the reader-behavior research that Andrew Rhomberg has done for several years for publishers now in ebooks, Sandin is talking about being able to assess which books are being read fully and which have high “drop-off rates.” As he writes, “Since our launch, millions of books have been listened to and we have tracked every one of them. The performance of a book has been used when deciding what type of books we should use in marketing materials and which titles are favored by BookBeat’s algorithms within the app.”
  • Prediction 3: “Fiction is the genre with the biggest long-term potential as audio.” Don’t tell that to our friends at Henry Holt, of course, whose Fire and Fury is likely to sell into audio just as it’s doing in other formats with white-hot response. “Often, when the audiobook phenomenon is discussed, some draw the conclusion that nonfiction is a perfect genre as many people enjoy listening to podcasts. The truth, according to the data, is that a lot of people probably physically buy these books but very few see them as perfect listening experiences.”

The irony of the week, then, may be that Google–arguably the mega-corporation that least needs more data on us–is the one now adding audiobooks. Which will provide Mountain View with even more data.

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.