The UK’s Publishers Association Charts a ‘Steep Rise’ in Audiobook Sales

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The United Kingdom’s audiobook sales show an eye-catching 71-percent jump, January to June this year over the same period in 2019.

On an overground platform in London. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Paulo Paradiso

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

See also: Nielsen’s Look at Audiobooks in the United Kingdom: ‘Curiosity, Multitasking’

Consumer Print Was Up 6 Percent in the Same Time Frame
Two new looks at audiobook sales trends in the United Kingdom appeared late last week during the American Thanksgiving holiday, and today (November 29), we want to touch on them.

In this article, we have an interim report from the January-to-June period of this year, from the London-based Publishers Association. Be sure, too, to look at the report we have from Nielsen, which you’ll find in a separate report on Tuesday.

As Jasmine Joynson at the Publishers Association points out, there’s no deep-dive report standing behind these figures, which doesn’t diminish our interest in them. A round of annual statistics for 2021 will be forthcoming in the first half of next year from the association, but this six-month quick look is cheering many audiobook enthusiasts in the UK market, understandably.

As Joynson points out, the “big jump” news is that in the first six months of this year, audiobook sales were up a massive 71 percent over the sales of the same six-month period in 2019, ahead of the onset of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

For the sake of comparison, consumer ebook sales in this same comparative period in the UK were up 10 percent this year over the 2019 levels, while consumer print was up 6 percent. Needless to say, that means that in the “digital acceleration” we talk about in association with the pandemic’s effects, audiobooks in the UK, at least up until June of this year, appear to be leaving their sister formats in the dust.

Some more statistics in this short but intriguing report:

  • Overall books sales income—across consumer, education and academic sectors—is seen to be up 4 percent in this same January-to-June period this year over 2019
  • Consumer books sales income is up 10 percent in the same period’s comparison
  • Fiction up 28 percent, same period
  • Children’s books are up 8 percent, same period
  • In fact, children’s books in this 2021-to-2019 first-half-year comparison show particular rises in export (14 percent) and digital formats (26 percent)—and that last factor may be of special interest because, as we know, prior to the still-ongoing pandemic’s arrival, the children’s market had remained relatively digital-resistant
  • Consumer nonfiction in this same comparative time period is seen to be staying flat
  • However, consumer nonfiction in digital formats is jumping 30 percent

At bottom, then, we seem to see that digital acceleration still with its foot on the gas, and a special boost in the audio arena in the United Kingdom.

Lotinga: Book Lovers Still Pay VAT on Audiobooks

In London, July 2019. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Giorez

Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association, accompanies this release of newly reported six-month figures with a comment, saying, “It’s fantastic to see that books have offered people entertainment and comfort in this difficult period of time. UK publishers have continued to release books that engage readers across the UK and around the world.

Stephen Lotinga

“The steep rise of audiobooks is a truly interesting development as it may suggest that new demographics are embracing this format. It does beg the question why, unlike print and ebooks, book lovers are still required to pay VAT on audiobooks and this is something we continue to raise with the government.”

At Publishing Perspectives’ request, Joynson calculated how much share audiobooks may appear to hold in the UK market. She comes up with around 8.1 percent in those first six months being looked at in these interim numbers.

The reason for checking this figure, of course, is context. And that 8.1-percent figure correlates well with the most recently released StatShot figure from the Association of American Publishers, in which some 7.8 percent of the market in September was seen as being held by audiobooks.

In both the major English-language markets, audiobook fans (this reporter is one) have celebrated years of double-digit growth. For purposes of keeping one’s feet on the ground, however, it’s always good to remember that the format–born again, as it were, by the arrival of streaming and downloadable audio–still holds a portion of these big markets even smaller than that of ebooks.

Nevertheless, the news of these six-month comparative figures is great for the headphones-and-ear-buds set everywhere.

And Joynson, always diligent with details of perspective, also has provided us with these facts about the pandemic conditions in which the UK’s market has labored:

  • Bookshops were forced to close in late December 2020
  • Bookshops in England and Wales were allowed to re-opened on April 12 along with other designated non-essential retailers
  • Bookshops in Scotland were able to reopen on April 26
  • Bookshops in Northern Ireland were permitted to open starting April 30

The Publishers Association’s statistical observations are made using the same companies across the time periods involved, for the most consistent possible assessments of the situation.

The Coronavirus in the United Kingdom

In London, April 5, 2019. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Anutr Tosirikul

Because we are beginning to see concern about the still-ongoing pandemic fueled by the detection first in Botswana of B.1.1.529, the “omicron” variant, we’ll be returning at times to our quick looks at conditions in world publishing markets.

As you may know, London has reported the detection of two cases of the omicron variant in Brentwood, Essex, and Nottingham. As the BBC reports it, these cases were linked to travel in the southern part of the African continent. In response, Boris Johnson has made masking mandatory again on public transport and in shops. Travelers into Britain will find that their “Day 2” test now must be a PCR test rather than an antigen test. And, of course, the UK has been among the first countries to halt traffic incoming from the southern African nations.

It’s important at this point to remember that scientists still are studying the newly reported variant to learn how transmissible it is, how it may respond to existing vaccines, and whether it can cause more severe illness than previously recognized variants.

At this writing on November 28, the 9:22 a.m. ET (1422 GMT) update of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees on a 28-day rolling basis, 1,103,069 new cases in the UK’s population of 67 million, with 4,186. Those figures represent the alarming upswing in viral activity the British have been contending with this autumn, prior to any knowledge of the omicron variant. Ranked by that 28-day rolling caseload, the UK stands as the nation with the third highest level of coronavirus activity in the world, after the United States and Germany at Nos. 1 and 2.

During the full run of the pandemic, the United Kingdom has reported a total 10,165,796 cases and 145,167 deaths.

Guidance being issued in the UK, as reported by Charlie Moloney and Martin Farrar at The Guardian in London includes the report that the Netherlands has reported 13 omicron cases, as the United Kingdom anticipates giving boosters to citizens younger than 40 earlier because of the presence of the new variant.

Morocco, like Israel, reportedly has now suspended travel from all parts of the world for two weeks while scientists work to develop a full profile of the new variant and its implications.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the United Kingdom’s market is  here, more on the UK’s Publishers Association is here, more on the digital acceleration observed in pandemic conditions in many book publishing markets is here, and more from us on audiobooks is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (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.

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