Audio Publishers Association: US Audiobook Revenues Reach $1.6 Billion in 2021

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Growth in American audiobook revenue by genre was led in 2021 by romance, self-help, and science-fiction, per the Audio Publishers Association.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Antonio Solano

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

See also: Today’s announcement from Frankfurter Buchmesse includes news that Frankfurt Audio will return

Audiobook Titles Published: Up 6 Percent in 2021 Over 2020
Another golden-headphones report, today’s data (June 7) from the Audio Publishers Association announces a 10th year of double-digit growth for audiobooks in the United States’ audio-avid market.

The source of today’s news is a sales survey produced for the association by the San Francisco-based InterQ Research. It shows a 25-percent rise in American audiobook revenue in 2021, to a total US$1.6 billion.

The Audio Publishers Association, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, is the nonprofit trade association established in 1986 and let by executive director Michele Cobb. In addition to providing its services to its industry membership and research on the market like today’s information, the organization is also behind the annual Audie Awards.

Cobb tells Publishing Perspectives, “We’re pleased to have a decade of double-digit growth as audiobook market expansion continues to exceed expectations. Our members impress consumers with the breadth and creativity of productions and they reward us with more listening.”

Michele Cobb

In explanatory commentary for the news media today, the association writes, “Nearly 74,000 audiobooks [titles] were published in 2021, a 6-percent increase over 2020.”

“Science-fiction and fantasy narrowly edged out mysteries, thrillers, and suspense as the most popular genre by percentage of sales, with romance and [general] fiction following close behind, and increases in children’s books and young-adult revenue. The romance genre experienced the most growth with a 75-percent increase in revenues, followed by self-help at 34 percent and science-fiction at 32 percent.”

The sales study was conducted by InterQ this spring for the Audio Publishers Association. It’s a national survey of Audio Publishers Association members who publish audiobooks. Twenty-eight publishers provided data, including Audible, Blackstone, Brilliance Audio, Hachette Audio, Pushkin Industries, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Recorded Books, and Simon & Schuster.

Consumer Observations: Big Jump in Kids’ Listening

As in the past, the association has also run a consumer survey with Edison Research, some of the results of which are:

  • An increase to 45 percent in 2021 from 44 percent in 2020 in Americans 18 and older who said they’ve listened to an audiobook
  • Membership in audiobook services increased, with 41 percent of listeners indicating they subscribe to at least one such service
  • Some 54 percent of audiobook listeners say they’re younger than 45
  • Fully 70 percent of consumers responding say they agree that audiobooks are a good choice for relaxing
  • A reported 61 percent of parents say their children listen to audiobooks, compared to the 35 percent measured in 2020, an increase attributed to coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic-related school disruptions
  • Listeners continue to prefer professional narration over author-read books, although the information provided to the press doesn’t specify whether this is true for nonfiction, in which the tradition of an author-read audiobook is well established

The consumer study is a national survey of Americans 18 and older who have ever listened to a complete audiobook. Edison Research completed 1502 online interviews in January and February. The data was weighted to the audiobook market, as measured by The Infinite Dial, “a nationally representative survey of the American media landscape” conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital.

Daily Listening Habits: ‘Share of Ear’

Edison Research also does a “Share of Ear” report, tracking daily listening habits of American consumers aged 13 and older. From that survey, Audio Publishers Association is reporting that:

  • The overall share of time spent listening to audio—hence “Share of Ear”—for audiobooks has grown 10 percent since 2017
  • Daily audiobook listeners spend more time listening to books than any other form of audio , including radio, podcasts, and more
  • The daily reach of audiobook consumption, per Edison’s results, has grown 94 percent since 2017; Cobb clarifies that “reach” in this instance refers to how much audiobook listening has grown per day, as perceived by those subjects being tracked in the research
  • Daily audiobook listeners reportedly spend more than two hours more per day listening to audio content than the general population—six hours 34 minutes vs. four hours 11 minutes

The Share of Ear data is based on a Q1 2022 report comprising more than 4,000 interviews with Americans 13 and older. Respondents were asked to keep a comprehensive diary of all listening over one sample day. Diaries were administered either online or offline, and in English and Spanish.

The Caveat: Share of Formats

As journalists will do, we always like to offer a mild reminder that while enthusiasm for audio products in general and downloaded and/or streaming audiobooks in the United States has certainly grown, it’s interesting to note that the Association of American Publishers‘ (AAP) monthly StatShot reports show the share of downloaded audio running—for example, since January—between 6.9 and 9.8 percent.

As an example, in the AAP’s graphic to the right, you see downloaded audio at 9.0 percent for March.

This is not to throw cold water on the performance of audio and audiobooks in the American marketplace. During the still-ongoing pandemic, many people clearly have expanded their consumption of audiobooks. In fact, this reporter may be one of those people now listening to substantially more audiobook content than before.

But when stacked up against other formats, downloaded audio—the product that has made audiobooks a sort of “reborn” success over the days of cassette tapes and CDs—has continued to hold a share of less than 10 percent of the American market, despite the decade of impressive growth captured by the Audio Publishers Association’s annually helpful research projects.

It’s good to keep in mind, then, that for the understandable excitement around audio, there’s still, as Elsevier’s Michiel Kolman likes to say on other subjects, “room for improvement.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on industry statistics is hereMore from us on the Audio Publishers Association is here, and more 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 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.