APA: Audiobooks’ US Share Up 5 Percent, 2017 to 2022

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Audio Publishers Association’s Michele Cobb sees a steady gain by audiobooks in the United States’ publishing marketplace.

Michele Cobb. Image: Audio Publishers Association

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

‘The Audiobook Is Supportive of the Title’
As those who have followed the popularity of the audiobook format in the United States market know, one of the more vexing points presented in monthly StatShot reports from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has been an apparently steady market share for audiobooks, despite double-digit growth figures in downloadable/streaming format.

In the most recent StatShot report for August, for example, audiobooks in their digital formats are at 8.7 percent of total trade sales, and in the annual StatShot report for 2022, digital audio stood at 10.4 percent of total trade revenue.

Publishing Perspectives asked Michele Cobb, the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, how her own organization’s research sees this question of 11 years of double-digit advances for audio in the US market, and yet a relatively stable share in terms of formats, in the purview of the StatShot series of analysis.

Cobb went over the numbers and was able to put together a picture of an expanding share for audio that seems to be more logical than that depicted in the StatShot reports. This is not to say that either approach—the AAP’s StatShot program or the Audio Publishers Association’s assessment—is wrong. But another way of evaluating the figures yields a more nuanced picture of audiobook sales and the US market’s appreciation of the format.

US Audio Sales in Context: 2017 to 2022
Year Industry Sales in Billions Trade Sales in Billions Audio Sales in Billions Audio Percent of Trade
2022 $28.10 billion $17.36 billion $1.85 billion 11 Percent
2021 $28.85 billion $18.58 billion $1.81 billion 10 Percent
2020 $25.86 billion $16.76 billion $1.62 billion 10 Percent
2019 $25.87 billion $15.81 billion $1.45 billion 9 Percent
2018 $25.32 billion $15.82 billion $1.17 billion 7 Percent
2017 $26.23 billion $15.95 billion $1.03 billion 6 Percent
Source: Audio Publishers Association

“In 2020,” Cobb says, “is when the audiobook share hit the 10-percent point” in the market, a point that becomes easily apparent in the chart above.

“What we did that’s different,” she says, “is that we actually added together digital and CD. So even though CD is dropping” by comparison to streaming and downloaded audio, “it’s still a piece of the sales there. Comparing these numbers” produced by that approach “to our numbers at the APA, it’s spot-on.”

The StatShot program, of course is also “polling different publishers than we are,” she points out. “We have all the audio publishers,” which results, of course, in a deeper look into the format’s prevalence on the American market.

“This does feel about right. And what it proves is that even when there’s a drop in the trade sales, we’re not cannibalizing. We’re supporting the growth of publishing in general.”

This, obviously, is an important part of the picture for many who are close to the audio market. The idea that audiobooks could “steal” a consumer’s potential buy of a print edition or even an ebook edition—a sister digital format to the audiobook—has worried some for years, just as it once worried some that ebooks would cannibalize the print formats. And yet the overall progression of audiobooks reflects little evidence of sales lost in other formats. Moving from a 6-percent share to an 11-percent share in five years is strong and steady forward momentum, but hardly a threatening surge.

“What we tend to see,” Cobb says, “is that the audiobook is supportive of the title.”

Spoken Word Audio, and ‘Reluctant Readers’

Cobb points to the “Spoken Word Audio Report” released on October 27 by National Public Radio in the States, NPR. Edison Research’s “Share of Ear” is a quarterly survey of Americans who are asked to keep a detailed one-day diary of their audio usage. “Share of Ear” utilizes a nationally representative sample of respondents aged 13 and older. The sample for this study was 4,118 respondents. And Edison, in fact, is a research company that the Audio Publishers Association works with, too, to develop its own closely followed surveys, which are produced for its membership each summer. (Here is our coverage of the APA’s June 1 survey details.)

Some of the highlights from this newly released “Spoken Word Audio Report,” as provided by NPR, include data indicating an estimated 131 million daily spoken-word listeners the States aged 13 and older, up from 105 million daily listeners in 2014.

  • Spoken-word listening rising among all listeners. “Listeners aged 13 and older spend 29 percent of their total audio time with spoken-word content, up from 20 percent in 2014, a 45-percent increase.”
  • Listeners aged 13 to 24 NPR’s and Edison’s data indicates, with Gen Z citizens spending 22 percent of their time with spoken word audio, up from 7 percent in 2014.

If anything, Cobb points out, it’s understood from some consumer studies that audiobooks may be attracting readers who wouldn’t be buying any format otherwise. Male consumers, for example, have at times and in some markets shown a more robust interest in audio than in print.

“When Audible first launched,” she says, “it was heavily men, a lot of them on the digital side” in that subscription’s most responsive base. “And we’ve done other surveys that have shown higher listening in men. It tends to be ‘heavy listeners’ can tend to be more men,” than women, “I’ve seen that in different surveys.”

This is good for book publishing and literature, of course, in that men’s generally observed lag behind women’s reading and consumerism in many book markets is an issue not readily addressed by the industry.

“We find that ‘reluctant readers,'” Michele Cobb says, “are more likely to get into reading long-term if they can start with an audiobook. It doesn’t feel like that thing that maybe has felt difficult to do,” such as sitting down and reading a book. But suddenly you get into stories.

“That’s what reading is, just being into stories,” she says, “fiction and nonfiction. So if you can get into stories, you become someone who wants more of that.”

The Audio Publishers Association’s Michele Cobb says that survey work tends to confirm the popularity of audiobooks among men, suggesting that they and other comparatively ‘reluctant readers’ may be brought closer to the marketplace of stories and reading by audio formats. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Nevena Ristic

More from Publishing Perspectives on audiobooks is here, more on the Audio Publishers Association is here, more on industry statistics is here, more on the United States’ market is here, and more on digital publishing in general is here.

Our Publishing Perspectives Forum programming at Frankfurter Buchmesse this year included a “mini-conference” on audio, and you can review those sessions from the events here in our YouTube playlist. For the audio sessions, see videos 12, 13, 14, and 15.

Now available here for your free download, our 2023 Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Book Fair magazine

Our 75th Frankfurt coverage from our Frankfurt Book Fair Magazine, which was available throughout the trade show in print, is also available for your free download.

The magazine has interviews with Frankfurt fellows and grant-program recipients from international publishing markets, as well as previews of programming from our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurt including our Executive Talks with Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Nihar Malaviya and Nanmeebooks’ Kim Chongsatitwana; highlights of key events at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse; and coverage of Frankfurt’s upcoming guest of honor programs (Italy, the Philippines, the Czech Republic) and this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia.

There’s also news of literary agents and agencies; award-winning books from guest of honor markets; focus articles on artificial intelligence, sustainability; and a forthcoming effort to get more Korean literature into world markets; as well as 75th-anniversary “Frankfurt Moments.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

Facebook Twitter

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.com, 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.