Audiobooks are increasingly popular, and digital audio stands out as one of the recent success stories in publishing. Even as the physical audiobook industry struggles (down 20% year-over-year per Nielsen BookScan) downloaded audio is the only book category other than ebooks to achieve double-digit growth in the past year. Audible, the largest retailer of audiobooks, has been pacing that growth for quite a while, with constantly accelerating membership for the last two years.
Essentially, digital technologies have changed everything. New technology has enabled the repositioning of audiobooks from a sleepy, under-marketed product, with limited selection and forbidding prices, to a habit embraced by millions. After joining an Audible.com membership plan, listeners consume audiobooks voraciously, downloading an average of 17 books a year. Of Audible members, 40% had never listened to an audiobook before joining.
The business has changed, and it is growing fast in the direction of the media mainstream. But the increasing demand has outstripped the supply of high-quality audiobooks.
The Audiobook Listener
Audiobook listeners are book lovers determined to fit more books into their day. According to 2010 Audio Publishers Association data, audiobook listeners are more likely than the general population to read and purchase books: 73% have bought a print or ebook in the past 12 months, and 89% of audiobook listeners have read a book in the past year, compared to only 69% of non-listeners. Audiobook listeners tend toward more highly educated (close to 20% have post-graduate or doctorate degrees) and are more highly paid than non-listeners.
In the end, audiobook fans are such voracious book lovers that they want to consume books while driving, walking the dog, exercising, or even just relaxing at home.
APA data also confirms that book listeners are a fast-growing segment; one in six adults and one in five teens have downloaded an audiobook. And many of these new listeners have skipped over the cassette and CD formats entirely. Growth is particularly notable among young people: the highest concentration of those who download audiobooks is within the 18-34 age range.
But despite how addictive listeners find the audiobook experience, they encounter frustration too often. 37% of frequent listeners have difficulty finding books they want in audio format.
Meeting the Audiobook Demand
Audible has more than 60,000 audiobooks, from more than 1,600 content providers. Audible carries audio in all genres; among the most popular are mystery and thriller, science fiction and fantasy, business, romance, literary fiction, and history.
With devices for listening to books an omnipresent part of daily life (Audible is compatible with over 600 devices), audio is poised to become even more of a mass medium—like print books, movies, and music.
Many of the reasons consumers are embracing ebooks—convenience, lower price, even environmental friendliness—also hold true for digital audiobooks. Audible already has passionate and regularly paying members who download more than a book a month; delivering broader selection is key to keeping those listeners happy. But despite the efforts of audio publishers, the creation of new audiobooks has not kept up with the pace of growth we are experiencing.
Historically, publishers have been very selective in taking books to audio because of high production, manufacturing, and distribution costs. A lack of retail shelf space (pre-digital) also limited the number of audiobooks made. In the digital era, the costs are different; audiobooks are less expensive to make, and distribution costs a fraction of what it does in the physical market.
Still, today, despite all the efforts of mainstream publishers, only 5% of professionally published, narrative books are produced in audio—never mind all the great backlist titles that remain unavailable in audio format.
As a result, many authors never reach the audio market, and millions of avid listeners have a curtailed selection. This is particularly unfortunate now, since the quality of audiobook performances continues to rise. Professional actors can brilliantly interpret and perform works of fiction and nonfiction, comparable to a terrific theatrical performance.
At Audible, we want more readers to experience the sensory experience of literature that audiobooks can offer. This is why Audible created the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). We believe the ACX program will supercharge the number of audiobooks produced.
ACX and Audiobook Rights
ACX is a marketplace that connects audio rights holders and audio producers. But it’s not just a rights bazaar—it’s a full online production platform that connects remote professionals, allowing them to negotiate upfront payment or royalty share partnerships. Aggressive escalator royalties and new customer bounties give publishers, authors, and producers plenty of incentive to promote their finished audiobook. With ACX marketplace connections and support, more authors will have their books produced, more studios will create audiobooks, and more recordings will be available to a growing audience.
With fewer first serial and book club deals, it’s harder for writers to live on secondary rights. ACX gives entrepreneurial authors a platform to make sure their audio rights are generating revenue. We believe secondary rights to books are held in moral trust, and they are designed to be exploited rather than buried in file cabinets.
We want publishers and authors to unearth hundreds of rights, and we encourage authors to revert unused audio rights so they can post those rights on ACX. Building the overall market of audiobook listeners will benefit everyone—authors, agents, publishers, and book lovers of all stripes.
Matthew Thornton is a senior editor at Audible.com. Prior to joining Audible, he reported on the publishing industry for Publishers Weekly and Publishing News, and he has also worked as a book editor at Random House. Follow the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) on Twitter: @acx_com.