Audiobook Publishers Chart Growth Among and Beyond Ebook Readers

I was at a family function a few months ago when my uncle pulled me into the next room and handed me a pair of earbuds. “Listen to some of this.”

Over the sonorous British narrator whose voice filled my ears with talk of fresh peas and someone named ‘Legrandin,’ I could hear my uncle shout, “Proust!”

Audiobooks are growing quickly, with publishers and distributors seeing their uptake among ebook readers as well as fans of other audio media like podcasts.

According to Michele Cobb, President of the Audio Publishers Association, who spoke on a panel at Digital Book World 2015 in New York City today, the past few years have seen an exponential uptick both in audiobook sales and in the volume of titles released into the market.

In 2011, Cobb said, about 7,000 audiobooks were published. In 2012 that number climbed to 12,000. And in 2013 it nearly tripled, to 35,000, accompanied by a 12% increase in sales over the previous year.

Scribd users have logged over 270,000 hours of listening since the ebook subscription service added a 30,000-title library of audiobooks to its platform in November last year, according to the company’s VP of Content Acquisition Andrew Weinstein, who also joined the panel.

About 75% of Scribd subscribers are still only reading ebooks, Weinstein said, but the crossover usage between ebook readers and audiobook listeners, which Scribd expressly aimed to generate, now predominates. Weinstein says the population using both formats is more than twice the size of Scribd’s audiobook-only customers.

A key challenge for audiobook publishers and distributors, though, is in “finding new listeners beyond the book reading population,” explained Ana Maria Allessi, VP of Digital Innovation at HarperAudio, who was also in attendance. And so far, said Tom Mercer, head of 3M’s Digital Library Business Development, rounding out the panel, “it’s not a different user. It’s the same person consuming books in a different way.”

But audiobooks have two things in their favor when it comes to acquiring more fans outside the book world. The first is the opportunity for a production value that lets audiobooks compete with other forms of media, like podcasts. Allessi stressed that an elevated listening experience is key to exciting users and driving uptake.

“It doesn’t take all those bells and whistles every time,” she said, but it does require adding something beyond straightforward narration of a written transcript. At HarperAudio, “we try to add something every time we record.”

The second promising factor is the speed at which audio technology is developing. “Digital recording has changed how fast we can record something,” Cobb pointed out, adding that “we’ve been able to be adaptive in ways not a lot of industries have been.”

The audiobook edition of Amy Poehler’s best-selling Yes Please ends with a recording of Poehler reading the last chapter live to an Upright Citizens Brigade audience, Allessi said. That helped drive media attention and word-of-mouth interest that resulted in roughly as many sales as the ebook edition. No Proust, you might say, but a good start.


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