How Amazon and Audible Are Pushing Audiobooks into the Mainstream

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

audiobooks, amazon, kindle, audibleIn reading DBW’s recent interview with Hugh Howey, I was surprised that he never mentioned audiobooks even though he obviously believes in the format. Howey has 37 audiobook titles on Audible.com, and he published at least 16 of them personally.

Howey’s remarks about Amazon made me think about the company’s tremendous influence on the audiobook market. In the interview, Howey said, “Amazon has vastly increased the access to books. They have also vastly increased every author’s access to the market… For a very long time, most aspiring writers had no hope of expressing themselves and having access to consumers. Amazon almost single-handedly changed that.”

Those statements are equally true of indie authors who have audiobook editions. However, most people don’t realize that Amazon has systematically acquired companies and, along with its subsidiary Audible, innovated technologies in order to push audiobooks into mainstream entertainment.

In 2007, Amazon bought Brilliance Audio, which was the largest independent producer of audiobooks in the country. At the time of the purchase, Brilliance created 12 to 15 audiobooks per month, or no more than 180 audiobooks a year. At the Audio Publishers Association conference in May, a rep from Brilliance Audio commented that the company now produces 2,000 audiobooks a year.

The next year, Amazon spent $300 million to buy Audible.com, which is the world’s largest distributor of audiobooks. Audible’s 2008 catalog had around 60,000 titles. Today, Audible’s title count is fast approaching the quarter-million mark.

One reason for the dramatic uptick in title production is the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), a site created in 2011 by Amazon-owned Audible. ACX enables authors and other rights holders to connect directly with narrators to produce audiobooks.

Before ACX appeared, indie authors had few chances to get their titles into audio. Narrators also had limited prospects of working in the industry. While some publishers hired narrators with home studios, most audio productions were recorded and edited in the publishers’ locations. Now, though narrators across the United States and United Kingdom are gaining work through ACX to produce audiobooks from our own studios. As a result, ACX is responsible for one-fourth of the audiobooks available for sale on Audible.

After ramping up audiobook production, the next innovative move was designed to generate a higher volume of sales of Audible audiobooks. In 2012, Amazon and Audible announced Whispersync for Voice, a technology that allows users to seamlessly switch between the Kindle ebook and the Audible audiobook. They also could enjoy an immersive experience of simultaneous reading and listening.

To ensure its customers would purchase both editions of the same book, Amazon discounts the price of the audiobook after the Kindle book is purchased, and audiobook aficionados take advantage of the combo deal. In fact, many actively look for free or inexpensive Kindle books just so they can get the audiobook at a cheaper price.

As of 2013, Amazon has also been offering consumers the Find Your Match service, which scans through their Kindle library and shows them the audiobooks available for the “upgrade.”

That same year Amazon bought the social media site Goodreads, as book sales have always heavily relied on word-of-mouth recommendations. As DBW reported last year, Audible added its audio samples of Audible books to the Goodreads site. Once the user clicks on the sample, the audio plays, and a dialog box appears offering the audiobook for free with 30-day trial on Audible.

Audiobook devotees always have been evangelists for the media, but now Audible is harnessing that enthusiasm to bring in new listeners. Just like vendors in grocery stores who hand out free food hoping that you will like it and buy it, Audible, through its members, is giving away free audiobooks with no strings attached.

Last year, Audible implemented a program called Onebook, which allowed its subscribers to send a book in their library to up to 10 people. If the recipients were not Audible subscribers and it was their first Audible audiobook, they received a free audiobook.

The Onebook program was radically expanded and renamed in May. With the current Send A Book initiative, the biggest change is that Audible subscribers now can share a book in their library with up to 1,000 people. The recipients still can redeem only one free book, but they now have the option to send it to people in their network. Recipients do not need to create an Audible account, much less start an Audible 30-day trial, as long as they have an existing account on Amazon.

In addition to enticing prospective buyers with free audiobooks, Audible has significantly increased its visibility through advertising. Audible became a sponsor of the popular podcast Serial and the PBS TV show Downton Abbey.

What’s more, Amazon is also trying to attract new audiobook listeners by including audiobook offers with its hardware products. For instance, a friend told me she recently bought Amazon’s Echo on QVC and received two free audiobooks as part of the package.

Now that audiobooks are becoming mainstream entertainment, Audible Studios is developing original material to appeal to a wider group of listeners. One example is the highly acclaimed adaptation of Joe Hill’s graphic novel Locke & Key. This full-cast recording featuring more than 50 actors is complete with music and special effects, and sounds like a blockbuster film. Audible also has paid movie stars like Colin Firth and Kate Winslet to narrate traditional audiobooks.

I can’t predict the future for audiobooks, but I am confident that Amazon and Audible will continue to be driving forces in the industry. And by the way, I agree with Howey that fairer prices are needed for libraries. Amazon already has a presence in libraries that offer checkouts of Kindle books. Could library loans of Audible audiobooks be far behind?

June 24, 2016: This post has been updated to more accurately reflect that Audible, while owned by Amazon, operates as an independent company.


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16 thoughts on “How Amazon and Audible Are Pushing Audiobooks into the Mainstream

    1. Karen Commins

      Hi, Gordon. Thanks for the comment.

      I offer the following evidence that audiobooks are just entering the mainstream consciousness:

      1) While you’re correct in saying that audiobooks could be purchased in the mainstream for decades, the latest Pew Survey states that only 12% of Americans reported they actually listened to one in the past year.
      (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/19/slightly-fewer-americans-are-reading-print-books-new-survey-finds/)

      2) The Audio Publishers Association released its annual sales figures which noted only 35,574 audiobook titles were produced in 2015. This number is very low when compared to other book formats.
      (https://www.audiopub.org/uploads/pdf/2016-Sales-Survey-Release.pdf)

      3) On a personal and certainly less objective level, when I tell people that I’m an audiobook narrator, I usually have to explain what I do. Many people still have no concept of the format.

      I hope this info is helpful.

      Cordially,

      Karen Commins

      Reply
  1. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: “For a very long time, most aspiring writers had no hope of expressing themselves and having access to consumers. Amazon almost single-handedly changed that.”—Hugh Howey

    There are, I’m sure, stupider things that Howey could have said, but that’s still a ridiculous, although common, remark among independent authors. However, as a pundit he should know better.

    In the late 1990s, independent authors and small publishers did acquire increased access to the public. As both, I was part of that trend, starting Inkling Books in 1999. But their success wasn’t due to Amazon. It came because Ingram created Lightning Source using new print on demand technology. Publish through Lightning, and you got distribution though Ingram, the largest book wholesaler on the planet. Circa 2002, I could publish a book and see it become available within a couple of weeks from numerous online retailers around the world, only one of which was Amazon. The tech savvy like me went direct to Lightning. (Today that might be Ingram Spark.) Others paid third parties such as Lulu and, whether they knew it or not, also went into Ingram distribution through Lightning. But the key to access was that Lightning-to-Ingram connection.

    Amazon’s much heralded openness, often described with tears in their eyes by Amazon’s sentimental fanboy authors, came simply because Amazon listed and sold every book in Ingram’s database, which just happened to include those Lighting POD books. If those books not been in that database, Amazon would have not sold them. Look at the hassles Amazon puts in your way if you want to print and distribute directly through Amazon today, directly supplying their warehouse with books, and you’ll see that they’re no friends of yours.

    In those early years, Ingram went out of its way to give Amazon favorable credit terms and even handled the packing and shipping. And how has Amazon rewarded that? In true Jeff the Heartless fashion by acquiring CreateSpace and attempting to cripple Ingram/Lightning in every way possible. A few weeks ago I noticed that one of my books, printed only by Ingram, will ship the next day from B&N but has a two-week shipping delay from Amazon. Both retailers are doing the same thing, having Ingram handle the printing, but Amazon is contriving that absurdly long delay because, well to put it bluntly, Amazon is a creep. That’s its way of punishing me for not also printing that particular book with CreateSpace. The Feds should have taken on Amazon for its business practices long ago.

    Yes, a heart of gold, that Bezos. He lies awake fretting over whether he is “single-handedly” doing another for people like me, much like he’s did when he founded the company. Not.

    In the late 1990s, one of my North Seattle neighbors was having a moving-away sale. Talking to her, I discovered why. She’d been one of Amazon early employees. She’d worked in dreadful conditions for low pay, giving up her holidays to ship on time. She was one of those who “made” Amazon what it is today. And quite reasonably she expected to be rewarded when the company went public with its stock.

    Instead, Bezos the Heartless and his greedy colleagues in the company’s executive suites laid her and hundreds of others off just before they’d have to offer her stock options that would have made her at least modestly well-off. Bill Gates rewarded his earlier employees that way. Bezos didn’t. That says something about both. She was so bitter, she told me that she could no longer live in Seattle and was moving to California.

    Each time you feel inclined to shed a tear of gratitude for all Amazon has “single-handedly” done for you as an author, remember her. What the company did to her it will, if the proper conditions arise, do to you.

    Reply
    1. Karen Commins

      Hello, Michael. Thank you for taking the time to write such a substantial comment. Clearly, you have strong feelings about Amazon’s role in the publishing industry.

      However, your points referred to print-on-demand publishing, which is beyond the scope of this article.

      If you re-read it, I hope you would agree that I wrote objectively about Amazon’s acquisitions and innovations which have propelled audiobooks into the mainstream consciousness.

      By the way, I’m not an author. I’m an audiobook narrator in Atlanta. If asked my opinion, I would say that I am grateful for ACX.com. That site allowed me to finally gain a foothold in the industry I love and do the work I am called to do.

      Best wishes for your continued success!

      Cordially,

      Karen Commins

      Reply
  2. Steve Simon

    Ok let’s just talk about audiobooks then, where Audible used high royalties at the outset to lure authors and narrators in and then when it became successful, cut royalties in half (or worse). And now they unilaterally dictate what price they sell books at, so that wonderful $4 price for a whisper sync audiobook is completely at the expense of the author, not Audible. There’s more, but what ACX has done is single-handedly give independent authors and narrators an outlet for their work (genuinely good), but they’ve done it purely to increase their own margins, take brutal advantage of those same authors, and advance their desired stranglehold on the entire audiobook publishing industry.

    Reply
    1. Anthony Pero

      Since you mentioned it, that $4 whiapersync sale is almost in all cases an EXTRA sale. One the author wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. And in order to get that $4 deal, the consumer purchased the ebooks

      Or do you think a large number of consumers purchase multiple formats of the same book at full price? I know I don’t, and I spend quite a good bit of money on books. I spend $500 a year on audiobooks. That puts me in the top 1% of consumers in that category.

      If an author gets 10 whispersync sales, it’s unlikely they even cannibalized one single full price audiobook sale. Maybe at 50, you are likely to have cannibalized one real sale. Maybe. By then, the author has made far more money than he’s lost, and probably acquired new readers to boot.

      Not getting the complaint.

      The royalty bait and switch? That’s a perfectly legitimate complaint. As long as it’s accompanied by a disclaimer noting that Amazon’s royalty rate is still significantly better than a traditional publisher’s rate, if the author hasn’t retained those rights, and there’s not much in the way of an advance to make it worthwhile giving up all of that backend.

      Reply
      1. Karen Commins

        Hello, Anthony! Thanks for sharing your views about the Whispersync royalties.

        More importantly, thank you for being a loyal audiobook listener! 🙂

        Cordially,
        Karen Commins

        Reply
      2. Steve Simon

        Good point Anthony on the whispersync sale being incremental. My thinking was that the ebook is a lot cheaper than the audiobook to begin with, so if you wanted the audiobook, you’d just buy the ebook+audiobook for less than the audiobook alone. Admittedly that’s a pretty audiobook-centric view of the world and not sure where the balance is in terms of cannibalizing the sale, but my complaint is that Audible doesn’t give ACX authors a choice, whereas a traditional publisher can opt in or out of the program.

        Also good point on the royalties being higher from Amazon than from a traditional publisher. Just irks me that Audible doesn’t have to put in any effort whatsoever – they don’t given an advance AND they don’t make the audiobook for you, and they still take your rights away for 7 years AND they don’t let you make/sell CDs.

        The post-ACX world is still much better than the pre-ACX world 😉

        Reply
  3. S. D. Smith

    I appreciate the article, and am a BIG fan of audiobooks myself. My own first book, The Green Ember, was a finalist for Audible’s Children’s Book of the Year. My publisher (small) and I talk a lot about Audible’s access and margins. I lean, “It’s great” and he leans, “Boy, they sure take a huge share.”

    Mostly, I just wanted to comment and say how wonderful it was to read your comment responses. So generous, so absent any angry retorts brimming with resentment. Beautiful. So refreshing.

    I want to thank you, Karen.

    Reply
    1. Karen Commins

      Greetings, S. D.! It’s my turn to thank YOU! I laughed at how you summed up the discussions about Audible’s access and margins. You made my day by mentioning my comment responses!

      Not only was I raised on the Golden Rule, but I’ve adopted another guiding principle as an adult:

      “Would I rather be right, or would I rather be kind?”

      I strive to choose the side of kindness.

      Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment, and best wishes for your continued success!

      Cordially,
      Karen Commins

      Reply
  4. Freya Berry

    Hi there,

    I am assuming the answer to this is “yes”, but does anyone know for sure if Audible is the exclusive supplier of audiobooks to Amazon? ie, Would I be prevented from selling my audiobook product on Amazon without going through Audible/ACX?

    Thanks! Freya

    Reply
  5. Karen Commins

    Hello, Freya! You can still sell your audiobook on Amazon even if you didn’t go through ACX to create it.

    Audiobook distribution companies can get your completed audiobook on Amazon, including:
    http://www.BigHappyFamilyAudio.com
    http://www.AuthorsRepublic.com

    Others will work with you for a fee to create the audiobook before distributing it for you, such as:
    http://www.Listen2aBook.com
    http://www.ListenUpIndie.pub

    These companies also distribute to libraries. Authors who produce their audiobooks on ACX under a non-exclusive distribution agreement could extend their reach through one of these sites.

    I hope this info is helpful. Thanks for the great question!

    Cordially,
    Karen Commins

    Reply

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