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