There’s no doubt that digital media has changed the way most people read. Just a few years ago, eBooks were expected to surpass print books as the way most people read. Yet audiobooks have now overtaken eBooks in terms of long-term growth. And while they are the most expensive format of your book to publish, they also offer the highest profit margin.
This popularity shows no signs of slowing down. The Association of American Publishers called audiobooks the “the fastest growing format” in their 2018 StatShot Annual Report. While the appeal of audiobooks isn’t really new, technology has afforded new opportunities to make them convenient, available, and portable.
Radio has maintained its status in the face of technological change thanks in large part to commuters in the car. Increasingly convenient audiobooks have opened up that same market to authors—you can’t read an eBook or print book while driving, but you can easily listen to an audiobook. With Americans increasingly focused on multitasking, audiobooks promise to not only take market share from other book formats, but to reach people that might not be reading at all otherwise.The future of audiobooks
It wasn’t so long ago that audiobooks came in the form of cumbersome “books on tape” consisting of several cassettes for one book. Selection was poor, and the market was limited. Today, thanks to mobile technology, we’ve seen audiobook sales climb 37 percent in 2018, even as eBook sales actually declined.
“Audiobooks are the future, not eBooks,” according to Random House CEO Markus Dohle.
So we know audiobooks will be a huge part of the future of the book world as a whole. But what does that look like? What changes and innovations can we expect to drive that growth in the future?
Everything from music to TV, movies, and video games seems to be going the way of the subscription service model. Sites like Netflix and Spotify appeal to the growing desire of consumers, especially younger ones, to pay regularly for access to an extensive library of content, rather than to gradually build a collection from one-time purchases.
With Amazon’s Audible service leading the charge, this approach has reached the world of audiobooks. For a monthly membership fee, Audible offers members access to tens of thousands of audiobooks, including some titles exclusive to Audible. In the style of services like Netflix, users gain access to a steady stream of content for a fixed, predictable price.
And Audible is now facing competition from other audiobook services. In 2017, Kobo audiobooks launched, offering somewhat less selection, but for a substantially lower price. Audiobooks.com is also getting in on the action, with access to 120,000 audiobooks. The subscription model is clearly catching on, and this speaks to what we can expect in the future.
Audiobooks thrive in a connected world
Increasingly accessible, portable technology has driven the rise of audiobooks over the last decade, and there’s no reason to think that will stop anytime soon.
Audiobooks.com CEO Ian Smalls told Forbes:
"What we know for sure is that connected devices and spaces are becoming more mainstream, and with them, new listening opportunities in new environments. With the more recent adoption of smartwatches, smart home speakers and other connected devices, audiobooks are able to integrate with people’s lifestyles more than ever before, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”
In other words, Audiobooks thrive as people become increasingly connected to the technology that allows them to listen. The rise of mobile devices has allowed people to carry dozens of audiobooks in their pocket at all times. When more consumers own smart speakers, home voice assistants, and car audio systems that connect directly to their device, it will be that much easier to listen to audiobooks.
For better or for worse, Americans are increasingly unsatisfied to “mono-task.” Instead, multitasking is becoming a norm, especially for younger demographics—and audiobook listening is growing especially rapidly among 25 to 34 year-olds for this very reason. The easier it becomes to listen to an audiobook while driving, running, cooking, or washing dishes, the more room audiobooks have to grow.
“So, with that in mind,” Smalls said, “I anticipate continued growth for the industry as more consumers see ways to engage with audio.”
Narration and performance
Audiobooks may have started out as simply functional, a way for the visually impaired or those who spent long hours driving, to “read” when they otherwise could not. But today, audiobooks are increasingly seen as more than a substitute for traditional reading—they have an appeal all their own. Performance and quality narration allow audiobooks to offer another dimension of engagement to listeners that are used to movies and TV.
Last year, a study by University College London showed that audiobook adaptations actually spark more emotional engagement than TV and film versions of the same dramatic scenes, with stronger physiological responses like increased heart rate and higher body temperatures.
At their best, audiobooks combine the performance aspects of film with the more active engagement that comes with reading a book and using one’s imagination. As audiobooks continue to win over readers that would otherwise read print or eBooks, we’ll likely see increased focus on the quality of narration and performance itself. Audiobooks are increasingly a preference, rather than a substitute for those who can’t read traditional books.
At Izzard Ink Publishing, we’ve seen how a quality audiobook can succeed, and it often relies on high-quality narration and performance. Our audiobook Bassam and the Seven Secret Scroll, read by award winning narrator Mark Deakins, sold thousands of copies the week it went on sale.
The future of audiobooks appears to be a bright one. Technological development and generational preferences seem poised to keep bringing new readers into the audiobook fold. This will likely go beyond winning over traditional readers, to draw those that might not be reading books at all. Audiobooks are a considerable investment for independent publishers, but one that is increasingly likely to pay off.