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The audiobook world

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This is the first of two posts on the changing audiobook landscape.

No part of book publishing has grown faster in the last few years than audiobooks. The numbers of books published, of copies sold, and of audio formats, have been increasing dramatically, opening new opportunities for indie authors.

The growth in audio reflects changes both in how the books are produced and in how listeners use them. Audiobooks have become easier and more convenient for listeners to obtain and listen to, and at the same time have become easier to create.

Audiobook makers have their own trade association (the Audio Publishers Association), magazines and websites, sources and providers for reviews, and the Deyan Institute, “the world’s first school for teaching the art and technology of audiobook production.” There are even independent audiobook awards, the “audies.” Some of these have been around for a few years (the APA dates to 2001), but all have been growing.

The traditional publishers who long have produced audiobooks have begun to invest more fully in audio, which suggests indie authors should take a close look too.


Karen Commins, a veteran narrator active in the APA, recalled in a recent article how “In 2003, when I narrated my first commercial book, most audiobook productions occurred in pricey New York or Los Angeles studios. The finished products were packaged, shipped and sold on cassette or CD. Due to high production, warehousing and distribution costs, audiobooks were almost exclusively the domain of the biggest print publishers and reserved only for the bestselling authors and highest-profile titles. As a result, only about five percent of all books published were made into audiobooks.”

Special audiobook players were needed or recommended for many of these audiobooks, which often were produced in proprietary formats. You may remember the long-departed Sony Discman, which was designed for books on compact disc. There have been many others as well, including the Playaway and the Daisy Player.

Many of the old limitations are gone. Audio now can be recorded in a vast number of local studios (many narrators work at least partly from home studios), and equipment requirements for professional results are specific but not necessarily expensive. Professional narrators can be found around the country; audio work can be a form of telecommuting.

Audiobooks traditionally were recorded onto cassette tapes or compact discs (or before that, on phonograph records). Now most audiobooks are sold as audio files (often in the common MP3 format), which can be sent or downloaded online. They can be heard through a range of commonly-used devices, from laptop computers to phones to tablets.


The audiobook industry is objectively large: Worldwide, this year it has been estimated in value at about $2.8 billion. The APA said a July 2015 study showed audio sales in the year before “totaled more than $1.47 billion, up 13.5% over 2013. Unit sales were also up 19.5%, nearly five times the increase of the overall book trade industry.” In 2015, the APA said sales increased again by about 20%, to $1.77 billion.

Part of that increase was driven by the number of titles offered to buyers. In 2010, the APA said that 6,200 audiobook titles were published. Last year the comparable number reached 35,572, according to the APA.

That’s still far fewer than the hundreds of thousands of new print and eBooks being published each year, but a big increase from just a few years ago.

Some categories of books seem to fare better in audio. Research has shown that fiction accounts for more than three-fourths of all audio sales, and adult fiction overwhelmingly dominates audio sales and number of titles.

Downloaded files have become far more popular than other audio formats (such as tape or CD), and a bunch of apps for smartphones and other devices have been developed for listening to those files. Baker & Taylor’s Acoustik is one example of a widely-used app.

Audio seems to be one area of tech advancement in publishing that appeals more to an older rather than younger audience. Still, the APA said that 36% of its survey respondents reported listening to children’s or young adult audiobooks.

Abridged audio versions of a number of books are available, but unabridged versions heavily dominate sales, surveys indicated. New audio variations, with music, sound effects, multiple voices, non-music sound beds, are being tried, but their future is unclear.


How do readers find their audiobooks?

The book news and review site Bookriot in 2014 asked that question of its readers, and got some clear results.

Libraries, often in connection with the audio-providing service called Overdrive, accounted for 687 responses—much the largest group finding their books from one type of source, but split among a vast number of libraries.

Audible, the Amazon.com-affiliated audiobook site, accounted for another 494, becoming the largest single-location go-to source. Audible is a subscription service ($14.95 a month) which lets people download audiobooks.

The next largest single category—53 responses—is brick and mortar bookstores, which still sell various formats of audiobooks. (Other responses covered everything from iTunes to YouTube to illegal downloads.)

Readers can find book descriptions in many of these places, but many readers also rely on reviewers, who discuss not only the text of the book but also the sound and narration quality and other factors. These audiobook reviews have been increasing in number as well. Audio reviews can be found on the AudioFile Magazine as well as many broader sites like Bookriot.

Readers can be approached in other creative ways. The site Tryaudiobooks approaches listeners according to what else they’re doing while absorbing a new book: “Do you listen to audiobooks during your commute? Or do you prefer listening while working out or crafting? Whatever your activity, we have the perfect listening suggestion for you. Audiobooks are a great companion for activities such as cooking, gardening, coloring, running, and many more! You choose your activity and we’ll provide the entertainment.”

Next: Is an audiobook right for you?

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