Audiobooks Are the Gateway Drug to More Audiobooks
As Ralph Lazaro VP of digital products at Findaway World aptly pointed out during a panel session yesterday at the Digital Book World Conference, the conversation around digital publishing tends to get hijacked by ebooks. It's easy to forget that audiobooks should be part of the digital discussion.
Lazaro made the comment while moderating a panel that explored why audiobooks are booming and where the segment is headed. With panelists hailing from Scribd, 3M, the Audio Publishers Association (APA), and HarperAudio, what most of the panelists agreed on is that once a reader gets a taste of audiobooks, they're hooked.
Michele Cobb, president of the APA, said that the boom in audiobooks means that the amount of audio content being produced has dramatically increased at the behest of public demand. To this end, digital audio recording advancements have changed how and how fast the industry can produce books. And last year the industry saw a 12% increase in sales.
Cobb and co-panelist Ana Maria Allessi, VP of digital innovation and publisher for HarperAudio, maintained that the audiobook experience is a unique yet complimentary experience to the textual book. And while there are new technology-enabled opportunities for ebook and audiobook crossover adoption, the quality of the audio experience must not be sacrificed as the segment output grows. In other words, publishers must resist the urge to water down the product.
It's also easy to forget that the audiobook is not a new product, but rather dating back to the era of the cassette tape. It's only now that we're all constantly walking around with audiobook players in the form of smart phones in our pockets. What this adds up to is that while ebook publishers are still shuffling around in the dark trying to figure out what readers want from ebooks, audiobook publishers have a good sense of what their consumers want: professionally recorded audio of a narrator that knows how to bring the story to life.
Allessi said that a relatively small group of professionals in the industry have been creating great audio product and that an element of artistry must be part of each book. An audiobook can't feature a narrator with the wrong accent or that clearly is too young or too old for the characters at hand.
Cobb echoed this, saying that a proper audiobook production takes preparation by the narrator. "A narrator's job is not just to read a title, but to read the ins and outs of the story," said Cobb. Plus there's an engineer involved, an editor, and often painstaking quality control.
All this ties back to getting someone hooked on audio. "If we can get someone to sample an audiobook once there is a high likelihood that they come back," said Allessi. "Quality matters in each case."
Tom Mercer, digital library business development for 3M, said that he has recognized the demand for audiobooks firsthand -- often librarians are some of the biggest consumers of content -- and that demand comes from people with the desire to consume book content in multiple ways throughout the day.
Andrew Weinstein, VP of content acquisition at Scribd, which launched it's audiobook component within it's subscription service in November of 2014, weighed in on the healthy demand of audiobooks and crosspollination with ebooks. Scribd has enabled subscribers to search for ebooks and audiobooks within the reading app, with the intention of providing a seamless discovery and playback experience. Weinstein calls the audio function a "smash hit" boasting 270,000 hours of streamed audio since November. Weinstein added that the challenge and opportunity now is to get readers to try an audiobook -- and that subscription is a good tool for that.
When asked what they would keep the same and what they would change about the audio segment, it was unanimous among the panelists that quality needs to be maintained in order to preserve the value of the experience.
What needs to change? Enabling greater volume of audiobook production and expanding that market of people that have used audio. There are also important rights and royalties issues that need to be managed, as well as the backend technology needed to make ebook-audiobook switching a seamless experience on more platforms. As Scribd's Weinstein put it, we're all in a "mixed mobile world" where customers will consume differently based on time, activity, or subject matter at hand.
Denis Wilson is editor-in-chief of Book Business and Publishing Executive. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the publishing industry and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.