Audiobook Boom Provides Big Opportunities for Publishers
If you're under the impression that Colin Firth's finest professional moment involved his supporting role in Bridget Jones's Diary, or that Jake Gyllenhaal's controversial performance in Brokeback Mountain was that actor's crowning achievement, well, you'd be wrong.
Last year, Firth's narration of Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair, resulted in a surprise Audiobook of the Year award from Audible. Audible also made headlines in 2013 after publishing an audio version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in advance of the book's most recent film adaptation; Gyllenhaal's narration of Gatsby has been called "masterful."
In fact, many of Firth's and Gyllenhaal's A-list Hollywood brethren are increasingly narrating audiobooks. Kate Winslet (pictured above), Samuel L. Jackson, and Diane Keaton are just a few who’ve lent their vocal talents to recently published projects. And that’s just one of the many indicators of the growing popularity of the audio format.
The audiobook business, in case you haven’t noticed, is exploding. And that’s not mere hyperbole. According to the Audio Publishers Association, 2012 saw six million more audiobooks sold than in the year previous. That’s partly due to the fact that audiobooks are today being pumped out in such increasingly large numbers.
In 2009, for instance, just 4,602 audio titles were published. By 2012, the latest year for which sales figures are available, that number had risen to 13,255 titles—a nearly 200 percent increase in just three years. According to Michele Cobb, president of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), the projections for 2013 are beginning to show that upwards of 20,000 audiobooks were produced last year. “And that’s a huge sea change,” she says.
Audible publisher and EVP, Beth Anderson, attributes the skyrocketing popularity of audiobooks to a few main factors. “One is that we’re busier than we’ve ever been before,” she says. “And so multitasking—being able to read while you’re exercising, or while you’re driving, or while you’re watching the kids’ soccer game—is just a great use of time.”
True enough. And yet if it weren’t for the widespread proliferation of mobile devices and the advances in digital download technology that accompanied it, as Anderson points out, the type of multitasking we all take for granted today wouldn’t even be possible. Audio publishing insiders, in fact, are fond of pointing out the result of the single-use MP3 player being eclipsed by the multifunctional smartphone: The majority of us are now walking around with some version of an audiobook player in our pockets at all times.
There are other explanations, of course, for the rise of audio, which experienced its first major wave of popularity when the Sony Walkman was introduced, and its next when the installation of CD players in automobiles became customary.
One could also credit the arrival of Audible itself with the mainstreaming of audiobooks. “I think what Audible did,” says Anderson, “is we made it affordable. When you look at what unabridged books on cassette or even CD cost, [they’re] forty or fifty dollars; I think people have always felt the sticker shock there.”
Anderson continues: “The technology has gotten cheaper, and the cost of production has gotten much cheaper. So it’s no longer as expensive for Audible or Random House or anyone else to produce an audiobook.” What used to be a two- or three-person job,” she adds, “can now be a one-person job.”
Indeed, even legacy houses like Hachette have been taking full advantage of audio’s significantly lowered price of admission. According to Hachette Audio vice president and publisher Anthony Goff, one of the company’s most buzzed-about releases of the past few years was The Storm King, an audio-only release featuring spoken-word narratives by Pete Seeger.
“We’ve been publishing as many titles as we possibly can that make sense in audio,” says Goff. “We still cherry-pick what we believe will be best-sellers. But the scope of what has become audio has really widened over the last five years or so.”
Trend-watching aside, opportunity is probably the one word that best encapsulates what all of this means for the book publishing industry. “I think there are lots of opportunities now that didn’t exist before,” says Anderson, who points out that the cost of audiobook production and the technology it requires have both lately become much more affordable.
Making It Work
Whether you have a print or digital backlist you'd like to offer in audio format, or would like to see audiobooks become a part of your future book releases, there are a number of ways to take advantage of audio. Following are 8 suggestions for those considering feeding the public's appetite for audio.
Related story: Wiley Aims For Intelligent Digital Content
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.