State of The Audiobook: From Analog Origins To Digital & Beyond
The following article originally appeared in the spring issue of Book Business magazine. Read more articles from this issue here.
I always refer to audio publishers as digital pioneers. Long before the rise of the ebook we sat in stuffy conference rooms and discussed the importance of good metadata and the best methods for file transfers or website downloads or digital sampling. With the turning of the 20th century and the introduction of this funky little device called the iPod the audiobook world was revolutionized. Suddenly, audiobooks stopped taking up physical space. People could carry 20 audiobooks wherever they went. And they did.
Why Audiobooks Have Prospered
Progress in digital technologies also facilitated production growth, as we can make audiobooks with greater efficiency. Recording software allows a skilled narrator to go back and edit right over a flub using Pro Tools software -- no post-production fixes requiring razor blades to cut through reel-to-reel tapes anymore. Experienced quality control experts can listen back a few seconds and catch the moment when the narrator said, "HE entered the room" instead of "SHE entered the room." And the error can be fixed without a narrator even having to re-read the section. We can move files from one state, or country, to another in seconds. And a consumer can go from browse, to purchase, to listen, in minutes -- helping to drive demand. These technologies helped bring about an explosion in the number of audiobook titles, with nearly 36,000 produced in 2013, up from just 6,200 in 2010.
What's Next for Audiobook Publishers
Last fall the Audio Publishers Association hit the streets to talk to potential audiobook listeners, taking the AudiobookMobile -- a sort of food truck for audiobooks -- on the road to libraries, book festivals, and Baltimore Comic Con. In the blazing heat we gave out popsicles and audiobooks -- introducing new people to the joys of reading with their ears. This year the APA will be focusing on research to expand its knowledge of consumer behavior and look for more clues in the race to entice more listeners.
With that focus on finding new potential listeners we are asking ourselves, 'What else would people like to hear?' Audio publishers are much like producers of other entertainment and they are creating original content specifically for the audio format to intrigue listeners and offer things they cannot get anywhere else. Major authors now write standalone pieces that are released in audio only. Titles are also released in more than one recording style: A title done with a single narrator is one type of listen and a title done with enhanced elements such as a full cast audio, sound effects, and music can also take listeners beyond the book and offer something unique. Sometimes the same title gets both treatments. It raises visibility for the title as well as attracting two different types of listeners.
Audiobooks naturally produce great teaser content in the form of sound clips, and social media platforms have given us more chances to get into more people's ears and for people to share that experience with their circles of influence. Audio publishers are using behind the scenes videos to create buzz about titles and working closely with a secret marketing weapon -- narrators. Narrators help us produce extra content and talk up the titles they read, connecting with authors and consumers alike in a way that textual works cannot.
As the number of titles available in the audiobook format grows the options for purchase grow and the emergence of new distribution models has begun. Recently, unlimited audiobook subscription services have arisen to march alongside ebook offerings and initial results have been extremely promising. Text and audio syncing is becoming more widely available through retailers, libraries, and direct-to-consumer apps. This allows readers/listeners to switch back and forth between a book's ebook and digital audiobook formats, picking up where they left off. In a busy world we look to this type of technology and convenience to help continue growth.
New digital "wearable" devices (smaller than a smart phone, but plenty powerful on their own) also offer potential avenues to reach people on the go. I'm waiting for the day when I can buy an audiobook and have it load directly into the Bluetooth chip that's embedded in my ear.
Though it's hard to know what comes next and what new technology or delivery system will push audiobooks to the next level, we've maintained a fast friendship with new technologies because they have allowed us to reach more listeners and create more content for those listeners. And that's good news for consumers and publishers.
Michele Cobb is the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, a trade association that advocates for the common, collective interests of audio publishers.