Guest Column: The Evolving Role of an Audio Publisher
It's been a wild ride in publishing these past five years. The rise of e‑books and e‑audio, changing business models and the role of social media in marketing are just a few things we've taken in stride. Those on the inside of this $1 billion industry know audio is no doubt headed for further evolution, and we must keep tabs on our consumers to know how to best serve their needs and reflect their behaviors.
Who Are Our consumers?
According to the most recent Audio Publishers Association's (APA) Consumer Survey released in 2010, more than one-third of Americans have listened to an audio–book. Typical audiobook listeners are better educated than non-listeners—21 percent have completed post-graduate work or hold a doctorate degree, twice as many as non-listeners. People who listen to books also have higher incomes and are more voracious readers of print books than non-listeners.
It's safe to assume this typical audiobook listener is much like the rest of the world in that they are more connected today than ever before. Smartphones and tablets have made us a mobile society and with mobility comes the expectation of accessing everything and anything with the click of a button or swish of a finger across a touchscreen.
In some ways, audiobook consumer behavior has stayed the same. Audio fans still look to their friends for recommendations, read reviews or take best-seller lists into consideration when selecting titles. However, social media and other new media have certainly influenced audiobook marketing toward savvy consumers. The popularity of social media even has led to entire audiobooks co-authored by "the Twitterverse," specifically fantasy writer Neil Gaiman's recent "Hearts, Keys and Puppetry," narrated by the multi-talented Katherine Kellgren, which was nominated for an Audie Award.
To keep audiobooks relevant in the current environment, it has become essential for publishers to pay close attention to how audiobooks are obtained and consumed. Audiobook apps, by such companies as iScroll, have emerged, pairing visuals—covers or scrolling text—with the audio production. Audiobook retailer apps from Audible and library patron-accessible apps from OverDrive now allow consumers to feed their habit while standing in line at the grocery store or by plugging their smartphones into car radios. The car is still the most popular location for listening to audiobooks, so ensuring we keep up with the technology changes is key.
Publishers Produce More
The APA recently released annual Sales Survey data based on figures from 2010, which showed audiobook unit sales were up 10 percent. It's good news for the audio industry, demonstrating a strong, continued interest in audiobooks, despite the economic roller coaster that consumers have been on for the past few years. Also, the total number of audiobooks published doubled in the past three years, from 3,073 in 2007 to 6,200 in 2010.
Ultimately, what these two figures show is that publishers are doing more to keep up with growing demand. A first-rate audiobook requires the hard work and dedication of talented and creative people—producers, narrators, editors and more. Unlike our print counterparts, audiobooks have a higher production cost up front, before we even enter the sales stream. And we are dealing with a new challenge—reduced cost per unit in a digital world. A digital download price is sometimes half the CD price. A publisher really has no choice but to take a look at their business model and adapt accordingly.
Finding out how to adapt will only come from experimentation. The truth is, in our industry, audiobook downloads show no sign of slowing down, so being innovative is crucial. Downloads have been on a growth trend for the past five years, growing in dollar volume by 300 percent (now 36 percent of the market as measured in 2010, up from 9 percent in 2005) and growing 150 percent in terms of units (52 percent of the market in 2010, up from 21 percent in 2005), according to 2010 sales survey figures from the APA. Focusing on new channels, looking at combining audiobooks and e‑books, creating download-only titles and reducing production costs, all while maintaining our high commitment to quality are realities that audio publishers face right now. All options need to be explored to essentially maintain a focus on the customer's overall experience—from their purchase at the cash register until they listen to their last chapter.
Greater Accessibility Brings Opportunities
Whether it means using creative sound design to bridge the graphic gap, as in "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, or tapping into publicity surrounding game releases as with Rick Riordan's "The Red Pyramid," or building on social consciousness with Nelson Mandela's "Favorite African Folktales" narrated by a celebrity cast, audio publishers are thinking hard about what is next, how they can raise their profiles, and what will entice new listeners.
As an industry, it is thrilling that more and more people are finding enjoyment from audiobooks. Audiobooks are more accessible than ever before and it's exciting to witness all kinds of new developments taking place before our very eyes.
Whether an audio fan purchases a CD or a digital download, or borrows a copy from a library or a friend, the audiobook industry will always be a customer-centric business. It continues to be a growth market with new audiophiles gained every day. Great opportunities lie in the cultural shifts caused by the world's increased interconnectivity. Audio publishers will no doubt continue to be creative and nimble as they keep competitive. BB
Michele Cobb is the vice president of sales and marketing for AudioGO and the president of the Audio Publishers Association (APA). APA works to bring all audio publishers together to create increased public awareness for the audiobook industry through joint publicity efforts, national consumer surveys and an annual awards competition, The Audie Awards. For more details, visit www.audiopub.org.