In recent years, the trajectory for audiobooks has been up, up, and up. With this growth have come changes in audience, distribution, and production. Publishers who keep abreast of these developments are positioning themselves to profit from this expanding segment of the market.
Year After Year
For 10 years running, the audiobook sector has experienced annual double-digit growth, notes Michelle Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association (APA) and publisher of AudioFile magazine. In addition, audio publishing revenue has more than doubled between 2017 and 2021.
No studies compare the full range of the audiobook market to sales in other formats, Cobb says, but there is data about which genres perform best. “We had a new leader in 2021,” she says. “Science fiction and fantasy narrowly edged out mysteries/thrillers/suspense as the most popular genre by percentage of sales, with romance and fiction following close behind. We also saw increases in children’s and young adult revenue.”
Of these, Cobb says that romance experienced the most growth (75%), followed by self-help (34%) and science fiction (32%). Kelly Rinne, owner of Spectrum Audiobooks, says romance listeners in particular are hungry for content. “They will easily listen to three to four audiobooks per week,” she says.
Cobb says consumers listen when they are multitasking and also when they want a break from looking at screens. Smartphones have facilitated the trend, she says, with audiobooks transitioning from primarily CD to digital format. Celebrity narrators and the popularity of podcasts have also fueled the rise in audiobook consumption.
“What we see happen repeatedly is that when someone tries an audiobook and has a good experience, they are likely to try more,” Cobb says. “Additionally, the boost in the number of titles being produced and made available to consumers has expanded adoption of the format. There is truly something available for every ear.”
Rinne says the increasing popularity of audiobooks among younger age groups. “These individuals are likely to encourage their families and inspire their peers, resulting in a larger pool of potential customers,” she says. And while commuting declined during the pandemic, she points out that lockdown orders increased audiobook demand as people sought new ways to stay entertained at home.
Distribution Follows Growth
With the explosive growth in the audiobook market, it’s no wonder distribution options are expanding as well.
“Audible and OverDrive continue to lead the retail and library markets, respectively, but the list of audiobook retailers and library vendors out there today is quite long,” Cobb says. Apple Books and Google Play Books are also big in the audiobook distribution space, with smaller platforms such as Downpour, Hoopla, and Scribd offering additional ways to reach listeners.
A significant development in audiobook distribution occurred when Spotify, with upwards of 188 million subscribers worldwide, began offering audiobooks in September 2022, making a catalog of more than 300,000 audiobook titles available to U.S. listeners. A new user interface allows Spotify users to find audiobooks alongside their music and podcasts. In contrast to Audible’s subscription model, Spotify currently sells audiobooks as one-time purchases.
Facilitating Spotify’s entry into the audiobook market was its acquisition of Findaway Voices, which enables audiobook production and distribution for independent publishers. Audiobooks published through Findaway are now automatically added to Spotify’s platform. Spotify has also acquired Sonantic, a company that specializes in artificial intelligence (AI) voice technology.
“We are running faster and are more focused than anyone else in audio,” said Nir Zicherman, Spotify’s vice president and global head of audiobooks and gated content, in the launch announcement on the company’s “For the Record” site. “And we believe that audio and long-form content is a much bigger business than what many would have thought. Our expansion into audiobooks is a significant proof point in that belief. And this is just the beginning.”
As yet more evidence of that interest in the audiobook market is “at an all-time high,” Cobb points to Storytel’s recent acquisition of Audiobooks.com. She notes that the industry is paying close attention to how such acquisitions coupled with the expanded efforts of digital powerhouses like Apple and Google Play will affect current business models. “The next few years are sure to be interesting,” she says.
Happily, publishers are also enjoying an expanded set of options for producing audiobooks. “A decade ago, most audiobooks were recorded in a studio with an engineer and a director working alongside a single audiobook narrator,” Cobb says. Today, multi-voiced performances—multiple narrators reading different sections of a book—have become more common. So have audio dramas featuring interactive dialogue and even sound effects and music.
Professional audiobook production can still be expensive, especially if they involve multiple narrators. But these days, many audiobooks are now recorded by solo narrators, including some authors, who work from home studios. “The relative affordability and efficiency of this method has supported the expansion of the number of titles produced each year,” Cobb says. She points out that, in 2011, before home studios were common, only 7,000 titles were in the market. Ten years later, that figure jumped more than tenfold to 74,000 titles.
Home studios kept production strong during pandemic lockdowns, Cobb says. She also says that these studios fit well with budget-friendly “do-it-yourself audio platforms” where independent authors and publishers can negotiate royalty share arrangements instead of footing the entire bill upfront.
By keeping costs down, home-studio narration affords authors and publishers the option of hiring more experienced narrator/producers than they might have a decade ago, says audiobook narrator Tavia Gilbert of Talkbox LLC. Still, she cautions that producing high-quality audiobooks is labor-intensive.
“As in everything, you get what you pay for,” she says. “If you want to offer excellent content to your listening audience, you must invest appropriate resources.”
To that point, Spectrum Audiobooks publisher Kelly Rinne says most publishers still have engineers and proofers at the ready. “Even with the encroachment of software that purports to do these tasks, the software still isn't ready for prime time,” she says. “[It] often produces false positives, which then require a human proofer to go back and re-do the work.”
For budget-conscious publishers, Rinne emphasizes the importance of preparation in advance of studio work. For instance, she suggests authors prepare character decks for pronunciations, dialects, and accents. In addition, she advises investing upfront in the casting process to reduce the risk of excessive do-overs that can result from using less experienced narrators.
For even greater savings, publishers are eying the potential of AI to auto-narrate audiobooks. “AI is just beginning to enter the market,” Cobb says. “The anticipated impact is that this will expand the number of audiobook titles to include those that don’t currently reach the threshold to financially support a human-voiced production.”
Gilbert notes the benefits of AI in the traditional post-production process, especially proofing, as a means of identifying and correcting common human errors. But she cautions against relying on AI for the actual narration. “AI technology is growing closer to the sound of a human voice,” she says. “But nothing can replace a human voice and the delivery of narration that comes from the heart and soul of a human performer. Spoken word is the oldest form of human communication, and we should continue to cherish and preserve this art form.”
Ryan Dingler, product manager at Google Play Books, agrees that auto-narration falls short of the nuanced narrations humans can produce. “There’s no question that the emotional depth of many books, especially fiction, is best captured by trained voice actors,” he says.
Still, Dingler says his company has developed auto-narration capabilities that provide what he calls an “excellent alternative,” and in beta, publishers can try AI out free of charge. “Many people still remember their earliest encounters with robotic text-to-speech voices that coldly read out one word at a time, lacking any sense of comprehension or continuity,” he says. “It’s incredible how far the technology has come.”
Dingler says the company moved into the auto-narration space when they noticed a large gap between e-book and audiobook availability in its catalog. “Ninety-five percent of e-books don’t have an accompanying audiobook,” he says. “That’s millions and millions of missing books in an increasingly popular format.”
Looking into this gap, Google determined that the prohibiting factors for publishers weren’t editorial decisions or reader preferences but production time and cost. “Since Google had already invested more than 15 years in developing text-to-speech technology, we realized we could build on that work to produce high-quality audiobooks at scale,” he says.
In the current beta iteration, publishers can choose from more than 35 narrators in both English and Spanish. Editing capabilities allow them to select pronunciations from multiple options or suggest their own. They can also download their auto-narrated audiobooks to sell through other distributors in addition to the Google Play store.
“We’ve been heartened to see how quickly the market responded,” Dingler says. “Thousands of publishers have now created auto-narrated audiobooks. Many small publishers tell us it’s the first time the audio format has ever been within their reach, and they’ve already seen new readers come to their books.” In making audiobooks more affordable to publishers, he also notes the accessibility benefits for people in the blind, low-vision, and reading-challenged communities as well as increased worldwide access to Spanish-language audiobooks.
As the beta trials progress, Dingler says publishers can expect new features such as the option for multiple narrators within a single book, the option to adjust the narration speed, and the capacity to add pauses. In addition, language options will soon include German, French, and Portuguese. “We hope to offer as many languages as possible since the gap between e-books and audiobooks is even wider outside the English-language market,” he says.
Dingler expects the beta period to continue into 2023. “We’re not in a rush to end the beta,” he says. “We’ve learned so much about how to improve the voices and creation tools.” When the beta period ends, publishers can expect to pay what Dingler describes as a “modest fee” to create auto-narrated audiobooks. Still, he says they will be “vastly more affordable than a traditional audiobook.”
Room to Grow
Innovations such as auto-narration may be controversial, but there is general agreement that audiobooks will remain a growth sector into the foreseeable future.
“There’s still so much headroom in audio,” Gilbert says. “Podcast and audiobook listenership has plenty of room to grow, so the markets will continue to increase in value.” In fact, she says, there is convergence of audiobooks and podcasts, with the forms feeding each other. She also points to more audio-first books. Likewise, she expects more dramatizations of full-length books and audio-first serialized fiction.
With so much growth potential, she encourages publishers to include an audio strategy in every publication plan. “There are many ways to ensure an audiobook of your title is made,” she says. “Sell the sub rights, hire a production studio, work directly with a narrator, or employ a do-it-yourself platform. What’s most important is to ensure that your intellectual property has an opportunity to reach all sectors.” She suggests publishers keep tabs on this developing market at audiopub.org, the website of the Audio Publishers Association.
As head of the APA, Cobbs likens the current phase in audiobook evolution to adolescence. “As an industry, we are coming into our own and being noticed as a force within publishing,” she says. “With all the tech companies joining the conversation, we are poised to be introduced to new listeners and continue to grow our sales, our production, and our innovation. The future looks bright.”
Publishers who tap into this evolving market agree. With changes in audience, distribution, and production, there are more ways than ever to reach listeners.
Audiobooks and Accessibility
Back in what now seem like the ancient days of books on tape, visually impaired readers were the primary market for audiobooks. As audiobooks have evolved, so, too, has the market. Still, visually impaired readers rely heavily on audio formats to access books.
Richard Rieman, author of The Author’s Guide to Audiobook Creation, is the founder and CEO of Imagination Videobooks, a nonprofit that makes children’s illustrated books accessible by creating audiobooks with vivid audio description (AD) for the visually impaired. The organization also produces videobooks with captions and sign language for deaf children.
Narrator and producer of hundreds of independently published audiobooks, Rieman points out that over half a million pre-school age children lack access to books because they are either blind, deaf, or learning challenged. “We want to help fill the gap by making it possible to close your eyes and hear wonderful stories being told with professional narration and description of every image,” he says.
For about $700, Rieman says a typical 26-page picture book can be produced in both audio and video formats, including professional audio description, captions, and ASL sign language interpretation. Books may also be anthologized around a theme. He notes that accessibility projects may do well on fundraising platforms such as Kickstarter. “Our last Kickstarter to make an accessible version of the original Winnie-the-Pooh raised over $16,000,” he says.
In theory, artificial intelligence might reduce costs even further, but, as Rieman points out, members of the blind community become saturated with AI and synthetic voices. “[They] will be the first to tell you that natural human voices with real emotion bring any book to life,” he says. “It is not about reading a book out loud. It is about telling a story, rich in color and nuance.”
Rieman hopes all authors and book publishers will take advantage of this revenue stream by making their children's picture books accessible. “There is a whole new marketing segment available by adding audio description in illustrated audiobooks,” he says.