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How Audiobooks Became the Most Important Digital Book Format—and What the Trend Means for Indies

It's not what you would have expected to happen. When the iPod arrived, it was clear that the core form of musical digestion was going to switch from the CD to the mp3 file. When Netflix arrived, it was clear that streaming was the future of home TV and film viewing. When the Kindle arrived, it was clear that eBooks were the digital future of the publishing industry. Except for that they weren't. On the contrary, eBooks were just a pretender to the throne—a throne that has now, it seems, been taken over by a different format.

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled "The Fastest-Growing Format in Publishing: Audiobooks" showed how readers are reaching for audiobooks in a way that they aren't reaching for eBooks. According to data from the Audio Publishers Association, the audiobook market in the United States and Canada grew 21% in 2015. Compare that number side-by-side to other figures from 2015's publishing statistic sheet and it's clear that audiobooks are going somewhere. Last year, eBook sales dropped 11% from the year before. Revenues for print books increased, but their spikes—8% for hardcovers and 3% for paperbacks—weren't close to the double-digit leap that audiobooks made.

We've known for a while that eBooks weren't going to cannibalize the publishing industry in the same way that digital mp3 files (and now streaming services) cannibalized music sales. In a September 2015 report, the New York Times noted that digital books had accounted for about 20% in 2014—a number that was more or less the same as it had been for several years running. At some point, eBooks hit a plateau. Now, they seem to be tumbling back off that plateau and beginning a descent toward obsolescence—or at very least, toward more of a niche market.

The question is, why did eBooks fail to capture the public consciousness in the way that many, many people thought they would? Why are readers who want to consume books digitally increasingly turning to audiobooks? Here are a few potential reasons:

  • Pocket-sized consumption: Yes, you can read eBooks on smartphones. No, doing so is not a very good reading experience. Unless you like squinting at a tiny screen and feeling the effects of eyestrain after two chapters, you probably prefer to read eBooks on your tablet or reader. The problem with those devices is that they don't tuck conveniently into your pocket. The original iPhone was built in part to be an audio player and other smartphones have followed suit, which means that audiobooks are pretty easily the best way to "read" on a phone. This factor might be the single biggest reason that audiobooks are emerging as the preferred digital file format for books.
  • Better subscription services: A few companies have tried to be the "Spotify or Netflix of books," from Scribd to the now-shuttered Oyster. These services have struggled due to limited catalogs and inflexible, unsustainable deals with publishers. For a while, it looked like no service would ever be able to make the membership model works for digital works. As it turned out, the key was just switching the format from eBooks to audiobooks. There are a number of membership services for audiobooks, but the big one is Audible, an Amazon company with more than 180,000 titles and a great model for attracting customers. The first 30 days are free, during which you get one free audiobook, accessible via your web browser or the service's free mobile app. After the first 30 days, the service is $14.95 per month. The fee includes one free audiobook per month and gives you 30% off additional purchases. You can return books if you don’t like them, and you get to keep the files forever—even if you decide to end your membership. Compared to the eBook subscription models, this service is way more user-friendly on virtually every level.
  • Multitasking: As I addressed in last month's column, it can be tough to find time to sit down and really delve into a book. Audiobooks help to solve this problem by making it possible to absorb stories while doing other things. You can listen to audiobooks when you are cleaning the house, doing yard work, commuting to the office, doing menial tasks at work, or exercising.

These three advantages show why so many readers are flocking to audiobooks, but what does the trend mean for publishers—independent publishers especially? Audiobooks might be convenient for readers, but they could hardly be described that way for the publisher. While a manuscript can easily be converted into an eBook file, an audiobook is a completely different product. Publishers have to hire someone to record the entire book on tape, pay for their time, pay for a professional recording session, and make sure that the finished product is high-quality and error-free. The fact that major publishers are hiring professional actors and other celebrities to narrate their audiobooks only adds to the cost of the productions—and makes it that much harder for independent publishers to compete.

In other words, independent publishers probably won't be digitizing their entire catalogs on audiobook anytime soon. More likely, indies will have to pick one or two flagship titles or authors and use those to start testing the waters of bigger-budget audiobook projects. The expense is a definite drawback, but greater accessibility definitely has its perks, and indies with a presence on Audible could stand to gain a lot from the increased reach and visibility. Who knows, maybe Audible will add a "featured independents" section somewhere down the line. Such a spotlight would give independent publishers more motivation to create high-quality audiobooks and would give readers a chance to discover new authors and stories. It's a scenario where everyone could win. All too easily, though, the cost of audiobooks and the rising popularity of the format could just give the major publishers more power and dominance over the rest of the industry. Only time will tell, I suppose.


Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953@gmail.com.

 

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