The audiobook industry is experiencing a boom period in the sheer amount of people listening to the format and the entire audio industry is doing solid business. Publishers, narrators, sound engineers, retailers and authors are experiencing a huge financial windfall.
Audiobook sales generated $2.8 billion dollars in the United States in 2017 and this is an increase of up 22.7% over 2016, and with a corresponding 21.5% increase in units. This continues the six-year audiobook trend of double-digit growth year over year. There were 46,000 titles produced on audio in 2017, the most popular genres purchased were Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense, Science Fiction, and Romance.
Audiobook sales have doubled in the United Kingdom in the past five years. In 2017 audiobook sales rose by 12% in volume and 15% in value and digital audio now accounts for 5% of consumer book spending. “Audiobook growth is an encouraging sign that the book consumer in 2017 had a good appetite for content in many formats,” Oliver Beldham, account manager at Nielsen Book Research, said. “The differing consumer profile also shows the reach that audio formats can have among buyers beyond the traditional book customer.”
The Audiobook Publishers Association and Edison Research found that audiobook listeners read or listened to an average of 15 books in the last year, and 57% of listeners agreed or strongly agreed that audiobooks help you finish more books. The vast majority of people who purchase an audiobook are under the age of 45.
Pew Research has also divulged that one in five US adults have listened in an audiobook last year and one in four has read an ebook. Print books remain the most popular format for reading, with 67% of Americans having read a print book in the past year. While the sheer amount of e-book readers are similar to those from a survey conducted in 2016, there has been a modest but statistically significant increase in the share of Americans who listen to audiobooks, from 14% to 18%.
The boon in audiobook sales have encouraged the New York Times to conduct an audiobook bestseller list. “The vibrant growth of audiobooks in the industry has created a need for an impartial, reliable source for tracking and reporting the top-selling audiobooks across the country,” said Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review. “The Times recognizes the increased reader and listener interest in audiobooks, as well as in the Book Review’s increasing depth of coverage of audiobooks, and we’re thrilled we’ll be able to provide them independent data they can rely on.”
Major Publishers are doubling down on Audio
Major publishers have confirmed to Good e-Reader that 1 out of every 10 books sold is in the audio format, a percentage far higher than just a few years ago. And while the industry debated whether e-books expanded the market, or simply shifted it to digital reading, publishers agree that audio brings in new customers and allows them to encounter a narrative when a physical or e-book would be impossible — while driving, for instance, or doing housework.
HarperCollins stated that downloadable audio accounted for about 25% of all digital revenue in the recent first three months of 2018. Digital sales represented 22% of consumer revenue for the quarter—the same percentage the format accounted for in the quarter last year. Digital basically increased by 5% in the first three months of 2018.
Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said sales of digital audio jumped 43% in the period. This is primarily attributed to a 15% increase in the number of audiobooks they digitize and Reidy expects another 10% increase in 2018. The strong performance by digital audio helped to counter slight declines in print and e-book sales.
Hachette has disclosed that 21% of their revenue derived from audiobook and ebook sales. The company generated €442 million in revenue. CEO Michael Pietsch said, “Our good first quarter results came from many places: #1 bestselling books by HBG house authors James Patterson, David Baldacci, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, and Brad Meltzer, from backlist hits like You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza, and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and from breakout bestsellers including Michael Isikoff & David Corn’s riveting Russian Roulette, Jennifer Palmieri’s powerful Dear Madam President, Peter Brown’s delightful The Wild Robot Escapes and Vashti Harrison’s inspiring Little Leaders.
“Audio is not a blip,” David Shelley, CEO of Hachette UK. “Audiobooks could be one of the biggest parts of our business. It has doubled in the last two years. It is a completely different way of transmitting our books to people. I would put some money on it that audio is going to continue being a central piece of our business going forward.”
“Since Q1’s end we’ve had the spectacular news that Andrew Sean Greer’s brilliant and joyful novel Less was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and that Attica Locke received the Edgar Award for Best Novel for Bluebird, Bluebird. Our biggest book of the year, James Patterson and President Bill Clinton’s thriller The President Is Missing, goes on sale next month, and is certain to be a major publishing event.”
Penguin Random House did not break down revenue for the quarter, but in the past four months they have been expanding their audiobook unit. They hired Katie Bilboa as a new Executive Producer and will report to Richard Lennon, Editorial Director, Audio. Derek Withshire was tapped for the the role of Marketing & Communications Executive. Derek has become well known across the UK literary scene and beyond for his work on the Mostly Lit podcast and will play a key role in marketing campaigns across the full Penguin Random House audiobook list as part of the UK’s only in-house audiobook marketing unit.
Publishers are experimenting with vinyl
Vinyl is big business in the United States. In 2017, the format hit another Nielsen Music-era record high, with over 14.32 million copies sold— up 9% compared to 2016 (13.1 million). CNN Money said that vinyl sales could account for nearly a fifth of physical music consumption by the end of the year. Global vinyl sales surpassed one billion dollars in 2017.
Why has vinyl become so popular, when it is a 60 year old format? Millennials and old school enthusiasts are the primary drivers. Plating a song on vinyl is richer, deeper and “warmer” than music played via streaming media sites without sound engineers trying to retain the character as it is digitally converted. You also get rich music instead of the minimized music engineered to be played loudly on the radio. Music engineers tend to hyper-compress songs, reducing the depth and vitality of the songs played on the radio and most digital formats relative to vinyl. Vinyl also provides better mid-range sounds and are especially flattering towards guitar music and lyrical singing, and by proxy audiobook narration.
Hachette is getting really bullish on vinyl and they intend on launching dozens of titles in 2018. The first titles announced are Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s 2016 book Hamilton: The Revolution, Miranda and McCarter; Amanda Palmer’s 2015 effort The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, Dennis McNally’s 2015 book Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews, narrated by Garcia; and Steve Jones’ 2017 release Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol.
HarperCollins is taking advantage of the growing vinyl trend and will be issuing a series of new audiobooks this year. The series launched on April 18 with the publication of Wild Horses Vinyl Edition + MP3 by Joe Hill, performed by Nate Corddry. “Wild Horses”, a ‘vinyl-first’ short story, is the tale of four teenagers out for a night of fun on a boardwalk who take a ride on the “Wild Wheel” – an antique carousel with a shadowy past – and learn too late that decisions made in an instant can have deadly consequences.
HarperAudio will publish several other vinyl editions this year including A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni, and “The Monarch of the Glenn” and “Black Dog” (American Gods sequel novellas) by Neil Gaiman.
Smart Speakers are a big trend this year
How does the growth of voice assistants affect audiobooks? Smart speakers are increasingly impacting the audiobook world with 24% of listeners saying they have listened on a smart speaker and 5% saying they listen most often on a smart speaker.
The rising popularity of smart speakers has prompted Simon & Schuster to develop the first voice-activated book recommendation tool. If you have a device running Amazon Alexa or Google Voice Assistant they will be able to recommend 56 different Stephen King audiobooks that tailored to a users reading tastes The program, S&S said, will ask users a series of situational questions—voiced by audiobook narrator Jeremy Bobb and will suggest a reading list informed by their responses. “Simon & Schuster intends to be at the forefront of utilizing voice interaction technology to connect books and authors to readers and audiobook listeners,” S&S executive v-p and chief marketing officer Liz Perl said in a statement. “Using A.I. through Stephen King Library is a fun and innovative experience for exploring this master storyteller’s work.”
Iam Small the CEO of Audiobooks.com believes the future of the audiobook industry is intertwined with the future of tech itself: As voice assistants become more popular, audiobooks will have another channel to reach their audiences. Small said “What we know for sure is that connected devices and spaces are becoming more mainstream, and with them, new listening opportunities in new environments,” he says. “With the more recent adoption of smartwatches, smart home speakers and other connected devices, audiobooks are able to integrate with people’s lifestyles more than ever before, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”
He also said that Audiobooks.com expexperienced an impressive 22.7% growth rate last year. “To keep that momentum going, we’ve expanded into new markets, specifically Australia and the United Kingdom, and we’re also excited about the upcoming launch of the Spanish-language Audiolibros.com, our first non-English-language product.”
Audiobooks contribute to positive mental health
Working in collaboration with Audible, researchers from University College London conducted a study to find out the physiological impact of auditory vs. visual storytelling. The study, led by Dr. Joseph Devlin, the Head Of Experimental Psychology, revealed that that listening to audiobooks is more emotionally engaging based on heart rate and body temperature than watching scenes from film and TV adaptations.
The statistical evidence was very strong (over 99% certainty) that audiobooks produced a stronger emotional and physiological response than visual storytelling mediums. This finding is consistent across different stories, and different participant ages and demographics. These fluctuations in heart rate, body temperature and skin conductance – measured using Empatica E4 biometric sensors fitted at the wrist – suggest increased emotional engagement with auditory stories on a physiological level.
Dr Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at UCL and lead researcher on the project, said: “One of our predictions was that listening to a book would be more cognitive work because you as a listener are involved in the co-creation of the story, using your imagination. You’re hearing the story but mentally you’re doing all the work, whereas when you’re watching it, it’s more of a passive experience. The director’s imagination has brought it to life. We’d anticipated we might see something in the physiology but we didn’t expect the results to be as clear as they were.”
Every year Good e-Reader conducts yearly audiobook research reports that look at the entire audiobook industry and all of the key players. We look at the retail side of things and how libraries are benefiting from the audio revolution. Publishers and indie authors are responsible for the vast majority of new content and we look at how an audiobook is physically created from beginning to end.
If you want to get a sense on how the industry performed last year, check out our 2017 report. When December rolls around we will release our long awaited 2018 edition. If your company would like to take part please contact us.
Michael Kozlowski has written about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. Newspapers and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times have picked up his articles. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.