Audiobooks continue to be the fastest growing segment in digital publishing and everyone is benefiting. Listeners are finding that most of the new books that come out are getting the audio treatment and publishers are redoubling their efforts for their backlist by notable authors. This report is going to look at a few facets of the audiobook industry. What publishers are doing, major retailers doubling down on audiobook promotion and growth and how customers are listening.
There have been a slew of reports from 2018 that tell the tale of audiobooks becoming a dominant format. 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 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 unveil a monthly 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.”
Although we do not have total sales figures of 2018 yet, the format 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.
Audiobooks and Mental Health
We live in a world that can be very stressful. Some people suffer from anxiety and depression. This can result in a negative spin cycle of thoughts that accompanies our mental state. Audiobooks can quiet our inner voices and mute our internal dialog. If we are feeling angry or are constantly in a negative mood, humor audiobooks might be the solution.
One of the most important things parents can do, beyond keeping kids healthy and safe, is to read with them. That means starting when they are newborns and not even able to talk, and continuing well beyond the years that they can read by themselves. Study after study shows that early reading with children helps them learn to speak, interact, bond with parents and read early themselves, and reading with kids who already know how to read helps them feel close to caretakers, understand the world around them and be empathetic citizens of the world.
Liza Baker, the executive editorial director at Scholastic said in a recent interview ““It’s so important to start reading from Day One,” she says. “The sound of your voice, the lyrical quality of the younger [books] are poetic … It’s magical, even at 8 weeks old they focus momentarily, they’re closer to your heart.” As they begin to grow, families should make sure books are available everywhere in the home, like it’s your “daily bread.” But it shouldn’t end when kids begin to read on their own. “As they become independent readers, we tend to let them go, but even kids in older demographics love nothing more than that time with their parents,” Baker says. “We’re blown away that kids time and again said the most special time they recall spending with a parent is reading together.”
Audiobooks are nostalgic and brings back the memories of being read to when you are a kid.
Elderly people who are voracious readers earlier in life, find they are reading less. This is partly because text is too small to read and local bookstores have a paltry amount of titles that have extra large fonts. In other cases they have a visual impairment such as macular degeneration. Older people also cannot hold a book for awhile due to conditions such as arthritis or central nervous tremor. Audiobooks can be a way to access the literature that many of us take for granted. There is strong research that shows the tremendous benefits of elderly people being read to.
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. Digital audio represented 22% of total HC revenue in 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.
The publishing industry overall is really bullish about Canada. Audiobook production has grown for the past three years, according to a recently released study by industry organization BookNet Canada. More than 61% of Canadian publishers are now producing digital audiobooks — up from 37% in 2016. In 2018 73% of them believe that the trend will continue.
In September 2018 Penguin Random House Canada launched its own audiobooks program, complete with a recording studio in its Toronto office. So far they’ve created more than 50 digital audiobooks in Canada, including Miriam Toews’s upcoming novel “Women Talking” and Debbie Travis’s upcoming book “Design Your Next Chapter.”
The publisher told Good e-Reader that it has hired some local actors for audiobooks in Canada, including Gordon Pinsent for author Wayne Johnston’s “First Snow, Last Light” and Paul Gross for “Operation Medusa” by Major General David Fraser and Brian Hanington.
HarperCollins Canada says it’s also seen a growth in audiobook popularity this year. “It’s a 60% increase for us this year, compared to year over year,” says Leo MacDonald, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at HarperCollins Canada.
Audible also opened up their first Canadian office. They did this because many agents did not sell the audio rights when they sold the print and ebook rights to a publisher. This allowed Audible to swoop in and secure the audio rights as much stuff as possible. In spring 2017, Toronto-based literary agent Denise Bukowski recalls that representatives from Audible visited her office and took her to lunch. Armed with a list of her titles recommended by a consultant, Audible began striking deals, locking down rights to backlisted titles, current books and even forthcoming books (Ian Williams’ Reproduction). Between April and December of last year, Audible snatched up the rights to a dozen of Bukowski’s titles, including Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal, Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You and Leo McKay Jr.’s Twenty-six. “They bought everything that wasn’t nailed down, basically,” Bukowski recalled. “They were really quite aggressive about it.
When Audible first entered Canada, Founder Don Katz also promised, at the time, that the company would invest $12-million in “Canadian writers and voices” over three years. So far this investment has gone toward a mix of new and established Canadian narrators, along with projects that trade on the name recognition of famous Canadian such as Colm Feore, Sarah Gadon, and the recent George Stroumboulopoulos narration of the Tragically Hip biography The Never Ending Present.
Kobo Originals launched in early 2018 and the program includes both audiobooks and ebooks. Kobo has been working tirelessly with with publishers and industry partners to find great titles to make available in digital format to Kobo customers in France, the Netherlands and Canada.
There are only a handful of Kobo Originals right now, but more will be published later this year. Some of the most popular originals include – Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, narrated by Sonja Field. Royally Yours, which is a six-part feel-good serial inspired by the Royal Wedding. It was dreamed up by a team of writers including Megan Frampton, K.M. Jackson, Kate McMurray and Falguni Kothari. But more recently, they released the audiobook of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, produced by Toronto’s SoulPepper Theatre Company and narrated by Ojibway actor Meegwun Fairbrother.
There are millions of people in North America and even more globally that turn to the public library to borrow audiobooks. This is because the average title costs between $15 to $60 if you were to buy it from an online retail company, which can be very expensive if you listen to them on a daily or weekly basis.
Overdrive is the undisputed market leader in the audiobook field and they have the largest reach. The company recently stated that in 2018 were over 185 million ebook loans, which was an increase of 19% from the year prior and there were 88 million audiobook loans, which was a 29% increase from 2017, and the 5th straight year the format as grown.
David Burleigh commented “Audiobooks really are the fastest growing format I think in large part because of Audible’s prominence and popularity. And the library has been an important source of audiobooks, which have been available on CDs for many, many years. A lot of people have known of the library, at least from the CD standpoint, as well as tapes way back when. Because of its popularity, the publishers have figured out that it is worth the investment to create an audiobook not only for a best seller but also for other new titles, even the mid-list titles. The smaller publishers now have ways to produce their audiobooks. So it’s really a growing market.”
The Bibliotheca Cloud Library currently powers the collections of over 3,000 libraries in Australia, Canada and the United States. They have 60,000 audiobooks in their system and hundreds of thousands of ebooks from major publishers. Libraries can purchase the titles individually or employ the cost per circ system. Hoopla only uses the cost per circ system and Overdrives new cost per circ infrastructure is new and unproven. Many libraries have told me that they have to add each title individually, with circ, which is too time consuming.
The Fast Reads program that launched in Ottawa and Vancouver a few months ago will expand in 2019. The premise of Fast Reads is to get the content in the hands of patrons as soon as possible. Enrolled audiobooks and ebooks cannot be placed on a hold list and are only available for seven-day loan periods, meaning they will be made available to other members sooner than traditional books. There is also a two-item limit for Fast Reads ebooks, so patrons cannot abuse the system.
Most Popular Audiobooks from the Library
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (Pottermore)
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (HarperAudio)
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Random House Audio)
- A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’engle (Listening Library)
- Origin by Dan Brown (Random House Audio)
- Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (Random House Audio)
- The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan Audio)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Pottermore)
- The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (HarperAudio)
Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment in digital publishing and it is a billion dollar industry. Every year more ebooks are receiving the audio treatment and many of the worlds largest publishers have double downed on production. This has resulted in many new retailers such as Google and Kobo entering the fray. What are the most popular audiobook retailers in 2018? Good e-Reader has conducted extensive research to answer this very question.
Good e-Reader Research recently conducted a poll, where 556 people all over the world voted on the their favorite audiobook retailer. Audible captured the largest segment of verified audiobook purchased with 27.16% of respondents saying they did business with them. Audible charges a monthly subscription fee and you can use their “credits” to download any audiobook in their library. You can also purchase them on an individual basis, but the prices are pretty high. Audible also populates the majority of the iBooks catalog, but iBooks only received a paltry 2.88% of the total vote.
Amazon came in second place with 16.73% of the vote. This is primarily due to sheer amount of people who download them for free as part of Prime Reading, which is free with a Prime subscription. Kindle Unlimited also provides access to a copious amount of audiobooks.
Playster is one of the few companies involved in the unlimited subscription model and recently the company raised their prices. Despite users having to pay almost double, Playster was in third place with 14.57% of the total vote. Kobo followed closely behind with 10.97% with their new audiobook store and subscription based system.
What I found surprising is that Scribd, who just unveiled their second generation Unlimited Platform did so poorly. They have the most polished looking app out of all of the audiobook retailers and you can tell they put a lot of time and effort into its development. Only 3.24% of the total vote said they did business with Scribd. Google Audiobooks has received a ton of media attention since they launched a few months ago and apparently their service is not resonating with users, only 4.32% of all audiobook users said they bought at least a single title from them. This is actually shocking because Android is one of the most popular operating systems in the world and Play Books has hundreds of millions of installs.
Our polling data basically proves that Audible continues to be the largest audiobook producer and retailer in North America and people love the company. This is because they have the largest selection of audiobook content due to arrangements with publishers and they also produce audiobooks in-house and also under their ACX banner.
Audible and Amazon Quick Stats
- Audible UK’s 2017 revenues grew by 45% over the year prior and are now over £97 million said The Bookseller, and this aligns with similarly high audiobook sales and revenue numbers across the publishing industry. In 2017, downloadable audio revenues across the rest of the publishing industry grew 28.8% over the previous year — not as impressive as Audible UK’s growth, but far beyond any other format.
- “Audible has been experiencing double-digit growth year-over-year for many years,” said Beth Anderson, EVP and publisher of Audible, founded in 1995 and a subsidiary of Amazon for the past decade. “People are busy and enjoy being able to fit books and other content into their lives while they are doing something else.”
- Audible is reported to be the highest employer of actors in New York, and has also collaborated with big-ticket Hollywood actors like Colin Firth, Kate Winslet and Dustin Hoffman. Katz hopes to recreate the Audible model of finding and sustaining a creative professional pool in India. “Most actors agree with the analogy that acting for Audible is like long-distance running, and acting for the movies is like sprinting because the sustaining [the audio narrative] is a particular art.”
- India is one of the hottest new markets for audiobook retailers. In January, Google had launched Google Audiobooks in India, closely followed by Storytel, an audiobook firm from Sweden. In November Audible launched in India and is rumored to be spending millions on an advertising campaign to bring awareness to their platform.
- Audible has been announced as a new sponsor for, what will now be known as, the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2019.
- Audible Originals now given away for free to paid subscribers.
- Amazon Freetime Unlimited now has 1,000 audiobooks for kids
Audiobooks.com is the largest competitor of Audible and they were acquired by RBmedia, which is a new conglomerate spearheaded by Recorded Books. This has allowed Audiobooks.com rapid expansion into Australia and the United Kingdom. Ian Small, the former CEO and now General Manager of Audiobooks.com told Good e-Reader “This year, I’ve noticed a significant increase in listeners under the age of 25. This broadening of the audiobook audience is a trend that has kept up momentum over the past several years, and it is exciting to see the impact it is having on industry growth. One encouraging trend I have noticed is the prioritization of audio content this year, unlike prior years when the audiobook version was either not produced at all, or if it was, its publication date lagged far behind the print. This year, we have seen an uptick in simultaneous release dates, and even some instances where the publishers have experimented with releasing the audiobook in advance of the print edition. This shift is notable evidence of shifting attitudes towards audio within the greater publishing industry.”
He went on to say “We’ve always known that audiobook sales are strongly correlated to the release of film or TV adaptations, but one new trend this year is the release of brand new content to support those cinematic launches. For example, HarperCollins collaborated with Kenneth Branagh to publish a new audiobook version of Murder on the Orient Express (which he narrated) to support the release of the film (which he directed and starred in).”
In late 2017 Kobo launched an audiobook bookstore that sells audiobooks individually and also provides them on a subscription level basis. Their entire audiobook catalog is powered by Overdrive and this is the first time they have ever been involved in an audiobook subscription scheme.
A Kobo Audiobook subscription cost $12.99 per month in Canada and comes with a 30-day free trial period. Customers will get one credit a month with their subscription and they can be redeemed for any audiobook title on the platform. You can also purchase Kobo Audiobooks individually and shop with confidence with their Price Match Guarantee. In addition, readers earn Kobo Super Points on their monthly subscription fees or audiobook purchases. The Kobo audiobooks service is available today in the US for ($9.99/mo), the UK (£6.99/mo), Australia ($12.99/mo), and New Zealand ($13.99/mo).
Kobo has updated their app for Android and iOS and have brought over a fully functional audiobook player. You can make purchases and listen to your content on Android, and with iOS you can only listen to titles you have already bought or have used a credit on. You cannot make purchases directly on your iPhone or iPad.
“We have more books than time, always. Audiobooks let our readers fit the books they love into more parts of their day,” says Michael Tamblyn, CEO, Rakuten Kobo Inc. “Audio lets you be in two places at once—exploring the galaxy on the daily commute, solving a crime while doing the laundry, or wherever you want your favourite story to take you.”
Kobo has also added functionality for their audiobook systeme in Apple Carplay enabled cars and has plans to expand the program in 2019
One of the biggest things that occured in 2018 was Google launching an audiobook store in 45 different countries and nine different languages. The company immediately becomes a major player to be reckoned with. Each audiobook title ranges in price from $35 to $15 per title and you get 50% off your first purchase. You can pick up where you left off no matter what device you’re using, with the Assistant or the Google Play Books, iOS, Chromecast, Android Wear, Android Auto or even your laptop.
Google Audiobooks is also fully compatible with their Assistant. Just say “Ok Google, read my book” to listen to your favorite audiobook hands free with the Google Assistant on your phone or speaker, like Google Home. Try “Ok Google, who is the author?” if you need a refresher, or “Ok Google, stop playing in 20 minutes” to set a timer for bedtime reading. For now, the Google Assistant integration with audiobooks is available on Android phones and smart speakers globally in English.
Emerging Trends for 2019
- Audiobooks on Vinyl were a big trend in 2017 and early 2018, but consumers have yet to embrace the format.
- Walmart Audiobooks via Kobo is not catching on yet and the big box retailer will continue to flounder in 2019.
- The United States is the largest market in the world for audiobooks.
- The audiobook publishing industry in the United States is responsible for the direct employment of about 4,400 people each year. This number will increase in 2019.
- 54% of audiobook listeners are under the age of 45. This number will continue to grow.
- Smartphone usage continues to grow with 73% of listeners using these devices and an increase in the percentage of listeners using this device most often: 47% in 2018 vs. 29% in 2017 and 22% in 2015. Smartphone usage should increase to over 60% by the end of 2019.
- Most audiobook listeners engage with their product at home, representing 57% of the total market. Listening to audiobooks in the car is 32% of the total market.
- There were more e-readers released in 2018, then any other year. Most of these devices have either stereo speakers, a 3.5mm headphone jack or Bluetooth for wireless headphones. Almost none of them ship with a audiobook app, capable of buying and playing audiobooks. Look for a player to enter the market to solve this issue.
- Apple started to charge Canadians sales tax on audiobook purchases, GST, HST, PST, and/or QST depending on your location. Look for other countries to implement legislation on digital content.
- UK audiobook sales have doubled every year, for the past five years. This trend will continue.
The big trend of 2019 – Smart Speakers
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.”
Each year there are more audiobooks published than the year prior and the format generates significantly more revenue. This trend will continue into the foreseeable future, as more retailers enter the fray. Amazon continues to be the only company that has audiobook functionality on an e-book reader and has the ability to buy and listen to audiboooks right on the device. More companies will issue Bluetooth enabled devices in 2019 and have a full audiobook ecosystem.
Thanks for reading the Good e-Reader Audiobook report, this has been an ongoing report for the past five years.
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.