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This is a post originally written for Azure Fire Publishing.

The Audiobook’s Oral Past

Audiobook | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Image: Pixabay

In ancient times, minstrels used to travel the known world to recite the epic adventures of Ulysses and his companions. In the Dark Ages, troubadours would sing the adventures of valiant knights and damsels in distress. Folk songs in the 18th and 19th-century western world would narrate the stories of lovers, warriors, monsters, and adventurers.

The above examples demonstrate how audiobooks and modern fiction like action, romance, mystery, and even fantasy have their roots in the oral tradition; a tradition we can trace back to the first steps of humanity. One can imagine ancient tribes listening to elders around a campfire. This scene is probably as real as our sweet children pleading for one more bedtime story, their heavy eyelids closing as we recite by heart their favorite nursery rhyme or fairytale. After all, modern media has often taken over books, from radio theater broadcasts to Orson Wells’ iconic reading of War of the Worlds. And what about podcasts? Loving to listen to stories might be part of our genetic heritage, for what we know.

The Digital Publishing Industry

It should then maybe not come as a surprise that audiobooks are the fastest growing segment in the digital publishing industry. Michelle Cobb of the Audiobook Publishers Association has stated that 26% of the US population has listened to an audiobook in the last 12 months: That is a huge 1 in 4 people ratio!

The 2017 APA Audiobook Survey revealed that this trend towards audiobooks is almost uniform to all age groups, from young adults to seniors, with the higher percentages—around 20%—in the working population groups. We seem to love listening to audiobooks while commuting, driving our children around or preparing meals. Could it be that our need for a good story remains undeterred despite—or maybe because of—our demanding daily schedules and busy lives?

Key Findings

APA Audiobook survey | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Here are some key findings from the APA Survey:

  • A majority of audiobook listening is done at home (57%), with the car being the second most frequently cited location (32%).
  • 68% of frequent listeners do housework while listening to audiobooks. Other multitasking activities among frequent listeners include baking (65%), exercise (56%), and crafting (36%).
  • The top three reasons why people enjoy listening to audiobooks are: (1) they can do other things while listening; (2) audiobooks are portable and people can listen wherever they are; and (3) they enjoy being read to.
  • 29 % of listeners use their smartphone most often to listen to audiobooks, which is a growing trend.
  • 19 percent of all listeners use voice-enabled wireless speakers (such as Amazon Echo or Google Home) to listen to an audiobook in the last year. Among frequent listeners, that rises to 30 percent.
  • Audiobook listeners read or listened to an average of 15 books in 2017, and 77 percent of frequent listeners agreed or strongly agreed that ‘audiobooks help you finish more books’.

Reading the Numbers

These demographics show that there is room for audiobooks addressed to all kinds of audiences, although some key-findings seem to point to women (e.g. household and baking). The audiobook format becomes, therefore, something for authors to consider, along with paperbacks and ebooks, when we plan our next publication. Indeed, in its 2017 annual report, the APA reported a 33.9% increase in the number of audiobooks published compared to the year before, with publishers having issued over 79,000 new audiobooks—29% more than in 2016. Important publishers, like HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House, have all seen ebook sales decline by around 5% but their digital unit has consistently seen profit, primarily due to audiobooks.

Audiobooks are becoming so popular that some publishers are skipping the book entirely and go straight for audio production. “We’re asking our best-selling authors, and all of our authors, about old stories, short stories that were never published, plotlines that changed,” says Anthony Goff, senior vice president of content development and audio publisher at Hachette Audio. “Things they might find in their desk drawer that they could record in audio.”

Christopher Lynch, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, says that while he expects to see more straight-to-audio, he does not expect book-length offerings. “I’m thinking of things that are one, two, three hours long,” Lynch said. “If it’s in straight-to-audio, it will be an author people recognize. We have seen that in the past. People pay for that.” For instance, a few years ago Simon & Schuster published an hour-and-20-minute audio production of Stephen King’s “Drunken Fireworks.”

Podcasting

Podcasting is also a huge business. An astonishing 40% of the US population has listened to a podcast in the last year. Almost all companies involved in the retail side of audiobook distribution see podcasts as a gateway to audiobooks. The belief is that, if you give away a bunch of free content, people will end up purchasing a subscription or will buy a few audiobooks on a whim.

The audiobook trend is of interest not just to big publishers, but also Indie authors. Many companies have started offering Indie authors a one-stop solution, including an array of narrators to select from and sound engineering options. The idea is to let Indies have full control over the final product, so they can market it themselves like they do with paperbacks and ebooks. Audible is the undisputed market leader in Indie audiobook production (and also operates the world’s largest audiobook store).

A New Market

Audiobooks is still a new market, open to experiments and trends of all kinds, and therefore not yet as stable as the ebook industry has come to be. Audible, for example, is experimenting with various services to authors and listeners. Some of these experiments are mind-boggling. For example, Audible Romance is a dedicated subscription that allows listeners to monitor at all times the level of steaminess, through an illustrated meter ranking each “page” of the book on a one-to-five scale: Sweet, Simmering, Sizzling, Hot Damn, and O-O-OMG!!! The advantage of this scale is that you can skip the steamiest moments, if, for example, you are listening to your audiobook while driving kids to a soccer game… One can easily imagine this idea to also expand into violent genres such as horror. So, if today authors face the subgenre dilemma, in the future they may face the challenge of writing multi-level books that could be listened to under different filters. The same book might come to cover romance from sweet to steamy.

What the Future Holds

Clearly, we cannot know what the future holds for Audiobooks. Yes, we expect that this is going to become an important market, generating lots of sales. But is it a profitable income source for most authors? Producing an audiobook can be costly, especially if you are looking to attain a quality comparable to the one offered by big publishers. Also, if mastering the secrets of ebook publishing was challenging, how about sound recording and sound engineering?

Still, it makes sense to prepare for this new spin on the ancient oral tradition. What comes next? Podcast-newsletters? Asking your audience to choose a narrator instead of helping you choosing your book cover? Sharing income with a narrator paid through a royalty scheme? Seeing yourself as producer and director on top of author and marketer?

Only time can tell how this new trend in Publishing will pan out!