Audiobooks: publishing’s new wave

By Natalie Crookham

Abstract: Audio is becoming an increasingly popular format for both publishers and users as well as being named as the “success story of the moment”. This article aims to explore the origins of audio as a platform. From its beginning as a means for the visually impaired to enjoy literature and to help children develop their reading through to the mainstream channel that it has become today. It will examine the driving forces behind the growth as well as highlighting the distribution channels and techniques that publishers are using, including smart speakers, to access consumers. It will outline some of the challenges and issues that the audiobook market is facing while evaluating the future of the industry and its position in the publishing landscape.

Keywords: accessibility, Amazon, Audible, audio, audiobooks, books, consumers, format, lifestyle, listening, mainstream, publishers, reading, smart speakers, technology.


Audio as a format in publishing has rapidly evolved and is arguably the latest platform which publishers are utilising to captivate readers. Developments in technology have enabled audio content to become more accessible to customers. This has led to market growth from just 7,200 audiobooks being published in 2011 to over 51,000 in 2016 in the US market, according to the Audio Publishers Association. (Thoet, 2017) Growth is not only occurring in the US but internationally which is benefiting audio’s position, see Figure 1. In some instances publishers have a poor track record in exploiting new platforms. When the ebook format first developed, low cost conversions of content into fixed ebook files enabled rapid growth. Howeverhe limited investment meant that publishers were not utilising the format to its full potential. (Denckla, 2014) In contrast to this audio has been an established medium in the industry. As a result publishers have been able to develop suitable content and distribute original material tailored to specific audiences from the outset and make further investments in response to the upsurge in popularity. In October 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair hosted the first audiobook conference and labelled audio as the “success story of the moment”.
(Tagholm, 2018)

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Figure 1: Audi books international value and volume growth, 2017 (Tagholm, 2018)

The first audiobooks

Audiobooks were first created to help the blind enjoy literature. The American Foundation for the Blind began recording books onto vinyl in 1932. Howeverudio content was brought to the mainstream market in the 1960s with the expansion of cassette tapes. This success was also supported by the CD in the 1980s which led to audio becoming an industry recognised format in 1994. (Thoet, 2017) Neverthelessthey were mostly preserved for children learning to read, the elderly and visually impaired. This changed in the 1990s with audiobooks becoming available in bookshops, followed by the developments of MP3 players and digital downloads, bringing them to the forefront of the market. (Jones, 2016)

The digital, unabridged and interchangeable format of today’s audiobooks have meant that they are no longer limited to specific devices and therefore have become accessible to a wider audience. Their prominence in the mainstream market is growing, accounting for 5% of consumer book spending in the UK in 2017. (Jones, 2016) This means it is easier for publishers and distributers to gain repeat consumers which they once struggled to sustain. Today the majority of publishing houses have their own audio departments producing content internally. Independent publishers are also able to create new and original content because despite investment costs in production they can easily share their content and furthermore gain visibility in other aspects of publishing. The range of audio output available to consumers is rapidly increasing which means the platform is getting more attention from a wider audience.  Consequently it is becoming part of the publishing process.


Audiobooks are not an exclusive platform to consumers and it is unlikely that it ever will be with 83% of frequent listeners also reading physical books and 79% reading eBooks as well. (Anderson, 20 June 2018)  This means that audio needs to be able to maintain its audience. Howeverhe continued growth of audio as a platform is also promising as it becomes increasingly integrated into consumer lifestyles. Around 45% of people listen to audiobooks while completing other activities although a large proportion of 55% still prefer to listen to audio exclusively to relax. (Anderson, 20 June 2018)  Audiobooks are almost on par with other forms of literature for common reading times which demonstrates how successful they have become in such a short time frame with consumers becoming more format agnostic, see Figure 2. The growth of the audio format is most popular with younger generations, with those under the age of 35 making up almost half of listeners. (Thoet, 2017) Therefore, for continued growth of audio, publishers need to develop strategies to attract a wider audience by creating a variety of audio content to entice readers. This may require expanding from the most popular genres of mystery, thriller, science fiction and romance. (Anderson, 20 June 2018)

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Figure 1: Audio books compared to other books at  common reading times (Hachette).

Driving forces

Amazon, who drove the rise of ebooks have also been behind the growth of audiobooks with Audible. Their original format of audio books on specific devices meant that they were difficult to sell, especially to repeat customers. Howeverhe growth of smartphones and streaming services has enabled the development of subscription models. Consumers can access a 30 day free trial before subscribing to Audible for £7.99 per month. This gives one free credit to redeem against any book as well as discounted access to the Audible Library with over 425,000 audiobooks to purchase. (Self Development Secrets, 2019) This is a successful business strategy in today’s society, using a combination of subscription and freemium content. On the other handmost publishers have their own audio divisions which means that Audible are struggling to gain rights to titles and authors so have to find new ways to diversify and gain commercial advantages. (Kachka, 2018) At the same time, Audible’s competition is growing with other platforms for audiobooks such as Google Play Books and subscription services such as Bolinda. (Schaub, 2018) (Bolinda, 2019) Neverthelessespite Audible’s initial drive in creating the market has enabled a strong platform and desire for audiobooks for publishers to use and benefit from.

The audio industry gained momentum in 2015, with voice performer Jim Dale’s reading of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The majority of audiobooks are still read by voice talents but have also become increasingly popular with celebrities. (Thoet, 2017) This is one way to attract audiences to audiobooks, therefore driving sales and increasing the platform’s status.

Another driving force behind the growth of Audiobooks is the demands of the consumers. Men between the ages of 25 and 44 alongside commuters are responsible for driving the market. (Clark, 2018) Their time is being filled by listening to both audiobooks and podcasts as a way of fulfilling their desire for reading and narratives. This has been enabled by the dominance of smartphones and ability to carry multiple unabridged books in your pocket. Listening to audiobooks can be argued to be a different experience to reading a physical book. Howeverhe narration of books also enriches the experience. A recent study by UCL in partnership with Audible found “with over 99% certainty that audiobooks produced stronger and physiological response than visual storytelling mediums.” (Flatt, 2018) This positive result suggests that the audio format provides more emotional responses which authors and publishers are able to utilise and develop the platform further.


Despite audiobooks mostly being accessed by smartphones many libraries also loan audiobooks. Libraries have helped 52% of people with the discovery of new audiobooks and 14% are regular digital lenders. (Anderson, 20 June 2018) In Toronto Public Library members are able to access audiobooks in physical format from CDs and MP3 players but also download for periods of time to their personal eaudiobook library. Since the launch of this scheme in summer 2018 downloads of audiobooks through the library grew by 40%. (Anderson, 6 August 2018) This shows that libraries are still significant drivers in the discovery of books. Publishers should not ignore library lenders and borrowers in their marketing.

Smart speakers

Since their release, smart speakers were instantly popular with 9% of households in the UK owning an Amazon Echo one year after release. The devices are able to perform a range of voice activated features but are most commonly used to play music and listen to audiobooks. (Decidedly, 2018) Despite smart speakers still being in their early stages, publishers are increasing their efforts to capitalise on the emerging platform. (Moses, 2018) Publishers are already redistributing existing content such as audiobooks and podcasts to smart speakers. Howeverhey are also creating editorial content which adds value and is more meaningful because it is specifically created for smart speakers. Rebecca Ikinarketing director at Penguin Random House said: “As publishers, we’re keen to understand this new interface and the potential for voice technology to connect our authors with potential readers, particularly in the realm of education.”
(Watson, 2018)

Smart speakers are also being used to transform children’s reading. In autumn 2018 it was announced that Google and Disney were partnering to launch Little Golden Books which provides a flexible and augmented read-along experience. The feature currently works with a selection of Disney titles including Cinderella and Peter Pan. Children and their parents can read the Little Golden story books with their Google Home device playing music and sound effects at appropriate times which makes their reading more enjoyable and inspiring. (Duffer, 2018) In 2018 Penguin Random House launched their first author led audio feature for smart speakers with The Astronaut Selection Test Book. The interactive experience allows users to complete training exercises and puzzles for the European Space Agency with Tim Peake. (Cowdrey, 2018)  Both these example demonstrate how traditional read along experiences have successfully been enhanced and modernised thus maximising the smart speaker technology available to them.

Director of Business Relations at Bookwire John Ruhrmann thinks that the growth of smart speakers will only increase.  This is supported by the fact that there are expected to be over 100 million smart speaker devices in use in the US by 2020. (Tagholm, 2018) Thereforeublishers are positively exploiting an expanding market. Through creating original and contemporary audio content they are able to attract new audiences and expand their audio output.


Ebooks bring in three times the revenue of audiobooks so additional work is necessary to overcome this. (Kacha, 2018) Amazon Original Stories, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, combines both audio and eBook editions of titles together in thematic collections. First released at BookExpo in New York, each bundle contains six titles which are available in both formats with authors narrating their own work. The collections offer multiple perspectives on core themes such as romance. (Anderson, 2019) Through combining both formats together it opens up new opportunities with different audiences. This means that revenue is not compromised as much and enables room to grow.

There are around 40,000 audiobook titles being released each year and an accumulative backlist library. (Jones, 2016) The volume of audio content available also has an impact on discoverability. In order to overcome this more audiobooks are being released simultaneously with the print publication which enables them to benefit from existing publicity and marketing. However, this reduces the timeline of production and can therefore impact quality. The sheer quantity of material being produced from such a wide range of sources means that the quality is impacted. Managing Director of Naxos, classics division of Audible, Anthony Anderson sees a positive future for audiobooks but is concerned that the growth is providing a potential risk of deterioration of quality given the increase of self-produced recordings. (Jones, 2016) Therefore, for publishers to stand out amongst audio content and maintain quality they need to keep investing in the audio process.

In order to produce audiobooks there are many costs to consider. With more production being completed in-house publishers are becoming reluctant to license work to audio producers. As a result publishers need to be investing in their own resources to create audio and this production process can be expensive. Alongside this they need to acquire the rights to produce the audio content for their books. In recent years agents and authors have wanted to maintain their audio rights and license them separately which is costing publishers. This is because authors want to maintain their intellectual property rights so publishers have to make higher bids in order to obtain the audio rights.  (Lutyens, 2018)

There are still many issues facing the development of audiobooks internationally. Within the Indian market the population size, long commutes to metropolitan areas and ancient love for storytelling suggest that this is a viable market for exploitation.  However, government regulation has hindered the growth of audiobooks. Printed books have no Goods and Service Tax (GST) however audiobooks are undefined so attract 18% GST which is holding back their development. (Tagholm, 2018) There is huge potential for audiobooks in India because crime, romance and self-help are popular with Indian consumers and align with dominant audio genres. (Somerville, 2018)  In addition to this, traditionally low literacy levels meant that the majority of stories were narrated rather than written. The growth of audio as a platform has taken books back to their original story telling origins before print dominated.

The future

Penguin Random House chief Mark Dohle believes that listening is the new reading. He advises that in order to improve audio sales content should be split up into small segments to be serialised. This is because younger generations have shorter attention spans and are used to content being produced regularly. (Tagholm, 2018) Another strategy he suggests is to follow Netflix’s model and allow access rather than ownership through creating subscriptions to audiobook libraries. Dohle has confidence that this is the way forward. This is because Penguin Random House’s streaming turnover has seen a rapid progression growing from 1% in 2015 to 17% in 2017 and is forecast to be at 42% in 2020. (Tagholm, 2018)

Audiobooks have rapidly grown despite still being a small outlet in publishing. With continued growth Michele Cobb of the Audio Publishers Association (APA) said: “We do not see any signs of it slowing down.” (Kachka, 2018) This is because of society’s attitude towards the audio platform and willingness to discover books in new ways. The audio format may experience more steady growth in the next few years like ebooks but it will have a central place in the publishing ecosphere.






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