A Matter of Volume

From The Bookseller:

I used to imagine an Apple event where its c.e.o. Tim Cook would unveil a standalone audiobook app with exclusive audio-only titles available on subscription. He would then invite J K Rowling and Stephen Fry on stage to announce a new audio-first Harry Potter series. Sadly Apple TV+ and Steven Spielberg got in first.

My personal disappointment at Apple’s lack of ambition for audio should not detract from the fact that the storytelling bit of the market for listening remains in rude health. Nielsen’s latest Understanding the Audiobook Consumer shows a seventh year of double-digit growth, with sales about to crest £200m. In the US, figures from the Audio Publishers Association for 2020 show a ninth year of double-digit increase. Audible turned over £187m from its UK business in 2020, representing growth of 30%.

Outside our own range in the UK, the growth in listening—be it from traditional audiobooks, podcasts or music—continues. Spotify’s revenue has more than doubled since 2016 (it surpassed Penguin Random House in 2017,) and today has announced a deal to buy Findaway, the US audiobook business; in December Amazon bought podcast platform Wondery for a reported $200m; while Storytel, Sweden’s answer to Audible, grew its half-year sales to £90m (and this week bought AudioBooks.com), with Bonnier-owned rival Bookbeat hot on its heels.

From a once smallish cottage industry that serviced libraries, those with reading difficulties and (with intermittent support from the high street) CD buyers, audiobooks are now central to a global storytelling industry whose potential risks stretching way beyond the publishing sector’s ability to service it. Storytel is the harbinger of things to come: in the summer it announced a deal with the Conan Doyle Estate for a new scripted audio series of Sherlock tales to be written by a team of writers under Anthony Horowitz. Tangentially, Apple has also got in on the act: watch its series “Calls” via Apple TV+ and tell me if that isn’t one of the most exciting audiobooks released this year?

The wider vision for audio is stymied by a number of things. It remains expensive to produce, and actors are a scarce resource (electronic voice is not yet the alternative it may one day be). Audible remains far too dominant, with Google, Apple and AudioBooks.com bit-part players. Audible aside, those with the biggest audience of listeners operate streaming models that the big UK and US publishers eschew. I’ve never taken the view that books should become a subscription service just because film and music have, but for those innovating in this space, it is their financial underpinning and how they recruit new customers.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

5 thoughts on “A Matter of Volume”

  1. Another area missed by the traditional publishers?

    Audio is lively in indies, many doing their own, or arranging for narrators. There is even pushback against policies that were too generous for subscribers, and let the rights holders get taken advantage of by the streaming services.

    I will do my own as soon as I can – ‘as read by author’ is one of the accepted formats – but there is much learning involved, and it’s slow.

    There are plenty of VO actors and lots of narrators – join the right groups and you will get lots of advice and help. It’s all learnable. The equipment investment is a bit more expensive than some want to take on, but there are ways to share the cost.

    The Bookseller has its own perspective.

  2. Well, I’ve now tried out several of the AI voice options, and none of them are worth a darn for novels. They cannot handle dialogue and especially between different people and genders. I keep saying it’s going to happen someday (AI-voicing), but it sure is not happening now. Sigh.

  3. I produced one audiobook (voice by author) to learn what’s involved. It’s a doable project, and the cost, while significant, is a worthwhile investment in principle, provided the unit sales proceeds are… um… greater than near-zero.

    The return is zilch-o. I’m not complaining about the lack of buyers — why should my audio version of a work be more successful than my ebook/print versions — but about the lack of adequate returns from the vendors. One thing you do not want to be is at the source end of a subscription service where buyers can make no-charge returns and the statements are as unsubstantiated and opaque as anything that trad publishing produces. You can track neither the buyers (markets, demographics) nor the sales/rents.

    A foreign language translation, for example, is also an expensive investment (though less expensive), but at least the units that sell generate profits larger than a few cents, and you can believe the vendors’ reports.

Comments are closed.