Books Heard ‘Round the World: a New Survey of International Audiobook Markets

From Publishing Perspectives:

Amid so many programs and events last week at the 56th Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, a new first-time effort at sizing up the international audiobook marketplace was introduced during a session called “Listen Up.”

. . . .

[T]here are obvious pitfalls in trying to assess audio in world publishing markets today. There’s no consistency or standard in data collection from nation to nation. And in some cases, online retailers withhold sales data as proprietary information, which means the industry can’t see and count everything.

. . . .

For example, the new report cites 54 percent of American audiobook users being under the age of 45, and 74 percent of listeners preferring their smartphones as a leading device. In China, by comparison, available data indicates that an online audiobook platform like Ximalaya had as many as 40 million users daily at the end of 2018.

In putting together a first attempt at an overall picture, Cobb and her colleagues have identified several categories of geographical consideration.

Three “macro-areas” of key importance, for example, are:

  • The United States (with an estimated 2017 consumer spend of US$2.5 billion)
  • Europe (an estimated 2017 publisher data coming to $500 million)
  • China (an estimated 2017 publisher data of $470 million)

. . . .

“Key areas” of growth are identified as:

  • The United States (46,000 titles in annual production, 375,000 now available)
  • China (7,000 new audio titles annually, 25,000 available)
  • Nordic countries (5,800 titles annually, 32,000 available)

“Audio strongholds” are a classification comprising:

  • The UK (some 14 million units sold in a year, 18 percent of them for children)
  • Germany (about 16 million units sold in a year)

“Developing markets” identified include:

  • France (1500 titles annually, 4,000 available)
  • Russia (1,800 titles annually, 16,000 available)

. . . .

Cobb’s APA has become the leader in describing and analyzing the fast-growing audiobook sector in the biggest market for the format, the United States. The organization’s annual reports are a key gauge in understanding the new popularity of this “reborn” format. Once hobbled by the inconvenience and expense of tapes and CDs, audiobooks are the big beneficiary of downloads and streaming distribution in many parts of the world. The plethora of devices—smart phones, smart watches, smart speakers, tablets, and others—has facilitated rapid adoption even among “reading-reluctant” audience segments such as men and boys.

. . . .

“More availability. There are so many titles being produced that a reader will try an audiobook,” seeing that something he or she was interested in reading, “and then they stick with it. It doesn’t mean that is all of their reading, but a healthy portion.”

. . . .

Cobb has been explaining for years now the attractions many audio fans cite of being able to listen while doing other things, or—among some Americans studied—stopping other activities and focusing on listening to a book as a means of relaxation. What’s more, the digital disruption of how many books re released—with “windowing” various formats all but a thing of the past—has meant, as Cobb points out, that “If someone is going to take a book for the weekend to the beach, now they have options” of being able to pick up a new release’s hardback or ebook edition, or the audiobook.

“And audio really has been simultaneously released” in many instances “for more than a decade,” Cobb points out.

And one of her more interesting observations is that audiobooks for children may move much more quickly if retailers learn to create “safe” spaces for them to shop and select what they want to hear without parents having to worry that they’ll wander into adult content.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG is interested in hearing about the experiences of indie authors with the production and sales of their audiobooks.

His impression (which may be wrong) is that there isn’t a path to audiobook publication that is nearly as friction-free as ebook publication is. He’s also interested in hearing about the financial returns for author and voice talent.

14 thoughts on “Books Heard ‘Round the World: a New Survey of International Audiobook Markets”

  1. I treat audio as an investment, since for the most part the cost of hiring people to do the job is high and royalties not commensurate with expenditure.

    A couple of exceptions: when I run sales on e-books, I accrue audio add-on sales, and when I have a Bookbub going that easily pays off the up-front expense. In fact I don’t plan on applying anymore for Bookbubs for books that don’t have audio yet because I want the splashover.

    Findaway showing up on the scene looks like it might have useful consequences. I’ve just started porting some of my existing audiobooks over there and all my sales so far are to libraries, which is pretty cool. I can see Findaway’s broader markets maybe shoring up some of the bleeding cuts there. I’m also experimenting with Bandcamp for direct sales (and those versions are ‘author editions’ with bonus tracks). So far, interesting experiment.

    I still love my audio editions, though, and plan for all my books to get them eventually. It’s just costly. Good narration seems to strictly adhere to the ‘good, fast, cheap’ rule (pick two), with the additional issue of working with the union. (So ‘good, fast, cheap, won’t incur hassle with union’… still, pick two.)

    Glad I went into it, though. I learned a lot about my work from working with actors that I couldn’t have bought at any other price. 🙂

    • I will say, I have read works by self-pubbed writers where the voices were just ‘off’. One I particularly remember is where all of the voices, both characters and narrator, were effectively the lead character’s voice. It was jarring enough to make me say no to book number 2, even though it was set locally and was otherwise not a bad book.

      Thus, I hope that what you mean by “learning a lot” has to do with understanding voices by not just reading them but hearing them.

      • I… don’t think I have that problem. At least, readers have never reported it to me. 🙂

        I don’t want to go into all the stuff I’ve learned because that’s, like, an enormous blog post, but:

        1. Characters I didn’t think were important or interesting turned out to be very important and interesting and I wrote a few novels because of it.
        2. Accents were so different it made me think about accents as a plot point, and I wrote a novel based on -that-.
        3. Characters voiced as being interested in someone that I didn’t notice were romantically inclined that way made me go ‘wait, maybe they’re right’ and that popped up another story.
        4. Stuff that sounds all right in my head is super intense outside my head, which helps me understand the people who think my writing is sometimes a lot darker, or a lot more intimate, than I think it is.

        Etc, etc. Lots of stuff like that. Good VAs, if you let them have their heads, will find stuff in the text you didn’t know was there, and teach it to you. 🙂

        • I should have clarified that I don’t think you have any such problem, but wanted to raise the point in general.

  2. After publishing four audiobooks via ACX royalty share, I’m taking the leap to do the next one on my own because of the potential for audio to match my paper and ebook sales. I’m working with a vocal coach, investing in the right equipment, learning the tech, and hiring a producer to master it. I’ll send a couple of chapters to beta listeners to make sure this will work. It may not, but I’ll take the chance as long as it’s as professional as my current title.

    • I failed to answer some of PG’s question. I have four titles on ACX royalty share (7-year exclusive on Audible with 40%). I make about $2.30 per sale and $37.50 every time someone chooses my title as their freebie upon new membership. I’ve sold over 500 audiobooks so only a small percentage of my total sales. My narrator gets the other half of those amounts. While some of those titles mirror paperback or ebook sales, I have one title that 80% of sales are audio.

      As I stated above, I’m planning on narrating the next title. I’ll spend about $200 on equipment, $300 on coaching, and then $60 per hour for the producer to master (likely $600 total for production). Like paperback or ebook formatting, that producer will deliver my finished files for uploading in ACX. Under that model, I’ll be non-exclusive to Audible and get paid 25%.

      So, why would I spend $1,100 on one audiobook? I need about 300 sales of that title to break even. It’s a title that will be highly marketed to audio listeners. The equipment/coaching expense will also lend toward my podcast interviews and public speaking. I’ll also use that for future audiobooks. I’m ultimately banking on the long game that audio will continue to rise.

  3. I am really interested in the questions that PG posed. I’ve wanted to pursue audio presentation for a while, but the cost seemed prohibitive. It’s good to read comments from those who have been there and done that.

    • I’d suggest doing an ACX royalty share that has no upfront costs. You’re locked in with Audible for seven years but it would give you a glimpse into the process. If you do that with the first book in a series, that will tell you if you should spend the money to hire narration/producing for the rest of the series.

  4. I’ve used ACX for 17 books now (5 novels, 1 non-fiction, rest are story collections), about a dozen different narrators- on royalty split- and love it. Had 1100 sales I wouldn’t have had otherwise, with almost no marketing. Some titles sell very few, others much better. Made bonus money before they screwed that up recently.
    The process was fairly simple, and I’ve enjoyed the results and extra boost from having audio when many didn’t. Will look into doing my own short non-fiction titles soon, but fiction with them has been great.
    Am seeing a lot of buzz for Libro for Indies, but no info on how to get one done for them.

  5. I have four titles in audio via ACX and Audible. I will never, never do another that way.

    The core problem with ACX is you are required (not really unfairly) to sell audio book produced that way exclusively through Audible for seven years, BUT — and it’s a huge ‘but’ — Audible demands complete control over the price (if any) at which your audio book is sold. Audible does so many deals and discounts and packages and freebies that, over the years, I have averaged royalties of LESS THAN $1 PER UNIT for Audible sales of my audio books.

    If you treat that as ‘found money’ or ‘free money’ as some of those above apparently do, then I guess you can’t complain. That said, when I’m getting royalties of about $4 per unit sold for ebooks and paperbacks, it’s silly to put any time or effort at all (much less money) into audio books generating less than $1 per unit sold. That’s just sound business practice.

    In additional to that, of course, it honestly chaps my ass to see how much revenue Audible is grabbing out of the whole process without making any investment at all in either labor or capital. Independent writers are just cannon fodder to them off of whom, in the aggregate, they can scam a significant revenue stream without taking any risk at all while putting out real money for the audio books from major publishers they actually get behind and make an effort to sell.

    In some perverse way, I take my hat off to them for getting away with such a blatant and unfair revenue grab. I suppose there’s money in capitalizing on the desperation of many independent writers to have audio books available. I’m no longer in that category. If they’re going to mug me, I’m sure as hell not going to help them do it.

    • You only have to go exclusive with Audible if you choose the royalty-share option. If you decide to pay the narrator outright there’s a non-exclusive option that nets you less in royalties but allows you to post your audiobook everywhere else… which is how I do it, so I can distribute to Findaway and on Bandcamp. (It’s worth noting that Findaway gets a better royalty rate from Apple than ACX does, so it’s worthwhile to let Findaway distribute to Apple.)

      I highly recommend that people who have royalty-share deals with Audible mark up their calendars with automatic reminders the day their books come up for the 7-year contract renewal. You can pull the book from exclusivity then and distribute it where you please.

  6. tl:dr: for us, having our audio published by another company for a royalty deal would work.

    We’re fundamentally lazy in that less than half of our books are available in print. We looked at audio books, but realized that for our lifestyle and age (60+) the work involved in creating and managing another format… not for us.

    Last year a narrator approached us w/ a sample, but the up front costs (she’d be worth every penny; no kidding, listening to her read what I wrote made it brand new to me) … we couldn’t see the investment paying off.

    In January, Tantor approached us for a 3 book, 7 year deal. They knew that narrator. We just put their advance in the bank today. Fingers crossed.

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