Just What Makes An Audiobook “Original”?

From Publishing Trends:

Though still a fraction of the overall book market, audiobooks continue their double-digit annual growth: the global audiobooks market is expected to reach $35.04 billion by 2030, and U.S. audiobook sales topped ebook sales for the second year in a row. At last count, more than seventy-five thousand titles have been published, a number that will dramatically increase as AI narration brings cost and production time down.

Most audiobooks are narrated renditions of already-published print or ebooks, but the category’s success has led to increased experimentation, with “audiobook originals” or “audio first” productions gaining traction — and fans.

But defining what makes an audiobook an “original” is not easy. Audible co-opted the term early on to describe any title that was its “exclusive,” regardless of whether it had a print life as well. When we talked to a range of producers, publishers and industry vets about this, it became clear that, as Joy Smith, Head of Audio at Rebel Girls admitted, this is a “hazy” term.

Audible notwithstanding, most agree that audiobook originals are released exclusively in audio format, without a corresponding print or ebook version. There seem to be some broad rules; these audiobook originals are (often):

  • An author’s first foray into another genre or medium
  • Written specifically for audio format OR reimagined as an audiobook
  • Frequently (but not always) shorter in length (3-5 hours) than typical audiobooks
  • “Immersive” — produced with music and sound effects, multiple voices, better production quality, etc.
  • A way to connect to fans who may not have listened to audiobooks, e.g. podcast enthusiasts, book and ebook readers, fans of the author’s music, acting, comedy, etc.
  • A way to get to market quickly (a production timeline of four vs. twelve-plus months)

Smith says that originals “written with audio-first in mind are a different craft.” Whether that’s a podcast that is edited for an audiobook audience, or written specifically as an audiobook, it’s a different beast from a text-first project.  (Rebel Girls’ own podcast program is “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.”)

She believes that, as with print books, “if you have a good story, that’s what brings the audience” —though, she adds, nothing happens without discoverability. Many we spoke to admit that Audible is the main conduit for audiobook sales, approaching 90% of market share, though some listeners go to AppleKobo, or (through libraries) Overdrive.

Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House are among those publishers that are devoting more resources to creating audiobooks that originate outside of the traditional text-based book-ebook-audiobook formula. S&S’s Lara Blackman is focusing on these originals: “This is a good way to introduce podcast listeners to audiobooks, or when introducing authors and franchises to a new audience.” For example, Star Trek: No Man’s Land was a tie-in with the tv show. And S&S just published William Kent Krueger’The Levee, a novella, as an original audiobook. Kruger explains on his author page that “storytelling is an oral tradition…When writing a story, I read that story out loud, both as I’m composing it and when it’s completed. To me, a good story ought to flow easily off the tongue. And when I listen to the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, I hear not only the clunk that ought not to be there (so that I can edit it out) but also the beauty in the cadences I’ve created, the truth of the scenes I’ve imagined, the reality of the characters I’ve created with nothing but words.” That’s a ringing endorsement of audio (and his work).

No one is quite sure when publishers started creating “originals,” but Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, released in 2015 and featuring an original musical score and large cast (including Michael Sheen as Lucifer), is one of the best known in this category. Other examples of recent well-known recordings include PRH Audio’s publication of Erik Larson’s No One Goes Alone, his first-ever work of fiction; Audible’s production of Dolly Parton’s memoir-set-to-songs, Dolly Parton, Songteller; and S&S’s original “Audio Drama,” Star Trek: Picard.

Link to the rest at Publishing Trends