Monica Claassen, a web content developer with a long commute, wistfully remembers a time when she could read a novel a week. Now that she spends between eight and ten hours weekly in the car, those days are far behind.
“The time I would’ve spent reading at home is now taken up with driving,” says Claassen. Still, she managed to squeeze in about 30 novels and memoirs last year, thanks to her growing audiobook habit. “I’ve discovered that there’s a richer experience sometimes with listening to a book versus reading it, and I’m going back and listening to many favorites that I’ve read before,” titles like those in Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series, as well as works by Jane Austen and Bill Bryson. She borrows most of her audiobooks from her local library, Johnson County Library (JCL), KS, via CD and digital downloads.
An expanding niche
Claassen is part of a larger constituency of audiobook listeners. While other areas of the publishing industry are shrinking, audiobooks are its fastest growing segment, enjoying $1.2 billion in annual sales, according to figures reported by the Audio Publishers Association (APA) in 2012. By comparison, annual audiobook sales in the late 1990s were just $480 million. It’s a niche that’s rapidly going mass-market.
Publishers report many reasons for this exponential growth. Sean McManus, senior director of HarperAudio, notes that smartphone apps have made audiobooks increasingly portable, affordable, and easy to access, especially when bundled with ebooks as sync-to-text packages that let users switch easily between text and audio without losing their place.
Near-instant gratification is also part of the appeal. APA president Michele Cobb points out that with a smartphone, as soon as you finish one audiobook, “you can tap right into your library’s collection and be listening to the next title in mere moments.”
Another major growth factor for audiobooks is the ballooning selection. Cobb cites an astonishing 83 percent increase in audiobook titles produced just from 2011 to 2012, many of which came out simultaneously with the initial hardcover release. Anthony Goff, VP of Hachette Audio, explains that the ability to get production costs in line over the last five years has allowed publishers to record a large variety of titles that were rarely produced before on audio, including those in areas such as romance, health and wellness, science, and education. Publishers can also now manufacture CDs in smaller quantities—known to most as “on demand”—which has expanded their opportunities to take greater risks on titles with low to moderate sales projections. Such titles often begin as digital downloads until sales pick up.
This confluence of portability, affordability, accessibility, and selection has created a perfect storm for customers who are now more crunched for time than ever. They are hungry for ways to multitask while jamming in precious minutes of reading time, and, for many, audiobooks are the answer.
Cobb acknowledges that librarians are at the forefront of connecting commuters, exercisers, crafters, parents, and other busy readers with audiobooks. They often win over new fans by enticing them to try a first listen. “One listen can be all it takes. Every day [librarians] are introducing more people not just to the idea of listening but to titles that they will love.”
Even while audiobook demand grows, CD usage is shrinking. This isn’t as pronounced for libraries as it is for the retail market, of which CD units make up just 33 percent, while download units make up 61 percent, according to figures from APA. CDs still comprise the bulk of library audiobook circulation, but publishers and distributors like HarperAudio, Random House’s Books on Tape (BOT) and Listening Library, Hachette Audio, S. & S. Audio, Tantor Media, and Blackstone Audio are all beginning to report softening CD sales to libraries as well.
Anne Fonteneau, head of sales for Blackstone Audio, reports that just 40 percent of the firm’s current library sales are CDs, while the other 60 percent are mostly digital downloads through third-party vendors such as OverDrive, 3M, and Baker & Taylor (B&T). HarperAudio reports similar numbers, citing a massive 200 percent increase in library sales over the past year, of which the majority are digital downloads.
Even Cheryl Herman, director of school and library marketing for BOT and Listening Library and a longtime champion of audiobook CDs in libraries, admits that library selectors are just now beginning to see a bias against physical CDs in their circulation. She maintains that CD circulation can often be as high as 80 percent, with digital audiobooks making up just 20-30 percent of libraries’ overall audiobook circulation, but concludes that the numbers are shifting in favor of digital platforms.
Cobb notes that it took a long time for cassettes to clear the market. Cobb acknowledges that CDs continue to be viable owing to strong sales and plenty of demand from libraries, but she doesn’t expect to see any growth in CD sales.
The eventual dominance of digital downloads gives libraries all the more reason to shift to downloadable and streaming options. Even small libraries with shoestring budgets have been able to take advantage of downloadable audiobooks from the likes of OverDrive, 3M, B&T, and others through consortia like the State Library of Kansas’s Digital Book eLending service and Sunflower eLibrary, a collective of 125 small libraries in Kansas that share a subscription to OverDrive.
Selectors at JCL say that, although they have just started offering digital audiobooks this year through B&T’s Axis 360 program, they’re already splitting the available audio budget 50/50 between digital and physical formats. “I’m reducing the number of CD copies I buy and leaning toward [digital] audio, as long as the price is not outrageous,” remarks Lacie Griffin, youth services collection selector at JCL. Deborah Stoppello, collection development manager at Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), MO, concurs: “Our [digital] audiobook circulation is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Kelly Fann, director of Tonganoxie Public Library, KS, has experienced the exponential growth in audiobook circulation firsthand at her rural institution. “When we start our annual weeding project, it’s nearly impossible to weed out audiobooks because they all circulate so well,” she observes. Her older patrons gravitate to CDs, while younger patrons clamor for digital downloads. Circulation of children’s audiobooks has increased as well, Fann says, as parents see the value in having physical books paired with an audiobook to improve reading skills.
Many libraries, including KCPL and Kansas’s Hays Public Library, are also starting to experiment with services like Midwest Tape’s hoopla, which give patrons access to streaming audiobooks on a pay per circ model. Stoppello explains that “the hoopla PDA [patron-driven acquisition] model is attractive because we can offer a lot more content and simultaneous use but only pay for what circulates.”
Industry insiders like HarperAudio’s McManus and Blackstone Audio’s Fonteneau predict that eventually all audiobook sales will be digital and are looking to such technologies as sync-to-text and epub3 files as the most important directions for the audiobook industry. McManus is excited about the exposure that will come from bundling ebooks with digital audiobooks for just a fraction of the cost of producing CDs and predicts this will finally be enough to take the format mass-market and win over new audiences.
In addition to the convenience of bundling, McManus believes the sync-to-text package is well suited to today’s busy readers and listeners. With readers cramming in time for books whenever and wherever they can, sync-to-text lets them listen on the way to work and then switch to print while stealing a few more minutes to read before bed, all without losing their place in the story. This is why HarperAudio and Blackstone Audio, along with other publishers and distributors, are hard at work syncing all of their titles to ebooks. “We are hopeful that the new dynamic epub3 files will be the next wave of the audiobook industry,” explains Fonteneau.
Recorded Books’s ebook and digital audiobook platform, OneClickdigital, continues to grow and evolve. In the digital audiobook market since 2011 and the ebook market since 2013, Recorded Books is in the process of integrating with library catalogs so patrons will be able to check out and download material from the catalog itself. They expect to make that option available in the next month.
The company is also focusing on improving OneClickdigital’s search function. The site allows users to sort material in a number of ways. “Featured” titles are New York Times bestsellers that that library owns, since those titles continue to get the most attention from patrons, regardless of format. “A bestseller is a bestseller,” explains executive vice president of sales and marketing Jim Schmidt. The “most popular” tab allows browsers to see what’s most often borrowed from their library’s collection. A search by availability benefits those who aren’t interested in placing holds.
OneClickdigital provides software for both Windows and Apple systems that will allow users to download material and either read or listen to it on their computer or transfer it to the device of their choice. The free app works for both eAudio and ebooks, and the site also allows users to stream audio content.
The site is designed to be free of technical jargon. “Patrons don’t need to know what format they need,” says national product manager Jeff Metz; users specify their preferred devices when setting up their accounts and the system selects the correct format for them.
Libraries can subscribe to all of Recorded Books’s own content for a flat fee, which allows multi-access to more than 3,400 audio titles with no holds, and add works from other publishers. Recorded Books offers free marketing and promotional tools, including shelf talkers, posters, and banner ads, many of which can be customized with the library’s name and URL. Metz also offers a monthly webinar for patrons that regularly attracts 300-400 library users who want to know how to use the service.
Recorded Books provides free MARC records for all titles, as well as free patron support. The latter is a very popular feature with front-line librarians. “ When we do staff training, we’re often asked about troubleshooting,” Metz explains, “We can tell them that they don’t have to know how to troubleshoot, they can send patrons to us for that,” adding, “Libraries don’t want to pay for support for a service they’re already paying for.”
Maelynn Foster Hudson of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County tells LJ, “We have seen steady increases of usage of OneClick audiobooks… The user-friendly digital platform makes it easy for staff to assist our patrons who need help downloading the audiobooks to their devices for the first time, especially since the mobile app version launched.”
A knack for narration
With this growth, Tonganoxie PL’s Fann has noticed another unexpected development: the more her patrons are exposed to audiobooks, the more they value production quality. “Patrons [are talking more] about the production value versus the plot,” she says, adding that these readers’ advisory (RA) interviews grow from questions about which narrator the patron enjoyed last instead of questions about genres or authors.
McManus of HarperAudio affirms the value of an excellent narrator. “This might sound really corny,” he admits, “but storytelling is naturally done by word of mouth. If you hire a great narrator and pair him or her with a great story, it’s a beautiful thing.” He lauds Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, performed by Edoardo Ballerini, as the ultimate example of story/narrator alchemy and asserts that the title was a hit on audio before it broke through in print precisely because it offered such a perfect blend of story and narrator. While a new audiobook will typically achieve about ten percent of the sales that the print version achieves, the audiobook of Beautiful Ruins reached a mind-boggling 60 percent of the print edition’s sales during its first few months of availability.
Meanwhile, the audiobook industry is also seeing more celebrity narrators, such as Kate Winslet reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Colin Firth performing Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and Bryan Cranston portraying Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Cobb credits celebrity participation in the audiobook market with helping to increase public awareness of the format.
But, adds Cobb, narrating an audiobook is truly hard work, requiring a different set of skills from acting in front of a camera or on stage. She praises several accomplished narrators for developing the audiobook industry and growing their own loyal fan base, becoming celebrities in their own right. “Say names such as Barbara Rosenblat, George Guidall, Simon Vance, Scott Brick, or Katherine Kellgren, and you’ll get an avid listener swooning,” Cobb promises.
With a growing patron base eager for audiobooks, librarians are seeking new RA and collection development strategies to meet users’ needs. Librarians who are new to audiobooks might find it helpful to talk with colleagues about what titles they’re listening to, or start an internal email thread asking everyone on staff to share their favorite road trip listen.
Librarians also have access to excellent trade resources. In addition to LJ’s own audio reviews, AudioFile magazine offers vetted reviews, the APA’s website lists past Audie Award winners, and although it does not sell to libraries, Audible.com contains helpful lists, user comments, ratings, and listen-alikes. Audible also allows users to search by narrator, which is invaluable when assisting audiobook enthusiasts who have liked a particular voice artist or celebrity reader.
Herman of BOT & Listening Library observes that library patrons are drawn to audiobook titles that have also done well in print. She credits popular series such as George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” and E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy for winning over new audiobook fans from the fantasy and erotica genres. John Molish, VP of sales at Tantor Media, mentions Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black as a huge crossover hit for listeners who enjoyed the Netflix original television series based on the book. In working with audiobook tyros, Herman suggests reconnecting them with books or series they already love.
Beginning listeners are also likely to enjoy shorter audiobook programs with straightforward story lines and uncomplicated language. Active listening doesn’t come naturally to all readers, and some will find themselves developing the skill over time. Beginners might have more success listening to genres such as suspense, young adult, or personal memoir.
Above all, librarians are best served by not getting hung up on the “audio” angle if they are inexperienced with audiobooks and instead talking about audiobooks as they would any other book—by discovering what kinds of stories their patrons like and encouraging them to share what worked for them and what didn’t on their next library visit.
At the end of the day, as HarperAudio’s McManus attests, people pick up audiobooks for the book itself, not for the celebrity or the producer credits. “It’s all about the story.”
It’s why Claassen first borrowed the Harry Potter series on audio from her local library to listen to with her children. While her busy commuting and family schedules have made time a limited commodity, audiobooks have allowed her to revisit beloved stories as a family activity. “Harry Potter was a series that got me completely hooked on the audiobook experience,” she gushes. “I was thrilled when my kids got old enough to start listening to those with me. It’s one of the few luxuries I’ve held on to.”
This post was updated to include new information about Recorded Books’s OneClickdigital program.