Audiobook Spotlight: A Multitasker’s Dream

By Ben Malczewski, MLIS, is Adult Services Librarian, Ypsilanti District Library, MI

Audiobooks have endured for more than 30 years, achieving a growing success and acquiring a wider audience of print converts. But at the 2011 Audio Publishers Association Conference (APAC), many industry personnel continued to lament the medium’s still minor presence in the consumer market. Libraries persist as the stronghold for audiobooks, but the medium’s reach is growing‚ slowly.

Audiobooks not only enjoy their place in the classroom as an aid to literacy and English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction but are a staple for the visually impaired. The recent advent of mobile devices has further broken down barriers on where audiobooks may be enjoyed, as the medium is freed of the limiting yoke of laptops, home stereos, and motor vehicles.

Celebrity narrators also have lured readers and nonreaders to lend an ear. The red carpet of this year’s Audie Award nominees could easily be mistaken for that of the Oscars or Emmys, with Samuel L. Jackson, Tina Fey, Michael Moore, Kenneth Branagh, Elijah Wood, Ellen DeGeneres, and even the Kardashians.

Audiobook listeners share that elite status. The 2010 Audio Publishers Association (APA) Consumer Survey shows audiobook listeners are highly educated, avid readers, with high incomes, and are more likely to own MP3/audio-friendly devices (tablets, ereaders, smartphones).

Audibles have seen growth, too: unit sales in 2010 are up nearly ten percent, the total number of audiobooks published has doubled from 3,073 in 2007 to 6200 in 2010, and the estimated total size of the audiobook industry hit $1 billion in sales for the first time. Add in the convenience and mobility of audiobooks loaded onto cell phones, iPods, and other portable devices, and the industry finally seems poised to come of age.

Nonetheless, serious challenges linger. To discern the current state of the industry, LJ talked to top audio publishers, who offer their perspectives on the many hurdles audiobooks face.


LJ: With the growth in popularity of digital downloads, a new twist has been added. What has been done to integrate e-audiobooks into a traditional business model?

John Goodwin: As the traditional model is rapidly changing, it is very important to get e-audiobooks onto that same wave that ebooks have been riding. This will occur as next-generation phones and tablets become ubiquitous as the method of obtaining all forms of information.

Troy Juliar: Digital audio has been a part of [Recorded Books’] business model since 2003. And now that we have our own digital delivery platform for libraries and schools‚ OneClick Digital‚ digital audio will only become more central. I always thought the device on which an audiobook is played was much less important than conveying enthusiasm for titles, authors, and narrators. That’s the way fans engage. Fans don’t engage around a format. There is no need to be format-driven.

Does bundling of CD and digital editions constitute a see us through the digital transition deal similar to DVD/Blu-ray packaging?

Juliar: There are some inefficiencies in the market right now. It makes no sense for a library to buy a digital file from one provider, a CD from another vendor, and possibly a Playaway from a third vendor‚ all of the same title. We want to remove these barriers to help libraries manage their collections effectively and economically.

The reigning consensus seems to be that CDs have about five years left as a format.

Michele Cobb: I would agree. In looking at the format shift between cassette and CD, the trajectory from CD to download is likely to be similar.

How collaborative are publishers/distributors/vendors within the industry in devising unified approaches or standards when it comes to, for example, media delivery transitions from CD to download; self-destructing e-audiobooks vs. permanent copies; DRM?

Amanda D’Acierno: We work closely within the industry to provide audiobooks in all available formats to our retail partners, meeting whatever requirements or needs they may have to serve their customers.

Goodwin: As an industry, this will have to be addressed and is all the more reason for the APA, along with the Association of American Publishers, to wear that hat of aligning the industry direction for the good of the industry, libraries, retailers, and, ultimately, the consumer.

How many people access digital audiobooks through providers like OverDrive (via libraries), Audible, and iTunes, or go directly through publishers/producers?

Cobb: The APA 2010 Consumer Survey showed that when asked where listeners purchased their audiobooks, five percent said they purchased through a digital store such as Audible or iTunes, a national bookstore chain (19 percent), an online retailer such as (12 percent), a retail store (eight percent), or a local bookstore (six percent). [According to OverDrive, there were 14 million digital audiobooks checked out (in MP3 and WMA formats) in 2011, a 26.9 percent increase over 2010.]


Do people approach audiobooks differently from print?

Goodwin: With only one-third of adults having listened to an audiobook, the challenge for the audio publishing industry is to show the audiobook’s value as a viable alternative to reading. As the world goes deeper into digital, this is becoming an easier proposition since more consumers now have the capability to enjoy listening to a book on myriad devices.

Cobb: Many audiobook listeners are readers who experience books both with their ears and eyes. We continue to see significant growth as an industry in the number of units purchased, so we are clearly moving things in the right direction.

Juliar: In order for audiobooks to break out, they would have to appeal to nonreaders, which is a tough sell. No doubt some music fans have been introduced to audiobooks simply because of the iPod and iTunes. But as with music, the iPod didn’t so much grow sales and listeners as change the habits of existing music listeners and patterns of purchase.

Laura Colebank: Audiobooks have much going for them in today’s environment. And, according to the 2010 APA Sales Survey, demand for audiobooks is growing strong. Yet we still face two major barriers to purchase: price and lack of content.

While the number of audio titles published doubled in the past three years, the audio market remains underserved. Only 6200 audiobooks were published in 2010, compared to an estimated 100,000 print titles released. In addition, not all audiobooks are available in all formats (CD/download), further limiting availability.

Are e-audiobooks‚ in terms of their accessibility and portability‚ a workaround for those cumbersome multi disc sets and helping to establish that niche?

Juliar: There are still a lot cars on the road that don’t make listening on your iPod any easier than fumbling through ten CDs.

Cobb: The explosion in the portability and easy access of materials, entertainment, and information has definitely had a positive impact on our business. People can now listen anywhere and multitask more.

Goodwin: We are seeing an increase in audiobook downloads, which represents an overall increase in audiobook sales. So e-audiobooks are already proving themselves a boon. CDs are still the strongest [format] category, but it is only a matter of time before they go the way of the cassette. When the same sound quality can be obtained with one’s touch on a screen, at less expense, [download] is a sure bet.

Is mobile access helping to reach a new audience? And in the process changing misperceptions that audiobooks are cheating, or boring, or for older people?

Goodwin: New formats are enabling us to reach new audiences who do not use CDs. There are definite fixed ideas regarding audiobooks that must be overcome. Working together, [members of the] audio industry can effectively enlighten and so reach the two-thirds [of individuals] not listening to audiobooks.

Cobb: I truly believe‚ I see it all the time‚ that if you can get people to listen, they will want to do it again. Our challenge as an industry is to get more people to try audiobooks in a world where your phone offers you web surfing, video viewing, game playing, and opportunities to talk or text from virtually anywhere. There is more competition, and we have to focus on growing awareness.

Colebank: The rapid growth of new devices and social media is presenting opportunities to reach readers pressed for time, especially commuters and multitasking consumers. Good Housekeeping dubbed audiobooks a multitasker’s dream.


How much has the level of production value changed in recent years?

Juliar: There has been a lot of pressure to lower production costs, and several companies within the industry tout how little they pay to produce an audiobook. We haven’t gone down that path. I understand the push to lower costs, but if production costs dip below a certain level of quality, new fans will be disappointed and never return.

Colebank: According to the 2010 APA Sales Survey, while the number of audiobooks published doubled from 2007 to 2010, total audiobook publisher profits decreased 11 percent. Audiobook publishers are striving to reduce costs without compromising quality.

Cobb: The emphasis now is on simultaneous availability of the audiobook with the print book, though this has been the norm for some time. It still can present challenges and require swiftness of production.

A standard of quality always exists, but has there been an attempt to enhance the experience for listeners through additional materials?

Colebank: Tantor strives to include consumer-enriching extras that print can’t offer, such as King George VI’s 1939 speech in Mark Logue’s The King’s Speech, original music included in Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson, and author interviews. All our classics include free companion ebooks, and we often include PDF extras. Author-read memoirs such as Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Shorty Rossi’s (Animal Planet’s Pitboss) Four Feet Tall and Rising provide a great incentive for consumers to try audio.

Goodwin: When Galaxy Press launched its Stories from the Golden Age line, we brought on board a team of nearly 80 Hollywood actors. We have a massive sound effects library, but any sound effects we didn’t have, we created. We also created theme music to provide a cinematic effect for each of the eight different genres in the series using instruments that would best evoke each theme. The final mixes were done by experienced movie studio sound people.

Juliar: We select a handful of titles each year that merit special production efforts of the type you mention, and they do enhance the listening experience for some. Still, a single actor who can carry a story with his/her voice is the standard in our industry and what most listeners expect.


From a producer’s standpoint, where is the line between bringing an author’s words to life and the production taking on a life‚ and potentially an interpretation‚ of its own?

Juliar: It is the author’s work. An audiobook is far from a movie, where more license with the underlying material is permitted. A narrator/actor, of course, brings to life the language of the author, and there is inevitably some additional creativity in that task.

Cobb: Narrators and producers have a wide variety of approaches to audiobooks, much of it driven by the book itself. It is a key skill to be able to be true to the author’s intent without overtaking it; there are a wide variety of styles. Another important piece of the puzzle is choosing the right narrator for each title.

Goodwin: A well-done audiobook can help trigger the imagination, enabling one to experience more fully the author’s words. Today’s popular entertainment has all but taken away one’s own contribution to a story.

Amanda D’Acierno: Quoting from Dan Musselman, director of Studio Production, Random House Audio & Books on Tape: The vast majority of audiobooks are books read out loud by a great storyteller. When producing audiobooks, we like to think of it in just that way‚ it is first and foremost a book. While we have brought the art of acting to the medium, we insist on staying true to the author’s words and intent. We want to allow the author’s words to take the spotlight. The magic comes with being able to breathe life into a story and yet allowing the story to have its own life, too.


How integral to audiobooks’ success‚ symbiotic‚ is the relationship between audiobook publishers and libraries?

Colebank: As [the number of] traditional bookstores continues to decline, there is much evidence that libraries are becoming the new discovery channel and that they are having a positive impact on sales. This is particularly applicable for audio CDs as retailers continue to shrink audio space and close doors. While there is much controversy surrounding ebooks and audiobook downloads in the library market, libraries offer the opportunity to be the handsellers of the future.

Cobb: Libraries are integral to the success of audiobooks, now and in the future. They help us introduce new authors and encourage us to fill in backlist titles for established authors. Librarians work hand-in-hand with us to get more people to listen.

Goodwin: Libraries are a vital partner. With audiobooks, we have a tool to make readers out of nonreaders. I have spoken with hundreds of librarians at dozens of library shows, and there is a real problem with people not reading‚ young and old alike.

Juliar: Roughly 30 years ago, libraries were the primary driver of audiobook awareness, and they continued in that role until recently, when some consumer companies, namely Apple and Audible, took a larger role. That said, a sizable segment of listeners have entrenched habits of getting their titles from the library. Because of that, libraries will play an ongoing role in the popularity of audiobooks.

D’Acierno: Cheryl Herman, marketing director, Books on Tape & Listening Library, put it best, saying, Random House has always had a robust relationship with libraries and continues to support them during this period of transition. As more brick-and-mortar bookstores close, we believe libraries are important channels of discovery for books, ebooks, and audiobooks. It’s hard to know where the wild west of library lending is heading, but one would hope that as new digital formats become available, such as enhanced ebooks with audiobook capability, that libraries are able to offer them to the public at large.

Do you see the further development of digital formats as supportive of this partnership?

Juliar: Absolutely. I understand the reticence some audio publishers have about making digital editions available in libraries, but it is a mistake to withdraw them completely, as two publishers have now done.


What challenges lie ahead?

Cobb: As an industry, we have significantly increased production over the last few years‚ we are all working very hard to produce as much as possible as efficiently as possible while maintaining quality. On top of that, we want to increase awareness of the format‚ a major task in today’s world of many competing options.

Colebank: Three things: 1. Navigating the digital frontier and working with content providers to forge business models that will be a win-win for authors, publishers, and consumers;
2. Figuring out how to reduce production costs without compromising quality in order to bridge the pricing gap between print and audio; and 3. Finding innovative products and ways to improve discovery and enjoyment of audiobooks.

Goodwin: There is a very real challenge to maintain production quality as retail prices drop with audiobooks going digital. As the quality of devices grows, so will their ability to reproduce high-quality audio productions. Thus, poor quality recordings and mixes will become more and more obvious. As the saying goes, you have one opportunity to make a good first impression.

As the APA continues its actions to increase awareness of audiobooks and we start getting people trying audiobooks, it is important that that first audiobook appeals and makes [people] want to try it again.

Juliar: Staying in touch directly with fans, customers, listeners.