Last year, audiobook sales in the US and Canada were up 20.7% over sales in 2014 (Maloney, 2016), totalling $1.77 billion (USA Today). Production has gone up as well, by nearly 500 percent since 2011: 35 574 titles were released in 2015, compared to 7 237 in 2011 (Cobb, 2016). Clearly there has been huge growth in audiobook publishing in the past few years. If this growth is anything to go by, listening to audiobooks is no longer relegated to being a lesser alternative to reading print. What is behind the audiobook’s move into the mainstream? In this paper, I will look at the influence of the dominant player in the audiobook market: Amazon, and their subsidiary Audible. I will also touch on some of the recent social changes that are happening alongside the uptake of audiobooks. Perhaps the most important factor that has brought audiobooks into the mainstream is the digital revolution, which also led to major upheavals in other media, such as print books and music.
Businesses have had a hand in the rise of audiobooks. One example is, of course, Amazon. Amazon owns Audible, the biggest producer and seller of audiobooks (Maloney, 2016). Commins (2016) describes how, In the past decade, Amazon has done much to bring audiobooks to people’s attention. First, they increased the number of audiobooks available: in 2007 they bought the largest independent audiobook producer in the U.S. at the the time, Brilliance Audio; in 2008, they bought Audible.com, the largest distributor; and in 2011, Audible, now owned by Amazon, launched the Audiobook Creation Exchange, a site that connected narrators, authors, and publishers for the purpose of producing audiobooks.
According to Commins, (22016), after increasing the supply of audiobooks, Amazon turned their attention to promotion. In 2012 came Whispersync for Voice, a feature that allows readers to stop midway through an ebook and pick up where they left off in a matching audiobook, or vice versa (I will revisit Whispersync and its implications as a technology later in this paper). To encourage people to buy the audiobooks, Amazon bundled them with their matching ebooks at a reduced cost for the audiobooks. In 2013, Amazon started offering the Find Your Match service, which looked at the Kindle ebooks customers had bought and notified the customers if their ebooks had matching audiobooks, increasing audiobooks’ visibility. Amazon has also offered free audiobooks through various channels to hook potential customers, whether it’s including one with Audible’s free trial, bundling them with Amazon’s own products, or giving existing Audible users the ability to share one with their friends. In the case of Amazon, we see how the actions of a major corporation have helped push audiobooks onto people’s radars and into the mainstream.
Although audiobooks existed long before they started booming, it is only recently that many people have started seeing them in a way that set them on their upward trajectory. In the past, audiobooks were considered secondary to the printed book: a “compensatory” medium, they were associated with children and people with disabilities, only used to overcome difficulties with reading print (Have & Pedersen, 2015). In the 1990s, Kozloff found that in popular writings, audiobooks were also associated with “illiteracy,” “passivity,” and “lack of commitment,” among other unflattering attributes (as cited in Have & Pedersen, 2013, p. 131–132). Things are looking up for the audiobook, though, if its current success is any indication. Have and Pedersen (2013) argue that people today value the mobility of the audiobook, and that this perceived advantage has led people to see other advantages in listening to audiobooks, such as convenience and the ability to save time.
The way Have and Pedersen word their argument has a hint of technological determinism (Kember & Zylinska, 2015), in that it suggests an individual quality of the audiobook has brought about social change: wider acceptance and adoption of audiobooks. It is just as possible that social change has influenced people to find new uses for the audiobook. More likely, it’s a combination of the two: as life for many people has become more and more fast-paced, technology has developed to make the audiobook more and more portable and convenient.
The digital revolution has had a profound impact on the audiobook industry and market. Audiobooks are much easier to produce now than in the past. For one, it costs much less to produce many digital copies of one file than sets of CDs or cassette tapes. Producing the recordings is also more efficient with new technologies, according to Cobb (2016). Before, snail mail was used to send printed materials to be recorded and receive completed recordings. Digital materials can be exchanged much more quickly. The ability to read off a tablet screen means one no longer has to contend with the noise of turning printed pages. It is simpler to edit digital recordings than recordings made on physical media. The necessary equipment and tools are more accessible: narrators can have their own studios at home and work from them. All the people involved in production—writers and engineers, for example—aren’t limited by location anymore, and can communicate and work together from anywhere. With all these new efficiencies brought by digital technology, more audiobooks can be produced in a shorter amount of time, to meet the growing demand.
Technological changes on the consumer side have also influenced the audiobook market. While dedicated audio playback devices have existed for a long time, the Pew Research Center reports that 64% of adults in the U.S. now have a smartphone (as cited in Maloney, 2016). That means 64% of American adults have devices capable of audio playback and downloading audiobooks from the Internet. With the smartphone, it is possible to enjoy audiobooks on the go.
Why else are more people choosing audiobooks? According to a 2015 report by BookNet Canada, 76% of audiobook listeners prefer digital downloads over other formats, such as CDs and cassettes. The reasons for this include the fact that digital files only weigh as much as the device that contains them, and are less prone to physical perils such as skipping and even melting (Maloney, 2016). The BookNet report states that the main reason listeners choose audiobooks over other formats is that it allows them to multitask. This, along with listening in the car, are two things not typically allowed by print or ebooks. Mrjoian (2016) commented on the uses people are finding for the audiobook: “More plainly, audiobooks have the ability to integrate into our busy lives. Whereas some people feel anchored by print, audiobooks give you the leeway to wiggle around a bit.” Have and Pedersen (2013) make the same observation, arguing that mobility and the ability to do other things while listening to an audiobook are “affordances” of the audiobook (p. 132). This and another property of digital audiobook, its compressed audio file format, make the audiobook suitable for “distracted listening” (Have & Pedersen, 2013, p.132). They argue that this is because other stimuli from the environment can bleed through and affect how the sound of an audiobook is perceived, making sound quality less important (Have & Pedersen, 2013). Based on various properties, the audiobook seems to lend itself to uses that contrast with those of the printed book.
Another reason people might be choosing more and more to listen to audiobooks is the possibility of consuming content across different media and situations, uninterrupted, via Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice feature (mentioned above). With this feature, one could read an ebook of a novel, stop mid-sentence, and immediately listen to the rest of the sentence in the matching audiobook. Thus, one could experience the same story linearly through several media. Such an experience would be hypermediated (Bolter & Grusin, 1998): to the user, several media would compose the text, and the necessity of switching from the ebook to the audiobook would draw attention to the role those media play in the experience of the text. Bolter and Grusin (1998) also argue that hypermediacy is often effected in pursuit of immediacy. Indeed, the intent behind Whispersync seems to be to enable the seamless experience of a text regardless of whether one can sit down to read it. As Katz says, “it’s the story, and it is there for you in the way you want it” (as cited in Alter, 2013). Audiobooks and ebooks together can make each other transparent, so that a user can have a more immediate relationship with the content contained within them.
In the past five years, the once niche audiobook has started to become mainstream. This is due in part to the efforts of that big general player in publishing, Amazon. Digital technology has also played a big role, allowing people to produce or consume audiobooks more easily. At the same time, life’s increasing demands has people looking for ways to multitask, shifting attitudes towards audiobooks so that they’re no longer seen as the second choice after reading text. Unless audiobooks somehow become less accessible, multitasking stops being desirable, or people stop wanting to read books in any fashion, the audiobook’s popularity should continue to grow.
- Alter, A. (2013). 10 tips on writing the living Web. The Wall Street Journal.
- Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. 1998. Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation. In Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
- Cobb, M. (2016). The Audiobook Boom: What’s Happening and How Can I Be Included?. Digital Book World.
- Commins, K. (2016). How Amazon and Audible Are Pushing Audiobooks into the Mainstream. Digital Book World.
- Have, I., & Pedersen, B. S. (2013). Sonic mediatization of the book: Affordances of the audiobook. MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research, 29(54)
- Have, I., & Pedersen, B. S. (2015). Digital audiobooks: New media, users, and experiences. New York: Routledge.
- Kember, Sarah, and Joanna Zylinska. 2015. Mediation and the Vitality of Media. In Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1-28.
- Listen Up: Audiobook Use in Canada. March 2015. BookNet Canada.
- Maloney, J. (2016). The Fastest-Growing Format in Publishing: Audiobooks. The Wall Street Journal.
- Mrjoian, Aram. A Brief History of the Audiobook. Book Riot.