The Symbiosis of Audio Publishing: Why Small Publishers Should Look to Podcasts as a Predictor for Audiobook Success

The Symbiosis of Audio Publishing:

Why Small Publishers Should Look to Podcasts as a Predictor for Audiobook Success

By: Taylor McGrath

Every time someone invents a new technology, the harbingers of death come out to announce the end of media as we know it. The video killed the radio star. The iPhone killed the MP3 player. The death of the print book has been announced every few years, like a copy-paste obituary. With the advent of the audiobook, the death knell sounded again. Perhaps, however, it is time to shift the perspective on what innovative digital text formats really mean for the publishing industry. Unlike the AM radio and the Zune, the book has a staying power and—against all oddshas avoided all forewarned obsolescence. Is digital media actually killing the book? Or is it paving unexplored avenues that can bring books to new audiences and even make them more accessible to consumers with low visual literacy?  Rather than think of books in their many incarnations as separate, opposing entities, it is beneficial to think of their forms as coexistent and their relationships to one another even symbiotic in nature. The growth of the audiobook industry is a worthy investment, even from independent publishers. Starting out, however, is always a difficult financial endeavor. One place that publishers looking to take on the audiobook industry can look is podcasting. Large publishers have recently noticed and capitalized on the relationship between the podcasting and audiobook platforms. The success of podcasts transfer well to the form of an audiobook, and as the popularity of spoken media climbs, that connection is a good place to start. Looking forward, independent presses can and should take cues from the podcasting industry in order to produce successful audiobooks and expand the opportunities of their press.

Of course, the audiobook is by no means a completely new technology. Early versions of the audiobook were being produced in the 1800s, and in the early 1930s there was a concerted effort made to produce audio versions of popular texts so that the stories would be accessible to the blind (“Audiobook”). One could even say that the existence of the audiobook propelled the idea of podcasts into being as some audiobook-radio hybrid. As the popularity of the mobile smart device has risen, however, the podcast has become an independent success with the ability to predict the popularities of other markets. For instance, there are now several success stories of serial podcasts being adapted into book form and doing far better than expected. As the Chicago Tribune explains, Hachette had unanticipated success with a non-fiction podcast series about history entitled “The History of Rome” being adapted into book form. Quoting Jamie Leifer, an associate publisher at Hachette, Jenni Laidman notes: “Two months before the book’s Oct. 24 release date, PublicAffairs had ‘racked up the kinds of pre-orders in hardcover, e-book and downloadable audio that Hachette usually sees for anticipated franchise fiction releases, not serious history titles’” (Laidman). Hachette is now exploring the idea of skipping print production altogether and going straight to publishing in audio form. Another example of how podcasting lends itself to audiobook popularity is the well-known podcast “S-Town.” As Ed Nawotka found, “The seven-part podcast S-town was downloaded 40 million times, making it the most popular podcast of all time,” but, as Tom Webster of Edison Research noted, S-Town is actually formatted like an audiobook split into several different parts (Nawotka). The line between podcasts and audiobooks are being blurred.

Podcasts can be seen as a “gateway” to the audiobook, with many users who start with the typically short audio episode platform quickly adapting to the audiobook market. As Nawotka explains, “The growth in the popularity of audiobooks has been accelerated by the popularity of podcasts, which serve as a “gateway drug” to audiobooks.[P]odcast listeners generally consumer twice as many audiobooks per year as non-podcast listeners” (Nawotka). Rebecca Hussey, a frequent contributor at Book Riot, the blogging community dedicated to books, has become aware of the crossover in her own reading experiences: “I’m realizing that I’m drawn to a particular kind of audiobook: the kind that reminds me of a podcast. There’s a certain type of book that replicates some of what I like best about podcasts: it’s written in relatively self-contained chapters that I can listen to in short bursts” (Hussey). There’s also an opportunity in the sector of genre fiction, which publishers recognize as exceptionally adaptable to new forms of media. As Lynn Neary of NPR finds, “[G]enre fans are not only avid readers, but also early adapters, willing and open to experiments with new technology” (Neary). Genre publisher Tor is capitalizing on the adaptability of genre fiction by releasing a romance in a 14-part podcast series and then afterward releasing it as a full audiobook (Neary). As we can extrapolate, the transferability of success from podcast form to audiobook form isn’t dependent on genre but rather on format.

Corporate behemoth Amazon has already caught on to the strong correlation between podcasts and audiobooks. In September of 2016 Amazon announced a new perk for its Amazon Prime users: “free access to Audible’s short-form digital programming called Audible Channels, as well as a selection of free audiobooks” (Perez). Audible, the most well-known producers of audiobooks, is an Amazon-owned company, so Amazon’s strategies when it comes to audiobook trends are fairly transparent. Audible Channels is Amazon’s foray into podcast hosting. By offering free access Audible Channels for Prime users, Amazon intends to increase the popularity of their own audio productions. As Perez states, the move “aims to tap into consumers’ growing interest in podcasts and other audio programming.” Another move that Amazon has made to forge the connection between podcasting and audiobooks is advertising. Specifically:

Audible […] frequently advertises on some of the best known podcasts. And Audible isn’t only the largest retailer of audiobooks — it also produces original audio content.The company believes it has made long form listening a habit for millions of people and that, in turn, has helped the podcast boom. Andy Gaies, Audible’s chief content officer, says there is a synergy between podcasts and audiobooks that benefits both (Neary).

Amazon is already known for its smart use of consumer data, and that is clearly what the company is going after, with the intention to create new habits among book buyers. Tom Webster chimes in: “Cross-promotion is the secret sauce” (qtd in Nawotka).

Another place where publishers can look to see the climb in audiobooks and the relationship between short-form audio podcasts and the audiobook is transformative works. Transformative works are fan-created works of media already held in copyright and which fall under the umbrella of fair use. This often includes fan-written content of fictional novels. One website that specializes in transformative works is Archive of Our Own (AO3). AO3’s extensive tagging system allows users to select for “podfic and podficced works.” The AO3 community uses the term “podfic” as a catch all for all lengths of fanwork that have been adapted to audio form. Currently, the AO3 database has more than 16,000 individual titles tagged as “podfic and podficced works” with the most popular sitting at 216,176 hits (AO3). AO3 also tags for the podfic length, with designated tags reading “10 – 20 minutes” all the way to “10 – 15 hours.” This reveals a few things about the nature of audible prose. First and foremost, the demand for it is such that there is a structure already in place in transformative work communities for its existence. In addition, dedicated fans will contribute an immense amount of time to creating these audio versions of their written transformative works. Lastly, these communities have seen no reason to place a distinction between a “podfic” that is 15 minutes long and one that is 15 hours long. In commercial terms, the former would be considered a podcast and the latter an audiobook, but perhaps the difference is only in the words that we are using to label them.

Though we’ve seen evidence of the popularity of non-fiction, genre fiction, and even fanfiction bridging the gap between podcasting and audiobook format, it is clear that scholarly communication too can benefit from the relationship. Scholarly podcasts are currently on the rise as people in the field search for ways to make scholarly communication relevant beyond the academic sphere. In Brock Peoples and Carol Tilley’s “Podcasts as an Emerging Information Resource,” the authors go so far as to classify audiobooks in the scholarly sphere as a subgenre of the podcast umbrella:

[A]udiobooks are commercially available in podcast form and offered for sale to

consumers or on loan through special library collections. Once acquired, discovery and access methods should be consistent whether the podcast itself resides within an institutional repository, a digital library collection, or exists within the library only as a link to an outside source. (Peoples & Tilley 55; italics added)

Though the words audiobook and podcast aren’t used here in a way that is interchangeable, their use does emphasize the interdependence of the two digital formats. The “synergy between podcasts and audiobooks,” as Gaies put it, may be beneficial in growing the readership of scholarly texts.

If a publisher chooses to take cues from the bigger names in the industry, the time to jump into the audiobook market is now. With Hachette, Amazon, and others already adapting their business models to sell audiobooks in ways different from before, small independent publishers must take whatever advantage they can to stay ahead of the curve. The beautiful thing about the popularity of podcasting is that it is in many ways a much more organic entertainment industry than most others. Podcasts are intentionally made to be free. They’re often available for download so that listeners do not have to be online to have access to the content, and they are typically in a format that can be listened to from any computer or mobile device. With such low barriers to entry, consumers choose content based entirely on what they desire to engage with rather than be swayed by price or availability. This is an undeniable asset to those looking to the podcasting industry as a precursor for audiobooks; podcast consumers are telling publishers exactly what they want to hear. It’s up to publishers to listen in.


Works Cited

“Audiobook.” Wikipedia, 17 Nov. 2017. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Hussey, Rebecca. “10 Audiobooks for Podcast Listeners.” Book Riot, 15 Dec. 2016, Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Laidman, Jenni. “Publishers experiment with audiobook-only productions.” Chicago Tribune, 8

Nov. 2017, Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Nawotka, Ed. “BookExpo 2017: Audiobooks Evolve in the Age of Podcasts.” Publishers Weekly,

31 May 2017, Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Neary, Lynn. “A Publisher Tries Podcasts as a Gateway to Audiobooks.” NPR, 17 May, 2017,

udiobooks. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Peoples, Brock & Carol Tilley. “Podcasts as an Emerging Information Resource.” College &

Undergraduate Libraries, 11 March 2011. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

Perez, Sarah. “Amazon adds another Prime benefit: free podcasts from Audible Channels and

free audiobooks.” TechCrunch, 13 Sept. 2016, Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

“Podfic & Podficced Works.” Archive of Our Own,*a*+Podficced+Works. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

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