audiobooks

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audiobook#Beginnings_to_1970. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

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

https://bookriot.com/2016/12/15/10-audiobooks-for-podcast-listeners/. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

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

Nov. 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-books-straight-to-audio-1112-story.html. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

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

31 May 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bea/article/73813-bookexpo-2017-audiobooks-evolve-in-the-age-of-podcasts.html. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

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

https://www.npr.org/2017/05/17/528730680/a-publisher-tries-podcasts-as-a-gateway-to-a

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, https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/13/amazon-adds-another-prime-benefit-audible-channels-and-free-audiobooks/. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

“Podfic & Podficced Works.” Archive of Our Own,

https://archiveofourown.org/works?utf8=%E2%9C%93&commit=Sort+and+Filter&work_search%5Bsort_column%5D=word_count&work_search%5Bother_tag_names%5D=&work_search%5Bquery%5D=&work_search%5Blanguage_id%5D=&work_search%5Bcomplete%5D=0&tag_id=Podfic+*a*+Podficced+Works. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.

AMAZON, THE UNDEFEATED AUDIOBOOK CHAMPION?

Audiobooks are undoubtedly the fastest growing segment in the publishing industry. The global audiobooks market is valued at $3.5 billion (Kozlowski, 2016) and the format has not seen the dwindling sales that eBooks have over the past couple of years. Rather it can be argued that audiobooks have replaced eBooks on readers’ metaphoric shelves. Carter (2016) reported that the format is outselling print editions too with Richard Thaler at Amazon claiming that “books in every imaginable genre [are selling] better as spoken rather than written word ­– four times as well” to be exact (Olshan, 2016). Unlike what Octavio West (2017) suggests, audiobooks are clearly proving that books do not have to be “printed to fully exist”. As the ‘new face of the publishing industry’, they offer readers the chance to multitask whilst giving them an adequate reading experience (“Are You Still Listening?”, 2015). In an age where time is nothing short of a luxury, audiobooks are the pioneers of literature on the go.

It is no wonder that numerous organisations are battling each other for a piece of this lucrative market. With Amazon declaring that they are the “unmatched… largest producer of digital audiobooks” in the world (“What is Audible?”, 2017). “Largest” most likely but “unmatched” is up for contention. Using quantitative and qualitative evidence, this essay will argue that Amazon is ruling the auditory waves and pioneering the audiobook market. This reign may be curbed however if individual publishers merge their functions, to specialise in techniques that the conglomerate has not tapped into.

 

Amazon’s general presence in the book industry has been met with controversy, hostility and outright disdain. The main accusations being that the company is undercutting traditional publishers and acting as a monopoly both in bookselling and on the functional front. Insert the recent news of the Amazon Buy button here for a small glimpse into the ire of traditional publishers. The launch of the Kindle eReader in 2007 is what catapulted Amazon to “major player” status in the industry and is also what spearheaded doubts that digital formats were on the path to replace print books. What was for the most part ignored in all of this was that Amazon was building an auditory empire too, when it purchased Brilliance Audio in the same year and Audible for US$300 million in 2008. Brilliance Audio was the largest independent audiobook company in the United States, a market with $1.8 billion in audio sales (Kozlowski, 2016) .

By 2013, The Atlantic had reported that

“60 percent of audiobooks were downloaded to digital devices, and nearly all of those came from Audible or through its long-standing license to supply audiobooks to Apple’s iTunes.” An important aspect to note here is the not-so-surprising collaboration with iTunes, one of the world’s most encompassing auditory platforms found on almost every Apple product. This partnership bought Amazon an unparalleled amount of visibility. Gorey (2017) describes it more succinctly: Amazon and Apple “ran the two largest distributors of audiobooks in the world, with no room for any smaller third-party operations to compete”. Their exclusive, monopolistic relationship despite it being deemed illegal in countries such as Germany equipped both and in particular Amazon to dominate the market today.

In 2016, Forbes reported that Amazon and Audible were the most frequently used audiobook online retailers, Audible seeing 20.7% of purchases (compared to 14.2% in 2014) and Amazon seeing 21.0% (compared to 21.5% in 2014). Listed here as two separate companies but functioning under one umbrella, the Amazon Group as of 2016 controls 41.7% of online audiobook sales. The company performed a feat of cross-marketing genius: linking its audiobook service to its Kindle eReader and Amazon Prime Reading whilst advertising Audible on almost every popular podcast in the world (Carter, 2016). Listeners of podcasts are more likely than anyone to jump on to the audiobook wave. Good eReader performed an earlier more qualitative study corroborating my reasoning and proving that Audible is the primary place to shop for Audiobooks:

“The most popular audiobook genres in 2016 were mystery, thriller, romance and fantasy/science fiction. 53 people voted and it looks like Audible is the most popular service, which garnered 16.6% of the vote.” (Kozlowski, 2016)

 

Whilst these figures clearly show that Amazon is leading the retail side, they fail to take into consideration the presence of libraries, free downloads and good old pirating (see below).

 

 

Amazon is manning the commercial front but free/public access is still drawing the largest crowds. If Amazon extends its “free for one month” Netflix-style subscriptions and includes a deal offering numerous free audiobook downloads, then libraries might be in serious trouble. Until then, they can hang on to their lifeboats of government grants and rest assured that they are still the most popular place to acquire audiobooks.

 

On the commercial front, “discoverability is [the utmost] important consideration for audiobook publishers”  (Duffer, 2016). To prove this, I performed a basic experiment and typed “audio book” in Google search on both Safari and Chrome. Amazon’s “Audible” was the first result to show.  Like hoover is to vacuums and Kleenex is to tissue paper, Amazon is making its subsidiary synonymous with the term audiobook. It is therefore not surprising that Audible is mirroring its parent company through its expansion into the world of self-publishing with their Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX)  service.

 

“ACX is a marketplace where authors, literary agents, publishers, and other Rights Holders can connect with narrators, engineers, recording studios, and other Producers capable of producing a finished audiobook. The result: More audiobooks will be made.” (Yau, 2016)

 

Through ACX, Amazon is making itself the primary meeting place for all of those with a stake in the audiobook industry. By facilitating the production process, they are positioning themselves as a necessity; fostering long term relationships with the other players in the industry and listeners alike (Maxwell, 2012) whilst solidifying their position in what Jane McGonigal dubs “the engagement economy”.

 

Where is Canada?

There is a general lack of Canadian content in audio format. BookNet Canada reported that out of 1.1 million active records and 21 650 audiobooks in 2015, only 398 had Canadian contributors (BNC, 2015). Outsourcing content from the United States has become the norm, as expensive as it is, it is aggravated by the fact that there are only a handful of audiobook producers in Canada (Carter, 2016). Audible has set itself the task of changing this. Their ‘mandate’ is to provide Canadian content on their Canadian eStore, Audible.ca, where “approximately 300,000 titles reside, thousands of which are by Canadian authors and publishers” (Carter, 2017). Audible is also making its presence known on the Canadian literary scene by sponsoring the most prestigious prize in the country, the Giller. This is a further attempt by Amazon to make the company a household name. Audible Canada is also the company’s first bi-lingual store, which Audible’s chief content officer calls a “unique and immersive experience for French Canadians” (Carter, 2017). Attempting to bridge the tense language divide in Canada is the smartest business move on Amazon’s part. Furthermore, Amazon is able to jump on whatever wave is currently popular with a quicker turnaround than its competitors. For example they are offering Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale audiobook for free to any first time subscribers. It is needless to say that this book has been the buzz book in the industry this year as a result of its TV adaptation. Strategically offering Canadian content and promoting a nationalist front in an age where Canadians are increasingly responding to audiobooks, is a marketing strategy for the gods.

So what about the competition?

According to Kevin Williams from Talon Books, audiobooks are extremely expensive to make and independent publishers cannot burden the cost on their own. On the contrary companies like Amazon are benefiting from economies of scale as they are large enough to host the infrastructure needed to produce the books. Other multinationals with successful audio arms such as Hachette, HarperCollins and now Penguin Randomhouse, are also benefitting from advantages attributed to size. I believe that independent publishers in Canada will not be able to compete in this market unless they merge their auditory arms. ECW is one of the publishers pioneering these “collaborations”; with help from Coach House Books. Both have spearheaded a project to publish 100 audiobooks using Canadian content and local resources (Yau, 2016). Mergers are the lifeboat in this Amazon world.

Macmillan Audio’s collaboration with hoopla digital is necessary to deter Amazon’s monopolistic advantage in online retail. Whilst the Audiobooks.com partnership with Android Auto to bring 60 000 titles to over 60 million cars within the next five years is a feat Amazon has not tapped into yet (Kristons, 2015). Audiobooks.com allows subscribers to stream their books whilst Audible, Amazon and Apple offer downloading options only. The biggest collaboration that will withstand Amazon is that of Kobo and her sister company Overdrive. Overdrive is “the largest company [powering] 75% of all Canadian and US libraries audiobook and e-book collections” without leaning on a third-party distributor (Carter, “Kobo” 2017). Libraries go beyond the scope of Amazon’s reach by  offering audiobook services for the blind or partially sighted alongside people with other disabilities. The need for libraries will never wane. The only reason Overdrive is at a disadvantage is because multinationals are reluctant to provide them with content. On the commercial side, however,  Kobo entered the audiobook subscription market in September 2017 by pricing its books at $12.99 as opposed to Amazon’s $14.95 a month. Time will tell whether this will have an impact on Amazon’s clientele.

 

Lastly, publishers need to be innovative in this fast-paced environment. Audible has partnered with dog psychologist Cesar Millan to create Audible for Dogs, a guide to help people care for their pets. Unless other publishers match this level of experimentation, they will remain invisible and a step behind. It is my belief however that constant alliances, the larger they are, are the only way to weaken Amazon’s grip on the audiobook market. Until then, may their kingdom continue to reign.

 

Works Cited

 

  • Are You Still Listening. (2015). BookNet Canada. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://www.booknetcanada.ca/are-you-still-listening

 

 

 

  • Carter, S. (2017). Kobo enters the audiobook subscription market | Quill and Quire. Quill and Quire. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://quillandquire.com/omni/kobo-enters-the-audiobook-subscription-market/

 

  • Duffer, E. (2016). Forbes Welcome. com. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenduffer/2016/12/30/canadian-audiobook-users-favor-amazon-and-audible-over-itunes/#67c4494e55fc

 

  • Gorey, C. (2013). Amazon and Apple will now allow third-party audiobook sales in EU. Silicon Republic. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://www.siliconrepublic.com/companies/audiobooks-amazon-apple-audible

 

 

 

  • Maxwell, J. (2012). Amazon and the Engagement Economy (repost) | Publishing @ SFU. sfu.ca. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://publishing.sfu.ca/2012/11/amazon-and-the-engagement-economy/

 

  • Olshan, J. (2016). Forget e-books, this may be the real future of reading. MarketWatch. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-some-audiobooks-sell-four-times-as-well-as-their-print-versions-2015-12-08?siteid=rss&rss=1

 

 

  • West, Octavio. “The Printed Nature of Books.” PUB800, 3 Oct. 2017, https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/10/the-printed-nature-of-books/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2017.
  • What is Audible?. (2017). custhelp.com. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from http://audible.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/4436/~/what-is-audible%3F

 

  • Yau, K., & Yau, K. (2016). Audiobooks: State of the union. BookNet Canada. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2016/8/5/audiobooks-state-of-the-union

Works Consulted

  • Beyond Audible: Other Options for Audiobooks. (2017). Costa Connected. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from http://costaconnected.com/beyond-audible-other-options-for-audiobooks/

 

  • Greenberg, S. (2016). Macmillan Audio Joins hoopla digital; Publisher Will Provide Audiobooks on hoopla digital to Public Libraries in Pilot Program. Marketwire. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/macmillan-audio-joins-hoopla-digital-publisher-will-provide-audiobooks-on-hoopla-digital-2017204.htm

 

  • Kozlowski, M., & Kozlowski, M. (2017). Harlequin Audiobooks Now Available for Libraries. Good E-Reader – eBook, Audiobook and Digital Publishing News. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://goodereader.com/blog/audiobooks/harlequin-audiobooks-now-available-for-libraries

 

  • Kozlowski, M. (2017). Penguin Random House Audiobook Sales Increase in 2017. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from http://tps://goodereader.com/blog/business-news/penguin-random-house-audiobook-sales-increase-in-2017

 

  • Staff, Q. (2017). The explosion in ebook lending | Quill and Quire. Quill and Quire. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://quillandquire.com/omni/the-explosion-in-ebook-lending/

 

  • Staff, Q. (2017). Canadian Accessible Library Service to serve print-disabled patrons | Quill and Quire. Quill and Quire. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from https://quillandquire.com/omni/canadian-accessible-library-service-to-serve-print-disabled-patrons/

 

  • (2017). Libby can give you access to tons of free books and audiobooks on your phone with just your library card. Android Police. Retrieved 31 October 2017, from http://www.androidpolice.com/2017/04/06/libby-can-give-access-tons-free-books-audiobooks-phone-just-library-card/

https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/7/16109228/cesar-millan-audible-for-dogs-psychology

 

http://forums.welltrainedmind.com/topic/633429-is-audible-worth-the-membership/