The Rise of Audiobooks
Audiobooks are a beacon of hope for the future of digital publishing, boasting rapid growth in sales and popularity in recent years largely owing to their ability to adapt with modern day culture. For many people with busy lifestyles and a smartphone, listening to an audiobook is not only enjoyable but more convenient than taking the time to read a traditional print book.
A current Technavio report predicts that the publishing industry will earn over USD 357 billion from 2016 – 2020, with profitability relying on the continued development of digital publishing. With this in mind, how can the industry capitalise on the rise of digital audiobooks and make sure that their surge of popularity is not just a fad?
Apps and Audiobooks
One of the key reasons that audiobooks are finding success in the current economy is because of their agile nature – they are accessible on the go on a wide variety of devices. For example, Audible, an audiobook retailer, have developed multiple versions of their app to be compatible with over 500 different devices for users to download audiobooks onto. The development of apps will always continue, and as long as the technology exists, audiobooks will be readily available to users at their fingertips.
However, the cost of developing and constantly updating these apps is extremely high. On 27 October 2016, Amazon had to shut down their Kindle app for Windows 8 because it was too expensive to keep the app functional across numerous operating systems.
This is bad news for digital audiobooks because if a customer is only using a device whose app is then shut down, they could potentially lose all of their purchases unless they are willing to spend money investing in a new device to run a different version of the app, which is unlikely.
If Amazon, an industry giant, are struggling with high development costs, how can other publishers and retailers hope to nurture the growing trend without customers being put off of audiobooks, opting for older, more reliable formats such as printed books that cannot be rendered useless by technological problems?
Making Money and the ‘Model of Free’
Perhaps the biggest issue with digital publishing is the assumption that digital products should be cheaper to both buy and produce, which is often not the case. Where traditional printing and distribution costs are saved when producing digital audiobooks, the cost of developing apps, websites, and high quality content can make the process just as expensive.
Audible is a successful retailer who generates revenue through subscription packages. Members are given ‘credits’ to redeem a free audiobook per month (or more, depending on how much the user is willing to pay), plus up to 70% off the price of other titles after that. Alternatively, users can purchase audiobooks at full price without paying for a membership.
Scribd also implements a subscription service but, unlike Audible, users get unlimited access to every title in their catalogue, offering more than just audiobooks. This freedom is how Scribd has cultivated over eighty million monthly users. Both Scribd and Audible use month-long free trials to entice new customers to their sites.
Whilst these may be prosperous business models for big retailers with well-established customer bases, it can be harmful for the overall audiobook market. High volumes of subscription revenue mean that these businesses can license audiobook downloads at undercut prices or for free, which drives smaller audiobook providers out of business.
The Limitations of ‘No Limits’
In 2012, Bardowl was founded and branded as ‘Spotify for audiobooks’. For a monthly fee of £9.99, members could stream as many audiobooks as they liked, unrestricted, as with Scribd’s business model. A major selling point was that Bardowl would allow users to stream audiobooks instead of downloading them, saving precious device storage space. This gave them a competitive edge over Audible and other companies that do not have this option.
“We think this is an excellent way to increase awareness of the availability of audiobooks alongside their printed and digital counterparts.” – Chris Book, Bardowl co-founder.
However, no matter how amazing this model was for users, Bardowl fell victim to over-listening and closed down in 2015. The subscription revenue could not cover the amount owed to publishers in royalties from the volume of audiobooks being streamed. In comparison, Audible only allow users one or two free audiobooks per month; they generate extra revenue from any additional audiobooks downloaded whereas Bardowl did not.
“The fact is that, except at Christmas, most books are bought by a small group of people who buy a lot of books.” – Alastair Horne, Press Futurist.
Even Scribd have suffered from over-reading. In 2015 they had to cut the number of romance novels available to users because their revenue could not cover royalties due for the number of times certain titles were downloaded. The difference from Bardowl’s situation is that Scribd had a much larger customer base to keep them afloat during this time, proving how difficult it is for smaller retailers to survive and contribute to the digital market when large scale companies still struggle.
Corporations like Audible are typically more trustworthy for publishers who are sceptical about going into business with unpredictable digital companies, which unfortunately limits the quality and quantity of titles made available to Bardowl and similar businesses.
Publishers being reluctant to trust developing digital companies and formats is a leading cause as to why ventures like Bardowl aren’t succeeding. Not taking a leap of faith with innovations for the future is what may potentially stagnate the audiobook market. The combination of big corporations and publishers is advantageous for audiobook listeners, but the consequential discounted and free audiobooks are bad when trying to sustain growth.
Audiobook sales contributed £12m to the publishing industry last year, which equates to only 0.4% of the total industry revenue. But is this minor market share caused by the lack of small audiobook retailers and corporate dominance or simply general consumer attitudes towards audiobooks?
Many people love audiobooks and how easily they fit into a daily routine. Ashton Newton, Entertainment Editor for The Western Journal says “Whether it is an hour in between classes or a lazy Sunday afternoon, time spent doing almost anything can be enhanced with an audiobook playing.”
However, a YouGov survey on audiobooks found that 83% of people polled say that they never listen to audiobooks and 55% believe that listening to an audiobook is a worse experience than reading a book. People tend to prefer a physical copy of a book, and even if they would listen to an audiobook, they may not necessarily want to spend their money on an intangible, digital product. So how can the publishing industry resolve this issue and make audiobooks more desirable, adding value to them whilst also combating cost issues and industry resistance?
Libro.fm seemingly have all of the answers, having found an intriguing way to provide a real experience for the customer. Like Audible and Bardowl, Libro.fm is a digital service where users can purchase audiobooks online from a vast range of authors straight onto a device.
But, in terms of adding value, Libro.fm have partnered with the American Booksellers Association and over 150 independent bookstores in the United States to allow customers to browse audiobooks physically in a partnered bookstore before purchasing and downloading them onto a device.
“We noticed that while sales of digital audiobooks are growing at a rate of 30 percent a year, independent bookstores had no way to participate in the growth of the market. So we listened to bookstore owners, authors, and publishers to help shape Libro.fm as the first audiobook company which directly supports the independent bookstores we love.” – Mark Pearson, co-founder.
Not only is this a novel idea for customer experience and satisfaction, but it supports independent bookstores, helping them generate revenue from audiobook sales where they would normally lose out to digital companies like Audible. This presents customers with a variety of options that will expand the audiobook market within the industry.
Here to Stay
It is fair to say that digital audiobooks are not going away any time soon. Despite high production and development costs, audiobooks have a place in today’s busy, digital lifestyles, appealing to a wide range of people. To make the most of their growing popularity, publishers and retailers need to find the right balance between large-scale subscription models and out-of-the-box customer service to provide a ‘reading’ experience that no other format can.
With Libro.fm proving a success, promoting digital audiobook opportunities for independent bookstores, it is not so ridiculous that audiobooks and traditional print go hand in hand and that the future of digital publishing is not simply the future of publishing.