Audiobooks: What’s Driving the Explosion?

Feb 22, 2016

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What’s driving the explosion of audiobooks?

Over the last year, the publishing industry has reported that audiobooks are the fastest-growing book format. According to the American Association of Publishers downloadable audio grew 31% the first half of 2015 compared with the previous year. (Over the same period, trade paperbacks grew 12.5%, while hardcover and ebook sales declined.)

Below, we suggest a few reasons for the exploding trend.

  • Downloadable files: Audiobooks are more accessible than ever, thanks to downloadable files. No longer do we need to buy CDs. We can simply stream the file from providers such as Audible, or access our libraries from a mobile device.
  • Audiobook files are device-agnostic. When you buy an audiobook, you’re not locked into accessing it through a particular device. You can listen to an audiobook file on virtually any smartphone, tablet, or computer.
  • The rise of mobile: The Pew Center reported last year that two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone. With a device in so many pockets, it’s easier than ever for people to listen to an audiobook while doing other things – commuting, cooking dinner, grocery shopping.
  • Audio originals: Some audiobook publishers are experimenting with audio-only projects – books that have never been in print or ebook. Think of them as Netflix originals like House of Cards. For example, thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver released The Starling Project in 2014 as an audiobook original. His most devoted fans would likely overcome any disinterest in audiobooks in order to access his latest work.
  • Increased popularity of subscription services: Thanks again to Netflix’s trailblazing, more people are comfortable consuming media through subscription services. Publishers Weekly reports that 25% of all audiobook users subscribe to a provider such as Audible or Scribd.

Despite this growth, the number of audiobooks available is still relatively small. According to the same Publishers Weekly article, an estimated 26,000 audiobooks were published in the United States in 2014, compared with over 300,000 print books from traditional publishers alone.

Given the relative lack of competition among audiobooks, one might think every author should race out and create one. But about 77% of audiobook purchases are fiction. The non-fiction titles that sell best in audiobook also tend to be narrative-based: memoir, biography, autobiography, and history. Authors writing in other categories, such as business or self-help, should be especially strategic and thoughtful about publishing in this format.