Book lovers are listening to literature as never before

Posted July 03, 2011, at 7:21 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Heard any good books lately? If so, you likely fit the profile of the audiobook fan as sketched from national research compiled by the Audio Publishers Association. The New Jersey-based trade group is “the voice of the audiobook industry.”

If you’re a regular listener, you’re probably a passionate reader (15 titles in the past year) who uses audiobooks to squeeze more books into your busy day. You’re better-educated and wealthier than nonlisteners, and you’re a bit younger (median age of 48 compared with 51).

Your preferences in genres parallel those of print-book readers: mystery-thriller-suspense, best-sellers, general fiction and nonfiction. Unabridged audiobooks, in which the source material has not been condensed, are more popular than abridged, even though they cost more.

The audiobooks arena is vast and complex, with a lengthy list of publishers and other invested companies producing, wholesaling, retailing, distributing and marketing audiobooks to a diverse and eager audience.

This week concludes national Audiobook Month, a good time to remember that “spoken word” could be found in libraries and schools as far back as the 1930s (the visually impaired and children were the main markets).

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the publishing industry discovered the profit potential of recording and marketing books to the mainstream public and to libraries. Audiobooks first appeared on tape cassettes (now nearly extinct) and then moved to the present-day compact disc.

In recent years, the tech-savvy 18-to-24 crowd has discovered audiobooks via digital downloads — a potential threat to the traditional audiobook industry, though CD audiobooks remain the backbone of the industry, partly because of massive sales to libraries.

An estimated 10,000 audiobook titles appeared last year (compared with 316,480 traditional print titles), and sales totaled about $900 million in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. Yet a full 95 percent of published books never see the inside of a recording studio.

Why?

“Do you really want an audiobook of the latest math text?” said Janet Benson, vice president of audiobook retailer Audio Editions and outgoing president of the APA.

Downloads account for a bit over 30 percent of all audiobook sales, according to the APA.

The mobility and versatility (plus improved sound fidelity) of audiobooks are big pluses over print and electronic books. Commuters listen to audiobooks in their cars and on public transportation. Multitaskers can hear a best-seller while gardening, walking the dog, exercising or making dinner.

“I have a friend who swears she wouldn’t have a clean house if she didn’t have audiobooks,” said Benson.

Then there’s the sense of comfort that comes from listening to a trusted narrator read a story to us. That’s a unique part of the audiobook experience not found on any e-reader or on any paper page, though some publishers are adding multimedia “bonus content” to e-book downloads in the form of video and sound.

Word-of-mouth recommendations can cause a title to catch fire, but audiobooks aren’t cheap. New CD audiobooks average $20 to $45, while some CD sets based on books from A-list authors (such as Stephen King’s “Under the Dome”) can reach $80, even though they may be from an author’s backlist of previously published books.

Even older or slower-moving titles on CD go for $10 to $15, making digital downloads look attractive at $6 to $20.

Because the cost of producing an audiobook starts at $5,000 and can rapidly move into the tens of thousands, publishers want some assurance they’ll make a profit in the long run.

That’s why most fiction audiobooks are made from titles by top-tier authors. Also found in audiobook sections of bookstores are live performances (humorist David Sedaris comes to mind), and self-help and how-to titles, memoirs and biographies — all popular.

One of the major players is Audible.com, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. It’s the Netflix of downloadable digital audiobooks, a site where members can rent from more than 60,000 book titles in all genres.

“Our members perceive Audible as an addictive habit and a service rather than the unit-based experience that books are,” said senior editor Matthew Thornton.

Audible.com recently launched a project called Audiobook Creation Exchange, that Thornton said “connects authors, literary agents and publishers to actors and studios, almost like a matchmaker, in order to help create more audiobooks. Now that audiobooks are so popular, we needed to augment the supply,” he said.

In time for Audiobook Month, major player Macmillan Audio launched a program to convert reading groups into listening groups. Working with the book club resource www.readinggroupchoices.com, the company offered to send copies of “The American Heiress” audiobook by Daisy Goodwin to book clubs across the country, urging them to discuss it at their June meetings. More than 400 reading groups did just that.

By far the most pressing issue facing the industry is digital audiobooks, downloadable to devices from smartphones and tablets like the iPad, to the iPod, MP3 players and home computers.

“Digital audiobooks have opened a new world to customers who haven’t approached [listening] through CDs,” Benson said.

“While we welcome the growth, the challenge for audiobook publishers is how to make it work financially. … When you’re doing downloads, you’re saving a little money by not having to ship the physical goods. But you’re not saving money on the creation of the product. That’s the problem.”

Incoming APA president Michele Cobb is vice president of sales and marketing for audiobook publisher-distributor AudioGo in North Kingstown, R.I. She said the digital challenge for audio publishers is similar to what traditional publishers face vis-a-vis e-books and e-readers.

“Publishing in general is in flux as it moves from hard goods into the digital world,” she said.

At the 20,000-circulation Audiofile magazine (www.audiofile.com) — the Publishers Weekly of the audiobook industry — editor-founder Robin Whitten noted that “audiobook usage is on a big upswing because digital downloads are bringing a new audience and making it easier for existing fans to get more audiobooks at better prices. There is a shift going on, but whether [audiobook publishers] have a plan for it is sometimes not totally clear.”

“[The e-book movement] has helped move the people [who never before went digital] to digital audio downloads,” said Hachette Audio publisher Anthony Goff from his New York office. “This year was the first time digital downloads overtook physical units (CDs) in terms of sales, but not revenue. The shift is definitely on.”

 

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