John Nesco has been very busy. The director of operations for audiobook publisher Tantor Media, Nesco has recently seen the company’s production schedule get busier and busier with each passing month.
“[There is a] need to do everything bigger, faster, and with greater flexibility,” he says.
This need for speed is due in large part to the volume of audiobook titles that Tantor is producing. Last year it produced 1,000 individual titles—a 65% increase over its 2011 output.
“Tantor has added a large number of narration, editing, proofreading, quality control, and administration resources in order to meet this demand,” Nesco notes, and it does not look like things are going to slow down any time soon.
Tantor is not the only publisher seeing a jump in the number of titles it is producing. Individually, almost every major publishing house reports a similar increase in the number of new audio titles. Across the industry, according to the Audio Publishers Association (APA), there were 7,237 titles published in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. That marks a 17% increase over the 6,200 titles published in 2010 and a 57% rise over the 4,602 titles published in 2009.
Publishers attribute this audiobook explosion to a number of changes in technology and listener habits that have increased demand and simplified the production process over the past few years. But the growth in the format has not affected all genres equally, and while audiobook production is soaring, publishers believe that plenty more opportunities remain to be tapped.
New Technology Creates New Demand
When asked what is stoking the growth in new audiobook production, publishers and industry watchers first point to changing technology. This especially includes the digitization of audio and the greater distribution it allows.
“It used to be that if the audiobook didn’t get carried in enough stores, it wouldn’t see the light of day,” says Chris Lynch, executive vice-president and publisher at Simon & Schuster Audio, which produced more than 250 titles in 2012, up from 175 in 2011 and 130 the year before. “Now everything is available everywhere—you’re not fighting for shelf space.”
Mary Beth Roche, vice-president and publisher of Macmillan Audio/QDT, agrees that the shift to what she calls “virtual shelf space” has given audio publishers greater freedom, producing far more titles than would have been workable a few years ago.
“Before you were competing with your own list and the other publishers for the same precious few feet of shelf space,” says Roche. “The growth of the download market is allowing us to publish more titles— we increased by almost 50% between 2011 and 2012.”
As digital space gets less expensive, with expanding hard drives and cheap access to cloud storage, listeners are also finding it easier to expand their audiobook libraries. Publishers say consumers are far more likely to buy and store a larger volume of titles than they ever have, and are more willing to buy a greater number at one time.
Downloading grew 300% by dollar volume between 2005 and 2010, according to the APA. In the APA’s most recent sales survey, download unit sales were up 30%, now representing 58% of the market.
“The iPod definitely helped with this explosion,” says Michele Cobb, president of APA and vice-president of sales and marketing for AudioGO.
But she adds that perhaps a bigger change has been the shift to smartphones, which allow users to download audio files to devices they have on them, not just at the gym or long car rides, but all the time.
“I’m a hardcore CD listener, but now that I have a mobile phone that I can put things on, I listen on airplanes, in line at the post office, the grocery store, and where I might not necessarily have brought a Discman or even an iPod,” says Cobb. “It’s about accessibility—being able to entertain yourself in those moments where before we couldn’t do that.”
But Cobb emphasizes that CDs remain a popular format, particularly for those listening in their cars, where disc players are just beginning to be phased out. According to the APA Sales Survey, CDs remain the largest single source of dollars—representing 54% of revenue for 2012 (though this declined from 58% in 2010), and 38% of unit sales (down from 43%).
Amanda D’Acierno, publisher for Random House Audio, agrees. She maintains that Random House still sees a “healthy demand” for CDs and expects to see continued growth in this format. Random House Audio/Listening Library has seen the number of titles it produces grow about 10% each year, and the company is now producing more than 400 titles annually.
But while publishers are producing more titles than ever, not every genre is seeing the same level of growth. Mysteries continue to be the top genre for new audiobook titles, with 47% of audiobook listeners citing it as a preferred genre. Cobb suggests that the gripping stories are a natural fit for the format, and keep fans seeking out new titles to add to their libraries.
Besides mysteries, the most popular genres in APA’s survey were general fiction (43%), bestsellers (42%), and science fiction/fantasy (36%), though they do not know how many were produced in these genres.
“Bestsellers on audio tend to mirror print bestsellers very closely,” says D’Acierno. “We’ve seen really strong numbers in recent years in genres like sci-fi and fantasy.”
She attributes this in part to the tech-savvy tendencies of the sci-fi audience, which tend to be early adopters of new devices and media formats, and have helped spur digital download sales.
Greg Boguslawski, head of wholesale sales and merchandising for Blackstone Audio and DownPour.com, has seen this growth in sci-fi titles as well, particularly in downloads, but adds that genre popularity can vary depending on format.
“Science fiction and general fiction have always done very well in the download market, and nonfiction and romance seem to excel in the physical format,” he says.
Boguslawski’s company has seen a consistent growth in titles going back at least five years, as they produced 692 titles in 2012, 588 in 2011, and 563 in 2010. The company has had success with global brands like C.S. Lewis and Ian Fleming, as well as breakout hits like Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week.
Another fast-growing genre is erotica. D’Acierno finds that the number of titles being produced in this segment, already a steady seller, is increasing. Though unlike the mystery or sci-fi genres, which have grown thanks to perennial audience interest, erotica has seen a spike due to the breakout success of one recent title: Fifty Shades. Publishers cite E.L. James’s novel as helping to introduce listeners to other erotica titles, while often introducing them to audiobooks in general (though just 10% of APA survey respondents said they preferred the genre).
Cobb points to the bestselling audio production of the Harry Potter series, read by Jim Dale, as an example of another high-profile series that has become mainstream enough to introduce audiobook neophytes to the format.
The Harry Potter books have helped expand the number of younger listeners trying out the format as well.
“More children and young adults are listening,” says Laura Colebank, partner at Tantor Media and an APA board member, pointing to the 2012 consumer survey from Bowker that found a 20% increase in the number of kids and YA audiobooks sold in 2011.
Fitting a greater volume of content into a smaller space has led to a greater demand for unabridged titles as well. The vast majority of sales in audiobooks (90%, according to the APA) are of unabridged titles.
Naxos Audiobooks, which primarily produces classic titles as well as some nonfiction, now releases “very few abridged titles,” according to its publisher, Nicolas Soames.
“This is because the growth of the download sector and decline of the CD sector means that the demand for unabridged both in the trade and library sectors is now much stronger than it was,” says Soames.
At the same time, he has seen a growing interest in lengthy and more “difficult” texts, from Greek classics to philosophical texts by Nietzsche. Last year, the company completed its unabridged productions of all of the major works of Dickens and Proust. These titles have shown “encouraging corresponding sales revenue,” according to Soames.
Keeping Up with Demand
This growing demand has required the publishers to move fast to expand their audiobook teams and intensify production schedules. Random House Audio produces from six to eight books simultaneously in its Los Angeles studios, in addition to productions at rented studio spaces throughout New York City. To grow its production capacity, the company built its own studio in the Random House offices last year.
“Our producers are increasingly busy,” says D’Acierno, giving kudos to Random House Audio’s vice-president of content production, Dan Zitt, for managing a growing number of productions while keeping up a high level of quality. “As we increase the number of titles we produce each year, studio time is becoming very precious.”
Simon & Schuster Audio produces many of its audiobooks at its own in-house recording studio space. Lynch says the publisher has expanded the number of freelancers it hires to produce the audiobooks. He sees growing sophistication in the performance of these freelancers, as one individual is able to take on a range of tasks that would have previously been handled by a team.
“With the changes in technology, there are people who can record the audiobook and edit and master it all themselves,” he says.
Digital distribution has allowed publishers to respond quickly to market demand, planning and producing an audiobook quickly if sales of its print version seem to be taking off or there is a burst of interest in the author or genre more generally (as happened with Fifty Shades).
But Macmillan’s Roche maintains that much about the production process has not changed.
“You still want a professional narrator, and production cost has not changed much,” she says. “There has always been a range, from A-list Hollywood celebrities that will cost you more, down to a full-time audiobook narrator.”
Similarly, Lynch emphasizes that even as production becomes more efficient, publishers must be wary that they don’t let quantity trump quality.
“Expansion in the number of titles is great, but I’m concerned that the quality isn’t consistent out there,” he says. He adds that this is a particular concern as publishers seek to expand the audience for audiobooks, since “if someone’s checking out an audiobook for the first time and that experience isn’t great, you have probably lost that customer,” says Lynch.
Roche agrees that a consumer’s first encounter with an audiobook can make or break a future interest in the format.
“What we see over and over is that the hurdle is to get someone to sample it for the first time,” says Roche. “Once someone has listened to an audiobook, usually they get hooked.”
Expanding the Marketplace
While audio publishers are pleased with the growth of the sector, they are seeking more ways to expand the number of titles and reach a wider audience.
In particular, they are trying to attract readers of print books who have yet to try audio. Roche points to APA research that indicates that heavy readers of print are the most prolific listeners of audiobooks. To reach them, publishers are running a number of awareness efforts to let readers know that audio versions of new titles from their favorite authors are available.
Macmillan includes ads for audiobooks in the back of the paperback editions of their titles. In some cases, the publisher even includes a QR code, which the shopper can scan to pull up a sample of the audiobook on his or her smartphone.
Similarly, Tantor offers free first chapters and select free downloads to encourage customers to give audiobooks a try. For big titles, Macmillan will also invest in “stepladder” campaigns where multiple titles from an author, as well as audio versions of his or her books, will be presented together at the front of the store or on an endcap.
“It introduces readers to the idea of listening and creates that cross-advertising,” says Roche. “The consumer might see that and say, ‘Oh right, I have that car trip coming up,’ or ‘This would be great to listen to at the gym.’ ”
The effort to convert nonlisteners into listeners seems to be paying off. According to the APA survey, 46% of respondents have listened to an audiobook, up from 37% in 2010.
Soames gives particular credit for this to the digital audio retailer Audible, and commends the company’s service and marketing for introducing listeners to new titles and encouraging consumers to grow their libraries. In addition to Audible, Cobb points to Blackstone Audio’s Downpour.com, launched last August, and Ambling Books as retailers helping to promote the format.
As with Audible.com, visitors to Downpour.com can select from thousands of audiobooks represented by most major publishers, but they also have the option to purchase a physical copy of the CD. It also offers exclusive audio content, such as author interviews.
“Our intent is to create a truly competitive landscape by offering increased accessibility to consumers,” says Boguslawski.
Simon & Schuster’s Lynch applauds this growing marketplace. “We need more players in the retail game to really expand it—Audible and iTunes are the dominant digital players, but having too much concentration on a couple players is never a good thing,” he says. “I don’t think this expansion is going to slow down as long as we continue to present audiobooks in a quality way to consumers, giving them titles they want to hear.”
The titles that consumers prefer tend to follow the trends of book sales overall, though mystery/thriller and science fiction/fantasy audiobooks are especially popular with listeners. The APA’s 2012 sales survey found these to be top 10 genres:
Audio publishers are producing a greater number of new titles every year. According to the Audio Publishers Association, after a slight dip in 2009, the number of new volumes has skyrocketted.
|Year||# New Titles|
|% Change 2007-2011||135.5%|