The audiobook industry sails into 2014 on a high note. The Audio Publishers Association (APA) released the results of its annual sales survey of member publishers in late November, and the findings show a segment of publishing in the midst of a huge growth spurt. Both net revenue and units sold increased by double digits in 2012. And the number of titles produced grew from 7,237 in 2011 to 13,255 titles in 2012—nearly doubling. We talked to several audio publishers about the trends and challenges they see in the near future.
Trend: More, More, More
Overwhelmingly, the publishers we spoke with believe the industry’s explosive increase in title output last year was no fluke. “We’re going to continue to see more and more titles being published,” says Chris Lynch, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio.
“Increasing our list in a way that’s smart, thoughtful, strategic, and economically viable—that’s a big focus for us,” says Mary Beth Roche, v-p and publisher of Macmillan Audio/QDT. “We’re going deeper into the science fiction/fantasy and mystery/thriller categories.”
Challenge: The Strain of Increased Production
Lynch points out that increased output is “generally a good thing. But we need to make sure that those titles are of a quality that people want to listen to. We’re still trying to convert people to audio and the productions need to be good. If that doesn’t happen, having more titles doesn’t matter.”
Michele Cobb, APA president and industry consultant agrees, noting, “It’s interesting that the trends and the challenges are one and the same right now. The increase in titles is happening because there is such demand. We’re really encouraged to produce more. That’s also the challenge, because staffs aren’t growing exponentially.”
Trend: New Marketing Strategies
“Marketing is where you’ll see the most change,” says Sean McManus, director of HarperAudio and a member of the APA board. “As we adapt to the digital culture, we’re doing more and more digital marketing. Video is a big area of growth.” McManus explains that new video spots are designed to be used by retailers and libraries on their Web sites and that many authors with a sizeable social media presence are well-versed in using video to promote their work to their fans and followers.
Lynch notes a similar progression. “We’ve been very successful over the last two years at involving authors, as well as narrators, more in the marketing of audio,” he says. “They talk about titles on social media, post samples on their Web sites, they tweet about audio. It has helped a lot.”
Trend: Physical Product Holding Steady
“Is the CD a growing format? No; but it’s not going away tomorrow,” says Cobb. And that’s the prevailing assessment among publishers. “I’m going to have titles this year  that sell 100,000 copies in CD,” says Lynch. “That’s pretty amazing. It’s decreasing every year, but there is still life there.”
Tantor is among the numerous publishers bullish on the MP3 CD format. “It’s a very small percentage of sales, but it did double in 2012, from 0.8% to 1.7%, according to APA,” says Laura Colebank, a partner at Tantor and an APA board member. “It’s a good ‘window’ format. They are competitively priced and most new cars since 2008 have an MP3 CD player,” she adds. “It typically takes about 10 years for a format to take hold, and MP3 CD has been around for more than five years now.”
Trend: Publisher Flexibility
“While the growth in digital is extremely exciting, we still have the ability to make CDs for those who still want them,” says Roche. “We invest in a master recording and then provide it to the listener however they want to consume it.” To that end, Roche says that a new capability to produce on-demand CDs for retail titles (the practice was already in place in the library market) shows great promise. HarperAudio recently signed an agreement with Blackstone Audio to distribute physical product at retail and in libraries if there is demand, and both HarperAudio and Simon & Schuster have agreements with Midwest Tape to distribute physical product in the library market.
“Audio has typically been 10% of book or e-book sales,” says McManus. “But with digital expansion it could go beyond that. I’d love to see 20% or more; it is possible.”
Roche is equally enthusiastic. “It’s very energizing,” she says of audio’s upward trajectory. “It just feels like we are maybe at a tipping point. There is now consumer awareness and appreciation for what we provide. We’re at a moment where it feels like our category is only going to get bigger.”