Publishers Weekly and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair kicked off their Global Kids Connect Breakfast series on January 25 with an event that focused on the rapid growth in the audiobook industry as a result of evolving technologies and increasing demand for new ways of consuming children’s book content. The speakers were Tom Webster, senior v-p, Edison Research; Heather Alexander, executive editor, kids’ original content, Audible; Andy Bowers, chief content officer and co-founder, Panoply Media; Amanda D’Acierno, executive v-p and publisher, Penguin Random House Audio; Cecilia de la Campa, executive director, global licensing and domestic partnerships, Writers House; and Mary Ann Naples, v-p and publisher, Disney Book Group. The panel discussion was moderated by producer, writer, and audio book narrator Tavia Gilbert. Linda Lee, v-p of Scholastic Audio and president of the Audio Publishers Association, was unable to attend the event following an accident, but she provided statements that Gilbert read throughout the event.

The speakers for the event, which was called “Sounds Like Opportunity: The New World of Audio,” addressed the growth and challenges within the expanding category of children’s audio. Alexander spoke about the new opportunities she sees for writers to create audio book originals and the challenge of “getting the word out.” Saying that “audio is a writer’s medium” and “a primal form of storytelling that is wonderful for children,” Bowers spoke about the need to reach writers who may not be aware of the opportunity to publish their stories in this format.

With the increasing popularity of smart speaker technology, D’Acierno anticipates sizable growth within the audio market; she also sees untapped potential in foreign markets. De la Campa commented on audio’s exciting transformation from a subsidiary category to a primary rights category. Naples, meanwhile, is particularly interested in exploring “the outer edge of audio and interactive experiences” at Disney. In a statement, Lee addressed what she considers a seismic shift in consumer and industry attitudes toward audiobooks, saying that they have evolved “from being classroom and library aids for struggling readers to a medium of choice.”

The panelists also discussed the ways in which audio books are filling a new and highly desirable niche. “Audio isn’t the absence of pictures and text,” said Bowers. “It’s a great medium for the internet age.” Gilbert commented on the intimacy of audio books, adding that globally, “we are primed to be storytellers and to have stories told to us.”

An Audio Data Deep Dive

Tom Webster offered a data-filled presentation, discussing the results of the 2017 Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, which studied smart speaker ownership. Webster spoke about what has been the “very quick adoption” of smart speakers and how this device is becoming “fully entrenched into people’s lives.”

For 2017, 16% of households surveyed by Edison Research owned smart speakers. For those households surveyed, 34% reported that time spent using smart speakers replaced time with smartphones, while 30% said that the smart speakers replaced time spent watching television. The results of the study suggest to Webster that smart speakers are “breaking the earbud paradigm,” with the speakers being used to entertain and connect family members. Webster believes that the social and communal impact of the smart speaker has “profound implications.”

Gilbert asked the panelists to weigh in on the international audio market for audio. Calling Germany “a culture of listening,” D’Acierno spoke about the “incredibly robust market” there. Other areas with growing interest in audiobooks include India, Spain, Latin America, Brazil, and Canada, where an increasing number of originals are being released. In South Korea, audiobooks for English-language learners are in high demand. For foreign deals and renewals, clients often want audio rights exclusively and at times also select audio in lieu of mass market. D’Acierno added that “audio is taking a foothold where e-books never did.”

Alexander discussed how Audible, which has just launched in Italy, is “taking its role very seriously” within the international marketplace, partnering with numerous foreign platforms for original content. The goal, she said, is to meet the “voracious” needs of listeners by “giving them content that they can’t get anywhere else.”

Naples emphasized how the sky is the limit in terms of developing unique “interactive storytelling experiences” that may include visual aspects. Audiobooks that draw upon existing series represent a growing category as well; these types of projects enable readers “to connect with characters in new ways,” said Alexander. Through the use of dynamic voice actors, “we bring their entire worlds to life… and kids use their imaginations to fill in the blanks,” she added.

Audio books may be an excellent tool for households with struggling readers or reluctant adult readers, but “kids at the front of the class are also listening,” said D’Acierno. She added that “being read to creates fluent readers.” D’Acierno agrees with Alexander that, despite their advanced technology, smart speakers can actually replicate the nostalgic experience of gathering around a radio, as families once did.

In conclusion, the panelists reiterated how new technologies have ignited interest in the storytelling and experiential potential of audio. Challenges persist, including increasing discoverability, fine-tuning subscription services for consumer ease, and building trust-based relationships between listeners and devices like smart speakers, but “authors, agents, editors—everyone across the kid lit community is really excited about diving in,” Alexander said.