The Bologna Book Fair focused its attention on audiobooks for the first time with the introduction of a half-day, three-hour seminar called Listen Up!, which featured nine speakers working in the audiobook business across Europe and North America. The notable rise in sales of the format has made headlines in North America, where the market for audiobooks is growing at a rate of 20–30% annually, and sales topped approximately 90 million units, with a total value of more than $2.5 billion last year. Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, noted, “There are more than 75,000 new titles published annually now, which is really fueling growth.”

She also offered insight into the growth in the format outside of North America. The U.K. is the second largest market, with some 14 million units sold and a growth rate of 18% last year; elsewhere, in places such as Germany, Spain, and Japan, sales are still nascent, with revenue growing at a rate of less than 5% per year. “In many of these markets, sales of the physical product, such as CDs, still far outplace digital downloads,” Cobb said.

In the Nordic region too, sales remain modest. Just 5,000 titles are available in the Nordic languages and the units sold were 3.5 million overall, valued at $160 million. Nevertheless, the region’s dominant audiobook seller, Stockholm-based audiobook company Storytel, has grown significantly in recent years, going so far as to buy two publishing companies—Sweden’s Norstedts and Denmark’s People’s Press. “We plan on launching in five more countries this year, starting with Turkey,” said Helena Gustafsson, CEO of Storytel.

The speakers included Amanda D’Acierno, executive v-p and publisher at Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group; Mary Ann Naples, v-p and publisher at Disney Book Group; Alessandro Campi, director of the digital department at Gruppo Giunti; Paule du Bouchet, editorial manager at Gallimard Jeunesse; Éric Marbeau, digital production and partnership manager of Group Gallimard-Flammarion, and Marco Azzani, country manager for Audible Italia. Marco Ferrario of Storytel Italy and Publishers Weekly's Ed Nawotka served as co-chairs for the event and moderated.

As for the future opportunities for children’s book publishers, all participants were genuinely sanguine.

“Reading aloud is key to a child developing literacy and there is a growing body of evidence showing that audiobooks can assist with this,” D’Acierno said, adding, “Listening to an audiobook simultaneously increased comprehension by 76% and recall by 40%, said one study.” Audiobooks are also good for reluctant readers, she said, allowing them to read two grade levels above their fluency.

Disney’s Naples said that her company is working especially hard to expand the audiobook experience beyond sound by making it interactive. “Smart speakers in the home, like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, have given us new opportunities,” Naples said. “We can do things such as create interactive games and quizzes that allow for self-directed play (a Star Wars-branded quiz game was one example she cited among products already in the market). And as the speakers become more powerful and the technology improves, we will be able to add features, like allowing the game to remember the child’s name and preferences.”

Cobb also acknowledged that the growing popularity of smart speakers has fueled audiobook sales. “And it’s a good sign for children’s publishers, as a recent survey revealed that from 7 to 9 p.m., listening to children’s stories is one of the top three activities for users.”

While buoyant optimism about this burgeoning market was the key takeaway for the afternoon, D’Acierno did end the session with a note of sobriety: “It would be unrealistic to think that any market can continue growing at 20 to 30% a year. But right now, the growth in the popularity of audiobooks is just great, and let’s see how far we can take it.”