At last week’s Bologna Book Fair, Michelle Cobb, executive director of the American Audio Publishers Association, opened the panel discussion about audiobooks, offering insight into research about the growth of audiobooks around the world.
While the research, which was conducted by the APA along with the ASK Bocconi Research Center in Milan, did not exclusively focus on children’s publishing, Cobb said the data was the best available, much of it coming from areas around the world that are still developing their audiobook markets.
“Audiobook publishing is no longer a niche market for those with special needs or with a need for special content,” she said, “but it is part of the mainstream.” Audiobooks have been embraced, she said, by readers of all ages and, in the context of the Bologna Fair, are especially relevant to parents who are seeking alternative ways of getting children to interact with stories. This is especially true with those families who have integrated smart speakers into their lives, which children are able to control through voice commands.
What was heartening to this audience is that the data showed that “the average age of the audiobook listener has fallen and younger listeners are the fastest growing market segment,” Cobb said. “In the U.S., 54% of listeners are between the ages of 18–44.” Another key point, particularly when it comes to producing and offering content for children, was that research has demonstrated “children are able to understand an audiobook that is two grade levels beyond their reading comprehension level.”
Looking at specific markets, Cobb identified the U.S. as the pioneering country at the vanguard of audiobook production, with a market that saw an estimated $2.5 billion in sales in 2017. “The number of audiobooks published annually has hit 46,000 a year, with a total of 375,000 available,” Cobb said. Physical sales of audiobooks on CDs continue to decline in favor of digital downloads. Of the overall market, which saw 108 million audiobooks sold, some 10% of those titles were for children.
The next strongest market for children’s audiobook sales, according to Cobb’s data, is China, where some 40% of the units sold in 2017 were for children. In that country, publishers are producing some 7,000 new titles each year and there are 25,000 available overall. While revenue in China lagged behind that in the United States, at $470 million, the growth rate was similar—at a rate of 22% per year. One platform, Ximalaya, reported some 40 million users per day at the end of 2018. Cobb also noted that the strong representation of sales for children was likely due to the fact that “most of the content available is educational.”
Young listeners are also driving “significant growth” for audiobooks in Germany, Cobb said. There, the market is relatively nascent, with 16 million units sold and much of it still in physical formats. Growth is just 1% by unit, according to recent data. In the U.K., as a contrast, there are 3,700 titles being produced each year and growth is at 15%. “Revenue hit $150 million in sales and 36% of audiobook consumers were new to the market in 2017.” In the U.K., of the 14 million units sold, approximately 18% were for children.
In France, which has just 4,000 titles available, the market for audiobooks is just starting to emerge. In 2017, revenue from audiobooks hit $7 million, of which children’s books represented 25% of sales. Russia has 16,000 titles available and children’s audiobooks were 10% of the market, while in Spain 2,000 titles are available and sales, which hit just $1.5 million last year, derived 12% of revenue from sales of children’s titles.