Sales of digital audiobooks are continuing their solid growth in 2024, according to most industry sources, and some in the book business point to Spotify's fall entrance into the market as an important factor in those sales gains. Still, questions remain as to how the streaming giant's audiobook program will affect the book business—especially when it comes to authors' earnings.

Publishers, as a whole, have been bullish on the platform. Robert Thompson, CEO of HarperCollins parent company News Corp, has repeatedly called Spotify a game changer for the audiobook market; the 14% rise in audiobook sales at the publisher in its most recent financial quarter, which accounted for about half of HC's digital revenue, seemingly proving his point.

For its part, Spotify has consistently highlighted its "exponential" audiobook growth, as well as its benefits for authors. In April, it asserted that independent authors have benefitted from the introduction of audiobooks, and that those who offer them through the platform, typically via Spotify’s Findaway Voices service, “have seen a 95% jump in their royalties." But the company declined to provide details on the actual royalty amounts or what these authors had previously been paid, making company's claim impossible to quantify.

This opacity has left others in the industry, including some agents, wary of Spotify, and has raised questions about how, exactly, authors are paid under the Spotify system. Leading the charge for more transparency is an activist group called the Coalition of Concerned Creators, which is backed by venture capitalist Bradley Tusk, founder and CEO of Tusk Ventures and author of the 2018 book The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics (Portfolio).

The group made its presence known at this year's London Book Fair with a series of splashy billboards around Olympia London, where the fair was held, bearing the slogan: "Don't let Spotify do to authors what it did to musicians." The latest salvo from the group is the release of the results of a new online survey, conducted by Edison Research from April 26 to May 10, of 1,035 adults who listened to an audiobook in the last year.

Among the survey's more traditional findings were that 57% of respondents have listened to at least one audiobook for free through a file sharing website or YouTube in the last year. In addition, 54% of respondents purchased a digital audiobook, 52% listened through a subscription service, 47% used a credit through a subscription service, and 43% borrowed through a library app.

Drilling down on Spotify, the survey found that 73% of Spotify listener respondents obtained an audiobook from a file sharing website or YouTube in the last year, while 70% listened as part of a subscription service. (Spotify's own service launched in the U.S. November.) Ease-of-use was listed by 67% of Spotify listener respondents as a reason for using the service to listen to audiobooks; 82% of those who listen to audiobooks most often through the platform said it did a "good job" of being easy to use, and 47% of respondents characterized it as doing an "excellent" job.

The study then dug into to the thorny question of how authors are compensated under the Spotify model. Author compensation has been the primary concern at the Coalition of Concerned Creators since its launch; a statement on its website reads, in part, that the group is "concerned that this product may devalue the art form and harm the livelihoods of countless authors who rely on book sales and audiobook royalties to sustain their creative careers."

In response to queries about its survey, a coalition spokesperson told PW that "based on feedback we've heard from our member base, royalty statements are incredibly difficult to understand, there is still no clarity whether streaming royalties would be a separate line item on statements, and there is little transparency into how authors are faring to date on streaming platforms like Spotify."

Survey responses to questions asking if consumers thought creators were being paid fairly did seem to indicate a lack of clarity around how authors in general are paid for audiobook sales: only 10% of audiobook consumers surveyed said they were "very familiar” with how authors are paid for audiobooks, while 63% were “not very” or “not at all” familiar. Nonetheless, a coalition spokesperson said, the goal of the survey was to get consumer input on Spotify's model, since the viewpoints of many authors and agents are already widely available.

At the start of the survey, 12% of audiobook consumers felt that authors were paid "very fairly" for audiobooks and 44% "somewhat fairly." Twenty-one percent said "not fairly at all," and 23% said they were not sure.

Halfway through the survey, respondents were provided with information about concerns that streaming audio services were not being transparent and consistent in how they pay authors of audiobooks. The information, a spokesperson for Edison said, was pulled from media coverage—including PW’s own reporting as well as that of Bloomberg, the Bookseller, the Guardian, and the New York Times—and public statements issued by professional author organizations including the Author’s Guild and the Society of Authors.

After reading about the compensation concerns pertaining to Spotify, 49% of all audiobook consumers said that they had a "much less" or "somewhat less" favorable opinion of streaming audio services that offer audiobooks. Thirty-eight percent said that reading the concerns had no effect on their opinion, and 13% said it made them more favorable to the service and its terms. Spotify audiobook listeners were less likely to report an unfavorable opinion, with 43% saying that they had a less favorable opinion after reading about the concerns and 19% reporting a more favorable opinion.

The authors of the study said that the survey results imply that “Spotify audiobook listeners experience a sort of cognitive dissonance when being confronted with the concerns surrounding the service they choose to use." A coalition spokesperson added that the organization hoped that the survey would prompt Spotify to provide “data to be shared with authors in the same way it has historically been shared with musicians” in order to “give every stakeholder more clarity into the economics of audiobook streaming.”