Preliminary sales estimates from the Association of American Publishers StatShot program showed that sales of digital downloads of audiobooks rose about 18% in 2013, while sales of physical audio were about even with 2012, a trend that is in keeping with what has been happening with physical and digital books. But in early 2014, not only are sales of digital downloads continuing to grow, sales of physical audiobooks are markedly up. According to Nielsen BookScan, unit sales of physical audio rose 8.2% through May 11, 2014, to 1.8 million, compared to the same period in 2013. Anthony Goff, v-p and publisher at Hachette Audio, sees several factors at play when looking at the figures. “[Hachette Audio] never abandoned CDs when some others moved away from them for the greater part of the last two years,” he says. “That helped our sales stay level or go up. More companies are getting back into CDs now, which is ironic.”

A laser focus on CD has been a boost for BrillianceAudio. “Brilliance has historically had a higher percentage of physical product sold relative to the industry,” says Mark Pereira, general manager and publisher at Brilliance Publishing. “We can do this because we have wider distribution that is supported by the lower costs of manufacturing in the Midwest relative to higher-cost locations where other publishers are manufacturing their physical product,” he explains. In addition to seeing a pickup in physical product sales from its own catalogue, Pereira says sales have been driven by titles from distribution agreements for physical product only, with publishers who have chosen to focus on digital distribution only.

At Macmillan Audio, president and publisher Mary Beth Roche notes that, “We are still seeing tremendous growth of download, and physical sales continue to be strong, but are varying by title,” she says. “Some of that may be gift giving—a CD has real presence to it, and is something you can wrap up.” And Roche believes that demographics have a role to play as well. “For some authors, their most loyal listeners prefer CDs.”

Publishers’ general flexibility, when it comes to the audio format, is another key to audio’s sustained growth. “Download growth is still fantastic,” says Goff. “But now we can offer titles as download or as on-demand CDs. You may only sell 200 or 300 CDs, but that’s 200 or 300 you wouldn’t sell otherwise. On-demand and short-run printing have lifted sales of physical product overall in the past 12-18 months,” he adds. Such changes would seem to indicate more of an industry-wide shift from depth to breadth. Goff says, “You used to have a few top titles selling lots of copies and now you have lots of titles selling a few copies.”

Macmillan Audio is also benefitting from adopting short-run printing. “Every title we publish is available in every format, so we can now offer a CD for anyone who wants it,” says Roche. “We can enjoy the long tail when it comes to sales. In the past, if we had titles that would sell only 100 or 200 copies per year, they would be taken out of stock indefinitely. But now we can do a small run.”

Audio’s general trajectory has introduced some unexpected trends, too. “We are seeing growth across both physical and digital, and believe it or not, in abridged format,” says Amanda D’Acierno, senior v-p and publisher at Penguin Random House Audio. “It was a surprise to us. We do less than a dozen—probably 10 titles in 2014—but sales have increased on those.” While a lower price point may help explain some of those sales, it can’t be the only factor. D’Acierno notes, “Unabridged is up, too, titles at the top of the bestseller list like George R.R. Martin’s books that sell at retail for more than $50. We’re exploring why it’s [unabridged growth] happening. The numbers aren’t huge, but it’s been an interesting trend for about a year now.”

Though price point is not the only sales driver, it is a big one, according to Goff. With value pricing, remaindering and sales (via wholesalers) in nontraditional outlets, “it’s a whole other market,” says Goff. “People expect lower prices because of the pricing they’ve seen with downloads, and lower prices have driven physical sales. We were never able to compete with paperbacks until the last couple of years. Now we can.”

Desirable pricing also feeds into the issue that audio publishers deem integrally important to their industry: discoverability. “There are still a significant number of people who have yet to try an audiobook,” says Roche. “Downloads have brought in an amazing new range of listeners and are expanding the pool,” says Roche. “But physical format is still important in capturing new listeners.”

D’Acierno agrees. “We know that when people listen to a story read by the perfect person, they’re hooked,” she says. “We’ve spent significant marketing budgets trying to convert people, and we’re getting better at refining our marketing efforts.” But D’Acierno stresses that format, price, and marketing won’t mean much without a good product at the core. “If you are trying an audio for the first time, it must be a fantastic story with a fantastic narrator to make you want to come back,” she says.

Physical Audiobook Unit Sales

(in thousands)

May 13 2013 May 14 2014 % Change
Units 1,646 1,781 8.2%