Amazon’s Audible subsidiary has dominated the downloadable audiobook market for more than a decade, but a Seattle-based challenger is carving a niche for itself. In five years, Libro.fm has gone from an idea conceived by friends sharing beers in the pub beneath Third Place Books to a conduit for independent bookstores to get a share of the booming downloadable audiobook market. At the start of 2019, 561 bookstores had partnered with Libro.fm to offer the service, which is promoted in-store. Booksellers can assist customers in downloading the Libro.fm app, siging up for subscriptions, or buying single titles through online affiliate links to Libro.fm’s web store. In exchange, each store gets a share of the profit from the sales and subscriptions it facilitates. Libro.fm’s growth has been dramatic, with 215 stores signing up in 2018, and it has spread across a wide spectrum of stores, from large stores such as Tattered Cover in Denver—which recently published a breakup letter to Audible on social media—to smaller ones such as Papercuts J.P. in Boston, as well as Hudson News outlets.
Although Libro.fm was started five years ago, its market launch was three years ago, “after we had a product that was especially sound,” said cofounder Mark Pearson. It has about 110,000 titles and has relationships with all of the major publishers. It offers virtually the same commercial product as Audible and at the same price point, with a one-book-a-month subscription for $14.99 and an à la carte menu of titles as well. “We like to say we offer the same books at the same price, but with a different story,” Pearson noted.
Like Audible, Libro also offers a broad range of self-published titles, including audiobooks from Findaway Voices and Ingram CoreSource. Audible does have a significantly larger range of original content and some exclusive book content, such as Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which was published in print by Penguin Random House, but produced in audio by Audible. On the exclusivity point, Pearson is quick to say that it is a problem: “I’m strongly opposed to it. It’s not good for the culture and society, and I am calling on all authors to resist it.”
Pearson now works with a team of six who are looking to help booksellers “achieve technological leadership in the fastest-growing segment of the industry,” he said, noting “those are not things you typically hear put together in one sentence.”
Onboarding booksellers to the platform has been a steady, if gradual, process, Pearson said, and has been expedited by tools that cater to their specific needs, such as shelf talkers and audiobook listening copies (ALCs). “The audiobook listening copies have been a very popular feature, with 140,000 copies downloaded by booksellers so far,” he added. The most popular titles downloaded as ALCs last year were Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (HarperAudio) and The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King (Abrams and Oasis Audio).
Sales are growing, and though Pearson wouldn’t provide specifics, he said the number of customers increased by 140% in 2018 over 2017. The top-selling titles for the year were Tara Westover’s Educated (PRH Audio), followed by Michelle Obama’s Becoming (PRH Audio), Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Hachette Audio), and David Sedaris’s Calypso (Hachette Audio).
Among the company’s top-performing booksellers, Pearson said, are the aforementioned stores, as well as Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.; the BookBar in Denver; McLean and Eakin in Petosky, Mich.; Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Village Books in Bellingham, Wash.
Another strong partner is Liberty Bay Books in Bremberton, Wash., where store manager Madison Duckworth said, “We bring up audiobooks as an option with nearly every transaction.” She noted that customers either already listen to audiobooks or they don’t have any interest, adding, “There really is no in-between.”
The store sells only a handful of audiobooks each week but has been very successful in signing up new subscribers for Libro.fm. “If they say they use Audible, we remind them that Jeff Bezos doesn’t need their money,” Duckworth said. An “audiobook switch program” offers existing Audible users a sign-up bonus of three books for $14.99, and Libro.fm compensates bookstores for signing up new customers by offering free credits for downloads. “We use those free credits as promotions for our customers,” Duckworth noted. “Last year, for example, we gifted all people who attended the in-store launch for Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone an audiobook version of the title through Libro.”
Pearson believes the strong growth of digital audiobook sales will continue. “Oral stories are the oldest form of storytelling,” he said. “So it makes sense that audiobooks, along with podcasting, are popular—and here to stay.”
The next phase of growth involves adding more stores and ramping up marketing. “One thing we’ve begun doing is putting listening stations into select bookstores, where customers can sample books,” Pearson said.
Furthermore, though e-books sales have largely been a bust at indie bookstores, Pearson is confident customers are picking up on the fact that they can buy downloadable audiobooks at local stores. “The biggest difference,” Pearson said, “is that Amazon and Audible are interested in maximizing profit for shareholders, while we are supporting local booksellers. I think customers are really responding to that message.”
This article has been updated with new information.