In a challenge to the dominant downloadable audio partnership between Audible and iTunes, eMusic has added audiobooks to its subscription-based site. The retailer, which up to now sold music exclusively and is the next player in the digital music space trailing iTunes, will begin selling thousands of audiobooks from Penguin, Random House, Hachette and smaller publishers on September 18. eMusic will offer the audiobooks in an MP3 format free of the DRM (digital rights management) software that Audible/iTunes encrypts its files with, software that prevents files from being downloaded to certain MP3 devices or, once downloaded, put on multiple devices.

The audiobook market, a $923-million business according to a recent survey from the Audio Publishers Association (APA), currently counts downloadable audio as 14% of sales. iTunes, which exclusively sells audiobooks through a distribution deal with Audible, has dominated that market. eMusic president and CEO David Pakman says that is about to change. “The digital audiobook market is probably not as big as it should be—it brought in about $140 million in 2006—and we think it can be much bigger,” he said. Pakman predicted that eMusic will “overnight become the second biggest digital audiobook retailer.”

eMusic will offer two monthly subscription options—one for $9.99 that allows the purchase of one title and another for $19.99 that allows the purchase of two titles. To bolster its position in the audiobook space, the site will also feature book-specific content like audiobook reviews from critics at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate and other publications. (eMusic currently has some 200 music editors who coordinate coverage of the site’s main content driver.) The Web site’s current demographic—it has 300,000 subscribers who skew 25 and older—is also a sweet spot, Pakman said, for the audiobook market.

Not all those in the audiobook industry are comfortable with the notion of selling DRM-free files. Michelle Cobb, president of the APA (as well as director of sales and marketing for BBC Audiobooks America), said eMusic's sales model is a "concern," but anything that grows the audiobooks market is exciting. Nonetheless, the announcement will force the APA to deal more directly with the issue that's capsized the music industry and has been looming large in the audiobook one: piracy. "We're now [going to have to face] some things we haven’t had to deal with on a daily basis, and look at them more carefully."