Advances in digital technology over the past 25 years have fueled an unprecedented surge in audiobook sales and demand, and transformed the audio category in nearly every way, from production through packaging to delivery. This segment of publishing is coming off nine consecutive years of double-digit sales growth, according to data from the Audio Publishers Association. And the Association of American Publishers reports that audio sales grew by 157% between 2015 and 2020. The road to this high point is littered with tangled cassette tapes and cracked jewel cases, and PW has been riding shotgun all along.
Though Caedmon (founded 1952) and Listening Library (1955) were among the category’s pioneers, following the American Foundation for the Blind (1932), audiobooks began to really take off in schools and libraries in the 1960s with the arrival of the audiocassette tape and player. By the late 1980s, audiobooks had begun their steady march into the trade market as the major book publishing houses launched audiobook divisions; audiobook publishers like Blackstone, Brilliance, and Recorded Books flourished; the Audio Publishers Association formed, in 1986; and commuters, road trippers, joggers, and Sony Walkman fans began listening to audiobook cassettes—still the predominant format—on the go.
The 1990s were a decade of enormous change for audiobooks as the industry more firmly established its identity as a viable force in publishing. Audio-only stores sprang up nationwide—including such chains as Austin, Tex.’s Earful of Books and Talking Book World of Southfield, Mich., and indies like Lynne’s Talking Books in Portland, Ore.—and were doing solid business in both sales and rentals of audiobooks. Along with chain and indie bookstores stocking audio, these retailers were on the market’s front lines observing consumer trends. They urged publishers to assist them with redesigning retail-friendly packaging, consumer awareness campaigns, and other marketing efforts, including simultaneous print/audio release of titles by top-tier authors. In that promotional vein, 1995 saw the first Audie Awards (though the kernel of the idea first sprouted in 1992) presented by the APA honoring audiobook excellence in a variety of categories. Publishers Weekly launched its own annual Listen Up awards spotlighting the previous year’s finest recordings as selected by the magazine’s audio reviewers and reporters. The APA rolled out its inaugural Audiobook Month in June 1998; its member publishers, along with retailers, celebrated the industry with display contests and giveaways promoting audiobooks as the ultimate tool for multitasking, and encouraging consumers to listen while they were driving, exercising, or cooking.
Audiobook publishers ventured into nontraditional retail outlets as well, scoring successes with such ideas as selling business books through Staples office supply stores, Louis L’Amour westerns narrated by Willie Nelson at truck stops, and a Winnie-the-Pooh boxed set sold at the Disney store. Wholesale clubs like Costco and mail-order clubs including Columbia House Audiobook Club saw strong performances, and online purchases of audiobooks from outlets like Amazon.com and bn.com were seeing impressive gains.
As sales and awareness of audiobooks grew, so did format challenges—encompassing both production and various audio rights. Consumers had begun expressing a preference for unabridged audio adaptations of print books when abridged recordings with a lower price tag had dominated. Bringing more unabridged offerings to retail obviously meant producing more cassettes with bulkier packaging—but on the positive flip side, the shift also generated more revenue, proving that audiobook fans were willing to pay a higher price.
Simultaneously, audio publishers grappled with whether to make the move to producing digital recordings on an entirely new physical format: the compact disc, which delivered far superior sound quality over the cassette, but was more expensive. The music industry had already fully embraced the CD by the early 1990s, but audio publishers were still reluctant to follow. The format was not particularly well-suited to audiobooks. For one thing, there were capacity limitations. While a cassette tape could hold close to 100 minutes of recorded material, a CD could hold only 74 minutes, requiring remastering as well as additional raw materials. And early CD players did not offer the ability for listeners to bookmark their audiobook, meaning that every time the CD player was turned off, the listener’s exact place on the recording was lost.
One of the biggest drivers for audio publishers’ early resistance to robust CD adoption was, well, the automobile. As long as in-dash cassette players were available in cars, audiobook publishers wanted to keep providing cassette titles for their most stalwart customer: the commuter.
As audio publishers continued this format balancing act, they sometimes produced four different editions—abridged and unabridged in both CD and cassette—leading to a form of cannibalism at retail. With only so much shelf space available, those multiple formats of big-name audiobooks often squeezed other titles out.
Production values advanced as the industry matured and technology evolved. Publishers worked with full-cast recordings and added more original music and bonus materials. Celebrity narrators from the film and TV worlds became a bigger presence, and professional audiobook narrators—George Guidall, Barbara Rosenblat, Simon Vance, Frank Muller, Scott Brick—earned critical acclaim and gained their own loyal fan followings. In some cases, authors personally selected narrators they wanted to be the “voice” for their work. Examples have included authors Stephen King and John Grisham with the late narrator Frank Muller; Lee Child and narrator Dick Hill; and author Brad Meltzer and Scott Brick.
Children’s audiobooks—always a much smaller segment than the adult counterpart—had their own relative boom throughout the 1990s, with key players like Listening Library, Random House, Disney, and indies like Audio Bookshelf steadily turning out adaptations of award-winning and classic children’s books beloved (and mostly purchased) by schools and libraries, as well as movie and licensed tie-ins. The Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children was introduced to the Recording Academy’s lineup in 1994, bringing additional prestige to the art form. But the children’s audio category was on its way to a true explosion in the mainstream with the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in October 1999, performed by veteran Broadway actor Jim Dale and published by Listening Library (which Random House Audio had acquired as its children’s imprint earlier that year). “We did not initially do Harry Potter on CD,” publisher Tim Ditlow told PW at the time. “But we were specifically asked by Barnes & Noble to create a CD edition; customer demand was there.” Dale’s version of the second Potter volume, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, quickly followed in December 1999, and sales for both eclipsed anything in the children’s arena to that point.
Although CDs were still a couple of years away from taking over the top audiobook format, they were gaining ground. And so was a new tech on the block: the audiobook digital download/MP3 file format. Once audiobooks were digitized, in addition to being downloaded onto a computer or other playback device, they could be converted into a variety of physical formats, which opened the door for print-on-demand capability. In 1997 Audible, the audio company founded two years earlier by Don Katz, launched Audible.com—a site dedicated to providing downloadable audiobooks and spoken-word content—and simultaneously unveiled its proprietary—and pricey—Audible MobilePlayer.
Dawn of the truly digital audiobook age
Moving into the new millennium, the audiobook category largely continued an upward trajectory and on the whole was able to weather economic downturns or a flat retail marketplace better than print books.
The Harry Potter halo captured both adult and children’s audiobooks in its glow. By July 2000, the fourth title, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was released simultaneously with Rowling’s print version. At the time, the 180,000-copy first printing was the biggest ever for a children’s audiobook. And coming in at 20½ hours, it was also the longest ever recorded for children. By July 12, Listening Library had ordered three additional printings totaling 110,000 copies, making Goblet of Fire the fastest selling audiobook of all time—in the children’s or adult category. By July 14, the total number of shipped Harry Potter audiobooks (all four titles) topped one million. Goblet won Dale the first of his two Grammys for Potter audiobooks. He landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the most character voices for an audiobook (134 for Order of the Phoenix in 2003 and 146 for Deathly Hallows in 2007)—a record that has since been broken, by Roy Dotrice for reading 224 individual voices on A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Subsequent Potter recordings broke records for their first printings, sales, and recorded length up through the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July 2007, which racked up the fastest and largest two-day sale in the history of the audiobook medium with 225,000. The series remains the bestselling audiobook series of all time.
Consumers were discovering downloadable audio, and its leading provider, Audible.com, dropped its Mobile Player as other playback devices came to market. The company then began building its content library by partnering with audiobook publishers, including Simon & Schuster Audio, as well as with National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal. In January 2000 Audible entered an agreement to become Amazon.com’s provider of digital spoken-word content (with Amazon buying a 5% stake in the company). Soon after, Audible teamed up with Random House Audio to form the Random House Audible imprint, dedicated to producing audiobooks specifically for digital distribution exclusively on Audible.com. And in April 2000 Audible debuted its original weekly half-hour comedy program with Robin Williams. That same year Audible began moving to a subscription-based business model, alongside its individual download practice. Though Audible kept consistently building its content and services revenues as well as its customer base, it also steadily lost money. The company nearly went under in 2001 when the tech bubble burst, but received a lifesaving $10 million additional investment from Microsoft, which had first invested in Audible in 1999.
In 2001, two game-changing tech developments for the audiobook industry arrived in the form of Apple’s iTunes marketplace, and soon after, Apple’s iPod—the sleek MP3 player that had consumers clamoring to listen to digital music—and spoken-word—in a new portable way. By 2003, iTunes and Audible joined forces when Audible became the exclusive provider of audiobooks to the iTunes store (the same year Amazon let its exclusive audiobook agreement with Audible expire). With the mass popularity of the iPod and growing audiobook market, Audible saw its first profit in 2004.
Cleveland-based Findaway World (now just Findaway and a major digital audiobook creation and distribution partner) arrived on the scene with its preloaded audiobook player, the Playaway, in 2005. Though the devices were initially pushed in both retail and institutional markets, Playaways found better traction in libraries, schools, and with the military, all places where Findaway’s expanded line of Playaway products continues to perform well.
The debut of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 was one of the milestones in another pivotal year for the audiobook industry. Amazon acquired Grand Haven, Mich.–based indie publisher Brilliance Audio. And Audible began producing its own original content to offer more variety and keep its customers hooked. Just a year later, Amazon acquired Audible.
As consumer demand for audiobooks ratcheted up, so did the competition for audiobook rights, with book publishers more often retaining those audio rights and becoming a “one-stop shop” for authors. Some print publishers who had not produced audiobooks before, such as HMH and Workman, were giving it a try. Independent audio-first publisher Podium Publishing grew substantially and in 2021 launched a program to sign professional narrators to multiyear guaranteed contracts. Audiobook publishers across the country ramped up production—going deeper into the frontlist and digging into their backlist, too, looking for material that was suddenly financially viable as an audiobook download. Many publishers built or expanded on-site studios (by 2017 Random House Audio had 15 in-house studios, five in New York and 10 in L.A.) for these additional titles, and explored producing various types of original audio content.
A broader audiobook market in the 2000s opened new types of production doors as well. In 2011 Audible launched ACX, the Audiobook Creation Exchange, a DIY audiobook platform connecting audiobook rights holders with producers, narrators, studios, and publishers to produce and distribute audiobooks. Competitor Findaway Voices came on board as another choice for self-published or independent audiobook rights holders to create audiobooks in 2017.
The CD format for audiobooks finally pulled ahead of cassettes in 2004 and gained ground for the next four years as cassettes declined. Audiobooks on CD from a variety of publishers are still available today on a print-on-demand basis, largely from Blackstone, but in 2012, the digital download format took the format lead, accounting for 54.4% of audiobook sales, according to the APA. This shift dovetails with the last nine consecutive years of double-digit increases in audiobook sales and also reflects changes in the automotive industry. By 2010, in-dash cassette decks were gone, and Bluetooth wireless connectivity and satellite radio were making strides. Around 2015 Apple CarPlay and Android Auto revved up, and only a few automakers offer CD players in their 2022 models.
The dominance of digital downloads has obviously changed the way audiobooks are brought to market. With less physical product to sell, traditional retailers had mostly moved away from audiobooks in the 2000s. However, Seattle-based Libro.fm, cofounded by Mark Pearson and launched in 2015, has been keeping indie bookstores in the game, allowing them to benefit from the digital audiobook boom. The Libro.fm platform partners with independent bookstores so that consumers can buy digital audiobooks through their local bookstore and the local store receives a portion of every purchase. By the end of 2021, Libro.fm had 1,608 partner bookstores around the world, most in the U.S. The company reported a 213% increase in unit sales and a 200% increase in listeners in 2020 over 2019.
Marketing of digital audiobooks—even from the major publishers—is largely direct-to-consumer these days. On this front Amazon’s Audible often seems like the only game in town, but consumers can find digital audiobooks from a variety of distributors, including Google via its Google Play store (which debuted audiobooks in 2018); LibriVox (for free public domain titles); Audiobooks.com (acquired by Sweden’s Storytel in 2021); Scribd; and Kobo. And OverDrive, the leading digital service provider for libraries, reported 158 million downloads of digital audiobooks worldwide in 2021.
Looking ahead, audiobook publishers wonder how long the industry will continue its year-over-year gains. Nonetheless, they have to keep experimenting with innovative ways to keep up with demand. Many of them believe that the proliferation of podcasts and other original audio content has created a space where more audiobook listeners can be found. Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell cofounded the audio production company Pushkin Industries in 2018 with former Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg, where listeners find podcasts and audiobooks.
Thanks to APA consumer research, we already know that in addition to enjoying audiobooks in the car and on the smartphone on the move, more consumers are listening to audiobooks on smart speakers inside the home. As a result, the race for companies to follow in Audible’s footsteps and become “all things audio” is on. Sirius XM is moving deeper into streaming spoken-word with its acquisition of podcast pioneer Stitcher in 2020, as well as the partnership announced last year with audio production company Audio Up to create original scripted podcasts. Spotify expanded into podcasting with acquisitions of Anchor and Gimlet in 2019, and the streaming service then acquired Findaway in late 2021.
Technology is nothing if not fluid, so audiobook publishers will certainly be facing new ideas about what an audiobook is in the coming years. First up, they’re considering if and where computer-generated narration and other forms of AI fit into the audiobook world. We’ll stay tuned.