June is Audiobook Month—a calendar highlight since 1998, when the Audio Publishers Association (APA) introduced the tagline for its inaugural awareness and appreciation campaign. Twenty-five years later, audiobooks are making plenty of noise, confidently claiming a robust nook of the publishing landscape.[related]
The audiobook market is entering its second decade of consecutive years of double-digit increases in audiobook sales, according to the APA’s latest data. “We revealed on June 1 that our 2022 sales survey showed the audio market had indeed achieved an 11th year of double-digit growth,” says Michele Cobb, the APA’s executive director. “The 10% increase in revenue,” compared to gains of 25% in 2021, “indicated that things did slow down a bit as people returned to pre-pandemic life.” But results from the APA’s 2023 consumer survey show some other key bright spots, too. “We are pleased to see that more people than ever are listening, with 53% of the U.S. population ages 18 and up having enjoyed an audiobook in the past year,” Cobb says. “This is a big leap from 45% last year.”
The audio category’s current golden era was ushered in by advances in digital technology that completely transformed how publishers contract, produce, and distribute recordings and how consumers discover, purchase, and listen to audiobooks. These changes have brought increased demand from listeners and more releases from established publishers, as well as from independent authors and producers. Cobb believes that, as a result, the audio industry is in a time of expanding creativity. “Publishers are trying alternatives to the single-voiced audiobook,” she says. She cites creating original products, using multiple narrators on more titles, and exploring new ways to adapt backlist books that were not yet released in audio as examples of those efforts.
Audio’s tech advances do not come without growing pains, however, and publishers, retailers, and other players in the audio category are still trying to refine distribution models and investigate the impact of AI on various parts of the industry. But the future for audiobooks is expected to be bright, in Cobb’s view. “Every year we look forward to introducing more non-listeners to the format,” she says. “With so many of our members continuing to make more excellent and varied products, we can ensure there is something appealing for every potential listener across the globe.”
Here, we take a look at a cross section of publishers and other companies in the audiobook landscape to see how their businesses are meeting the digital age.
A Cornerstone of the Audiobook World
Since its humble origins in a garage in Southern Oregon in 1987, Blackstone Publishing has been uniting readers and authors through the audiobook listening experience. For all that has changed in the publishing and audiobook industry since then, Blackstone’s commitment to publishing an expansive audio library has remained consistent. “Our overall goal,” says Ann Fonteneau, chief sales officer at Blackstone, “is to publish groundbreaking books, both fiction and nonfiction, by the most talented writers, and to forge long-term connections with readers, booksellers, librarians, and the overall publishing community.”
Flexibility in terms of format is a must for meeting the needs of today’s listeners. “We produce audiobooks in multiple formats, which are available to both consumer listeners and library customers,” Fonteneau says. “These include audiobook CDs, MP3 CDs (a condensed CD format), and digital audiobook downloads.” While listening today is mainly digital, physical sales still account for 25%–30% of Blackstone’s overall sales. Blackstone has its own CD and MP3 CD manufacturing facility at its headquarters, which has been integral to providing on-demand content. In fact, Blackstone now provides services for other audiobook publishers for physical audiobooks, including manufacturing, warehousing, selling, shipping, and customer service. In addition to Blackstone’s wealth of audiobook products, the company also has a print publishing initiative that has grown substantially in the last several years.
When it comes to connecting with consumers, Blackstone’s outreach is unparalleled. “We cater to a varied audience,” Fonteneau says. “We target direct-to-consumer and direct-to-library, wholesalers, retailers, bricks-and-mortar stores, and digital partners in both library and trade markets. We maintain multiple websites, including audioeditions.com, which specializes in CDs for consumer listeners, and downpour.com, which focuses on digital downloads.”
At the production level, the key to quality lies in the details. “Blackstone utilizes a number of techniques to deliver the best possible experience to the listener,” Fonteneau says. “This includes but is not limited to celebrity narrators, multi-cast productions, original music, bonus PDF files with additional content such as photos or maps, and full dramatizations. Another element that sets Blackstone apart is our commitment to research. Listeners can be assured they’re hearing the words as the author intended.”
Upcoming titles on the Blackstone list include several enticing thrillers and mystery novels: Sleepless City by New York Times–bestselling author Reed Farrel Coleman; After That Night, the newest Will Trent novel by Karin Slaughter; and All Is Not Forgiven, the debut novel by Joe Kenda, the bestselling crime writer and star of Homicide Hunter and American Detective. While technology may evolve, one thing never changes, Fonteneau says, and that’s “Blackstone’s commitment to bring entertaining and thought-provoking stories to as many people as possible.”
A Trusted Platform Expands to Audio
A leading full-service publishing platform for indie authors, BookBaby requires little introduction. According to Jim Young, v-p of sales for BookBaby, “savvy writers understand that if they want to sell in the market, they need to produce books that are of the highest quality, look, and feel.” And that’s where BookBaby steps in. The publisher provides exemplary, personalized, and professional services, including editing, cover design, manuscript formatting, digital authoring, and marketing. BookBaby guides writers through every step of their publishing journey from the earliest stages. And it continues to support its authors once a book is out in the world through robust social media campaigns and author-focused marketing strategies. “Our biggest-selling books all seem to have started as social media efforts that got traction and really started trending,” Young says.
In 2022, BookBaby turned a new chapter by launching an audiobook program for its authors, providing even more opportunities for writers to reach readers. BookBaby is taking the guesswork out of creating an audiobook by providing an intuitive and affordable process within a space where authors already feel supported. BookBaby’s audiobook program offers more than 60 different voices in 75 assorted languages, and authors maintain creative control as their audiobook is created.
In addition to assisting authors in creating their audiobooks, BookBaby allows them to seamlessly sell the finished audiobooks through its online digital bookstore, Bookshop, where they can easily claim their royalties—at a 75% royalty rate. Through Bookshop, BookBaby authors can find an audience as broad-ranging as the books they offer. “Our audience is incredibly diverse because we publish books in all genres,” Young says—and in both digital and physical formats.
Upcoming audiobook titles for BookBaby include a memoir by Raul Ramos, Ese to Master Jefe. Young calls it “a raw and inspiring story about the author’s journey from street gang life to earning the rank of master chief in the United States Navy.”
Another standout audiobook is a sci-fi/fantasy novel from Edmund Kagya-Agyemang called The Plague of Placidius. “It’s about Prince Ato of Zuuka as he battles the warlord Placidius and his army of vampire assassins, killer pandas, and supernatural monsters,” Young says.
As more and more authors choose to self-publish their work, BookBaby is there to meet their needs. And those needs increasingly involve audiobook adaptations. “The public is enjoying the accessibility, convenience, and entertainment value of audiobooks, and it seems the market will continue to see big growth well into the future,” Young says. “As a result, I suspect more and more service providers like BookBaby will invest in developing new tools and features that will benefit both the publishers and the end users.”
Bringing Readers (and Listeners) a Bundle
What’s more irresistible, in the world of digital bookselling, than a link marked “less than $2”? And in this age of every service becoming a subscription, what lover of audiobooks doesn’t perk up at the words “no commitments”? That’s the hassle-free vision of Chirp, a still-growing startup specializing in deep, often limited-time discounts on audiobooks from both top authors—like Karin Slaughter, Ken Follett, and Attica Locke, with titles for $3.99—and up-and-coming writers. Founded in 2019 by the team behind BookBub, Chirp offers discounts of up to 95% off of retail prices while sharing personalized email recommendations with readers who want to spend less and listen more. Chirp makes that as easy as any audiobook retailer, offering streaming through an app, downloads for offline play, and even listening through smart speakers, like Alexa.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been focused on finding our footing in the industry and growing, especially in a landscape that has been evolving rapidly due to the pandemic,” says Ali Hammond, head of merchandising. “We’ve built an audience that is really excited about no subscription fees and finding great deals. Our focus for the next year remains on growing our user base and finding new ways to put the right audiobooks in front of readers.”
New initiatives include adopting the popular “bundle” model of selling multiple titles together for one surprisingly low price, such as several entries in a series. “Collections of books based around a particular subject matter or holiday or even book length,” Hammond says, “have proven a great way to engage readers.” She adds that strategic discounts remain the core of Chirp’s business but that Chirp’s customers are willing to use the platform for more than just bargains. “We’re also strategically selecting major frontlist books to promote,” she says. “For example, Spare was huge for us, as it was for everyone in the industry, and it was a great signal that our users are willing to pay higher prices for content they’re excited about.”
The thrill of discount-hunting and the satisfaction of building a collection have powered Chirp’s growth, but as the numbers of readers turning to audiobooks continues to boom, the app’s ease of use and personal touch will prove crucial in keeping book buyers engaged and satisfied. In an ever-changing industry, Hammond says, “it’s going to be more important than ever to be putting the right offer with the right content in front of a listener who will be excited about it.”
An Indie-First Audiobook Publisher
According to Sean McManus, president and publisher of Dreamscape Media, the growth of the indie market has resulted in a veritable explosion of new audiobook content. “It has transformed Dreamscape into an ‘indie-first’ publisher going wide to all outlets and not committing to any exclusivity with a single distributor,” McManus says. Dreamscape saw significant growth in 2022 and one of its strongest quarters ever in 2023. McManus says that listeners are especially eager for books in the mystery, suspense, and thriller genres. Increasingly, consumers are also seeking sci-fi and fantasy audiobooks. That area of growth has been so significant that Dreamscape has launched a new division of the company, Dreamscape Lore, devoted expressly to fantasy and sci-fi titles.
A great audiobook begins with a quality story. But essential to the success of that audiobook is the production itself. Erick Black, production director at Dreamscape, recognizes how critical narrators are to the listening experience. And it’s about so much more than selecting a narrator with the right cadence, tone, or comedic timing. “We take a lot of care to match our titles with narrators that not only sound right for the part but have shared experience with the content,” Black says. “When matching a voice actor’s interests or personal histories to the book, we see an elevated performance that is achievable only when the narrator truly connects with the material.” Additional sound effects can also uplift audio storytelling. Dreamscape frequently integrates creative sound design elements and music into its audiobooks, even adding previously unreleased songs in music memoirs and original music in children’s titles.
When it comes to reaching new listeners, Dreamscape has taken a hands-on approach. Marketing director Jolene Barto observes how readers often find their next audiobook via recommendations from social media influencers. As a result, “we’ve been working hand-in-hand with these creators in order to find the right audiobooks for what they like to read and what they recommend,” Barto says. “Instead of cold recommending books with book influencers, we believe that custom tailoring what books we partner with them on is important.” This personalized interaction with influencers allows Dreamscape to expand its reach and amplify its presence within the audiobook space. “We’re also making sure we engage regularly in spaces like BookTok, Bookstagram, and YouTube Shorts,” Barto says.
Dreamscape has a stellar lineup of upcoming audiobook titles. Acquisitions directors Tara Carberry and Lorna Henry name just a few of the highlights. Sparrow by James Hynes (publishing with Abrams) is told from the perspective of an enslaved boy being raised in a Roman brothel. Carberry calls it “a stunning literary historical novel of identity, family, suffering, and freedom.” The romantic novel All That We Never Were (publishing with Sourcebooks) is an English-language debut from Alice Kellen, one of the world’s bestselling Spanish-language authors. Henry notes The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang (simultaneous with Tordotcom), the lead title for Dreamscape Lore; The Young Man by Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, to be narrated by Tavia Gilbert; and Glassworks by Olivia Wolfgang-Smith (simultaneous with Bloomsbury Publishing), narrated by Katherine Littrell.
The Right Voice
In our culture of multitasking, the popularity of audiobooks is no surprise. Spending hours with eyes on a screen or physical book is not always possible for those who otherwise love to consume stories. Ana Maria Allessi, Hachette Audio v-p and publisher, also credits the rise in audiobook sales to consumers being able to listen to audiobooks on their phones. “That was the tipping point, in my opinion, with awareness and consumption dramatically increasing once consumers realized how easy it is to ‘read’ via listening,” Allessi says.
And audiobooks appear to have a growing appeal for a new generation of listeners. Allessi points to a 2022 consumer research study conducted by the Audio Publishers Association and Edison Research. The study shows that younger and more diverse listeners are seeking audiobooks and listening more and more at home; the reasons for this include wanting to relax and to cut down on screen time.
While consumers are seeking more content, finding these listeners and winning out over the myriad other entertainment possibilities is another story. “I believe digital audiobooks are now a distinct media type and more than just another book format,” Allessi says. “That’s great news and also a great challenge, as we now compete for consumers’ time and attention.” One successful strategy for reaching listeners has been coordinating with Hachette Audio’s print colleagues as they undertake their direct-to-consumer campaigns.
For audiobooks, a great story is only part of the equation. Finding the right voice, or voices, to capture the spirit of the work is essential. “Our authors do the best job of setting our recordings apart; their great stories, research, and expertise are our most potent weapons in cutting through to the consumer,” Allessi says. “I think a good audiobook production is like the illustrations in a picture book—a way to expand and augment the text. We can do this by sophisticated casting, recording multiple voices, sound effects, music, and so on, all in service of the author’s words and intentions.”
The formula is a winning one. Since 2000, Hachette Audio productions have earned 200 Audie Award nominations and 47 wins; more than 150 Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine; 24 Grammy nominations and nine wins; and more than 60 Listen Up Awards from PW, to cite a few acknowledgments.
And there’s much more in store for Hachette Audio. While there are many upcoming titles on her radar, Allessi has a favorite in mind. “I may be suffering from recency bias, but I can’t stop talking about a book that our executive producer Michele McGonigle is recording now,” she says. “It’s called Sun House by David James Duncan, publishing the first week of August. The book is magnificent, it will make you laugh and cry, and the 36-hour recording, with eight terrific narrators, will knock your socks off, I promise.”
An Industry Stalwart
Ingram Content Group (Ingram) is a familiar name in the publishing world. For more than 50 years, the La Vergne, Tenn., company has been a global business-to-business distributor of books in all their evolving formats, including print books, e-books, and audiobooks. In its industry-leading role, Ingram, says Margaret Harrison, v-p of digital services, is “uniquely positioned to help publishers meet the consumer-driven demands of the growing audiobook market.”
In terms of methodology, publishers working with Ingram send their digital audiobooks and metadata via CoreSource, Ingram’s market-leading digital services platform, which also provides publishers with operations support, Harrison says. And if a publisher has not already established a selling relationship with a particular e-audio library or retail channel, Harrison notes that Ingram can sell directly to those channels on behalf of the publisher as their distributor.
During the past decade of sustained audio industry growth, Ingram’s audiobook business has evolved in several ways, Harrison says: “First, the audio catalog has grown significantly. Barriers to entry for audiobooks are still fairly high, but we have seen more publishers launch audiobook programs, or at least test titles for audio.” In a more recent trend, publishers have begun testing AI-narrated audiobooks, including through the Apple Digital Narration program. “Ingram is keeping an open mind on AI,” she says, “and to the extent that it helps our publisher partners to affordably grow their audio business while maintaining quality and control of their intellectual property, we support exploration in this space.”
Another growth area that Harrison underscores is in channel partners and market share. “We work with many audio-channel partners, but we are seeing significant growth more recently from Apple, Spotify, and Hoopla and strong growth from OverDrive, Bolinda, and Google,” she says. “It’s great to see some diversification in the market, which helps publishers to reach their consumers wherever they choose to access content.” These factors have driven Ingram’s bottom-line success. “Our audio business grows every year,” Harrison says. “We expect a continuation of this trend in 2023.”
As for what lies on the horizon, “as partners like OverDrive innovate to surface more titles to patrons,” Harrison says, “we expect to see a decline in the pay-per-use model for frontlist titles. In fact, we have already begun to see a shift in this direction.” She expects audio catalog growth and participation across Ingram’s broader publisher base to continue. And in a more gradual shift, she believes publishers’ business models will change, with more publishers retaining their audio rights and making their audio content available throughout the market rather than via partner exclusives. “Furthermore, we are interested to follow thoughtful engagement by publishers and channel partners with AI in the future,” she says. “We expect to be deeply involved in the growth of audio for publishers for years to come.”
The Audio Pioneer
As the largest independent producer of audiobooks, John Marshall Media has produced more than 10,000 audiobooks, setting the standard for quality and efficiency across the industry. According to John Marshall Cheary, founder of John Marshall Media, creating exceptional audio and an amazing listening experience begins with embracing several guiding tenets that encompass the company’s core values. John Marshall Media believes in having pride in ownership, learning from mistakes, striving for excellence, displaying honesty and integrity, going above and beyond, and showing transparency in its processes so there are “no surprises” when it comes to delivering a great product.
For more than two decades, John Marshall Media has been a leader of innovation within the audiobook space, continually pioneering new methods to maximize their potential and surpass clients’ expectations. “Back in the early 2000s, we incorporated technology that allowed us to deliver unabridged and abridged programs in an unprecedented amount of time,” Kevin Fecu, head of audiobook production, says. “Whether it was our punch and roll recording process or how we embed room tone into a separate track, we were able to speed up the editing process by 40%.” When home studios took off in the mid-2000s, John Marshall Media also rose to the occasion, providing the narrator community with consultations, training, and educational workshops.
Of course, with new opportunities comes a renewed responsibility to get it right. “To stand above our competitors, our rigorous quality control has been a standard process throughout our company’s history,” Cheary says. When John Marshall Media embraced digital content, the change meant mastering new technology while continuing to deliver exceptional results. “With the introduction of the digital format, the floodgates were open with countless opportunities for errors to appear,” Fecu says. “To fight these errors, we’ve incorporated various stages of quality control, for example, our double-blind QC.” It’s a peer review process that ensures no mistakes slip through the cracks.
John Marshall Media continues to utilize cutting-edge technology to create content in-house and to assist creators in their personal studios. Upgrades include a customizable web portal for narrators and producers, to launch in the summer of 2023, and its patented “click to pronounce” software (launching in the fall of 2023), which will assist narrators with word pronunciation.
As the needs of listeners and listener demographics change, John Marshall Media will continue to lead the way. One area of huge potential growth is in the Spanish-language market. “As a company who has spearheaded a Spanish-language division, John Marshall Media Latin America, we believe this market has the potential to surpass the English-language market,” Cheary says. While the proof of its commitment to quality may already lie in its library of 10,000 audiobooks, John Marshall Media is ever forward-thinking. Whatever changes come, the John Marshall Media team is ready for the next 10,000.
Savoring the Classics
Whether readers are discovering classic books for the first time or becoming reacquainted with longtime favorites, Naxos AudioBooks delivers a wealth of literature in audiobook, digital, and print formats, the latter through a partnership with Blackstone’s print-on-demand platform. Naxos AudioBooks was established almost 30 years ago and, in that time, has earned recognition as a publisher of distinction within the audio space.
Christina Hardyment of the New York Times praised Naxos’s vision and consistent delivery of great books in an increasingly popular format. “Hurrah for Naxos,” Hardyment said, “the company that resurrects the great books of the past and takes pains to choose appropriate narrators, get pronunciations right, and remove multiple takes of the same line that lazy producers sometimes miss.”
According to Anthony Anderson, managing director of Naxos AudioBooks, the key to the publisher’s success lies in the curated selection of works it publishes and the attention to detail when delivering each finished book. Finding the right voice for each story is critical, and Anderson believes that AI is no substitute for organic human voices, especially when it comes to reading the classics.
While many readers are already familiar with the classic titles Naxos releases, finding the right audience remains a challenge. Anderson finds that reviews of Naxos titles can go a long way in terms of reaching listeners. Working with partners in both the consumer and library sectors also generates interest. Additionally, its audiobook library frequently sees an uptick in consumer interest whenever a movie or TV adaptation of a classic is released. It’s another reminder of how perennial the titles on the Naxos AudioBook list truly are.
New releases for Naxos include a collection of short stories by Russian author Nikolai Leskov, best known for his story “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” The stories are read by Nicholas Boulton. The next audiobook in Naxos’s Wilkie Collins series, The Law and the Lady, is also upcoming. The story, which features a female detective lead, is read by Lucy Scott. Additionally, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, read by Clare Wille, is the fascinating account of Englishwoman Isabella Bird’s travels on horseback in the 1870s. With its expansive library of titles and more books on the way, Naxos AudioBooks is satisfying the diverse interests of audiobook consumers with a passion for the classics. Anderson has confidence in the staying power of classic literature, and audio editions of these works are an ideal fit for today’s consumers.
Bringing Authors’ Visions to Life
It’s been a busy and transformative few years for One Night Stand Studios. “We’ve exploded in the four years we’ve been in business,” says Erin Spencer, founder and executive producer at One Night Stand Studios. “We love being busy, but, more so, we’re excited about the books we get to work on! Our in-house team of producers, editors, and coordinators has also grown to keep up with the volume of audiobooks we produce and to stay engaged with the narrator community, whose voices are the soul of what we do.” In addition to its audiobooks, One Night Stand has also published three original titles, available in all formats, and there are more on the way.
Early on, the company focused on books by indie authors in the romance category, but it has since expanded its scope to all genres, including scripted series. Producing such a variety of content requires Spencer and the One Night Stand team to remain flexible and ever responsive to the needs of each writer, particularly when it comes to choosing the right voice or voices to tell an author’s story. Some books benefit from a single narrator, while others are told better via multiple narrators and sound effects. “We try to look creatively at each project and bring the author’s vision to life however we can,” Spencer says. “Different books call out for different approaches, and it’s a lot of fun to put a creative spin on it.” It’s also critically important to Spencer that the voices reflect the diversity of the books and authors themselves. She adds that trust is key. “It’s essential that authors see us as a resource—as knowledgeable and trustworthy guides who have a deep respect for their artistic integrity.”
The company is unique in its outreach efforts, Spencer says: “Meeting our listeners and fans is one of the best parts of our job.” One Night Stand Studios has organized several large audiobook-focused events, including during Colleen Hoover’s Book Bonanza. “These in-person events are a fun way to engage with fans and really get to know what they are loving and responding to,” she says. During busy times, connecting with listeners is also a way to remember that whether it’s for an early reader needing a supplementary resource, an individual with visual impairment, or a tired commuter, audiobooks can be truly impactful. Spencer shares one encounter with an avid audiobook fan. “Recently, I met a woman at an event who brought all the attending narrators a small gift of appreciation,” she says. “She told me that she has two disabled children who require a lot of care and that audiobooks are her ‘vacation.’ She was so grateful to the narrators that she took the day to come to thank them personally.” It’s a testament to the growing value of audiobooks to listeners everywhere. “It’s moments like that that show me how touched people are by our work and that we affect people’s lives in a multitude of ways,” Spencer says.
A One-Stop Audio Production Resource
Radio Waves Studios is a full-service production company that provides mixing, assembly, editing, mastering, and more for audiobooks, podcasts, audio dramas, and radio plays. Based in the Radio Waves Building in New York City, the company has recently expanded beyond the studio walls to provide remote recording options for publishers and authors. Unlike other audiobook companies, Radio Waves Studios also provides outreach in the form of studio consultations and design support for those looking to create their own in-home studios. According to Sue Zizza of SueMedia, Radio Waves Studios’ independent production company, “in essence, Radio Waves Studios is a one-stop audio production resource.”
Radio Waves Studios’ ingenuity and creative spirit are evident in every production it undertakes. Particularly, the company specializes in projects that feature lively ensemble performances and immersive sound design effects. These standout qualities have been celebrated through numerous honors and awards: Radio Waves Studios has been nominated for nine Audie Awards, and it has won two. Additionally, it has received Wilbur Awards, Gracie Awards, and Gabriel Awards. And in 2022, Radio Waves Studios won the Mary Shelley Media Ecology Award for the novel Presence, the Play by William E. Jefferson, which Zizza calls “a captivating fantasy that evokes the spirited prose of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Dante Alighieri.”
Upcoming audiobook highlights for Radio Waves Studios include Eddie Reese: Coaching Swimming, Teaching Life, a biography of the U.S. Olympic swim coach written by Chuck Warner and Dana Abbott. In addition to recording the authors in the Radio Waves studio, producers will also be working remotely with now 81-year-old Eddie Reese. Another highlight for Radio Waves Studios is the limited podcast series Day by Day. The pilot for the series, which focuses on the lives of six diverse characters as they experience addiction and recovery, was featured in the 2022 Tribeca Festival audio storytelling programming. Radio Waves Studios is currently completing the last of the six episodes, as well as supplemental materials for listeners that focus on recovery.
Looking further ahead, Zizza anticipates a very bright future for Radio Waves Studios. “We see the trend of producing more titles with immersive sound and ensemble casts growing over the next few years,” she says. “The audience response has been so positive, more work will get produced with these features.” It’s an undeniably exciting time for audio content, particularly for indie authors and creators who might have been left out of the audio space in the past. “We are delighted that more independent producers and authors are turning to audiobooks, scripted podcasts, and audio drama to represent their stories in sound,” Zizza says.
A Boom in Production Values
Dolly Parton reading her own lyrics. Abraham Verghese reading his latest, The Covenant of Water, the new pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Visceral full-cast performances of genre hits like Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Charlaine Harris’s Midnight, Texas series, and the pleasure of Andy Serkis himself, who embodied Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, reading The Lord of the Rings.
As industry growth accelerates, RBMedia, the world’s largest audiobook publisher, offers readers premium experiences—what you might call audio blockbusters, like new titles from Danielle Steel and Alexander McCall Smith; Pulitzer finalists like Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao and Michael John Witgen’s Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America; invaluable evergreens; and BookTok sensations like this fall’s latest from Alex Aster, all while simultaneously striving to ensure these titles fit into listeners’ lives.
“RBMedia now comes to market under 12 publishing brands that cover a range of different genres, segments, countries, and languages,” says chief content officer Troy Juliar. Those brands include Recorded Books, W.F. Howes, Graphic Audio, and the Spanish-language BookaVivo, a recent launch, alongside German- and French-language brands. Altogether, Juliar says, RBMedia has published 65,000 titles, with some 8,000 more coming each year. In 2022, RBMedia broadened its distribution network through a partnership with Spotify to offer the entire catalog on the platform.
RBMedia takes great steps to understand its audience, its desires and expectations, and how audiobooks fit into listeners’ lives. Juliar says that “approximately 25% of listening” occurs while consumers are at home, relaxing, with another 25% occurring while consumers are traveling. “Other significant use cases include listening while doing chores, while exercising, and even around 10% while working,” he says. All that’s indicative, he notes, of the different ways listeners approach audiobooks, from focused listening to background listening while multitasking. Matching titles and premium listening experiences to the way consumers actually prefer to connect with books is key.
Juliar sees high-quality product as essential to growth—especially as each listener tends to consume more and more audiobooks over time. “We have experienced extremely strong double-digit annual sales growth for many years and expect that to continue,” Juliar says. “We are always working to increase the production value of audiobooks. Through our Graphic Audio brand, RBMedia is the leader in full-cast dramatized audiobooks that leverage music and sound effects. We’re doing innovative things with some nonfiction titles by adding ancillary content, and we often have authors perform their work in audio when it provides the best listening experience.”
One upcoming title, slated for summer, that fits that bill is All It Takes Is a Goal. Written and performed by New York Times bestselling author and top leadership speaker Jon Acuff, with exclusive bonus audio content, it is just the kind of book that makes a commute rewarding, relaxing more edifying, or tidying up a spreadsheet less onerous.
Enriching Young Readers
It’s an understatement to say that the pandemic has changed how we live, work, and learn. Among those changes was a significant increase in audiobook listening as kids adjusted to learning from home. Since long before the pandemic, Scholastic Audio, which specializes in audio content for kids and teens, has been steadily growing its listening library.
The Scholastic Audio production team, which is led by Paul Gagne and includes the production company Weston Woods, routinely adapts some of the most coveted books for young readers available today. “In 2016, we more than doubled the number of frontlist productions while simultaneously mining the rich Scholastic backlist,” says Lori Benton, v-p and publisher of Scholastic Trade Publishing. “We’ve focused on beloved series, including Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, Baby-Sitters Little Sister by Ann M. Martin, and Animorphs by K.A. Applegate.” From the company’s Graphix imprint, the audiobook version of Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo, Scholastic Audio’s first long-form graphic novel adaptation, won both the 2020 Odyssey Medal and an Audie Award. Scholastic Audio plans to continue to produce one or two titles seasonally from Graphix.
When adapting such engaging content for audiobook, it’s essential that the productions match the energy of the stories themselves. Narration, sound, and special effects are critical to enlivening the audiobook experience. “We have a very accomplished sound engineer on the production team, Steve Syarto, and his work has been pivotal to not only our full-cast graphic novel adaptations but also an expansion of sound design in general,” Benton says. She points to recent titles that have allowed the Scholastic Audio team’s talents to shine. Some standouts are Ryan La Sala’s The Honeys, which won this year’s Odyssey Medal, and two titles from Brian Selznick. His latest, Big Tree, is narrated by Meryl Streep, while Selznick’s Kaleidoscope is narrated by Gwendoline Christie. Benton calls the Kaleidoscope adaptation “particularly experimental.” “The team created the audio equivalent of Brian’s illustrations depicting an image refracted through a kaleidoscope,” she says. “The final product is magical!” Scholastic’s audiobooks also ignite readers’ interests through bonus content, including interviews with the authors, conversations between the authors and narrators, and authors’ notes read by the authors themselves.
There’s so much more in store for Scholastic Audio. For striving readers, visually impaired readers, or those who simply prefer auditory storytelling, additional favorites are on the way. “As we’ve returned to pre-pandemic activity levels, the level of engagement with children’s and YA audio has remained relatively high,” Benton says. “There are also more kid-friendly devices coming onto the market, such as Yoto and Tonies. And teens and tweens are rarely without a phone nearby, so audiobooks are always accessible. In short, it’s an exciting time for the audiobook industry.”
A Holistic Approach
Wisdom Publications has long been a leading publisher of books on Buddhism, philosophy, and meditation. Over the last five years, Wisdom has overseen significant growth and diversification of its titles and platforms. Recent highlights include the launch of Wisdom Academy, an online learning environment that provides lectures and courses on Buddhism, and its membership platform Wisdom Experience. “Both these platforms provide additional channels for our audience to engage with content from our books in varying formats,” says Daniel T. Aitken, CEO and publisher of Wisdom Publications. “They’ve also proved to be a wonderful additional acquisition channel for books.”
Another popular outlet for Wisdom is the Wisdom Podcast. Since its launch in 2015, the podcast has had one million downloads, with more every day. Both the Wisdom Podcast and its video counterpart, the Wisdom Dharma Chats, feature live interviews with individuals who offer unique perspectives on Buddhism and meditation.
In addition to these platforms, Wisdom is making a push to expand its audiobook category. Audiobook sales were already up more than 30% between 2021 and 2022. “Given this success, we are now focusing even more attention on audiobooks in 2023 and expect them to continue to perform well,” Aitken says. Wisdom’s current audiobook audience primarily listens through Amazon, Audible, and Apple Books. But in the coming weeks, Wisdom will be expanding its offerings to Spotify and libraries.
As listeners expect from the trusted and valued publisher, each of its audiobooks is carefully individualized according to topic, language, and the background of the author. “So far we’ve mostly experimented with author-narrated versus professionally narrated content and have found that it really varies from book to book,” Aitken says. Nonauthor narrators always work alongside a language expert so, whether a book includes Pai, Sanskrit, Tibetan, or other languages, expressions, and terms, listeners can be sure that they are authentic.
Forthcoming audiobook titles for Wisdom include The Foundation of Buddhist Practice, which is the second volume in the Library of Wisdom and Compassion. “This is a major series for us that our audience loves, and we’re thrilled to be bringing it to this new format,” Aitken says. “Authored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron, this series is arranged topically for people seeking practical spiritual advice and is peppered with the Dalai Lama’s own unique outlook.”
Another title certain to draw listeners is Beyond Distraction by Shaila Catherine. For Aitken, the relationship Wisdom has formed with Catherine encapsulates the personal approach it takes with every project and author. “This volume is a perfect example of how all the arms of Wisdom work together to expand upon our books,” Aitken says. “It started out as a book, and then we had Shaila come on to the Wisdom Podcast. Then we released the audiobook. This spring, we held an online course with Shaila. All of these outlets work together to provide our audience with a great depth and range of content.”
The All-Audio Company
With 20 years of digital distribution under its belt, Berlin-based Zebralution likes to think of itself as a pioneer in the world of digital audio, says Rebecca Souster, the company’s head of English language content. Founded in 2004, Zebralution made its mark as the first European digital distributor for indie music labels. Those deep roots in the music industry have been invaluable as the company has expanded to offer the global distribution of audiobooks and podcasts, as well as offer other marketing, production, and administrative solutions.
“We’ve gained a unique insight into the potential of audiobooks and how publishers can reach more listeners in more places,” Souster says. And that’s exactly what Zebralution does, in one-stop-shopping style.
One of the marketing strategies Zebralution is most excited about is Lismio, which Souster describes as a platform that bridges the gap between audiobooks and listeners. Available as a free mobile app and webapp, on the company’s YouTube, on Apple Podcasts, or through social media channels, Lismio enables listeners to browse and explore titles by author, narrator, and genre; curate their own collections; and share their favorites with other listeners. Within the app, users can select their preferred retailer for purchasing or streaming, including Apple, Audible, StoryTel, and many others.
Publishers can use Lismio for a raft of merchandising and promotion opportunities and will soon be able to employ a new feature called Lismio Backstage to manage their own dedicated microsites within the platform. Lismio Backstage offers a content management system, too, allowing publishers to curate themed collections, share smartlinks across social media channels, and automate the generation of social media assets. The company plans a rollout in the coming months.
Mirroring the general trend in the audio industry, Souster cites the last 18 months as a particularly positive period for her company. In that time, Zebralution has expanded to Mexico City, London, and New York and developed strong partnerships with some of the world’s most popular retail platforms. She believes the upward trend is here to stay and offers predictions for what lies ahead. Among the many developments she envisions are audio’s evolution to a core format, as opposed to an add-on; the growing importance of audiobook metadata; a shift in listener demographics toward a younger generation driving market growth; and publishers embracing the podcast model as a way to market audiobooks.
“People are listening to more audiobooks than ever before,” Souster says, “but the market potential is still largely untapped due to limitations publishers put on their business models. Embracing innovation will be key to unlocking further growth and meeting the evolving needs of audiobook listeners.”