The audiobook boom is most prominent in North America, and it is spreading across the world, as discussed in a panel on Wednesday at the New York Rights Fair entitled “The Audiobook Heard ‘Round the World.”
The panel was loosely divided into two camps. One, represented by Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Sweden’s Storytel, was in favor of streaming services. The other camp works on a pay-as-you-go à-la-carte model and included Nathan Maharaj, senior director of merchandising at Rakuten Kobo, and Jemma Wolfe, marketing communications manager at Audiobooks.com, both Toronto-based.
Gustafsson, whose company is market leader Audible’s main competition in Europe, noted that streaming services are particularly attractive in countries that have relatively “immature” audiobook markets. The all-you-can-listen model is effective at getting listeners to try the services and sample books on topics or in genres they might be unwilling to purchase.
That said, Gustafson lamented the lack of selection in some of the 12 markets where the company operates. “In Sweden, there were just 1,000 audiobooks produced last year and in some countries, that number was just 100.” This compares with nearly 80,000 produced in the U.S. last year.
Wolfe attributed the recent acceleration in demand for digital audiobooks to the prevalence of on demand entertainment. “People want instant access, and in a busy culture you often need to multitask to get what you want done in a day,” she said. The company‘a slogan—“Turn a waste of time into reading time”—highlights the utility of audiobooks in a busy age. Audiobooks.com has also partnered with several car companies to have its app installed in the vehicles’ entertainment systems.
Kobo, the e-bookseller owned by the Japanese company Rakuten, launched its audiobook service in September 2017 in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia, and added France this year. “Part of our mission as a company is to help turn leisure time into reading time, and we asked ourselves, ‘If you can’t use your eyes or your hands were busy, how would you read?’ ” said Maharaj. One of the main questions for Kobo, which produces its own e-readers, was whether to implement a hardware solution. “Would we take an e-reader that would last a month on a charge, and reduce the battery life by adding audiobooks? How would you add a headphone jack to an existing device, especially if that device was waterproof?,” Maharaj added.
Looking ahead, each panelist was confident that the market for audiobooks will remain vital, in particular as more titles become available. “Right now, our biggest genres are fiction in general, and mystery and thrillers and ‘feel good’ books, in particular,” said Gustafson. At audiobooks.com, where the audience tends to be clustered in the 25–44 age-range, Wolfe said, “They are higher earning and educated and divided along the lines of 75% fiction, 25% nonfiction, and read genre and political memoirs and stuff, and more recently self-help.” And at Kobo, Maharaja noted that he is witnessing the consumption of more and more middle grade books, which is nice to see.