Audiobooks are still the talk of the town in the publishing industry, but something has changed in recent years. At the end of the 2010s, the audiobook phenomenon was mostly limited to the English-language markets (and Germany), thanks to Audible’s growth, and to Sweden, thanks to Storytel’s development. But in 2023, the audiobook boom is global.
The latest chapter of the audio story takes us to South America, where Audible has just opened shop in Brazil and now will compete with local companies Ubook and Tocalivros. Audible is offering more than 4,000 titles for sale and to listen via subscription. The arrival of Amazon’s audio company in the largest market in Latin America, after several years of rumors, is now giving new hope to local audiobook publishers. Storytel had previously launched in South America, but quickly curtailed its operations in Brazil. Apple never opted to sell audiobooks in the country.
"At the 2019 Thessaloniki Book Fair, when audio publisher Mathias Lundgren, founder of Sweden’s Word Audio, lectured about audiobooks, they were as far from the Greek publishing market as Homer was from the Grand Canyon." But today, there are four audiobook platforms in the country, including Jukebooks, which launched in 2022 and today offers 700 Greek-language audiobook titles, all published in its first 12 months of operation. E-books never took hold in the Greek market, so it will be interesting to see if audiobooks can thrive.
Sweden’s Storytel, which had launched an aggressive international expansion, is now focusing on 10 primary markets: Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. Storytel continues to sell books in German, Arabic, and Spanish, but markets like Germany, the U.A.E., and Spain are in something of a holding pattern.
Meanwhile, Storytel’s Swedish compatriots Nextory and Bookbeat are taking more market share in the Nordics and growing more aggressively in Europe. Bookbeat, for instance, is taking market share in Poland, where it has the local support of Marginesy, a successful publisher acquired by Bonnier (Bookbeat’s parent company) in 2013. Several foreign platforms are competing with Audioteka, a pioneer in the Polish market that launched in 2008 and is also selling audiobooks in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Turkey.
Nextory, which sells books throughout the Nordic countries, bought its way into Spain and France recently through the purchase of existing players Nubico and Youboox. It also offers audiobooks throughout the Nordics as well as in German-speaking countries.
Small nations and the Arab world
In Portugal, the LeYa publishing group, perhaps the largest in the country, has partnered with Kobo to offer audiobook subscriptions. Romania went from being a country with virtually no audiobooks available to one that is seeing fierce competition between Voxa and Audiotribe, platforms that both offer unlimited listening subscriptions. Voxa has already expanded to neighboring Moldova. In Slovenia, this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, audiobook platform Mladinska Plus has already launched, and another, Beletrina, is in the final stages prior to launching.
The Arabic-speaking book market has demonstrated resilience, especially as Storytel has pulled back resources from the region and slowed growth. Earlier this year, several ex-Storytel employees launched Arabookverse, an Arabic-language audiobook production company based in London, with distribution through Germany’s Bookwire. Elsewhere in the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is flirting with audiobooks: the 2022 Jeddah Book Fair featured Michele Cobb, executive director of the U.S.’s Audio Publishers Association, and Robin Lai, a top U.S. audiobook producer, as speakers.
One can safely say that audiobooks are proliferating. The U.S. market has seen double-digit growth for more than a decade. In Sweden, 54.4% of book unit sales in 2022 were in audio format sold through subscription platforms, marking a tipping point—possibly the first time anywhere that a digital format has outsold print.
While that tipping point is in the distant future for smaller or less mature markets, we can still expect strong growth for audiobook platforms in the near future and beyond. Just ask Spotify and its 190 million users. At the beginning of this month, at a star-studded event at the company’s Manhattan headquarters, Spotify officially launched its new subscription audiobook service in the U.K. and Australia, and said a U.S. launch would come by winter. The new service allows subscribers to listen to 15 hours of audiobooks a month, and there has already been buy-in from all the major publishers.
David Kaefer, the head of Spotify’s audiobooks business, said the company believes there is lots of potential for even more growth. “By opening up access to a much larger number of people than have ever listened to audiobooks, we can really start to make that potential a reality,” Kaefer said. “We’re going to use our best-in-class personalization to help grow authors’ fan bases as the world’s leading music and podcast platform. We excel at recommending things at the exact right time, the right piece of content for each listener, right for each moment of their day. And we’re going to be just as focused on doing that in the audiobooks space.”
Carlo Carrenho is Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2023 audio ambassador and a publishing consultant.