Audiobooks are now a $5 billion market worldwide, and they continue to grow. The U.S. audiobook market continues to post double-digit growth rates, reaching $1.6 billion in sales for 2021, says Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audiobook Publishers Association, noting that the U.S. market has seen 11 years of signficant growth. Even though audio editions were once considered a niche market, the latest data suggest that more than half of American book consumers (53%) have listened to an audiobook, Cobb says.
Sales in Europe, meanwhile, now account for as much as 5% of all book revenue, says Enrico Turrin, deputy director of the Federation of European Publishers.
“The increasing availability of titles is the biggest driver of audiobook growth,” Videl Bar-Kar, global head of audio for Frankfurt-based Bookwire, asserted in January at Digital Book World in New York. “The best way to grow the catalog of available titles is through backlist.” The use of AI-generated voices offers publishers who cannot afford human narrators the opportunity to turn backlist into audiobooks at an affordable cost. “And if the book sells and becomes a success,” Bar-Kar added, “they can always go back and re-record the book with a human narrator.”
Bar-Kar called the audiobook market a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for the publishing industry, noting that there are new people discovering audio for the first time each year, and that audio is attracting new consumers into the market alongside existing customers.
In June, Sweden’s Storytel, one of the world’s most popular subscription services for audiobook streaming, announced it had partnered with ElevenLabs, a U.S. AI speech provider. Together the companies have developed VoiceSwitcher, a feature that allows a listener to pick an AI-generated voice that suits their preference. At present, the service is available for select English-language titles, and it is being expanded into Nordic languages and Spanish (with various regional accents), among other languages.
Another Swedish company that is not sleeping on the opportunity is audio streaming service Spotify, which launched audiobooks at Frankfurt last year and is currently offering audiobooks in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said he believes the market could become as big as $70 billion in annual sales in the coming years. In 2022, the Swedish company acquired Sonantic, a London-based company that produces AI voices. And in June it filed a patent for a “text-to-speech synthesis system” that claims to be able to emulate human emotion. Apple, not to be left behind, also launched AI-powered audio narration for some titles on Apple Books early this year.
The APA’s Cobb notes that there may be shifts in prevailing business models, moving from credits-based systems, like the one pioneered by Amazon’s Audible service, to the all-you-can-consume model. “There is growth in both areas,” she says.
Discovery is also changing, as new consumers are increasingly finding books on social media, especially on TikTok. People are increasingly building online communities around listening to audiobooks, Cobb adds, but as with with print books, “the biggest challenge is marketing.” And as with print, many publishers are turning to social media influencers to do their marketing.
Kurt Thielen, CEO at audiobook publisher Zebralution, says that he is seeing a market shift in Germany, where the company is based. “We’re seeing people do an audiobook with everything, from books to magazines to personal brand content,” he says. “It’s a fundamental change in the marketing approach.” Thielen says that 30-minute episodic serialization is becoming more prevalent.
Growth in audiobooks has been strong across most demographics, industry observers say, with many younger users showing a preference for audiobooks over digital reading, says Shauna Moran, trends manager for the U.K.-based consultancy Global Web Index. She adds that 68% of European Gen Z respondents say they “prefer audiobooks to e-books” and 28% say they “regularly listen to podcasts.” Moran notes that the content Gen Z respondents prefer is “engaging and goal-oriented,” such as self-help. As far as discovery goes, no surprise that Moran calls out the power of TikTok to persuade readers and notes there has been a recent shift on the platform to promoting videos focused on audiobooks. The hashtag that identifies them? #AudioTok, naturally.