The rise of digital audio has been one of publishing’s big stories in recent years. And as publishers gather for the 2019 London Book Fair, the format is showing no signs of slowing down. PW recently caught up with Amanda D’Acierno, President & Publisher, Penguin Random House Audio Group (PRH was the inaugural winner of the London Book Fair’s Audiobook Publisher of the Year prize last year) to talk about audio’s rise, and its prospects for future growth.

A decade ago, the digital conversation was all about e-books. But today, digital revenues for many publishers are being driven into positive territory by digital audio. If you’d told me a decade ago that audio would lead the way to profitability for publishers in the digital realm, I’m not sure I would have believed it—but that’s the reality today, isn’t it?

Audio has long been a lab for publishers in how to play in the digital space. It was a good place to experiment for a long time, because it had a different bottom line impact than it does today. I don’t oversee e-books, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to speak to the audio vs. e-books question. But one of the key aspects of digital audio growth is that it’s bringing in new consumers. In the Audio Publishers Association’s (APA) most recent consumer survey, 50% of listeners reported that the time they spend with an audiobook is in addition to their time spent reading, not replacing time with print or e-books.

Do you have a sense of where we are in audio’s growth curve?

I think this year will be another year of real growth for audio. The APA’s data shows that more than half of audiobook listeners are young, ages 18-44. And they’re listening on multiple platforms. They are downloading titles from Google Play, from an Audible subscription, from Apple Books, and they are using OverDrive’s Libby app to borrow from their library. And these are just a few of the digital audiobook stores. The more people I meet, the more combinations of audio apps I see.

Given the rapid rise in the demand for audio, did Penguin Random House also have to rapidly ramp up its audio publishing capacity?

We did. In fact, increasing capacity was a primary goal of the merger between Random House Audio and Penguin Audio. In 2014, our first year as the combined Penguin Random House Audio, we published 652 titles in audio. In 2018, we published 1,465. To make that happen, we had to do a lot of work on the front end. For example, what does it take to acquire those titles? The managing editors have to put everything in the system, what does that mean operationally? How do we secure the cover art and format for our product? What kind of digital distribution system do we need to have to get these recordings stored, and then out to accounts? It was a major investment.

In terms of production, we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve always had studios in Los Angeles, and we have expanded our facilities to include ten studios in LA, and five more here in New York. We’re also working with more directors, actors and post-production staff too. To help our producers find the right voice for every title, we’ve even built a database, called Ahab, which I think of as a kind of IMDb for voiceover talent. We’re working to roll Ahab out internationally across Penguin Random House now, and we’ll open it up to external partners in the near future.

What’s the international outlook like for audio? Is the rest of the world seeing the same kind of growth?

The U.S., the U.K., and Germany, are very mature audiobook markets that are seeing strong year-over-year growth. In 2017, Penguin Random House launched an audio division in Canada, and Audible launched a distinct site in Canada as well. And we’re seeing increased demand for Spanish language audio in the U.S. and abroad. Our colleagues at Grupo Editorial have overseen a robust Spanish language audio publishing program, and last year we began partnering with them to jointly produce Spanish language audiobooks, including titles like Dan Brown’s Origin, and forthcoming editions of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

In 2014, our first year as the combined Penguin Random House Audio, we published 652 titles in audio. In 2018, we published 1,465.

Audio was the hot topic at last year’s London Book Fair, and audio is prominent once again this year. I have to ask—16 years ago when you started in audio, did you foresee a day where the format would be the talk of the industry at international book fairs?

Honestly, 16 years ago I would have been surprised if you told me that audio would be the talk of the industry in 2019. It’s been a very exciting development, and great to see the growth of this format that so many people have worked so tirelessly to pursue. Like most of us in publishing, I came into the business very much thinking book, book, book. Then, I really fell in love with taking an author’s work, works that I have so much respect for, and finding the right actors to bring those written works to life in audio.

In a talk last year in Frankfurt you noted that Michelle Obama did not do an abridged edition, and spent almost 7 days recording the audio edition of Becoming. Abridged editions used to be the norm—is Michelle Obama an outlier, or have authors bought in to doing complete audio editions?

Out of the more than 1400 titles that we published last year, less than 20 were abridged. In the early days, audiobooks were abridged to keep the price point down not to mention it was very cumbersome to have 25 or 30 CDs in a package. That’s all changed with digital delivery. Customers now demand an unabridged product. And just as readers are more aware of audio today, so are authors. Ten years ago, we were still educating customers about audiobooks. Now, we’re focused on helping them figure out what their next audiobook listen should be. Authors know this, so it’s not at all difficult to get them into the studio to read, especially for nonfiction. As for Mrs. Obama, I can’t imagine she would have wanted anyone else to read her work.

So where is the audio business now in terms of the catalog—are you still combing through the backlist seeing what needs an audio edition, or maybe an updated or better quality audio edition? Or are you focused on frontlist?

Most of our current production efforts are focused on frontlist titles. We’ve really combed through the backlist in the last few years, and in the English language there aren’t many titles left out there that are appropriate for the format that haven’t been exploited in audio. And by appropriate, I mean narratives, excluding things like cookbooks and photography books. That’s why I think building the audiobook catalog up with more languages is really the next big growth area for audio.

Speaking of future growth, we see so many possibilities for more exposure. It seems like wherever you look, you see someone has earpods in. What do you think is going to drive future growth for audio?

Last year was another huge holiday season for smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa devices, and the research shows that people with those devices are listening to audio books. But the way they’re listening to audiobooks is changing. Instead of only listening while multi-tasking, like during a commute, or a workout, now we’re starting to see that people are listening to audiobooks in the evening to wind down, as a relaxing end-of-the-day experience. And we are shifting our marketing messages to reflect that. Given the continued adoption of smart speakers, the format’s appeal with younger, 20 and 30-something readers, and seeing our early sales so far this year, I am optimistic about another year of double-digit growth.