The London Book Fair hosted a thought-provoking panel discussion titled "The Future of Audio in Publishing: Global Trends and the Impact of AI," which brought together industry experts to explore the current state and future prospects of the audiobook market. The panel was moderated by Videl Bar-Kar, v-p of audio at Bookwire GmbH, and featured speakers including Aurelie de Troyer, senior v-p and head of U.K. and European content at Audible; Owen Smith, v-p of product and technology for audiobooks at Spotify; Amanda D'Acierno, president and publisher at Penguin Random House Audio; Helena Gustafsson, chief content officer at Storytel; and Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association. The popularity of the panel was belied by the extensive line of people waiting to get in, which was perhaps double the occupancy of the “main stage” room, which held 100 or so participants.

Videl Bar-Kar introduced the expert speakers and highlighted the importance of the conversation in shaping the future of the audiobook industry, quipping, "If we can't figure out here as a group where our audio is going, I don't think anyone else can."

Michele Cobb began by sharing impressive statistics about the U.S. audiobook market. "For the first time in 2023, our consumer survey showed that more than 50% of US adults have listened to an audiobook,” she said. “This is a huge increase in the past couple years and going along with that, what publishers care about is that we've had double-digit revenue growth and that's been for 11 years in a row."

PRH’s Amanda D'Acierno discussed the potential for further growth. "53% means that 47% have never listened to an audiobook before," she said, so we have a long way to go and a lot of growth ahead of us." She highlighted the importance of high-quality productions and expanding into non-English languages, as well as exploring new formats like illustrated books and multimedia experiences. "We're really expanding into illustrative books and cookbooks and really creating newer experiences," she said, mentioning that PRH Audio had just published the audio for Dolly Parton's coffee-table book Behind the Seams, which "included interviews and music," making readers feel as if they "were in this intimate conversation with Dolly telling you about her career, through her fashion—and then you can have the coffee-table book too.”

All three of the first speakers emphasized the growing interest in foreign language audiobooks, particularly Spanish. "We know that the majority of those non-English language titles that are being produced by our publishers are in Spanish," Cobb said, "and we're starting to see that other languages are coming, you know, forward in, in all of this." D'Acierno confirmed this trend, stating that PRH’s Spanish division, Grupo Editorial, is now returning to its back catalog to see where it has rights that have not been exploited in audio. “Grupo, at this point, I think has thousands of books available in Spanish language that are global," she said. "We have several hundred books in the U.S catalog that are also published in Spanish and then distributed globally.”

"I think it's fair to say right that the Spanish market has a long way to go," Bar-Kar added. "I think there are 20,000 titles, but when you think about population size, the number of Spanish speakers, which is like half a billion in the world, I think that's a complex market and one with a huge opportunity there.”

D'Acierno further emphasized the growth potential in other languages such as French and Hindi. She also pointed out the evolving nature of the market. "We all remember when we used to do a British version audio and then an American English version," she said. "So I think, as the market expands and grows, some of those slight differences will change." She used Spanish as an example; while there are different accents, she said, it may be necessary for a publisher to commit to a single one.

Aurelie de Troyer emphasized Audible's focus on driving customer value while supporting creators. "What we really, really think about all the time is how do we continue to drive customer value with, at the same time, making sure that we're just creating an environment that is supporting the creators," she said. "Because the future of audiobooks, we believe, is in the creators—the books and the creators." She also discussed Audible's investments in original content, adapting novels, and reimagining audiobook delivery through multi-voice narration and soundscaping.

De Troyer later pointed PW to the release, next month, of George Orwell's 1984 with a multicast featuring Andrew Garfield, Cynthia Ervio, Tom Hardy, and Andrew Scott in Dolby 3D, and the release of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. She also noted that the company recently collaborated with director Sam Mendes to create high-budget adaptations of such Charles Dickens classics as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. She added that the company was expanding its catalog in countries where the audiobook category is still developing, such as Japan, Brazil, and Spain. Prior to launching in Brazil, Audible collaborated with more than 500 Brazilian narrators to produce over 1,500 audiobooks in Brazilian Portuguese

Helena Gustafsson shared insights about Storytel's presence in 28 non-English language markets and the benefits of the unlimited streaming model for encouraging consumption. She introduced their recently launched "Voice Switcher" feature, which allows users to choose between human narration and synthetic voices. "The voice switcher is not replacing the human narrator," she said. "But you also then have an addition to use to choose between three or four synthetic voices that we have developed...and I also think it's a great way to actually give the consumers the choice."

Owen Smith credited Spotify with nearly doubling Bookstat's growth in the market last year, saying that after Spotify introduced audiobook streaming last October, Bookstat's predicted 14% growth jumped to 28%. “We’re really happy with that,” he said, explaining that Spotify’s intention was to bring new listeners into the market and that statistical growth suggested the company had been successful in doing just that. Smith then drew parallels between the growth of the podcast industry and the potential for audiobooks: "I think there's like a rich suite of behaviors that we've learned from podcasts that we think can really apply to audiobooks too." Spotify's entry into the audiobook market aims to expand the audience by leveraging their algorithmic discovery tools and offering a bundled "Audiobooks in Premium" service, which offers some 200,000 titles—of which 150,000 have been listened to since launch. In April, Spotify is launching Countdown Pages for Audiobooks, a service that enables users to "pre-save" audiobooks prior to their release date, enabling authors and publishers to promote their upcoming titles ahead of launch.

Spotify's audiobook launch has not come without criticism. Earlier this month, the company courted controversy with its new terms for its Findaway Voices service for independent authors appeared to overstep. Though the company quickly offered a clarification, authors remain vigilant. On Wednesday, the Coalition of Concerned Creators (CCC), issued a statement saying they were disappointed with being unable to question Smith directly during the panel. "We continue to be underwhelmed by Spotify’s transparency about their long-term ambitions for their product and this category as they continue to hide behind a guise of being creator-first—despite concrete historical examples of the platform being the opposite for musicians," said the statement. The CCC has bought several billboards around Olympia London, where the fair is being held, that say "Don't let Spotify do to authors what it did to musicians."

The panel briefly discussed the role of AI in audiobook production and discovery, acknowledging both the concerns and potential benefits. They agreed on the need for transparency and clear labeling when using synthetic voices. "There needs to be real transparency and trust," said Bar-Kar. "Consumers need to decide, and we talked about it as well. I think there needs to be very clear labeling on behalf of what's going out there and presenting to consumers." When Bar-Kar asked if any of the panelists were looking at the possibility of adding advertising to audiobooks, all the panelists balked. But Gustafsson said that one opportunity for audiobooks was product placement. "We see our product as a premium product and we don't think ads have a place there," she said. "But me personally, I think using product placement in books. I'm amazed that that isn't been done more than it is. I think there's a lot of writers that actually can get some sponsorship...because they're already doing it, to be honest."

Overall, the panelists exuded optimism about the future growth of the audiobook industry, driven by catalog expansion, format innovation, improved discoverability, and the exploration of new markets and languages.