The advance of audio

FutureBook has previously described its audiobook strand as the “Audiobook Revolution”. How long can a revolution last and what, in fact, is a revolution? In the context of audiobooks, you could draw on the definition of it being a sudden and grand change—not necessarily something you would associate with the publishing industry at large. However, to be fair to all involved, there have been some seismic shifts. The significant question is whether there are more seismic shifts to come.

My thesis is that we are now on the path of evolution, having gone through the revolution.

The driving force behind the revolution was technology. It is a well-rehearsed discussion that the smartphone has changed our lives. With respect to audiobooks, it has changed the market from a specialist publishing back-water, highly valuable to the user base it was originally intended for, to a category that the largest technology businesses are deeply involved in, and all publishers are hankering after. The smartphone increased accessibility, delivered on people’s desire to multitask and fed their strong desire to consume content.

The result of this has been the creation of a flourishing consumer market, thanks in no small part to Audible’s creative retail drive to build the market. There is an important side-note here, and that is the valuable role that public libraries have played, and continue to play. They have consistently been a great supporter and promoter of audiobooks and have all adopted e-audiobooks for their members to enjoy free of charge.

Supply and demand

The creation of the market has driven an increasing demand for content. While specialist audiobook publishers have continued to plough the furrow of producing high-quality audio editions, print publishers, increasingly, have rushed into the space, setting up audio departments and launching a land grab for rights. Ah, the rights question. As print publishers have adopted the position of “No audio rights, no deal”, agents have sought to do the right thing by their authors and ensure rights get exploited. Specialist audio publishers have continued to extol the virtues of expertise and the ability to fully exploit sales opportunities across consumer and library channels. While demand for content continues, the rights wrangle is set to continue. The relationship between demand and supply dictates price, and price is related to the question of profit.

Profitability is going to dictate some of the next moves. We have gone through the Wild West stage of revolution: everyone has rushed in, thrown money around and got their feet wet. The next stage will see publishers looking more closely at the profitability of their audiobook endeavours. Producing quality audiobooks is not a cheap act, and consumers will continue to demand quality.

The market is starting to settle. Audible has moved into profit, according to its latest financial account. However, its revenues are only 25% of those of Waterstones. Google has entered the market this year and will have an increasing impact. Apple is about to launch. Storytel is proving to be a fascinating business. Our very own Audiobooks.com, the best URL one could hope for in the sector, is continuing to march forward in various territories. We have, however, seen players come and go—Bookchoice and Bookbeat being notable departures.

Drivers of change

In the same way it drove revolution, technology will be the driver of evolution, albeit in a more established market. Smart speakers are an area that may well further shift the market—feeding the great enablers of accessibility and convenience. Who doesn’t like the flexibility of simply being able to call up your favourite book?

As the third way of delivering book content, alongside print and e-book, the contention is that audiobooks will not remain in third place. They will become as important as e-books. The art of listening is developing and evolving. Consider the expansion of the podcast, the ongoing march of music consumption and the interesting atomisation of radio. People like listening while they are doing other stuff. Generationally, as people’s attention spans diminish, the desire to do more things at the same time will grow. Audiobooks have arrived: they are the most dynamic area of publishing, and are set to continue evolving.

Miles Stevens-Hoare is general manager at W F Howes & Wavesound. He will will deliver a keynote speech in the Audio stream in the session Big Audio: Dynamite at this year’s FutureBook Live conference, which takes place in London on 30th November. For more information about the conference and to purchase tickets, visit the FutureBook Live website.