Adventures in audio

For so long audio books have seemed to be the "poor relation" of publishing, so it's great to see a widening of interest in this area.

The problem is it's extremely difficult to give accurate statistics on the size of the UK audiobook market.  The reason is the last time the industry turnover was fully assessed was in 2007 by the now defunct SWPA (Spoken Word Publishing Association), when the market was estimated to be worth £75m retail and split 60/40 between adult and children’s publishing.

After much digging around on the internet I discovered some more recent independent market research conducted in 2015 which estimates the market is now worth around £91m. The reason for lack of clarity is that Amazon owned Audible have never released any of its sales data and as the company now accounts for such a large proportion of the market it's hard to assess accurately how much their contribution has changed the overall growth in audio sales. In July 2015, The Bookseller noted that Audible’s UK company accounts recorded sales of £29.5m (up almost £9m from 2013), which would support the estimate that the total UK market is around £91m. In the UK recent statistics compiled by the PA showed that audio downloads grew nearly 30% between 2014/2015. Industry sources reckon that the split is now 80% adult to 20% children's in download audio compared to 60/40 split in 2007.

Luckily, in the US things are much easier to assess as the APA (Audio Publishers Association) helpfully collate and publish their industry figures annually.   Their figures for 2014, which were released in July 2015 revealed that their market is now worth £1.47bn and it showed a 13.5% increase on 2013 sales by value.  Unit sales increased by 19.5% year on year. Figures released this week by the AAP (American Association of Publishers) say sales of audio downloads grew by 38% in Jan - Oct 2015, an exponential leap. An industry source in the US reported that downloads represent 70% of all sales compared to physical format. However, some US publishers report that they have seen growth in the CD market in the last year.

So what is responsible for this huge leap in sales and what are they buying?

In the US 87% are sales in adult genres compared to just 13% for children's audiobooks.  In the US though, children's audio is growing. But this area is problematic as selling online makes it tricky for "pester power" to work, due to the way the download products are physically purchased. In general you have to be over 18 to purchase them on the internet and often kids just aren't aware of what's out there and available for them in audio.
There is still a market for physical audio for kids books in both the UK and the US, where obviously "pester power" is still going strong.

In the adult market 78% of sales are for Fiction compared to 22% in Non-fiction and most are now unabridged (up to 91%).

Word of mouth is the key way people find out about audiobooks, with most being bought after recommendations by family and friends. Subject matter is key to the choices people make when choosing what to buy.

The average age of listeners/buyers is also getting younger, which is really interesting. Audio publishing has always suffered from the perception that it was a format only of interest to the 40 plus age bracket.
However, now the average age of audio buyers in the USA is 24 - 35 year olds.  

One theory about this is that the digital download format has led to a younger customer base. I wonder if there is also the possibility that we are seeing the "Harry Potter" generation of audio listeners growing up to become regular users and purchasers of audio products?

The next question is obviously where are they being used? The APA survey reported that people are still using them in their cars or on their commutes via public transport, but there is a growing trend for listening at home while relaxing, via their laptops, which is slightly surprising. They are also used when people are in the gym or when out running and also when doing DIY or housework at home. I always like to say that audio books are ideal for any time when your hands are busy but your mind is free to roam.

So what type of books are they buying?

The most popular area is crime fiction by a country mile, followed by thrillers and suspense. If you have a series by an author you will find that there is great loyalty once someone has committed to listening to early books in a series.  Reviews and comments online really bear this out.

But beware! Audiobook fans really hate it when publishers switch narrators mid series, so be careful when casting to ensure that the narrator is on board to be available for the long haul.

Science fiction and fantasy are also growth areas, but these can be problematic in terms of production costs due to the longer length of many novels in this genre.

In non-fiction the bestselling genres are History and biography/memoir, especially some celebrity memoirs. Self-help/mindfulness is also a growing area here in the UK.   

Also getting more popular with audio fans are the multi voice "special" audio projects for big brand name authors. These are more like mini radio plays which often involve a large cast of actors playing myriad parts and where the dialogue contained within the book is performed like a play rather than just a single voice reading.

I produced and directed the multi-voice recording of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book" which went on to win 3 Audie Awards and was nominated for "Best Audio Book Of The Year" at the 2015 Audies Awards ceremony in New York. It's been receiving rave reviews on with many people confessing they'd bought the book especially because it's a multi-cast performance, having already bought the single voice recording previously.

This "added value" area of audio publishing is looking to become yet another way for publishers to exploit their audio rights and to be innovative and pioneering in the growing global audio publishing industry.

'Adventures in audio' was first given as a conference speech at the Independent Publishers Guild’s annual conference.

Muirden has been an audiobook publisher for 16 years, she is now director and co-founder of digital publishing company Creative Content Ltd.