Voicing a revolution

In publishing, we normally look 12 months ahead, or perhaps five years for investments. But over the next 20 years we’ll see real change and the audiobook industry will be shaken by world events and technology—for the better.

“Voice tech” will be the next revolution. It’s hard to imagine in today’s text- and screen-based society, but voice recognition apps such as search, device control, shopping and social media will replace screens. It’s already here: only five years after inception, half of citizens in the developed world (47%) owns a smart speaker. How odd we were, the next generation will think, for our incessant tapping on little screens. Wearable tech such as Amazon’s Echo Loop (a small ring enabling you to whisper demands into your palm, and cup your ear for Alexa’s answer) gives a glimpse of the shape our future, with virtual assistants always at our disposal. No need to pull out your phone, even for a phone call. Audiobooks will be a beneficiary of the new generation of voice apps as spheres of our lives transition and we get used to the ease and convenience of voice, and brands have to offer aligned products. Audiobooks are part of the fabric of a healthier technology on the go, where screens play a small role. 

Every book published will be available as an audiobook. AI-driven Text-to-Speech apps for audiobook production will leap forward. The AI narrator could be a sampled actor, or a “designer voice” to match the book or brand. This technology will advance in performance, quality, and from a supply perspective—cost and speed through full automation. A robot will never match human emotion, but it will be acceptable for titles that wouldn’t otherwise make it to audio, helping audio branch out to new sectors such as academia. Additionally, recording kits will drop in price and become more accessible, enabling high-quality home studios and amateur productions. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have 100% of new books published in audio, offering consumers incredible choice. 
Audiobooks will be as rich as movies and documentaries. The bar will rise on production values, with publishers striving to differentiate from AI recordings, justify premium pricing and appeal to self-published authors. Non-fiction will sound like documentaries; fiction a trip to the movies. Bonus content or original material will become the norm. Expect regular inclusion of celebrities, first-hand recorded evidence, original music and well-integrated sound effects for brand authors. Interactive audiobooks could become popular, especially for kids. 

Buoyant libraries will boost audio. Urbanisation, tribal politics and the growing economic inequality is only set to get worse. Historically, this has pressured governments to invest in public services to appease public unrest. Library digital services will come of age with better range after 30-plus years’ investment, effective e-lending models, slick apps for borrowers and greater public awareness. Libraries will be open 24/7 with membership fobs, CCTV, automation and advertised staff times. This, alongside an ageing population with healthcare keeping us energetic at ripe old ages, will support the large captive audience for audiobooks. Audio is already a popular category for libraries, and as mass-market demand grows, e-audio will also take a greater share of material budgets. 

Voice-assisted audio discovery will abound. “Tell me a story”, or more likely, “Recommend a psychological thriller set in Italy, narrated by Saul Reichlin or someone similar”, will become normal; intelligent responses will aid discoverability in a crowded market. If audio matches print output, we could see 50,000-plus new titles per month—10 times the figure of today. Instead of endless research, users will simply have a conversation with a virtual personal assistant. Metadata will continue to be deeper and more useful to a voice environment, with audio characteristics fully integrated. Big data will scour reviews and sales algorithms to provide a relevance beyond lists. The voice assistant will cut to the chase and consumers will value speed and convenience over price or perfect selection, so publishers will fight to be on recommended voice lists. 

Streaming and purchasing audio models will merge. There is much talk of streaming models for audiobooks, and it will emerge for self-published and text-to-speech audio, which will help lever traffic. But it will likely flip to à la carte for premium audiobooks. We should remember the lesson of big music labels, who remain in crisis because the rise of streaming has halved their revenues over the past two decades. They were forced into it by piracy and innovated with live events (now responsible for 60% of big labels’ revenue). Audiobooks have neither the stick of piracy, nor the carrot of an alternative live-event model. We must design a better future, leveraging value. 

What do you think? Predicting the future is never easy but, with few exceptions, we know what will happen in the next generation of audio—because it’s already happening. The seeds are sown. Perhaps the more useful question is when the changes will happen. One thing is certain: audio is going to play a leading role in the publishing industry. 

Dominic White is head of publishing and commerce at W F Howes, the UK’s leading audiobook, digital services, and large-print publisher, releasing about 80 new unabridged audiobooks every month. Part of the RBmedia group, W F Howes celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.