Word on the Street

Long drives home to Scotland informed my love of audiobooks 30 years ago, and now, as the mother of a dyslexic teenager who loves stories, they are quite simply vital to family life. So I am the first to celebrate this “new” audio market that has emerged with stratospheric sales figures (albeit from a low base), not least because it appears to be engaging the elusive young male market. So I can even find it in my indie-bookseller heart to be thankful that Don Katz created Audible with all its disruptive, transformative impact. But where is the high street in all of this?

There is so much excitement in the industry for this bright shiny new thing that finds readers who don’t read but love stories, and opens up an under-exploited sales front. I share this but, as an indie bookseller, I also want to join in. We do still sell CDs at Mainstreet. In fact, we buy almost everything that’s available, and we actually celebrate the format with two audio listening dens (our Book Burrows), easily the most popular and commented-on part of the whole shop; but we are doing this with both hands tied behind our backs, when the range of titles is so limited and customers often simply default to download when they can’t find what they seek in-store.

In a market where bookshops are one of the few good news stories on Britain’s high streets, surely we can, as an industry, find the right technological solution to replace audio CDs with a format that really works for bricks and mortar—to say nothing of sharing and lending audio titles. Historically, when I have challenged publishers to produce more CDs for us to sell, the cry is of course the cost—download is so much cheaper. Well, OK, hands up, perhaps I’m not going to win that battle—however, this doesn’t mean we simply accept that physical bookshops should be shut out of the audio market.

We launched Mainstreet in 2008, when, amid a global recession, the rise of e-books was on the horizon. By 2011/12, a great deal of pressure was put on physical bookshops to demonstrate willingness to embrace the new format, or be written off as obsolete by publishers. Perhaps the most notable response to this was Waterstones’ controversial deal to stock the Kindle (remember them?). I will admit to being firmly against the distraction (as I saw it) of time and shop-floor space in return for very little margin on device or e-book, and so never attempted to sell either. Audiobooks, however, are different, and technology has moved on.

Fighting back

Against all odds, bookshops are experiencing a mini-revival with indie numbers up two years in a row (in 2017 and 2018) for the first time since 1995. Customers love bookshops for the experience and for discovery. Audio needs to be part of this. Imagine a new format with good design, excellent POS and, crucially, customer-friendly access. Perhaps we should be taking a leaf out of the record store book and make audio POS work as listening booths—much like our Book Burrows, but a bit more hi-tech.

As part of their response to e-books, publishers really focused on the physical format’s design and production, enabling booksellers to sell books as beautiful objects to own—from Penguin’s cloth-bound classics, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, to Bloomsbury’s Coptic-bound cookery book Polpo, a masterwork of form and function. We need a solution for audio that marries this quality of production with the right tech, at the right price.

Last week’s edition of The Bookseller took subscription, in all its numerous models, as its theme—covering the online and physical world. Both are growing markets. Some subscription services, of course, present thorny issues for publishers and authors regarding income.

The influence of Audible in creating the new market for audiobooks cannot be understated, however, as per an [analysis firm] Enders report from 2018, Audible is “more directly threatening to publishers in audio than Amazon Publishing is in written books.” This, in a market that is now over 5% of the total book market, with its dominant player seeing double-digit growth and, by 2017, in profit. Interestingly, Enders also recommended that publishers should seek out a range of audio formats, rather than focusing on one channel or format.

So I call on publishers to be inclusive in their thinking when it comes to audio. Let’s work together to find a way forward. Think of bookshops as another platform—just one where you can talk to humans and touch the books (audio or otherwise).

Rosamund de la Hey is the co-owner of indie The Main Street Trading Company located in St Boswells, Scotland.