The great audiobook mystery

The great audiobook mystery

It’s apposite that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection is currently 2017’s most popular audio download, as the great audiobook mystery of our time is similar to that of Holmes’ famous “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”, with the dog that didn’t bark being the clue that solved the crime. Like Holmes, anyone trying to gauge how much the audio market is worth knows that the answer is in the information that we don’t have available. 

With Audible choosing not to share its sales data, the digital share of the audio market is difficult to estimate. Nielsen’s Understanding the UK Audiobook Consumer report shows UK consumer downloads of audiobooks stood at five million units between January and July 2017, 14% up on 2016, and value was at £34m, a 26% boost. 

We can build an idea of the total audio market figure by collecting data from publishers, factoring in Nielsen’s consumer data and using US audio figures as a comparison. The Publishers Association estimated the 2016 market at £16m (based on invoiced figures supplied by those publishers publishing, as opposed to licensing, their own audio). Data from publishers seen by The Bookseller indicated a figure of around £90m. Audible’s own UK accounts show sales of £67m—growth of 54% year on year.

If the UK market follows the US, then further rises can be predicted: the Audio Publishers’ Association estimates that audiobook sales in 2016 totaled more than $2.1bn, up 18.2% on 2015, and with a corresponding 33.9% increase in units. It was the third consecutive year that audio sales grew by nearly 20% in volume.

The UK market is likely to be further stimulated by new retailers, with BookBeat, Kobo and all launching their audio offers this year, and Google, Apple and even Spotify likely to follow them in.

There is also growth in physical—some good news for booksellers. CD sales have rallied in recent years, though their value has fallen a long way from what it used to be. Last year saw 745,778 physical audiobooks sold through Nielsen BookScan’s TCM for £9.2m—a 1.23% boost on 2015’s value, but 61% down on the market’s peak of £23.7m in 2008. 

In the 12 monthly Audible lists in 2016, Children’s titles claimed 40.7% of the 240 positions on offer but, incredibly, every single one of those was a Harry Potter title, with all seven of the original series charting in the year-end top 10. No other kids’ title made the 2016 top 50. 

In contrast, the Audio CD top 20 for the year to date features a whopping 19 kids’ titles—including the ubiquitous Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which appears in fifth place. Given that the average seven-year-old probably doesn’t have an Audible subscription, J K Rowling’s phenomenal success in audio download can be credited to “first-wave” Harry Potter fans, now nostalgia-loving, iPhone-brandishing, twentysomething Millennials. 

Nielsen’s data backs this up: 48% of all adult audiobook consumers (aged 18+) are under the age of 35. Actual children, on the other hand, are keeping audio CDs alive. Of 2016’s near-750,000 audiobooks sold, nearly 300,000 were kids’ titles: that volume is the genre’s best in audio since its 2013 high, while Adult Fiction and Non-Fiction were both noticeably down. 

However, 2017 is shaping up to be narrative non-fiction’s year, with Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect—a seven-part Audible Originals series on the birth of free internet pornography—spending three consecutive months at the top. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which has rocketed back into the print and e-book charts after being published in 2015, made its début in the Audible ranking in March, and has remained ever since. The popularity of podcasts could be fuelling this narrative non-fiction boost, with Nielsen’s research showing that 75% of audiobook consumers listen to podcasts, with 28% doing so weekly.

Again, there is a clear difference between the type of non-fiction title that does well in CD format and the kind that charts in the Audible ranking. Aside from humour titles such as Alan Partridge’s Nomad (really a fiction title in all but name), physical audiobook non-fiction is overwhelmingly dominated by language guides, with the Collins Easy Learning Audio Course for Spanish the only non-Children’s audiobook in the 2016 top 10. 

And take note, retro format enthusiasts: language audiobooks seem to be the only titles still selling in cassette, with a John Wiley & Sons trio of Spanish, Japanese and Arabic for Dummies selling a combined 638 units in 2016.