How audio is beginning to make a noise

How audio is beginning to make a noise

Last week The Bookseller introduced its first ever audio download chart, with data provided by Audible. And not before time.

Over the past few years audio downloads have become the more interesting flip-side to the e-book market. The parallels are obvious. The rise of audio downloads has resulted in a format shift (away from CDs) onto devices (such as mobile phones) in a market which (since its 2008 acquisition of Audible) is also dominated by Amazon.

Like the e-book sector, the data is difficult to obtain, and tricky to analyse. According to the Publishers Association’s Statistics Yearbook 2014, sales of digital audio last year were just over £10m, up 24% over 2013, representing a rise of 170% since 2010. However, this is based on value of sales invoiced by publishers, and therefore likely underestimates the total market by some degree.

Unlike the e-book market where invoice sales can be close to the total market size to provide a meaningful perspective, in the audio download world the added complexity of the business models (a £7.99 monthly subscription with Audible gets the listener one free audio title a month), along with retailer power, means publishers' revenue is further away from the market size.

The actual market size could be closer to £40m: last year Audible’s UK company accounts recorded sales of £29.5m (up almost £9m from 2013), so it’s not an unreasonable estimate. Audible is also the supplier of audio content to Apple’s iTunes store, the other main retail outlet for audio downloads. If there is a market developing outside of these two key channels, it remains small.

The factors driving the market are almost the precise opposite of those currently stymieing e-book growth. Audio downloads are device neutral, and publishers are prepared to make imaginative leaps with the content. Audible, for example, is producing its own "House of Cards" style audio-only content.

Accessibility is the key factor. In its physical days, audio was heavily restricted by the availablity of CDs in store, and their display. In this world, the internet has aided the discoverability of content. The Audible homepage is everything the books pages have forgotten they could be: well curated (helpfully from a small pool of content) and intelligently marketed (Netflix influenced again, one suspects).

All of this is good news for the sector.

“Audio is the fastest-growing genre in publishing,” Pandora White, audio publisher at Orion told the magazine. “In my 20 years in [the industry], I never thought I would say that.” Orion’s spoken-word business has “increased substantially” year on year (downloads have played a “huge part”), with White saying that the sector’s spike has been driven by technology. She added: “There has been a complete revolution when it comes to audio, with younger people listening to audiobooks for the first time, purely because of the gadgets and smartphones we all have.”

The June audio download chart also provides some indicators as to how the market is evolving. The chart represents audio downloads through for June 2015. It encompasses both single purchases and downloads made through Audible’s subscription (one audiobook for £7.99 a month, or two for £14.99 a month).

As my colleague Tom Tivnan pointed out in the magazine, the very top of the first edition of Download Chart does not vary much from the physical book charts. E L James and Paula Hawkins, the two big publishing stories of 2015—until Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released this week—are comfortably ensconced in first and second positions.

Yet further down the list there is a broadening of the download market which diverts sharply from print, with deep backlist titles, strong showings from bespoke audio publishers and original content. Single purchase costs vary greatly, but the current selling price for the top 10 titles averages out at £24.61, ranging from £13.99 for George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones (HarperCollins) to £54.69 for Brilliance Audio’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Audible’s production arm, Audible Studios, claims four spots in the top 20. It has been producing audiobooks almost from its inception in the US in 1998, buying rights but also producing titles for big publishers in the early days of days of downloads (13th-placed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is one such example). Two of Audible titles (Slaving Away and Working for the Big Man) are essentially BBC Radio 4-esque comedy shows; they were among five programmes débuted during Audible’s June “pilot season”, the most popular of which will be made into a full- length series.

Also notable is Kerry Wilkinson’s title Something Wicked (at 8 in the chart), with Wilkinson down as the publisher (Pan is the print and e-book publisher). Wilkinson, a former self-published bestseller, produced these titles himself via the Amazon run Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), and it indicates (as with e-books) that as production costs lessen in the digital world so more authors (or small publishers) could begin exploiting their rights themselves. However, unlike publishing direct to Kindle, it is the retailer that determines the sale price of each audio title—based on its length (at Audible this equates to 10–20 hours: $20 - $30), not the author/producer—and the rights holder must split the 40% royalty payment with the producer (unless they have paid for production up front). It means price is less a determining factor in the charts that it appears to be on the Kindle lists.

Finally, as our feature notes, the future of audio may be largely digital, but somewhat counterintuitively there is still some life in the physical audio market. Over £10.2m of physical audio products (as opposed to digital-only editions) were sold through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market in 2014, a figure which is equal to invoiced sales of UK publishers through audio downloads. The physical audio market is certainly in decline: it was down 4% year on year in 2014, and around 45% down from the physical market’s 2010 total.