Sonic boom: The growth of the audiobook

02 October 2019 Sonic

Alison Flood reports on the growing audiobook market.

The latest figures from the Publishers Association (PA) reveal a continued boom in audiobooks, with consumer audiobook sales up 43% in 2018 to £69m. The PA’s 2018 yearbook shows that in the face of a 5% drop in home-market physical and digital book sales to £2bn, with a drop of 7% to £1.6bn for physical book sales, audiobooks bucked the trend. Sales were up 194% over the last five years in what Hachette chief executive David Shelley, summing up the year for the PA, called ‘an exciting development for the industry.’

Shelley attributes the growth to ‘ease of listening on smartphones … which is attracting new customers across a range of demographics, including those who did not previously buy books’. For PA chief executive Stephen Lotinga, it’s also partly down to the investment publishers are making in digital, from building new recording studios to securing the best narrators. ‘People are also opting to enjoy books in a way that suits their busy lives. A survey by Kantar that we commissioned shows that the main barrier to reading is lack of time. Audiobooks offer a solution for these consumers by allowing them to combine reading with other activities,’ he says. ‘The majority (54%) of audiobook buyers listen to them for their convenience, while 41% said they choose the format because it allows them to consume books when reading print isn’t possible.’


"The main barrier to reading is lack of time."


Literary agent Alice Lutyens at Curtis Brown says there is also a ‘new generation’ of readers – i.e. listeners – who ‘want to listen, not necessarily read. They want just as much content, if not more, than readers and viewers. Audio format is no longer the poor cousin, only to be utilised when one cannot physically read. It is a format people take pleasure in for format’s sake,’ she says.

Lotinga believes the boom in podcasts is also ‘indirectly’ driving the growth in popularity for audio material drawn from books, with a Nielsen report revealing that more than a third of audio consumers listen to podcasts weekly, rising to 42% of male consumers. ‘It is highly plausible that consumers who listen to podcasts may indeed seek out new audio content, and turn to audiobooks. Podcasting is definitely helping to drive a resurgence in audio in general and the whole audio scene is showing huge opportunity for writers and publishers,’ he says.


Audio-only deals

The summer has seen a wave of audio-only deals, with Audible announcing the August release of an audio original with Adam Kay in conversation with Mark Watson, and a new fiction podcast, Hag, featuring original short stories written exclusively for audio by authors including Eimear McBride and Daisy Johnson. These join critically acclaimed original short stories written for Audible by authors including Philip Pullman, Sophie Hannah and Joanne Harris, described by Glamour magazine as ‘the ancient art of storytelling, updated’.

At Curtis Brown, Lutyens is creating an original audio and podcast department to meet what she called ‘demand demand demand’ for this sort of content. ‘An author can find their career revitalised or expanded by having a book or a show exist exclusively in the audio format. They are being introduced to a whole new generation of people who don’t want to read their book or watch them in a sitcom, but want to get to know them. And the podcast market is growing wildly but has acres of room to grow... the ceiling is nowhere in sight,’ she says. ‘The whole underestimating thing is definitely dead – everyone knows just how valuable and important audio rights are. Sometimes books outsell the print in the audio format (especially non-fiction).’

Audiobook-only deals are ‘very much’ growing, she adds, with Curtis Brown striking five deals this year alone. ‘I think it is really important to stop automatically viewing the audio format as a competitor. The more exposure and campaigning and marketing for an author the better,’ she says. ‘It isn’t just money, it is profile, kickstarting a career that may be tiring, a new profile for someone previously known just for being an author or a comedian.’

Lotinga is more cautious. ‘Audiobooks are still, despite their growth, a relatively small part of the overall market. So while it’s possible that in some cases an audiobook-only deal might be appropriate, publishers want their books to reach as many people as possible so they’ll think carefully about all formats,’ he says.

‘It’s really down to the individual publisher, the book in question and the consumers they are looking to target.’

The SoA’s chief executive, Nicola Solomon, urges writers to consider their options when it comes to audio rights. ‘Our concern is around publishers insisting on taking audio rights, when often a better deal and further advance can be gained if those rights are sold separately,’ she says, adding that authors can also often read their own titles for the audio version – which can mean a higher payment too.


"Our concern is around publishers insisting on taking audio rights, when often a better deal and further advance can be gained if those rights are sold separately."‚Äč


Lotinga says that as a platform as well as a publisher, Audible’s investment and reach has been ‘massively beneficial to the format, driving opportunity and growth across the board’. But traditional publishers are also ‘competing well’, he adds, with just one Audible title making the top ten UK bestselling audiobooks last year, the rest by traditional publishers. For Lutyens, specialist audio publishers, traditional print publishers and Audible drive the market for straight audio versions of print, original audio book growth is fuelled by Audible, and the growth of podcasts comes from streaming platforms and Audible.


What about VAT?

The PA, together with literacy charities and the SoA, is currently pushing for audiobooks – along with other digital formats – to have, like print, a zero-rated VAT. ‘It is unfair and illogical that VAT is charged on digital formats but not on print, and among the problems with this disparity, it could be stifling digital innovation,’ says Lotinga. Solomon observes that, for some time, an anomaly in EU law prevented the UK government from extending the zero-rated VAT status to digital publications such as audiobooks and ebooks. But the EU has since changed this rule, and the SoA is now lobbying the government to commit to zero-rating both ebooks and audiobooks for VAT, after Brexit.

Despite the impressive growth of audio, Lotinga is not concerned that it comes at the expense of print sales. ‘The UK is still a nation of physical book lovers – out of £3.6bn book sales in 2018, £3bn of that was print books. Plus, we haven’t seen a huge shift to subscription services,’ he says. ‘But readers are enjoying new ways of consuming stories that suit new technologies and lifestyles and we should see that as a positive thing, not a cause for concern.’

This article was originally published in the 2019 Autumn issue of The Author.

© Alex / Adobe Stock

About Alison Flood

Alison Flood is a freelance book journalist writing for publications including the Guardian, The Bookseller and Index on Censorship.

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