June 28, 2019

Do soaring audiobook sales mean the physical book’s days are numbered?


The good news: audiobooks are doing well! Sales rose by 43% in the UK last year according to The Publishers Association (PA) Publishing Yearbook, and 37% in the US according to the American Booksellers Association. Listening to the voice of Stephen Fry calmly describing Persephone’s doomed journey into the underworld or Michelle Obama narrating her own meteoric life story is pulling in the listeners.

The bad news: physical book sales are waning. Sales dropped by 5% in the UK in 2018. The picture was slightly rosier in the US, seeing a 1.3% rise, but the first quarter of 2019 saw a 6% decrease.

So why the audiobook love? If you’re an audiobook fan, you are probably itching to sing their praises. Alex Clark wrote a piece for the Guardian last year, explaining how, although print books remain her favourite format, audiobooks are winning her over. Talking of listening to the audiobook of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber she said:

“… listening to [Emilia] Fox savour the words, conjuring perfectly the narrator’s ambiguous blend of trepidation and desire, added another dimension. It did not dilute my reading experience, but rather enriched it.”

A dramatic narration can undoubtably engage and entertain. Stephen Lottinga, the chief executive of the Publishers Association, highlights other huge advantages of the format:

“Not only can audiobooks bring stories to life and enable people to enjoy reading while doing other things such as running or driving, it is also a great way of making books more accessible. As well as providing a wonderful opportunity for people with print-disabilities to enjoy published products, audiobooks are a great way of removing barriers to reading for those who might otherwise struggle.”

All huge ticks. So are audiobooks helping or hindering the publishing industry? Last year in the UK, the industry as a whole was down 2% on the previous year. Things fared a little better in the US with the total market increasing by 1.8% but retail sales stagnated and overall book sales were down by 2.9%. So should we be worried about audiobooks harming physical, bookshop sales? Lottinga warns against this stance, saying:

“I’m not concerned that this could be a watershed moment for the printed book, we are not there yet … We have not seen a huge shift into subscription services, piracy is low, people still love physical books.”

Remember when ebooks first appeared and everyone was panicked that they would destroy the physical book, becoming a kind of digital zombie consuming the life of the ‘real’ book and presenting a soulless replica? That never came to pass—ebooks certainly claimed a share of the book market, but the physical book did not badly suffer as a result. Ebook sales have now plateaued. In fact in the UK, since 2014 sales have fallen by 20% and the Guardian’s Mark Sweeney writes the “rising competition for screen time from services such as Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube continues to eat away at the popularity of ebooks and ereaders.”

Maybe then we just add audiobooks into the mix rather than heralding them as the enemy of physical books. Perhaps the worry lies elsewhere, within the mechanics of the audiobook industry. Because who rules the audiobook world? That would be Audible, an Amazon company, who are the dominant audiobook players in the UK. Enders Analysis, a subscription research service with a special focus on new technologies and media, released a report last year, discussed by Katherine Cowdrey at The Bookseller. It warned:

“While Amazon (Publishing) mostly picks up a longtail of genre fiction titles, Audible competes for the same authors and titles as incumbents. As a result, publishing audiobooks is more competitive and expensive than ever, prices are lower, and Audible is eating more and more of the market—a market that, more than any other company, Audible dragged into this new phase of growth.”

Do we want one company to be dictating the future direction and pricing of audiobooks, and can small companies actually afford to do business with them? How will small publishers fare when faced with the big budgets and pull of the conglomerates? Lottinga has said: “Publishers are investing a huge amount in building [recording] studios and securing the services of top quality actors to voice the books. We think the whole audio scene is showing huge opportunity.”

Excuse me while I pop into our shiny, luxury studio tucked away at the back of the office (right next to the stairs leading to the helipad) to deliver Benedict Cumberbatch a glass of Veuve Clicquot as he practices his vocal exercises.

Before we despair of this audiobook-fantasy-land being out of reach for all but the biggest of publishers, it is worth holding on to the fact that sales of printed books still accounted for over 80% of the combined print and digital UK book market last year. Audiobooks are a good thing, but a growing monopoly could be cause for concern.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.