audiobooksAre digital audiobook services non-starters? On FutureBook, Martyn Daniels posts about all the up-and-coming audiobook services the Booksellers Association of the UK and Ireland expected to take off, but subsequently didn’t. (The post has since vanished from FutureBook, but it still exists on the Booksellers Association blog.) These aren’t just fly-by-night services, either; at least one of them offered quite reasonable pricing and readings by quite famous actors. With the infrastructure already existing and music MP3 going DRM-free, there was no reason that the public should not have adopted them, or so they thought.

But it didn’t happen and instead the ebook lurched forward, took off and we forgot the audiobook. The reasons for the lost audio opportunity were many; Amazon’s acquisition of Audible and their retention of the old book club model, the lack of digital content, the cost of production and subsequent high ticket price of audiobooks, rights etc.

With so many fizzles, Daniels wonders whether digital audio is doomed to fade away into part of text-to-speech e-readers or enhanced e-books. He notes that digital audio might still be useful for serialized storytelling a la Dickens.

On the other hand, I wonder if it’s all a bit of wishful thinking. Audiobooks have always had their market, but to my knowledge it has always been a side market to regular print books, and I can’t see why it shouldn’t be the same to e-books.

Audiobooks are nice to hear when you’ve got the time and opportunity—they’re great for long drives, or while doing things that don’t require much thought. But they also take much more time than reading the average print book, and you have to be in situations where you can listen to them without disturbing anybody else or affecting your concentration on something else that takes attention. They’re also a little trickier to start and stop, because you can’t just skip back a paragraph on the screen. (You can press the iPod or iPhone’s “skip backward 30 seconds” button, but it’s not quite the same.)

E-books, on the other hand, you can read anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, They may not offer the performance potential of a good audiobook, but they deliver the information in a much more readily digestible form. In that respect, it’s not really surprising that commercial audiobooks aren’t taking off.

Perhaps another reason is that a volunteer site, Librivox, is offering the same public-domain audiobooks as the services the Booksellers Association profiled, but is offering them for free, rather than for sale. A lot of the people who do need audiobooks might choose to go with a no-name reader for free rather than a name one they have to pay anything for.


  1. Iambik audiobooks tends to be doing pretty well, and their prices have remained competitive with Audible. Their blog is good too. I think the popularity of audio books depends on your geography. If you spend a lot of time commuting, chances are that you will buy a lot more audiobooks. That said, I haven’t been happy with how clumsy it is to resume audio books on an mp3 player.

    Audible/Amazon offer heavy incentives to let them be the exclusive provider of an author’s audio book. I’m sure the Kindle Fire helps a lot with that dominance. But for most indies, it might be better to go with an indie distributor — or if the author is visible enough — to sell directly to consumers.

  2. Audiobooks now comprise about 10% of the trade book business. That’s not marginal. By comparison, ebooks are pushing 20%. I wish Amazon had not bought Audible, but the fact is that they have done a great job with it. Also, it should be noted that audiobooks reach markets that text-based books do not, such as older “readers” with poor eyesight. Audio is one of the true growth segments of book publishing today.

  3. Downloaded audiobooks are wonderful for multitaskers, which are more likely to be women. They’re great while exercising, doing housework, etc., as well as commuting.

    And there is no substitute for a professional reader, who can make or break an audiobook. I recommend The Help, by Kathryn Stockett and Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddon. Both books are greatly enhanced in their audio versions.

    Available at your public library in CD or OverDrive.

  4. Raising my hand as another audiobook fan. For me, this is not a substitute for reading but rather a supplement to it since I listen while working around the house and in the car. It allows me to consume at least one additional book a week and probably would be more if I didn’t also listen to a few podcasts. There are some fantastic readers out there, some of my favorites being Simon Prebble, Lisette Lecat reading the #1 Ladies Detective stories, Will Patton with James Lee Burke, and Davina Porter doing a superb job with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Also as has been pointed out above, audiobooks are a godsend to those with vision problems.

  5. Count me as another audiobook fan: Since I sit on my tush staring at a screen at work all day, the last thing I want to do when I leave the office is go sit somewhere else with my head stuck in a– you name it: book, ebook, tablet, television set. If it weren’t for audiobooks, I probably would be completely out of touch with the narrative storytelling world altogether, just as I am now out of touch with other forms of sedentary entertainment and information gathering which I once watched with some avidity (film & tv). The situation would probably be different if I had a more active job, but such is not the case. This is something to think about, since I am surely not alone in cubicle world.

    Notwithstanding their relationship to oral storytelling traditions, audiobooks allow me to engage with my physical environment and experience the wider world at the same time. I have overhauled houses, walked many miles, and made numerous works of art while listening to audiobooks. I get them at through my public library and have listened to downloads from Librivox (although their search interface and readers leave something to be desired). What I do not do is buy or ‘rent’ them at prices the market seems to bear.

    I understand that the format is expensive to produce — on top of the not-insignificant cost of preparing an original manuscript for publication in regular book form. I absolutely get that and recognize that that formula seems unsustainable from a long-term perspective. Nevertheless, the library is, on the face of it, free. For all the buzz about the new service with its unlimited access to cloud-based content, I’ve got to say that, compared to free, $24.95 month is unrealistically expensive. It might be roughly comparable to Audible, but the prices there are absurdly steep in my view, too.

    Another useful comparison might be Pandora, for which I have absolutely no qualms about paying $35 a year. I haven’t felt the need to use Spotify yet, but that model is another more affordable way of accessing listening material. Alas, these comparisons seem to present the publishing world with more uncomfortable lessons from the music industry.

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