Are 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.