Audiobook sales surge, print & ebooks decline (Cybercultural Daily Update 5-31-2019)

Despite worrying times for print books and ebooks, digital audiobooks give the book industry reason to be optimistic.

Cultural sectors discussed in today’s newsletter: book publishing

Some quick admin, before we start. Today I’m introducing a couple of new features to the newsletter. ‘Tracking’ will be an ongoing list of tech + cultural industry news I’m tracking across different sectors. ‘Data Points’ will take note of interesting new industry data points, particularly relating to digital developments.

I’m also trying a new format: the main story will be introduced in a couple of paragraphs first, then comes 'Tracking’ and ‘Data Points’, and then the bulk of the lead story (i.e. my analysis). I’ll finish with a humorous tweet, as a kind of palette cleanser.

Hope you like this format; please do reply to this email if you have any feedback. A reminder that Cybercultural is still in its trial period (until 1 July), so I am trying different things to see what resonates with readers.


This week at BookExpo

Initial 2019 sales data isn’t great for both print books and ebooks, according to a report in Publishers Weekly from BookExpo in NYC:

After six straight years of growth in print sales, 2019 is off to a rocky start for publishers. At a late morning session dubbed The State of the Publishing Industry Today, David Walter, executive director, client development for NPD Books, told BookExpo attendees that growth in print sales is trending down, with 2019 showing a decline so far.

[…] E-book sales, meanwhile, are continuing their slide, down again for a sixth straight year, a trend Walter said he didn’t see ending anytime soon.

However, the good news is that digital audiobook sales are still growing:

…digital audio continues to surge and is showing no signs of slowing down, with many publishers reporting that double-digit growth in digital audio is making up for lagging e-book sales.

I’ll explore the current state of digital audiobooks in the analysis part of this newsletter (after Tracking & Data Points).


Tracking 👀

Stories I’m tracking; sing out if you’d like me to do a deep dive on any of these.

  • Vanity Fair: Rolling Stone takes on Billboard with new top 100 charts; promises to "go deeper on streaming data." As someone who listened to Casey Kasem every week as a kid, I’m curious how Rolling Stone’s new charts will compare to Billboard’s. 🎵

  • Techcrunch: Facebook updates its video guidelines to promote original content, loyal and engaged viewership. This is notable because Facebook is obsessed with usurping YouTube in online video; it already treats creators better than YouTube, and now it’s looking to encourage more ‘professional’ content. 📹

  • Financial Times: Is crowdfunding the future of opera and ballet? “You reach a completely different audience of new, younger donors,” says Ruth de Vries, the head of fundraising for Dutch National Opera & Ballet. 🎭

  • Andreessen Horowitz: The VC firm gives an overview of the podcasting ecosystem. I was particularly interested in its market share stats: Apple currently at 63% (used to be “over 80%”) and Spotify is almost 10%. That gap will shrink a lot more soon. Plus, Google Podcasts may be the dark horse in this field. 🎧

  • PressGazette: (London) Times titles halve digital subscriber churn with tailored emails from AI named James. Another ‘God help us all!’ moment in journalism; the AI “creates individualised emails by predicting content that subscribers are likely to be interested in, then sending it in their preferred format at the time they are most likely to read it.” 🗞️

  • Juxtapoz (via ArtsJournal): Banksy Shows Up In Venice Anyway…; and typically with this secretive genius artist, we see it on his Instagram first. 🎨


Data Points 📊

  • Variety: Android TV is now being used by over 140 pay TV operators worldwide, and 6 out of the top 10 smart TV manufacturers are working with Google on Android TV devices. Plus there are over 1000 streaming content providers, and over 5000 apps. 📺

  • Techcrunch: US digital advertising exceeded $100B in 2018 (IAB report). If there is any doubt that mobile is king, it now drives 65% of US digital advertising. 💸

  • The Guardian: Netflix and Amazon made £1.1B in revenue in the UK from ~17.7M subscribers while streaming services of UK's four main commercial broadcasters made ~£530M (headline via Mediagazer). Stats that prove the dominance of big tech in tv/movie streaming in 2019. 🎥


Today’s analysis: Digital audiobooks

As noted above, news from BookExpo in NYC this week has digital audiobook sales trending up, but print and ebook sales going down. This is according to The NPD Group, a research company that covers the book industry with a special emphasis on “how digital and print content is evolving.”

NPD’s data continues a trend that was highlighted in the 2018 full-year report of The Association of American Publishers (AAP), released a few months ago:

Since 2013, downloaded audio has been the trade book format with the greatest percent growth. In 2018 it grew by +37.1%, adding $127.1 million in revenue compared to 2017.

The AAP report showed slight increases in print too, with a 6.9% increase in hardback sales over 2018 and a 1.1% increase in “Paperback & Mass Market.” But ebooks were down 3.6% over 2018, according to the AAP.

It’s worth noting that ebook sales are still over twice what audiobooks are ($1,016.2M and $469.3M respectively), and that print is much bigger than both (around $5.7B). But clearly, audiobooks are fast catching up with ebooks.

Amazon’s Audible is the undisputed market leader in audiobooks. Audible Publisher Beth Anderson told Vulture last September that her company “has had double-digit year-on-year subscriber growth, keeping pace with the market.”

Anderson also noted in that article that “subscribers typically buy five books on top of the twelve included with their membership.”

The limits of audio growth

The big question is how much room audiobooks have to grow, given it’s still a relatively small portion of the overall book market. As Audible’s Anderson hinted at, the growth in audiobooks is due to more and more people discovering them every year.

But once you do discover audiobooks, you soon conclude there’s only so much time in a day for listening to them. Not to mention, that audio time may also be used up by podcasts - which are also growing rapidly.

In my own experience, I tend to run hot and cold on audiobooks. I’ve listened to plenty of them, but I recently stopped my Audible membership (not for the first time), because my listening had dropped off. Mainly due to the increasing amount of podcasting I listen to.

The two formats - audiobooks and podcasts - will end up competing against each other, if they’re not already. Partly that’s because both require a level of focus that music (for example) doesn’t. In other words, I can listen to music while I work, but I can’t listen to audiobooks or podcasts. Unless you’re a multi-tasking savant, it’s probably the same for you too.

That all said, it’s still early days for both podcasting and audiobooks. Both formats have a lot of potential users to capture from traditional, and historically analog, markets: radio and print books, respectively. Audiobooks may also further eat into the ebook market.

It’s worth noting though that the two formats can (and often do) crossover in terms of type of content. For example podcasts are increasingly using narrative storylines (e.g. Serial), while audiobooks are experimenting with shorter formats (some best selling titles from the “Audible Originals” line can be as little as 1-2 hours long).

Of course, certain prestige authors successfully play in both formats. Hachette Audio is excited about Malcolm Gladwell’s upcoming book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. Anthony Goff, publisher of Hachette Audio, told Publishers Weekly that Gladwell “brings many of the lessons he learned from his popular Revisionist History podcast into a special production for the audiobook.”

Incidentally, another interesting tidbit from the Vulture article is that “fiction makes up 70 percent of audio sales, with genres predominating.” That doesn’t sync with my own experience with audiobooks, as I almost exclusively listen to nonfiction titles. For fiction, I prefer print or ebook versions (but that may be because I’m an english lit major and a writer, so I like to savour the words when reading fiction!).

When and how we listen

Audiobooks are partly growing because people are carving out new time during the day to listen to them. In other words, they aren’t necessarily taking up the time a reader would normally spend on print or ebooks.

According to a 2019 consumer survey by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), “half (56%) of audiobook listeners say that they are making “new” time to listen to audiobooks, and subsequently consuming more books.”

The survey reported that cars were the top audiobook listening location, followed by the home:

74% of audiobook consumers listen in their car, up from 69% last year. The home is the second most popular spot at 68%, down from 71% in 2018.

Smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo device, are also a growing way to listen to audiobooks according to the report.

I myself tend to listen to audiobooks or podcasts in the car, at the gym, while making lunch at home, and while doing domestic duties (usually the dishes).

The APA tries to play down the competition between audiobooks and podcasts:

Over half (55%) of audiobook listeners have also listened to a podcast in the last month, continuing the strong historical association between podcast listeners and audiobook listeners.

That’s no doubt true, but as noted above that doesn’t mean there’ll always be time for both. Something will have to give, as more and more quality audiobooks and podcasts come onto the market - all competing for your (focused) attention.

Tweet of the day

To leave you with a smile, here’s a book-related tweet that made me laugh:


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