Audiobooks deep dive: latest statistics & trends

In last week’s feature article, I analyzed the rise of audio formats in comparison to the decline in print formats. Specifically: podcasts and audiobooks are on a bull run in the content market, whereas blogs, print books and ebooks continue their bearish tendencies.

In the following two articles in this audio vs text series, I’ll take a deeper dive into the world of podcasts and audiobooks.

This week it’s audiobooks. Just how popular are they, and why are people choosing them over print books?

What the statistics say about audiobooks

A new Pew Research report states that one in five Americans now listen to audiobooks. While reading print books or ebooks is still more popular, audiobooks are the only format to have increased in popularity over the past year. Also, audiobooks are quickly catching up to ebooks. Which is remarkable considering that ebooks were twice as popular just three years ago (28% vs 14%).

A survey this year by the Publishers Association in the UK also puts the number of audiobook consumers at around one in five (21% of book buyers used an audiobook).

This month, NPD Books published a reading survey that stated “nearly three out of four consumers in the U.S. reported reading a book or listening to an audiobook in the past six months.” That’s almost exactly the same as Pew’s figure of 72% of respondents who have read a book in the past 12 months in any format.

While NPD didn’t specify what percentage of its survey listened to audiobooks (remember it was 20% in Pew), it did make some interesting comments about the type of person who listens to audiobooks:

Audiobook listeners are also some of the most omnivorous consumers, from a demographic and behavioral point of view. In fact, adults between the ages of 18 and 44, a key consumer demographic for marketers, are listening to audiobooks the most. “

Pew’s figures are again similar. They show that the 18-49 bracket are the biggest users of audiobooks, with 23% of 18-29 year olds and 27% of 30-49 year olds having listened to an audiobook in the past 12 months.

According to Kristen McLean from NPD Bookscan, audiobook listeners are “most likely to engage with all forms of book activity” - meaning they’re “also reading print books, magazines, and graphic novels.”

But even if that’s the case, the overall trend towards audio instead of print is clear from this pair of statistics from the same NPD report:

  1. “…survey respondents reported reading roughly 9 percent less this year than they did last year overall […]”

  2. “NPD survey respondents who read books also reported spending 10 percent more time this year than they did last year listening to other forms of audio, including podcasts and music.”

The survey data from NPD and Pew seems to align with known sales data.

In an early edition of Cybercultural back in May, I took a look at book sales data announced at this year’s BookExpo. According to a report at the time from Publishers Weekly:

[…]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.

The only silver lining for publishers was that digital audiobook sales were 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.

NPD’s sales data about audiobooks continued a trend that was highlighted in the 2018 full-year report of The Association of American Publishers (AAP):

“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.”

It’s worth noting that ebook sales are still over twice what audiobooks are ($1,016.2M and $469.3M respectively). Also, print is much bigger than both (around $5.7B). But, as with the Pew trend line above, AAP’s sales data suggests audiobooks are fast catching up with ebooks.

Of course, audiobook vendors are cashing in too. Amazon’s Audible is the undisputed market leader in audiobooks, and its publisher Beth Anderson told Vulture last year that her company “has had double-digit year-on-year subscriber growth, keeping pace with the market.”

Why are people gravitating to audiobooks

As I noted in my previous article, certain types of books are better suited to be listened to than read. Pop culture, self help and business journalism tend to be easier on the ear than long biographies or in-depth history books. Especially if those audiobook creators deploy some of the tricks of narrative podcasting, as pioneered by Serial in 2014. Nonfiction author Malcolm Gladwell did that with his latest audiobook, which includes excerpts from his recorded interviews, archival audio, conversations re-created by actors, and music.

Although I myself prefer nonfiction audiobooks, the wider market is reportedly more inclined to listen to fiction. According to the Vulture article quoted above, “fiction makes up 70 percent of audio sales, with genres predominating.”

I couldn’t find current statistics on which categories of audiobooks are most popular, but perusing a recent Apple audiobooks sales list shows that just four are fiction (but two of the top three).

The top of the Audible bestseller list is even more weighted towards nonfiction. Perhaps the long tail of audiobooks is predominantly fiction? (if any Cybercultural reader has data that would shed more light on this, please let me know.)

There are other, more personal, reasons why we’re choosing to listen to audiobooks. It’s physically harder to read print books nowadays, especially in the evenings when many of us have been staring at digital screens all day. It’s also harder to concentrate on reading when people are watching TV (often streaming TV) around you, or when you yourself get constantly distracted by social media on your smartphone. Screen-tired eyes, increased noise around us, internet distractions. How can anyone read a book in this era?!

It’s also noticeable when you’re out and about in urban areas how many people - particularly younger generations - you see wearing wireless earbuds (like Apple’s AirPods) or bluetooth headphones (from the likes of Beats or Bose). People on a train or in a cafe are far more likely to be listening to something these days, than to have their nose in a print book (or print magazine for that matter).

Conclusion: book industry still needs ebook innovation

The book industry is one of the most worrying among the cultural industries when it comes to technology adoption. Print book sales are either flat or edging up only slightly every year (either way, well down on their peak years), while ebook sales have been trending down over the past 5-6 years. As explained above, audiobooks are the exception and are growing strongly. But audiobooks are still a minority percentage of the entire book market.

I’ve written before that something on the scale of the streaming revolution in music and video needs to happen to ebooks. But I don’t expect to see that innovation any time soon from Amazon, which has a dominant position in all book markets - including audiobooks. From a cultural industries perspective, Amazon is more focused on video streaming these days. Books are no longer its priority.

Even the innovation we’re seeing in audiobooks is largely coming from elsewhere: the podcasting market. Malcolm Gladwell made his latest audiobook into a kind of extended podcast (he said it’s “like listening to ten consecutive Revisionist History podcasts”).

While Audible has done some experiments with popular authors - such as Michael Lewis, who told the NY Times last June that he’d “become Audible’s first magazine writer” - there’s been nothing on the scale of what Spotify did to music or Netflix to TV and movies.

I expect audiobooks to continue growing, given the consumption habits listed above and the trends that Pew and NPD are showing. Audiobooks may even pass ebooks in terms of consumption within the next couple of years. But there will be a limit to their growth.

Ultimately the book industry needs ebooks to start trending back upwards again. Barring large price cuts on ebooks or a Spotify-like buffet model that includes mainstream books (both highly unlikely), I can only see ebooks going up again if they become a much better, more interactive, experience. And that would probably require another imaginative leap in Amazon’s Kindle technology.

Until that kind of innovation happens with ebooks, audiobooks will continue to be the golden child of the book industry.

Lead image from Audible.co.uk homepage.