Early on, audiobooks had a sort of image problem. When people thought of them, grandmothers and blind people came to mind. With a dyslexic daughter, I too, have been guilty of thinking that audiobooks are meant for the challenged!While the format is certainly a godsend for that group of book fans, it is now so much more. As consumers spend more and more time in their cars, commuting in general and at the gym, they are looking for entertainment. What’s interesting is that now many books are being packaged with their audio counterparts. Audiobook fans are not reading less,but reading more, according to Janet Benson, president of APA who also works for online retailer Audio Editions. Some fans listen in the car, and pick up the book when they get home, she says. Not only does that boost book buying, but have you seen how many CDs there are for one book?!
Perhaps I sound naïve, and manufacturers have already thought of this, but I have to reiterate, that based on the dollars spent by consumers and libraries, the industry is close to $1 billion, according to APA’s 2008 report. Numbers for 2009 won’t be available from APA until Spring, but many publishing are anticipating "promising" numbers. Unabridged audiobooks made up 85 percent of the 2008 audiobook market. That’s up from 78 percent in 2007, which means more discs!
Admittedly, some of the audiobook business is going to MP3, of course, and the market will likely continue to grow with that format. However, most industry experts are not convinced that audiobooks will follow the pattern of music, at least not exactly. According to Mary Beth Roche, publisher of Macmillan Audio, audiobooks are listened to in cars mostly. While some people have MP3 players in their cars, automobiles still have CD players factory installed. "That’s the same reason cassettes lasted as long as they did. People are driving 10-year old cars." (Cassettes, by the way, are still 3 percent of the audiobook business.)
Benson agrees with Roche. While comparing the music industry to the audiobook industry might be useful in some respects, Benson says the audiobook industry is a different animal "if for no other reason than an audiobook is quite longer than a song. We also tend to have an older audience, with the average listener being 35–44 years old. For Audio Editions’ customers up that number by 10 years." As today’s teenagers grow older they will change the audiobook market, but slowly, said Benson. In 2008, 83 percent of dollar volume was targeted at adults and only 17 percent at children and teens, according to APA. Of course, Harry Potter titles do very well on audiobooks as do other young adult titles such as Twilight and Macmillan’s House of Night and Immortals series.
Where and why consumers purchase audiobooks is another key to survival of the CD. While it may be tough to get a selection of audiobook sat Walmart, you can sure get them at truck stops and airports. That is an impulse buy. MP3 is not an impulse buy. You have to plan to download it. Also, industry sources tell EMedialive that audiobook fans tend to pass along product they like to their friends which is a bit easier to do with CDs.
Audiobook fans can be collectors in the same way hardcover book fans are collectors; particularly if they are avid fans of a genre. Galaxy Press’ Golden Age series is a perfect example. These releases all are packaged with the original pulp art on the box. Buyers are looking to experience what listeners felt back in the 1920s and 1930s when these programs originally aired. Also, as an aside, Galaxy president John Goodwin says that because there are a lot of sound effects in these programs, up until now CDs have been a better listen because "you lose a lot of nuances and credible sound" with MP3.
Galaxy is among the companies creating special packaging solutions and added value to their products for the gift-giving season. There was a time, that buying an audiobook as a holiday gift might not have been exciting, but that is changing. Galaxy, for example, offers gift baskets with genre-specific titles…science fiction and fantasy for example.. that also include other trinkets like pens and buttons. "Even with audiobook titles for younger readers, there are interesting gift packs. For example, with Macmillan’s Immortals there is a necklace packaged with the discs."
Ken Golden, president of packaging company Tri-FlexPackaging, is seeing collectability as a slowly growing trend. While there is alot of packaging standardization is this area, he said, there are decorative aspects with regard to catalog product and author collections, like all the works of Shakespeare for example. "Publishers have identified a core base of fans who will make a purchase of a particular franchise. That fan would like tohave a higher value presentation for what they are buying."
Galaxy is helping to create growth in the market in another way. Audiobook sales, said Goodwin are roughly about 10 percent of the book sales. Audiobooks on CD are usually priced quite a bit higher than its book counterpart because you have to worry about the script, paying talent, and the actual CD production costs,but "our audiobooks are the same price as the book itself. That is novel in audio publishing, and this has been very well-received," he said.
While some naysayers still tell EMedialive that fighting MP3 is a losing battle, as buyer of new products in this space, I see audiobooks an area where physical and digital can live in harmony!
Debbie Galante Block (debgalante at aol.com) is a freelance writer based in Mahopac, NY.