Are Audiobooks Preparing to Overtake Ebooks?

If you were the CEO of a large company and your board of directors earmarked $20 million to be allocated at your discretion, what would you do? Build a new office complex? Increase marketing costs? Install one of those fancy toilet seats with a built-in heater and satellite radio?

How about give it away?

That is precisely what is doing and unsurprisingly, it has nothing to do with altruism.

In 2012, the Amazon-owned offered authors a $1 "honorarium" for every audiobook sale made through their website. If attracting the attention of authors is your goal, free money is a slam dunk way of achieving it. There is, however, far more to the offer than its attractive financial component—authors who agree to make their titles available in audiobook format through not only reap a buck for every sale, but they additionally receive the expertise and manpower of Audible's sales and marketing divisions, as well as additional advertising materials for promoting their work. And just for the heck of it, authors get a free copy of their audiobook.

Notice that the preceding paragraph made no reference to the role of the publisher in this financial arrangement. This is because the publisher is cut straight out of the deal. The buck passes freely and without encumbrance from the teeming coffers of Audible to the back pocket of the grateful author. While such an arrangement cannot impede or alter publishing rights previously negotiated between the author and publisher, it nonetheless offers writers a substantial incentive to cut their own side deal. Which introduces the other odd man out—the agent. Because authors sign up for the deal at Audible's site, where terms are fixed, the need for agency is nullified. Whether to bestow any consideration on their agent is entirely left to the discretion of the author.

If this sounds like a pricey gamble by Audible, think again. This Wild West-style free-for-all would not be possible unless the tea leaves indicated sky-high potential for the audiobook market. Make no mistake—while the Kindle-versus-Nook battle gorges on titanic marketing budgets, the audiobook industry continues its rapid commercial ascent. Thanks to your friendly neighborhood broadband service, audiobooks have become massive business. The media has exhaustively chronicled how the digital revolution has treated traditional hardcopy titles much in the same way that General Sherman treated the fields of Georgia. For audiobooks however, the digital revolution hit like a shot in the ass of pure HGH, making it easier than ever to market, sell and transfer titles. With a market share of audiobook loyalists already in place and technology introducing legions of new users to the joys of the genre, the only way to go is way up.

Readers have enjoyed audiobooks for decades, starting with books on tape and morphing into books on CD. Like their printed counterparts however, to purchase an audiobook, listeners had to drive to the bookstore or pay for shipping. Moreover, the audio form of certain titles proved more cumbersome than the original books. Les Miserables, for example, required an eye-watering 60 CDs to digest. With cable modems and outlets such as iTunes and Amazon, literature's biggest titles are now a mere mouse click away, with zero shipping and packaging hassles.

The appeal to users extends far beyond the ease-of-purchase. From a quality perspective, audio-enthusiasts are enjoying a Golden Age not unlike the one unfolding in the world of videogames, where new games receive the budget and resources of blockbuster movies. Likewise, audiobook producers can no longer compete in their space by throwing someone into a recording booth to simply read a book. Audiobook production now entails protracted casting and audition processes, state-of-the-art engineering, and in some cases, licensing of other media, such as music. "Here in Harlem," winner of the 2011 Audie award (the audiobook world's equivalent of the Oscars), boasts 13 narrators as well as period-specific music, which required costly licensing deals with music publishers and record labels.

Also, as with video game production, the audiobook industry now invests heavily in celebrity narrators. The Keith Richards autobiography, Life, captured the top honors at the 2011 Audies, due in no small part to Johnny Depp's narration, which invoked Keith Richards' inimitable cockney cadence without suggesting cheap mimicry. Curiously, Life switches narrators midway through, with New York City vocalist Joe Hurley jumping in with his own take on Richards' drawl, and finally Richards himself rounds out the narration duties to conclude the audiobook, which arguably translates better in audio format than in the original print format.

As audiobooks attract larger audiences, voiceover actors have taken on far greater importance, proving critical to the success of the audiobook versions of Unbroken, the Hunger Games trilogy and Here in Harlem. In fact, the narrators themselves are entering a minor circle of celebrity. Audiobook forums reveal that audio enthusiasts are as prone to buying a book based on the narrator as the author—an interesting twist for producers, who will surely find themselves paying a premium to recruit golden-throated narrators to read their titles.

The obvious end game for Audible is to entice authors to self-publish through their parent company, Amazon, and they have revealed a deadly-serious intent to do precisely that. At a higher level, the sheer audacity of their $20 million offer, open through the end of 2012, establishes that audiobooks are the sleeping giant of the publishing industry. While eReaders fight their war on two fronts: changing the way people think about the physical act of reading; and competing with other eReader manufacturers for a piece of the pie, audiobooks are gathering like a supernova. With expanded production, high-profile celebrity narrators and military-sized budgets, the competition will be fierce and the war bloody, leaving only one certainty: fans of audiobooks have a lot to look forward to in the next few years.

Image via Videomaker

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brianb18's picture
brianb18 from Honolulu is reading Lions of Kandahar May 17, 2012 - 2:09pm

Very interesting article, thanks Joe. I had no idea that much work and production went into Audiobooks. Sounds like a great opportunity for indie authors. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books May 17, 2012 - 2:25pm

I found this super interesting as well. It's a whole different world you don't hear a lot about. Good stuff.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on June 7, 2012 - 2:53pm

Ah, something I can shed a little light on because it's my area of expertise.

I have no doubt that the production and sale of audiobooks will overtake the production and sale of eBooks in the future, and the reason is babyboomers. As the boomers get older, more and more of them are going to end up with age-related visual disabilities like age-related macular degeneration (both the wet and dry forms), glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and others. Braille will not be a viable literacy medium for most of these people, especially those with diabetic retinopathy, as persons with that particular visual ccondition ccan also develop diabetic neuropathy--meaning that the nerves in their extremities will not function well. Diabetic neuropathy eliminates a person's tactual sensitivity and therefore makes braille a no-go. Also, past a certain age, it is much more difficult for a person to learn and master braille to a degree that would allow them to use braille as a medium for reading anything more than simple labels created for household objects. To illustrate this: I am twenty-seven years old and learned braille in my late teens. At that point it was already too late for me to master the code and attain a braille reading speed of more than sixty-five to seventy words per minute. Persons who are taught braille from early childhood as their primary learning and literacy medium can attain braille reading speeds of up to two-hundred-fifty words per minute and higher. For them, using braille as a medium for reading things like novels and magazines is perfectly feasible. For the rest of us slow bastards, it's not.

One common alternative to braille is eBooks read with a synthesized voice either on a computer equipped with screen reading software like JAWS or Window eyes, or other blind-specific listening device like a Victor Stream, Booksense, or other DAISY reader. Amazon's Kindle is basically a useless, overpriced piece of shit for people with severe visual disabilities or blindness. The ability to adjust font sizes makes it feasible for persons with mild to moderate forms of visual impairment (albinism, severe corneal abnormalities, early stage cataracts, etc.), but it's just a paperweight for people like myself. also, many people find it difficult to read books via text-to-speech synthesis, as the voices do not always sound great. Some voices are pretty good these days, but they still lack the nuances of human speech. . For this reason, many persons with visual impairment and blindness )myself included) prefer audiobooks over eBooks.

Some companies and authors have already started allowing their commercially produced audiobooks to be downloaded for free by persons with documented visual disabilities via the National Library Service's BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Downloads) service. I just downloaded Bernard Beckett's book Genesis from BARD and found that instead of the book being read by one of the regular NLS volunteer readers, it was an enhanced version of the original Brilliance Audio production. also, Audible's iPhone/iPod/iPad app is fully accessible via the Voiceover screen reader that comes standard on all specified Apple devices. There are also third-party audiobook player apps for iDevices that can be downloaded for little or no cost.

I also think that authors may be more willing to have their works presented in audiobook format rather than eBook format for several reasons. One tip that I have always heard for writers it to read your wirting aloud to make sure that it has the right cadence and/or fluency that you wish it to have, so audiobook performances make sense based on that. Also, using different 3D audio effects can sometimes duplicate the literary versions of special effects. For instance, I was reading an eText version of Mark Z. Danielewsky's book House of leaves recently and found myself imagining ways to recreate things that he did in the paperback like striking out passages and making the word "house" identifiable in the foreign language passages by coloring it blue throughout the book Things like these can be recreated via audio effects and still pretty much maintain the effects that the author intended to be created in the original text version of the novel. You can put some sort of static behind the reading of passages that are stricken out. You can have a specific echo effect each time the word "house" is read. You can recreate the disorientation of the section of the book in which each page has only a single word intended to be flipped through quickly by smashing words together in the audio recording. In the case of a book like Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the pictures in the book can be easily described by the reader of an audiobook. In ways like these, I think that the audiobook is a more authentic way of presenting literature than the eBook.

For anyone interested in the technology I mentioned, here are a few links.

DAISY book technology:

Victor Stream:



Window eyes:

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from CA, TX, Japan, back to CA is reading The Tyrant - Michael Cisco, The Devil Takes You Home - Gabino Iglesias August 10, 2012 - 3:36pm

Interesting article, this really should have gotten more love. And Zack's followup post is very interesting as well