HAPPY EARS

How Audiobooks Are Becoming an Art Form Unto Themselves

Audiobooks are here to stay—and that's good news for readers.

Hillary Clinton’s publisher just released a victory lap press release about her new book this week. According to Simon and Schuster, What Happened sold an impressive 300,000 copies in its first week of publication.

That figure comprises all formats in which the book is sold, with hardcovers making up more than half of that figure, with 167,000 copies sold. Audio CDs, e-books, and digital downloads combined made up the difference. The publisher said it was the best week for audiobook sales in the company’s history.

And so far, no one has said the sky is falling. Which suggests that at long last publishing may have finally put Chicken Little in the rearview mirror. Multiple-platform publishing, as reflected in Clinton’s sales, is here to stay, and while publishers and booksellers may not embrace all those formats with equal enthusiasm, they are, at the very least, resigned to this new reality.

For years—decades really—the alarm would sound with every appearance of new way to package prose. First, the paperback was going to wreck publishing. Several decades later, the same fears surfaced with the introduction of books on tape. The most recent scare occurred in the early years of the new century: e-books and tablets were going to eviscerate the market for print.

There was always some new thing just around the bend that would spell the end of everything. But if you were expecting seismic shivers at the news that digitally downloaded audiobooks enjoyed their best sales year ever in 2016, you would have been disappointed. That news seemed to alarm almost no one.

Total sales for audiobooks rose 18.2 percent over 2015, to an estimated $2.1 billion, according to a report by the Audio Publishers Association. Unit sales rose 33.9 percent, to 89.5 million.

Digital downloads made up 82.4 percent of those sales, compared to 76.8 percent in 2015. Physical audio (CDs) dropped to 16.2 percent of total audio sales, from 21.8 percent in 2015.

The good news for publishers, looking forward, is that much of the audience for digital is young. Almost half of those who say they listen to audiobooks were under 35. And it’s a hungry audience. While only 24 percent of Americans say they listened to at least one audio book in 2016, the average listener in that category consumed 15 books in that same period, mostly on a smartphone. You have to figure that the average reader of physical books did not buy 15 books last year, much less read that many.

But only the medium changed, not the message: The books that wound up on hardcover and paperback bestseller lists were more or less identical to the audio bestsellers last year. The Girl on the Train. Does this Beach Make Me Look Fat? Lots of J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin (audio buyers do go back slightly farther into the archives than hardcover readers).

And the enhancements with audio are considerable: Claire Danes reading A Handmaid’s Tale. John le Carre and Zadie Smith reading their own novels. And while I’m done with Harry Potter (kids grown), I must admit that listening to the entire series read by Stephen Fry is more than mildly tempting (if only it were available in the U.S.!).

Driving these booming sales in the digital realm is the same thing that inspires so many of our choices in today’s to-busy-to-breathe world: convenience. When you’re listening to a book, you are rarely just listening to a book. You can listen while you walk, jog, work out, garden, or even while you pretend to work or listen to your mother. Unless you’re on a commuter train, bus, subway, or park bench, it’s pretty hard to read a physical book without sitting in a chair or lying in bed and holding the thing in your hands. That is, you can’t do much while you’re reading a real book except read the book.

So the real disrupter here is not the audiobook but the smartphone, which allows you to do one or more things at once, toggling back and forth among choices that include listening to music, watching TV and movies, playing games, taking and posting photographs, or …  reading an e-book (not enough good can be said, as far as I’m concerned, about the amount of free content—mostly out of print books, but there are a lot of those—uploaded by the purveyors of e-books). And now people can do nearly all of those things and listen to a book, too. Given all the competition for your attention on a phone or tablet, it’s remarkable that books do as well as they do.

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The only people who might reasonably be alarmed by these trends are bricks-and-mortar booksellers, because while the number of audiobook consumers is on the rise, the number of people reading anything—hardcovers, paperbacks, audiobooks—stays pretty constant. Which means that audiobook numbers aren’t so much expanding the market as carving an existing pie into smaller slices.

According to the latest available report from Pew Research, 65 percent of Americans said in 2016 that they had read at least one physical book in the last year, compared to 28 percent who said they listened to at least one audiobook (a number roughly the same as the 24 percent reported for 2016 by APA). Thirty-four percent of Americans said they only read printed books, while only 6 percent say they’re digital-only readers. And 28 percent said they consume both print and digital.

Bookselling, it would seem, has so far escaped the gutting visited upon the music business, where new formats have traditionally wreaked havoc not just with the forms of distribution (CDs pretty much killing off vinyl, only to be pretty much killed off in turn by downloads) but with the very model of how musicians can make a living off their recordings. So far, booksellers have dodged that kind of chaos. There is Amazon, to be sure, but Amazon is every retailer’s problem, not just the bookseller’s.

Is anything crucial lost in transmission in all this multiple formatting? From time to time, some scold emerges to caution that listening to a book is not the same as reading it. True enough, and if there were thousands of readers out there tossing out their dusty print copies of Proust in favor of a downloaded version, we might take the scolding more to heart. But the fact is, there are plenty of books, both fiction and nonfiction, that can be heard rather than read without much lost in the translation to digital.

This is assuredly true for the disposable books that make up most of the bestseller lists. Is reading John Grisham or Dan Brown better with a physical book or even an e-book? Even the Clinton book is a work that succeeds as well digitally as it does in print, since most buyers will likely read it once and then begin to hate it while it sits there on the shelf, hogging space, while it endlessly reminds its owner that “what happened” is something they’d just as soon have forgotten long ago. Digital copies, whatever their imperfections, rarely make you sorry you bought them in the first place.