What’s behind the audiobook boom?

Oral storytelling. It’s how mankind has entertained and shared knowledge since ancient times. It’s how parents continue to spark the imagination – and build the language skills – of children every day. And even as new technologies and entertainment formats continue to be introduced, the power of the spoken word to connect and inform has never been more clear. 

Before 2020 began, we were already in the midst of an audiobook and podcasting boom. And the global effects of an unexpected pandemic – including lockdowns and an increased number of people working remotely – have only reinforced the trend, as adults seek new ways to connect with ideas and information, and parents devote more time to educating and entertaining their kids at home.

The growth of audiobooks, of course, has coincided with the age of the smartphone, which means for the first time in history, most people have a universe of literary possibilities right at their fingertips.

In this new era, audiobooks have helped expand the market for written works, bringing in new readers who would not otherwise engage with print or ebooks. A study released at the last Frankfurt Book Fair showed that 50% of audiobook users had not read a single book in print in the past year, suggesting that the audio format invites those who are not accustomed to reading, or who have little time for it in their daily lives, to submerge themselves in books they wouldn’t otherwise read.

How much the trend will accelerate in the age of COVID-19 remains to be seen, but the shift to audiobooks was already underway: According to the Audio Publishers Association, (APA), one of every two Americans over the age of 12 has already listened to at least one audiobook. That’s a six-point increase since 2018. 

In the coming years, experts predict that audiobooks will account for between 10 and 15 percent of the book publishing industry’s anual revenue, which currently stands at more than $32 billon dollars worldwide.

Audiobooks may get an additional boost during the pandemic as many bookstores and other physical points of sale are temporarily closed. Even amid declining sales volume, US and European publishers have seen revenue growth in print books in recent years due to price increases. In this new normal, audiobooks are positioned to attract both new and existing book customers to the format at an attractive price point – with the potential to convert users of technology into avid consumers of literature.

As publishing expert Javier Celaya, director of the Spanish editorial consultant Dosdoce.com, said recently: “It’s counterproductive for the book world to disparage reading on screens or listening to audiobooks, given that these are the formats that can help the sector recover lost readers and create new audiences. The important thing is reading, regardless of the format.”

A powerful connection

Bringing an author’s words to life through an audiobook creates the intimate connection between reader and listener that is at the heart of the oral storytelling tradition. 

Making it happen is an army of professionals – from the programmers and designers who create formats that can circulate and be listened to through mobile phones, to the actors and actresses that give voice to written adventures. 

For the reader, the options are now almost limitless. From any location and any time, day or night, they can now connect their ears and their imaginations to classic novels, contemporary fiction, works that are specially created to be read aloud, and much more.

Within today’s busy lifestyles, audiobooks are emerging as a resource to be taken advantage of and enjoyed while doing housework, exercising or walking/commuting to work or school. In fact, 52 percent of listening takes place away from home – on public transportation or in the car.

According to the latest statistics, almost half of audiobook consumers – 48 percent – are less than 35 years old. In Europe and the United States, fiction is the most popular choice; while in Latin America, essays and non-fiction are preferred, reflecting the rise of podcast journalism. 

In Celaya’s analysis, the increasing popularity of audiobooks even as print sales fall, proves that reading is evolving, not disappearing: “On the contrary, there is more reading today than there was in previous decades. Digital readers are very good readers.”

 

50% of audiobook listeners did not read a single printed book during the past year. 48% of listeners are less than 35 years old and 52% of listening takes place on public transportation or in cars.