Is listening to an audiobook another form of reading? What are the success factors for entering the audiobook market? And what influence does Amazon have on the audiobook industry? These and other aspects were discussed in an online conference titled “Listening to the Future: Book and Audio” which took place on 21 October 2021 on the occasion of Frankfurt Book Fair 2021. The session was organised by EUROPUB (European Publishing Studies Association) with the support of Aldus Up. Moderated by Christoph Bläsi (Professor of Book Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany), the event brought together speakers from both the academic and the business field with the aim of exchanging and evaluating different perspectives on the contextualisation of audiobooks.
The conference opened with a presentation on “Listening and reading: how does the audio trend relate to the reading discourse”. Following a linguistic approach, Naomi S. Baron (Professor Emerita of Linguistics, American University, USA) addressed the core question of whether listening to an audiobook can be considered a form of reading. According to her, two opposing views prevail in the discussion about “audio reading”: As per the argument of the sceptics such as essayist Sven Birkerts, listening to audiobooks cannot be seen as an extension of reading since it is not based on the reader’s individual interpretation of a text, but is determined by the perception of another person, in this case the speaker, through the act of reading aloud. In contrast to reading, the auditory reception of a literary work would therefore tend to degenerate into a simple form of entertainment, as it limits the reader’s imagination. For the illustration of the contradictory argument, she references columnist Farhad Manjoo stating that listening to audiobooks should not be viewed as form of “cheating”, but instead can even be better than reading a story in the classical way as many books only unfold their full potential via the spoken word. From Baron’s perspective reading can be ascribed with a variety of meanings which apply to both the reception of written words as well as audio. For her, the application and perception of the term reading for different reception modalities is influenced by various factors – namely the existence of different goals when reading such as entertainment or learning, the circumstance that different reading purposes require different levels of attention and concentration to enable the comprehension of a given content and the presence of different literacy, cultural, and rhetorical traditions, which may change not only overtime but also within different societies. Although modality is not unimportant when talking about the act of reading, according to this assumption, the recipient’s mindset and the fulfilment of certain goals are the fundamental factors when it comes to classifying something as reading or not.
Christian Kessler (Senior Business Manager Audio, Bookwire, Germany), on the other hand, took over a business-related perspective on the audiobook phenomenon with his talk on “The audio value chain: participating made easy”. Before going into detail about the audio value chain and its differences from print publishing, he pointed out trends and developments that are influencing the current audiobook market. These include the now broad smartphone coverage, the recent trend towards smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa, the ever-growing popularity of podcasts, new and evolving streaming and access models, as well as the strength of backlist sales in audio publishing. The value chain itself initially is determined by the actual production of the audiobooks which can be done either by the publishers themselves or by specialised agencies by sending in a script or even just the ebook version of a title. Regarding the nowadays dominating digital distribution, Kessler listed a wide variety of options ranging from classic download shops to credit subscription services such as Audible to the relatively new streaming platforms like Spotify or BookBeat. In order to maximise the reach and availability, but also the revenue of an audiobook, he furthermore highlighted the possibility to create a product lifecycle across different business models. In this way, the audiobook can first be offered as a download to own, then as a credit subscription and after a certain amount of time as a freely available streaming product. Another important area in the audio value chain is the promotion: Besides common online marketing techniques, audiobook marketing offers the possibility for direct communication with the targeted audience by curating playlists, creating artists profiles or implementing social media marketing. This is complemented by the analysis of the user behaviour which for Kessler is an essential tool for gaining insights into the specific consumer groups that can be used to optimise all areas of the audio value chain. Therefore, he summarised that a long-term, strategic approach can be seen as one of the biggest success factors in the audiobook sector.
With John B. Thompson (Professor of Sociology, University of Cambridge, UK) the last participant in the panel drew attention to the connection between the development of audiobook publishing and the digitisation of the publishing industry. In his presentation with the title “The bigger picture: the audio battle in the book wars”, he placed the rise of audiobooks in the broader context of the transformation the publishing sector has undergone as a result of the digital revolution, focusing particularly on Anglo-American trade publishing. He opened his contribution with a review of the historic development of audiobooks emphasising that it was largely dependent on the recording technologies and the corresponding formats available at the time, including compact audio cassettes, CDs, or digital files. For Thompson, the biggest structural change in the audiobook industry took place in the early 2000s: The introduction of the mp3 format, the increasing spread of the internet and the invention of portable listening devices such as the iPod shifted the focus of the audiobook business from physical objects to digital downloads and platforms. These aspects of digitisation formed the basis for the creation of a mass market for audiobooks and the high increase in audiobook production and sales seen in the US since 2012. According to Thompson, audio publishing has established itself as a growing sub-sector of the publishing industry, which, albeit having numerous specialised organisations in the areas of production and distribution, is clearly dominated by Amazon and its subsidiary Audible in terms of scale and importance. Although it is difficult to make statements about the exact market shares, since data on sales and revenues are generally not published, studies assume that Amazon has a share of 60 to 90% of the audiobook market, continuously expanding at the expense of its competitors. For this reason, Thompson concluded that while the digital revolution can be seen as a precondition for the rise of the audiobook, it has at the same time allowed new players such as Amazon to enter the publishing market and expand their power. As a result, the whole audiobook industry in the US nowadays is largely dominated by a single company, where audiobooks are only part of a diverse portfolio.