By Lin Parkin
June 3, 2014
In today's VOX Daily we'll pick up where we left off yesterday on the development of the audiobook industry from cassette tapes to digital downloads.
With the longer audio format of cassette tapes and the inexpensive portable Walkman, the 1980's were a turning point for the audiobook industry.
By 1984 there were eleven audiobook publishing companies, but it was Brilliance Audio who created waves in the industry after inventing a way to record twice as much on cassettes. This meant audiobook publishers could now produce affordable unabridged editions of their most popular books.
Just one year later, there were twice as many audiobook publishers in the market. New major book publishers, such as Harper and Row, Random House, and Warner Communications joined in the distribution of audiobooks.
A number of events happened that cemented audiobooks as a profitable market. Join VOX Daily to learn how it unfolds.
Leading the scene was the development of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), a professional non-profit trade association established by a group of publishers to promote awareness of spoken word audio and provide industry statistics to the public and its members.
Around the same time, the Book-of-the-Month, Time-Life, and the Literary Guild began offering audiobooks to their subscribers and other book clubs formed such as the History Book Club, Get Rich Club, Nostalgia Book Club, and Scholastic all offering audiobooks.
In 1987, Publishers Weekly began running a regular column to cover the audiobook industry. At the time, audiobooks were being sold in 75% of regional and independent bookstores and, as 1987 came to a close, the audiobook industry was estimated to be a worth 200 million dollars.
In the mid-90's, the audiobook industry grew to a whooping 1.5 billion dollars per year in retail value. Not bad for something that started out as experimental curiosity. The audiobook industry was lifted to new heights when the APA introduced the Audie Awards, which would become known as the "Oscars of spoken word entertainment."
Enter the Digital Age
In the late 90's to early 2000's the new compressed audio formats and portable media players furthered the popularity of audiobooks with the consumers.
In 1997, Audible.com pioneered the world's first mass-market digital media player, named "The Audible Player" which sold for $200 per unit and was advertised as being "smaller and lighter than a Walkman."
In 2005, Montreal-based writer Hugh McGuire posed a question on his blog: "Can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?"
From that notion he created of LibriVox, a website where volunteers select books in the public domain (royalty-free books) to narrate by themselves or as a group of narrators. By the time 2012 rolled around, LibriVox carried a catalogue of over 6,244 unabridged books and continues to produce dozens of titles per month.
Side Note: becoming a volunteer narrator at LibriVox is a good way for up-and-comers to practice the art and skill of audiobook narration. It gives you a chance to test drive the niche to see if it's right for you.
As digital technology grew there was a movement in digital audiobooks which allowed consumers to access their audiobooks instantly from a growing number of online libraries. Audible.com was the first to establish a website (1998) where digital audiobooks could be purchased and downloaded.
In 2003 and 2004 cassettes were phased out and replaced by CDs as the dominant format for audiobooks, but the CD steadily declined as digital technology became more accessible and the popularity of audiobooks continued to grow.
At the end of 2013, the Audio Publishers Association released a report indicating that CD revenue was down 7% but still represented approximately 53% of the market, while download units were up 29% and represented approximately 61% of the market. Download revenue went up 24%, representing approximately 41% of the market. In the overview the report cited, "The greatest potential for growth exists in digital formats."
I reached out to Michele Cobb, President of the APA, to see what her thoughts are on the future of the audiobook industry. She says, "The future of audiobooks is our industry continuing to do more of what we do best - make amazing performances from excellent content. We've been extremely good at evolving, embracing new formats and growing. I have no doubt that we will continue this and when the next big thing in digital makes its way to the surface will be riding the wave at the front."
With that, I will end this little saga on the evolution of the audiobook industry. I hope you've enjoyed it! We look forward to watching the industry continue in its growth and prosperity.
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All the best,