Turning the Page: The Rise of the Audiobook

There’s a little-known corner of the audio world—one filled with drama and fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction. A world where anything is possible, and where many audiophiles rarely tread. It’s the world of audiobooks. And while the music industry may be struggling financially, the audiobook is exploding.

According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook sales were up almost 21% in 2015 from 2014, with a total sales of $1.77 billion—35,574 audiobooks were published last year. Since 2012, the sales have increased by almost 85%.

For years, audiobooks were a small, niche market, but an important one. Auto makers kept cassette players in cars for years after the music industry moved onto CD because so many commuters listened to books-on-tape on their way to work. I was personally asked by the CEO of a major car-review website to compare the audiobook performance of two cars he was considering purchasing to make sure he could keep listening to his beloved books.

Today, audiobooks are a huge business. Publishers are also banking on the popularity of celebrities to help sell their books. It’s a win-win. Celebrities get to practice their skill, stage actors can keep their voices tuned up, and they can all go to work without first spending hours in hair and makeup. And while there is money to be made by voicing a book, many do it for practically free because they love the opportunity to put their voices to their favorite novels. Novelists get a say in who reads their work, and usually sit in with the sessions.

Approximately 16% of audiobook sales comes from CD. Who knows—sales from audiobooks might be the saving grace of the format

Approximately 16% of audiobook sales comes from CD. Who knows—sales from audiobooks might be the saving grace of the format. Most listeners are downloading their books from Audible or iTunes. Luckily for us, Audible lets users select the quality of the download, and obviously, the size of the downloaded file. Their Format 2 is 8kbps, and an hour of audio takes up 3.7 MB. Format 3 is 16kbps, and an hour uses 7.2 MB. Format 4 is 32kbps and uses 14.4 MB. The newest format, Audible Enhanced Audio is 64kbps, uses 28.8 MB for an hour of programming, and is said to be “CD Quality.” For a voice recording, that bitrate is more than adequate.

I never would have thought that audiobooks would be a big business. It appears that people love to listen. Perhaps it harkens back to being read to as children—the stories truly come to life. Audiobooks can be used in places not possible with e-books or print books—in the gym, walking to work, doing chores around the house and of course, while driving.

People predicted that tablets would indicate the end of the printed book, but instead, they just boosted the popularity of all books. Audiobooks are doing the same. It looks like as more formats are available to readers, the more popular books are becoming, in all formats.