You’ve probably noticed, but audiobooks are having A Moment right now. While publishers report a drop in ebook sales (once claimed to be the future of reading), audiobooks have become the fastest growing medium in the publishing world, seeing a whopping 31% increase in sales between 2015 and 2016. In public libraries, audiobooks make up 13% of circulation in 2015 at the 395 public libraries surveyed by LibraryJournal, with the circulation reaching 17% at larger libraries. That means approximately 3 of every 20 checkouts are audiobooks, and that’s only expected to increase. In fact, the Audio Publishers Association (APA) reports that 24% of Americans say they’ve completed an audiobook in the last year; that’s a third of people who report reading a book in the previous year.
This growth can be attributed to many things. First, the overall quality of audiobooks is significantly better than it used to be. Gone are the days of a single slow, monotone reader in an empty room. Audiobook publishers today have invested real production value in their titles, hiring award-winning narrators and big name celebrities, adding music and sound effects, and including sound editors. Put all that together and you get the high quality listens that really live up to the old “movie in your mind” tagline. In addition to this, the media has really ramped up its support, with sites and publications like the New York Magazine, Forbes, Buzzfeed, Bookriot, and LifeHacker all writing articles on how audiobooks count as reading and which listens should be at the top of your list.
Personally, I’ve been saying for years that the growth of audiobooks is closely linked to the explosion of podcast listening, and finally the APA agrees with me! It makes perfect sense: the hype around podcasts gets people in the habit of listening to stories—fiction or non-fiction—and working them into their everyday routine. In this way, podcasts have become the gateway drug to audiobooks, with podcast listeners listening to twice as many audiobooks as other listeners, especially among the under-35 crowd.
Finally, the big change that’s driven the current audiobook market: digital formats. When you want to listen to an audiobook on a run, out in the garden, or on the train, a streaming app or downloadable file makes perfect sense. You can carry multiple titles in your phone and smoothly transition from one chapter or book to the next without having to switch out CDs. In 2016, downloadable and streaming audiobooks accounted for 38% of all audiobook titles offered by libraries, which is expected to grow to 51% in 2019, making it the majority.
In light of this change, many publishers are starting to release new audiobooks that are only available in a digital format, slowly phasing out CDs. While this makes sense from a commercial standpoint, as a listener and especially as a librarian, it frustrates me. There are few moments in my career as frequently disappointing as hearing about a great title or receiving a request from a patron, only to find out the library can’t acquire it in either the preferred format (CD) or at all. When I first took over my library’s audiobook collection in 2015, this was incredibly rare, now it happens about once a week.
Before I get into the publishing side of things, let’s take a moment to consider the reasons someone might want CD over download. Perhaps they listen primarily while driving and their car isn’t new enough to support a bluetooth connection or have an aux cord to hook up a phone. Maybe the patron doesn’t own a smartphone or the phone they do have doesn’t have enough space to store an audiobook or enough data to stream it. Maybe the person just isn’t all that technologically skilled. Maybe the patron is blind, but prefers the larger selection the public library offers to services like Talking Books, as my most voracious listening patron does. Age also plays a key role here because while most audiobook listeners (52%) are under age 45 (and another 15% under 65), we still need to recognize that the digital divide often comes with the generational gap. Smart phones, tablets, and ereaders are becoming more common among seniors, but many are being left behind by these digital trends. Isn’t it the library’s job to serve these users, too?
Another big reason listeners and libraries might avoid digital-only audiobooks is that they simply can’t afford them. When other librarians cover for me when I’m on vacation, I always come back to surprise and complaints over just now damn expensive audiobooks can be, especially in comparison to their print counterparts. An unabridged CD audiobook (for a library) generally costs in the range of $35-$65, with some titles landing in the triple digits. Libraries can often subsidize these costs slightly with standing order plan discounts, but if your library (like mine) buys extra copies to keep up with hold lists, you could be looking at spending hundreds of dollars on the latest bestseller. Downloadable costs are even more outrageous, averaging $60-95 per copy. The cheaper of these physical editions can be found at pretty comparable prices on the retail side of things and the more expensive can often be picked up at a good discount, maybe even 60% less than the library pays, but, like with print books, the more books a listener buys, the larger their investment. Using libraries to save money is not a secret, in fact, it’s probably our biggest selling point to get people to visit us and check out items. Checking out audiobooks, especially ones you’re not sure you’ll love and want to own, is an excellent way to help readers save money.
The other financial aspect to consider is one I’ve already touched upon: many users don’t have access to the devices necessary to listen to these digital-only audiobooks. Public librarians know dozens, if not hundreds of patrons who frequent the library primarily because they don’t have a computer, smartphone, internet, or any combination of the three. We need to keep these users in mind when ordering for our collection. It’s far too easy to look at statistics like the ones I’ve been linking and decide to get ahead of the trend and buy only digital copies, but I want to remind libraries that we’re not retailers or publishers, we’re here to serve people, and by and large the people using libraries are not the ones paying for streaming access through Audible.
All of that said, my problem is not with digital audiobooks. I love them! I do keep CDs in my car, but I always have a digital title on my phone through Hoopla or Overdrive, which I play on bike rides, while working out, or cooking (I’m one of the aforementioned multi-taskers). No, my problem is with digital-only audiobooks and how they affect our ability to not only acquire them, but provide access to our patrons. I’ve already laid out some of the barriers of access digital has, so let’s look at the publishing side of things. It makes perfect sense when looking at the data for publishers to go digital and phase out CDs. The market is moving that way, younger customers are the priority, and honestly, digital is considerably cheaper to produce. You pay for the recording and editing, but you cut all production, retail, and shipping costs by cutting physical copies. To top execs at companies like Blackstone, RecordedBooks, and Books on Tape, this would be a no-brainer. The problem gets even worse with Amazon, whose Audible service holds exclusive rights to many popular titles, making it impossible for libraries to buy copies in CD or digital.
Audible isn’t the only publisher to do this, either. Even when working with one of our regular vendors, Books on Tape, I’ll often run into titles that are not only digital-only, but only in digital and only through the vendor’s website. That means we can’t buy these audiobooks on our existing platforms like Overdrive. While some libraries have the problem of offering too many similar e-services, LibraryJournal’s 2016 report shows that almost half of public libraries are limited to one platform, essentially making these popular and often requested audiobooks impossible to provide to our patrons.
On top of all this, the completist in me goes crazy when a publisher switches from CD to digital only in the middle of a series. This is becoming more and more common and yet every time I run into it, it still fills me with rage. Libraries have hooked readers with CDs and bought the first two, maybe even ten, in a series, and suddenly we can’t do anything. We’re sorry, but you can’t figure out what happens to your favorite characters. Go buy a smartphone and an Audible account if you can afford it, I guess? There’s nothing else we can do. These are the calls I hate making the most at my job.
What can we, as librarians and listeners, do to help provide access to digital exclusive audiobooks? First, get the word out. Let librarians, readers, listeners, everyone know why this is a problem. Far too often do people get trapped inside their own world and privilege and wonder why other people don’t just get an Audible account. Second, talk to the audiobook publishers and any vendors you use to acquire audiobooks. You will likely get the same canned answers I did, but the more of us who speak up, the more seriously they’ll take our complaints. Let them know our concerns and advocate for your patrons. Explain that not everyone has a compatible device, not everyone is technologically savvy, not every library can afford digital titles, not every title is available through reasonable paths, and, above all, not everyone is served by digital only titles. Remember that when something is marketed as “exclusive,” it often means exactly that: it is excluding somebody. It’s our job as librarians to try to include everybody.