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How audiobooks took over the industry

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FeatureMay_AudiobooksFeature_cr_Christy-Lundy

(Illustration: Christy Lundy)

No podcast has captured the public’s attention like the first season of Serial. According to iTunes, the 12-episode true-crime program became the fastest in the medium’s short life to reach five million downloads and streams. While diehard fans debated the minutiae of Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, fewer listeners may have noticed that in its eighth episode, Serial introduced a new sponsor: Audible, the audiobook subscription-service company owned by Amazon.

Anyone who listens to podcasts regularly will be familiar with Audible through its ads on programs like This American Life, Radiolab, and WTF with Marc Maron. Not only does Audible sponsor a large number of top podcasts, it also has an affiliate program through which new podcasters can offer their listeners a free 30-day trial membership and audiobook. And this January, the company went on a hiring spree of comedians, producers, and engineers. Much in the same way Amazon Studios’s original video content, like the Emmy-winning television series Transparent, helped support its Prime streaming service, it appears that Audible’s original podcast content is poised to drive even more listeners to audiobooks.

It’s hard to imagine that five years ago after the threat of ebooks sent publishers into a panic and had experts declaring the death of the print industry that audiobooks would become a major focus for Amazon, let alone a $2-billion (U.S.) per year business and the fastest growing book format, often outselling both print and digital editions.

Once the domain of road-trip entertainment, audiobooks have come into their own, thanks in part to the ubiquitous smartphone, the increasing popularity of podcasts, celebrity narrators, and Netflix-style subscription services like Audible. In October, the American Association of Publishers reported that from January to October 2015, audiobook downloads increased by 38.1 per cent. While exact numbers for the Canadian market aren’t available,

BookNet Canada released a report in March 2015 that investigated the shift toward audiobook use across the country. BookNet president and CEO Noah Genner partly attributes the rise of the format to changes in consumer behaviour and lifestyle. “It’s mostly about time and convenience,” he says. “I can listen to an audiobook on my phone when I’m walking my dog or while I’m commuting or cleaning the house. We keep hearing again and again that people’s time is getting more and more rushed and more and more valuable, so it’s about multitasking.”

A secondary factor is the ease and immediacy of purchasing audiobooks electronically. Most digital devices that support audiobooks have a built-in store, like iTunes. Titles can be purchased on a whim, without waiting for shipping, and there’s no longer a physical product to lug around. Take Keith Richards’s tome of a biography, Life. Published in 2010, the audiobook edition – narrated by Johnny Depp with guest appearances by Richards – clocks in at 23 hours. The physical audiobook consists of 20 compact discs, which isn’t exactly convenient for a daily commute.

Simply Audiobooks, a technology company based in Burlington, Ontario, launched a mail-only CD audiobook rental business in 2003, and by 2011 was offering an offshoot streaming subscription service called audiobooks.com. Ian Small, president and COO of audiobooks.com, says that while some of the company’s older customers still listen to CDs, that number is declining. The convenience of digital audiobooks has also shifted the demographic to listeners in their mid- to late 20s, down from those 35 to 55 years of age.

But audiobooks.com – which Small estimates has a 10 to 15 per cent market share behind Audible, and a 30 per cent share of new business – wants it to become even easier for consumers by entering the “connected car space.” The company has a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover to integrate an audiobook service, akin to satellite radio, into nine car models, and has a similar agreement with General Motors, which will feature a dedicated app for audiobooks in several of its cars. “It’s one of the top spots that customers are telling us they’re listening to their content,” says Small.

At this point, however, it’s more likely listeners are discovering titles through their local library than a luxury vehicle. Libraries are still a significant access point for audiobooks, both physical and digital – in some cities, according to Genner, the demand has gone up thousands of percentage points each year.

In 2011, the Hamilton Public Library system reported 74,555 checkouts of physical audiobooks, compared to 35,815 digital. By 2015, digital checkouts surpassed physical, 102,561 to 69,801. Last year, the HPL’s top e-audio title on the library digital-download platform OverDrive was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, with various thriller series dominating the Top 20. The list of top Canadian titles is more diverse, with Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month at No. 1, followed by Margaret Atwood’s novel The Heart Goes Last and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. (Robertson Davies even makes an appearance, in 14th place, for his 1981 novel, The Rebel Angels.)

“What’s popular in print is often popular in audiobooks,” says HPL chief librarian and CEO Paul Takala, who adds that while the demand for audiobooks has increased dramatically since 2013, the cost to build a robust collection is still prohibitive. On top of that, only 10 per cent of books are converted to audio format in the first place – generally dominated by bestsellers from the multinational publishers – and an even smaller number of those are titles are from Canadian presses. “The staff makes sure we have a balanced collection, based on what’s available,” says Takala. “Certainly if there were popular Canadian titles available, they would make it a priority.”

The lack of Canadian content in audio format is a concern that Genner has heard from many of BookNet’s library stakeholders. He speculates that, despite the switch to digital, initial production costs are still a major factor. There are few audiobook producers in Canada, and outsourcing to the U.S. is expensive. (Even Ontario-based Podium Publishing, which originally produced Andy Weir’s hit The Martian, uses American talent and studios.) Depending on the producer and narrator, a publisher can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 up to $20,000 per title. Audible offers production services through its Audiobook Creation Exchange program, but to receive a 40 per cent royalty rate publishers must hand over exclusive distribution rights to ACX (compared to 25 per cent if rights are retained.)

When Kieran Leblanc, executive director of the Book Publishers Association of Alberta, discovered that libraries were hungry for Canadian content, she approached the CNIB, a national advocacy and support organization for the visually impaired, with an idea for a pilot project. Thanks to a grant from the provincial government, the association is working with independent Alberta publishers to produce 12 audiobooks, which Leblanc hopes will be available by September. The publishers selected the titles – mostly frontlist or recent backlist in popular genres such as historical fiction, romance, and biography – with the CNIB producing the books in its professional studio. In return, the participating publishers will each receive a copy of the audio file, which can then be sold and distributed as desired.

“I’m interested to see the quality of books that are produced and what publishers are able to do with them in terms of distribution,” says Leblanc. “They’re fairly expensive to produce, which is why it’s been a fairly niche market, so it hasn’t been a priority for publishers like the ebook market was and is.”

But David Caron, co-publisher of ECW Press, sees the situation differently. He believes the initial challenge is making librarians aware of what titles already exist. “I think there is actually a lot of Canadian content available; it’s just that it’s not highlighted at all on OverDrive or on any other kind of site that the libraries are using,” he says.

ECW and Coach House Books are leading an initiative involving approximately 15 publishers to promote and create Canadian audio content. Funded by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, the first part of the project involves creating a comprehensive list of all currently available audiobooks as a reference for librarians.

The second, more ambitious part is to produce 100 audiobooks over the course of the next 12 months, starting with Coach House’s Fifteen Dogs, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning novel by André Alexis. The project will not only increase Canadian content, but use local producers, actors, and studios, and hopefully kickstart a home-grown industry that can keep up with exploding consumer demand.

“We have the narration talent here. We have the audio production talent here,” says Caron. “This is something we should be doing as publishers.”