The Dominance of Audible in the Audiobooks Market

When audiobooks were first introduced, they were far from the easily-accessible, digital formats that they are today. There are records of audiobooks being recorded on phonographs from as early as the 1800s (Snelling), but even the audiobooks that existed as recently as a decade ago were drastically different than the files that can be downloaded to your smartphone in the blink of an eye. For most of audiobooks’ history, they were recorded to cassette tapes or CDs (Thoet). These books were hardly portable, as the listener would need to carry the device and sometimes several tapes or discs depending on the length of the book, and were far more expensive to produce than physical books. For a very long time, audiobooks were primarily marketed towards the blind; meaning that there was a very small audience and therefore, a small profit margin (Thoet).

In addition to the production costs and small audience, there were many common misconceptions about audiobooks as they rose in popularity. Many literary scholars, publishers, and writers did not consider listening to an audiobook as “reading,” even going as far to compare it to reading the book versus watching the movie adaptation (Snelling). There was a common idea that readers did not absorb the information as well when they listened to it, that audiobooks are not as challenging as reading and are therefore a way of “taking the easy way out,” or, an opinion from some of the harshest critics, that audiobooks will lead to a decline in literacy because no one will continue to read (Evans). 

Because publishers, for the most part, are lovers of books, they were among the people who doubted audiobooks. Because these audiobooks were not seen as a threatening disruption to print books, many publishers did not see the worth in investing in the field. This is where Amazon stepped in, with their earliest dive into audiobooks being a listening device that could hold about 2 hours of audio (Thoet). While the device was not very successful itself, it began the twenty-year investment Amazon put into audiobooks, which has eventually culminated in Audible. 

Amazon’s first dive into digital audio files didn’t begin with books, but rather music. Inspired by Itunes’ distribution of downloadable MP3 files, they began their own MP3 store (Doctorow). When this proved successful, mainly due to the number of companies that were wary with Apple, Amazon purchased Audible–which, at the time, was a small company that produced audiobooks both on CD and digitally (Publishers Weekly). 

Amazon completed the purchase of Audible in 2008, when audiobooks were still an incredibly small percentage of the market share of books. In 2010, physical and digital audiobooks only accounted for 1.96% of the total trade revenue (Snelling). But this could be heavily due to the difficulty in accessing these books. Physical audiobooks were bulky and needed to be purchased at a bookstore or from a library, and the proper technology for digital audiobooks just wasn’t intuitive enough. 

The advance in technology over the past decade is what made audiobooks a viable source of entertainment. With the rise of smartphones and tablets, audiobooks were suddenly far more portable than before. These devices made it possible for people to pick a book and download it on the spot, getting instant access to the story they wanted to listen to. It also led to people being able to listen to their favourite books while multitasking. Some of the most popular times for people to listen to audiobooks are when they are driving or travelling, or when they are completing household chores like cooking dinner or folding laundry (Snelling). 

The rise in technology also made audiobooks easier and less expensive to create. No longer were production materials like cassettes or CDs needed, all a publisher needed to do was record and edit the audiobook, and upload the audio file to their website (or sell it to Audible). In 2011, there were approximately 7200 audiobooks published. Just five years later in 2016, 51,000 audiobooks were published. Christopher Platt, of the New York Public Library, claimed that audiobooks were faster to make, and therefore was becoming more widely practised by publishers (Theot). 

But by the time publishers realised that the format was growing in popularity while the cost of production was lessening, Audible had already cemented its position in the number one spot for where people got their audiobooks. Much like what happened with eBooks, publishers simply waited too long to try and put their foot in the door. 

By 2016, the Audio Publishers Association found that audiobook sales had increased to $2.1 billion, which was over an 18% increase from the previous year (Theot). The popularity of audiobooks was growing, and this growth was skyrocketed by the 2020 pandemic. With bookstores closed and shipping delayed, it became more difficult for people to get ahold of physical books–and with many stuck at home due to lockdowns, people had more time to read. In 2020, digital audiobooks made up 8.3% of the total trade revenue of the book industry (Theot). Survey results from the APA show that 32% of people listened to more audiobooks in 2020 than they had in 2019, showcasing that the audience of audiobooks was only growing (Snelling).

As of 2019, the audiobook market was worth over $3 billion (Bliznovka). A report from 2018 by the Codex Group Research shows that Audible owned 41% of the US audiobook market (Kozlowski), with other companies, such as Google Audiobooks, all owning small fractions of the industry. This has left Audible with a monopoly in the audiobooks industry–which, of course, leads to problems for publishers.

The first problem with Audible’s service is its subscription model. For the price of $14.95 CAD (Audible) a month, Audible gives its members a credit to be used towards one audiobook of their choice. This is significantly less expensive than the worth of audiobooks, with publishers typically selling them between $20-$40 on their own websites (Penguin Random House). This reduced sale price by Audible means that publishers will receive less royalties for their titles being hosted on Audible, and it also makes it less likely that listeners would purchase the titles from them directly.

Another major problem with Audible is their Audible Exclusive program. In 2011, Audible launched their Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), which connected publishing professionals to one another in order to create an audiobook. Audible used this marketplace to obtain exclusive rights to audiobooks by rewarding agents, publishers, and authors with a promise of higher royalties in exchange for exclusivity. If they chose to go with other platforms, they would likely make 15-20% less in royalties than if they chose to partner with Audible (Pearson). 

When a book becomes an Audible exclusive, Audible refuses to licence it to anyone (Doctorow). This means that anyone who wants to listen to these audiobooks must sign up and pay for an Audible subscription. Publishers cannot sell their own versions of the audiobooks, and libraries and schools cannot distribute them (Pearson). This hurts publishers because they earn considerably less for big releases as they would if the book was purchased directly through them. But because Audible gained a monopoly in the industry while publishers debated whether they wanted to participate, this is the unfortunate situation they are stuck with.

Audible also continues to overstep the boundaries of what it is allowed to do with the audiobooks they host. In 2019, Audible announced that it was developing a caption feature for its audiobooks, which would allow listeners to read along as they listened (Liptak). A machine would be used to transcribe the audio into text, which would then be provided to the reader. While the idea sounds good in theory, publishers were unhappy with the announcement because it is an infringement on their rights–and they were right (Liptak).

By providing their subscribers with a text-version of the book alongside the audiobook, there would be no need for customers to buy the physical or eBook versions of the text. If the rights for these things were owned by Audible, that wouldn’t be an issue. But when most publishers sign their audiobooks to Audible, they only sign on the audio rights. Several large publishers, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuester, spearheaded the campaign against this new feature (Liptak). 

A lawsuit against Audible was filed by several publishers, stating “Audible Captions takes publishers’ proprietary audiobooks, converts the narration into unauthorised text, and distributes the entire text of these ‘new’ digital books to Audible’s customers (Cain).” Audible claimed that captions was an educational tool and was not equal to reading, while publishers stated that the company had no right to distribute text versions of their audiobooks. In the end, it was a win for the publishers. 

But the lawsuit goes to show the problem with one company having such a monopoly over the industry. Audible was confident enough to announce the feature without clearing it with these publishers, or even attempting to renegotiate contracts to make it possible. And these publishers still must work alongside Audible to distribute their audiobooks because there are no better options out there. 

Perhaps if they had embraced the disruption to their industry that audiobooks brought earlier, things could have been different. But as it stands now, Audible will continue to hold their monopoly until another big player enters the game.

Bibliography

A sample of random books from Penguin Random House: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/

Audible. “Home.” Audible, 2022, https://www.audible.ca/?ref=a_ep_member_t1_nav_header_logo&pf_rd_p=4e18a7d5-8623-4e9a-807a-5fbd80eed38d&pf_rd_r=Z2CSAWEY45MBKZEHV2HP

Cain, Sian. “Audible settles copyright lawsuit with publishers over audiobook captions.” The Guardian, 15 Jan 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/15/audible-settles-copyright-lawsuit-publishers-captions

Doctorow, Cory. “We Need to Talk About Audible.” Publishers Weekly, 18 Sept. 2020, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/84384-we-need-to-talk-about-audible.html

Evans, Simon. “In defence of audiobooks.” The Spectator, 11 Jan. 2021, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/in-defence-of-audiobooks

Kozlowski, Michael. “Amazon Controls 41% of the US Audiobook Market.” GoodEreader, 5 Feb. 2018, https://goodereader.com/blog/audiobooks/amazon-controls-41-of-the-us-audiobook-market

Liptak, Andrew. “Publishers are pissed about Amazon’s upcoming Audible Captions feature.” The Verge, 19 July 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/19/20698383/audible-captions-feature-audiobook-book-publishers-rights

Pearson, Mark. “The Harmful Impact of Audible Exclusive Audiobooks.” Libro.fm, 27 July 2020, https://blog.libro.fm/the-harmful-impact-of-audible-exclusive-audiobooks/

Publishers Weekly. “Gauging Amazon’s Audible Buy.” Publishers Weekly, 11 Feb. 2008, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/12807-gauging-amazon-s-audible-buy.html

Snelling, Maria. “The Audiobook Market and Its Adaptation to Cultural Changes.” Publishing Research Quarterly, vol. 37, pp 642-656.

Theot, Alison. “A short history of the audiobook, 20 years after the first portable digital audio device.” PBS, 22 Nov. 2017, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/a-short-history-of-the-audiobook-20-years-after-the-first-portable-digital-audio-device

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