The book publishing industry is prone to fads and obsessions. If it's not Pottermore and direct sales (2012), it's hybrid authors (2013), or book bundling, or subscription ebook services (2014), or coloring books (2015).
Many of these fads have come to naught, but the latest obsession - audiobooks - could prove to be the next explosively popular digital book format.
I know a lot of people have been saying that over the past year, but the data actually backs up the hype.
I was inspired to look into the topic when I read Joe Wikert's piece on audiobooks this weekend. As is his usual, Wikert offered no data to back up his assertions, but after I started digging into the topic, two glaring facts stood out.
- The first is that audiobook market is small, but consistently growing year over year, and
- The second is that audiobooks don't really cost a lot to produce.
Let's take those in order.
According to Publishers Lunch, AAP members earned $205.6 million in revenue from digital audiobooks in 2015 (the last year where we have complete data). This was up significantly from $148 million in revenue in 2014.
That's not the size of the market, of course, but instead is merely what 1,200 publishers are earning from their share of audiobook retail sales.
That $205.6 million is a relatively small number compared to the $1.4 billion those same publishers earned from ebooks in 2015, but the audiobook segment has also been consistently growing over the past few years, and the general consensus is that unless people run out of hours in the day there is no reason to expect the market to stop growing.
So what does it cost to tap into the next boom market?
Prices vary between production companies, and according to Quill & Quire they run anywhere from free (with royalties shared between narrator and author/publisher) up to around $20,000 - in Canada, where audiobook producers are as rare as hen's teeth.
At the low end there is ACX, which has an option for no upfront cost so long as the royalties are divided between the narrator and the author/publisher. This is only open to American (edit: and British) authors and publishers, alas.
Fortunately, ACX is not the only option; there are many audiobook production companies, and you can find price quotes from a number of audiobook producers with a simple search.
For example, in 2015 Marshall Davis estimated that his services cost around $1900 for an 80,000-word book, and Premium Audio quotes their fee as "£40 per thousand words", or about £3200 (nearly $4000) for that 80,000-word book.
That fee looks like a lot but let's not forget that the combined costs for the print and digital editions of a book could easily exceed $4000. Between developmental editing, cover design, formatting, and copyediting, a publisher or author could easily spend $10,000 (and it might be worth every penny).
While that $4,000 may be giving you sticker shock, it should be viewed as a one-time capital investment in a growing market.
And that leads to the question authors and publishers need to ask themselves: Is it worth the expense?
That will have to be answered on a case by case basis, and while you are pondering it, here is another point to consider:
How much should you charge for that audiobook?
Audiobooks cost about the same to produce as the ebook/print book, and yet they frequently sell for twice of three times the hardback price.
What might happen if a title's audio edition was priced at or below the price of the print or Kindle editions? Wouldn't that boost sales, and thus make the $4,000 a better investment?
Edit: As a reader pointed out, audiobooks sold through Audible are priced by Amazon, not the creators (thanks, mackay!). So the latter question is moot, but it raises another one: why does Amazon set audiobook retail prices so high? Wouldn't it be better to price audiobooks in line with ebooks?
image by ActuaLitté