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  • Writer's pictureRon Jaworski

State of audiobooks in 2021 – what authors and book publishers need to know

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Audiobooks are a familiar sound to many eardrums across the globe. Generally speaking, the consumption of digital audio is growing larger by the year, and long-form audio content such as audiobooks plays an important role in this continuous growth.

As a result, there is a new world of opportunities for the book publishing industry, one that deserves far more attention than it is receiving right now.

In this post, I’ll cover the perpetual growth audiobooks seem to be experiencing, who and what is driving all this listening, and what’s holding the audiobook industry from unfiltered growth. Most importantly, I’ll talk about a solution that can bring scale and cost savings to the entire publishing process.

The audiobooks market

Suffice it to say that in the fierce competition for leisure time, business has been very good for one of the industry’s earliest digital mainstays.

In 2020, audiobook listening remained strong and stable despite (or maybe in light of) coronavirus, largely thanks to deeply developed listening habits. More than 71,000 audiobooks were published last year, which is the highest number ever. A 39% growth over 2019 also represents the largest growth in new titles since 2015.

More than two-thirds of audiobook consumers agree that one of the reasons they enjoy listening to audiobooks is to reduce screen time. Audio is edging video and text due to its immersive and convenient nature, with 46% of U.S. adults now having ever listened to an audiobook, up from 44% in 2020.

Furthermore, 70% agree audiobooks are a good choice for relaxing as they can go in and out of the experience without interruption. There are no in-stream ads to shadow the experience that is already competing against countless distractions.

When it comes to daily listening habits, audiobook listeners spend more time listening to books than any other form of audio, including podcasts. Daily audiobook listeners spend almost 2 hours more per day or 5 hours and 35 minutes listening to audio than the general population who spends 3 hours and 46 minutes on average.

During the peak of Covid-19 and quarantine orders, listening continued by simply moving to different locations as 55% of listeners said they listened most often at home, compared to 43% last year. Only 30% of listeners cited the car as their main listening location in 2020 as compared with 41% the previous year.

The fact that 38% of listeners subscribe to at least one audiobook service completes the picture of a growing listenership.

Who is doing all this listening?

For starters, 56% of audiobook listeners are under the age of 45, an increase from 52% in 2020.

Another major takeaway is that parents have been discovering audiobooks as an outlet for their children during the pandemic. Almost half or 49% of the parents of children ages 17 and younger say their children listened to audiobooks last year, up from 35% previously.

Over recent years, audiobook platforms have placed a large part of their focus on the educational and entertainment genres. Audiobooks for children offer multiple benefits, from improved visualization and sophisticated vocabulary to many other skills linked with enhancing reading comprehension. As such, the kids segment is projected to offer big growth opportunities.

A Deloitte survey from 2019 shows that audiobook and podcast listeners are generally younger, more educated, and employed people.

Audiobook and podcast listeners skew toward being young, educated, and employed

These attributes make the audiobook audience a very attractive customer base, particularly with Gen Z’s affinity for technology. The proliferation of smart speakers and voice assistants has also provided lucrative opportunities for the audiobooks market, as 46% of smart speaker owners have used it to listen to an audiobook in 2020, which is up from 31% in 2019.

Where things aren’t so great

Making audiobooks is a fairly expensive process.

There are two standard ways of producing an audiobook:

  1. Doing it yourself in-house

  2. Hiring a dedicated production company

Let’s talk numbers.

If you opt for the DIY route, for an audiobook containing between 50k and 60k words (the benchmark for this post), you need:

  1. Minimum of 16 hours of recording studio time;

  2. Minimum two weeks of post-recording editing;

  3. $500 on average for every hour spent in a professional studio.

The math behind these numbers is punishing.

According to the National Center for Voice and Speech, the average conversation rate for English speakers in the United States is about 150 wpm. However, the average speaking rate depends on the purpose of the speech.

For audiobook narration, the general recommendation is between 150 and 160 words per minute, the upper range where most people comfortably hear and vocalize words. If we take a 60k word book as an example, that’s just slightly under 7 hours of recording time, start to finish.

Mind you, this doesn’t include breaks, rerecording mistakes, discussions of potentially problematic areas of the book, and so on. So, the number of studio hours will be greater than the hours of finished audio, meaning the cost is higher if the book is longer.

This is a highly variable process but what data I could find suggests it takes between 2.5 hours and 3.5 hours of recording and editing to produce 1 hour of finished audio.

In the end, the more conservative estimate is that it takes more than $8,000 and 100 hours to self-produce an audiobook.

Produce the audiobook yourself

The second option is to hire an audiobook production company. When doing so, you need to account for the length of your book and the quality of the narrator, especially if the narrator is an actor or celebrity of some sort. There are typically two cost equations here:

  1. Pay 50% of the earnings for the next 7 years

  2. Pay $1500 + 20% of the earnings.

Once again, there are a lot of variables here such as the speech rate, recording experience, genre, and others that make it difficult to provide an average cost. Still, these numbers are good indicators of industry standards, which are not that great when it comes to the cost-effectiveness of the entire operation.

Where book publishers can go from here

All the data suggests demand for audiobooks will continue growing at a strong pace. However, the cost of producing an audiobook is far from negligible, which is likely what is suppressing additional market growth.

For comparison, last year’s 71k new titles pale to the average yearly output of leading book publishers in the U.S.

Penguin Random House alone publishes 70k digital books and 15k print books each year, while HarperCollins publishes around ten thousand new books. While data is inconclusive, up to a million books are published every year in the US alone, including self-published ones.

This is where audio AI steps in.

By converting text into audio voiced by synthesized speech and packaging it as an audiobook, publishers get content that is:

  1. Cheaper, yet high-quality

  2. Scalable

  3. Easily distributed across the audio landscape

On average, it takes less than $300 per book and less than an hour of production time to create an audiobook.

Trinity Audio player

At this point, the thing that is a dealmaker or dealbreaker is the quality of the narration. It’s no secret that audiobook listeners place a high priority on it, so much so that 13% of listeners say that a bad narrator could seriously ruin an audiobook.

Computer-generated voices have rapidly progressed in the past couple of years, getting as close to the real thing as possible. Check out for yourself how lifelike sounding it is:

This particular example is a speaking style that Amazon specifically designed for long-form content to create a more natural and engaging experience. Powered by a deep-learning text-to-speech model, the long-form speaking style enables a speech with more natural pauses while going from one paragraph to the next or even from one dialogue to another between different characters.

Just like audiobooks aren’t for everyone, audio AI won’t be the right solution for every audiobook and publisher. However, it does open the doors to numerous publishers who are looking to not only significantly cut down on time and production costs for audiobook creation but also to scale their output.

Plus, the technology will only get better as more options become standardized to fine-tune the listening experience. These include different voices, reading speeds, and languages for different parts like dialogues, synchronizing text and audio on screen-based devices, and so on.

Even now, the listening experiences are constantly optimized on a granular level to provide more pleasant and accessible sessions. The simple fact is that people increasingly prefer to absorb content via eardrums so going forward, audio AI will definitely be one of the answers for scalability and accessibility.

The future sounds good for audiobooks

The market’s growth prospects in 2022 and beyond are certainly sweet music to publishers’ ears. More and more listeners are coming to the audio format every year, which makes me very bullish on the audiobooks segment.

In the longer term, I expect double-digit growth in audiobooks to continue, even if it somewhat slows from last year’s pace. Outside of the United States, the vast majority of markets are nascent, which will drive global growth as other countries catch up to the levels seen in the northern parts of the New World.

However, there are some question marks as to whether small and mid-sized publishers can effectively compete for listeners and dollars with their larger counterparts. Smooth transition from existing textual materials to AI-driven audio content may spur growth, supported with easy integration and access on smart devices. This particularly holds true for smartphones, where listening is the strongest.

Additionally, with leisure time expected to remain pressured over the next five years, demand for entertainment that promotes multitasking will likely continue. With a tight emotional grip that only intimate listening can provide, we can expect the percentage of books that are converted into audiobooks to rise over time.

If there was ever the perfect time for audiobooks, it is now.

Are you a book author or publisher and want to join the audio revolution? If so, give us a shout and we’ll get the show on the road.

Make sure you’re following me on Twitter for ongoing updates, tips, and industry takeaways!


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