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All Ears: The Rise of Audiobooks and Why You Should Care

The rise of audiobooks in sales and the number of listeners cannot be ignored anymore.

Pew Research Center discovered that the number of American adults who listen to audiobooks shot from 12% in 2015 to 20% in 2019. That’s an increase of audiobook listeners by 66.67% in just four years.

Also, 1 in 5 American adults listened to an audiobook during 2019 (so that’s a total of 65.6 million listeners!). This is welcome news for any book writer who wants to diversify their publishing income.

How Popular Are Audiobooks?

The Audio Publishers Association (APA) commissioned Edison Research to find out what American audiobook listeners say about the market. Another research company, InterQ, also did some research into the sales data from APA members who produce audiobooks such as Audible Inc and Simon & Schuster.

The key findings that should interest any book writer who wants to rake in more cash include:

  • Over half of audiobook listeners say they want to create time to read more books and listen to audiobooks. Will you be ready with a published audiobook bundle series or a single audiobook when this happens?
  • In 2019, American sales of audiobooks brought in $1.2 billion, a 16% increase compared to 2018.
  • Most listeners consume audiobooks in their cars. This finding agrees with the results of a SurveyMonkey survey, which found that 73% of audiobook listeners did so while commuting.
  • Members of APA revealed that they produced 60,303 new audiobook titles in 2019. This may not look like much. But this is only one self-publisher out of many.

This data doesn’t represent the full state of the popularity of audiobooks because it is localized to the U.S. only. However, it still gives a good picture of the audiobook market.

For a more global picture, let’s visit Grand View Research's 2020 Market Analysis Report in which they valued the global audiobook market size in 2019 at US$2.67 billion. This means the U.S. makes up 44.9% of the global audiobook market size.

Who Listens to Audiobooks?

To succeed as an author, the first step is to target the market of your book. Failure to nail this step is behind books that are collecting dust on bookstore shelves. The same goes with audiobooks.

According to Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the average self-published print book sells just 250 copies throughout its lifetime.

Not only should you know your target market, it’s also imperative to decipher your audience’s reasons for buying your book. With the rise in audiobook publishing, it’s going to be tougher to sell more books because of increasing competition.

So, how do you find the market to sell your audiobook and beat your competition? You already know a typical audiobook listener is likely to stay in the U.S. What else should you know about them?

A recent consumer survey data from Pew Research Center provides answers. The results suggest that a typical American audiobook listener is likely to have the following characteristics:

  • The most popular audiobook listeners have college degrees and higher qualifications. Over a third of them listened to audiobooks in 2019.
  • A listener aged from 18 to 49 consumes audiobooks more than any other age group.
  • If you want to know where a typical audiobook listener lives, go straight to an urban area. This research shows that 23% of audiobook listeners reside there.
  • Further, the typical audiobook listener earns over $50,000 a year, with the majority making over $75,000.

Here’s a summary of the Pew Research survey:

Digital book statistics

That information is eye-opening, isn’t it?

We aren’t done yet because you still need to know more about your prospective customer. But let’s first look at how things have been changing in the audiobook market in the past few years.

Audiobook Trends

In math or science you cannot draw a meaningful graph from one point. So, we need to look at sales patterns to make sense of the rise in the popularity of audiobooks.

One interesting finding from the Edison Research’s survey shows that the average number of audiobooks consumers indulged in per year increased from 6.8 in 2019 to 8.1 in 2020. That’s a jump of 19.1% within a year.

Let’s look at more trends to fully grasp the audiobook market from 2015 to 2019 sourced from the APA audiobook industry sales survey key points. And we begin with how sales growths changed over the period. Look at this chart.

Audiobook sales growth

As you can see, the average sales growth each year from 2015 to 2019 was an impressive 23.84%. What could such a growth on your audiobook sales mean to you and your family?

Perhaps you could build an audiobook publishing empire or take that family vacation you’ve been dreaming about. You could also stock away enough cash to fund your children’s college fees and avoid the dreaded student loans.

What about the number of titles audiobooks sold during the period? Here’s what the numbers say.

Audiobook Production Statistics

The number of titles produced between 2015 and 2019 shot up by a stunning 64.94%. That’s an average yearly increase of 13%.

Further, it’s vital to know which form of audiobook to publish. For example, you wouldn’t want to churn out CDs when the majority of people prefer audiobooks preloaded on digital devices. What does the trend of the types of audiobooks say?

Book Formats Sold

Digital audiobooks hold the fort at an average annual sale of 91.7%. This is exciting, isn’t it?

Which Genre of Audiobooks Are the Best?

The key in audiobook publishing is selling what people are already buying in large numbers. It’s far easier to go with the current than against it, right? So, knowing your audiobook’s potential customer is a good move, but that’s not enough.

You also want to know which genre your potential customer likes listening to. Data from APA shows that the genre that sold more between 2015 and 2019 is fiction.

Audiobook genres

It’s crystal clear that fiction dominated the audiobook market at least since 2015. However, the proportion of sold fiction titles is gradually declining. At the same time, non-fiction is trending upwards since 2017. This genre sharply increased in sales by 56% from 2015 to 2019.

That’s exciting news because you can make money in either fiction or non-fiction. But it could be easier to sell more fiction than non-fiction audiobooks. With this information tucked under your arm, you need to find which sub-categories are most popular.

You don’t have to go far with your search because APA revealed that in the fiction category, 37% listen to Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense; this increased by 4% from 2018 to 31% in 2019.

On the surface, it seems that people like listening to audiobooks because of their convenience. It’s understandable because you can listen to an audiobook while enjoying a hot bath, while jogging, commuting to work, or even to induce sleep in the evening.

But there’s more than what meets the eye … and the ear.

Why Are Audiobooks Great?

Consuming an audiobook narration mimics listening to a story. Humans have enjoyed stories since time immemorial. We use stories to teach our young ones beliefs to live by and to bond with others, amongst many purposes.

We are simply wired to listen to stories. Take a look at how popular good movies and books are for evidence. Stories allow us to live vicariously. So, we can experience how death feels like without having to die.

Daniel Richardson and a team of Researchers at the University College London (UCL) in the UK wanted to find out how people engage when listening to a verbal narrative as opposed to video.

Each participant made a choice of how they feel when listening or watching a scene from a book such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and George Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

As the participants listened or watched, the scientists measured each subject’s heart rate, electrodermal (skin conductance) activity, and skin temperature.

Self-reported results showed that participants engaged more with video than with audio. However, the subject’s heart rates, skin temperatures, and electrodermal activity were higher during audio listening than watching video.

Self-reported results can be questionable because people don’t always tell the facts as they are. But scientific measuring tools lack that bias. And therefore, audiobooks activate a person more than video does.

So, audiobooks are great because they are convenient and engage listeners on a deeper level.

Final Words

Audiobook listeners are increasing in number as does the sales. Most importantly, the numbers of books each audiobook listener consumes per year is trending upwards. With more demand, there’ll be a need for more audiobooks in the book market.

Furthermore, the trends show that non-fiction audiobook sales are increasing while fiction is declining slightly. Any of the genres can still be a good source of income for you. So, you can still focus on what you love and make money at the same time.

When publishing audiobooks, your focus should be on the digital versions.