Podcasting for Marketing

The Audiobook Wars are Starting

The Audiobook Wars are Starting Nick Hilton · Observe 12 min learn · Oct 4 — 20 Hear Share

The audiobook part of a public library, again within the “good outdated days”

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I’ve a confession to make (shareholders in my podcasting enterprise, cowl your eyes now): I’m a giant audiobook man.

I’m at the moment, at time of writing, 16 hours into Walter Isaacson’s 20 hour-long biography of Elon Musk. I’ve already chosen my subsequent listens (Michael Lewis’s embedded reporting on the autumn of FTX, and a 34-hour homicide thriller by an writer of more and more questionable status). In my Audible library, I’ve some 81 titles.

Really, I’ve principally changed podcasts with audiobooks in my listening habits. I nonetheless tune in to the occasional soccer present (particularly if my group, West Ham, have gained on the weekend) however usually I hearken to, predominantly, lengthy, non-fiction audiobooks. There isn’t a podcast I’ve heard previously few years that comes near the pleasure I took from listening to James B. Stewart’s 26-hour opus, DisneyWar.

For me, audiobooks have all the time been a part of a balanced studying weight loss plan. I grew up listening to audiobooks — notably vivid reminiscences of Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s №1 Women’ Detective Company collection, and, in fact, the Harry Potter books — as a part of a voracious studying behavior. I’ve two English levels (the primary, to make it arduous to get a good job; the second, to make it not possible) and was uncommon (probably distinctive) in my courses as somebody who did a few of the obligatory studying through audiobook. For my Masters, I contemplated writing my thesis on audiobooks (it made the ultimate three, shedding out, ultimately, to the literature of post-war housebuilding).

Audiobooks have all the time appeared like large enterprise to individuals like me. I grew up begging my mom to take me to Ottaker’s and spend £25 on CDs for my stereo. When Audible arrived on the scene within the 2010s, it was a no brainer for me. Entry to the world’s total audiobook collections for just some quid a month? Signal me up. In fact, Audible had been round for longer than that — it was based in 1995, took an $11m money injection from Microsoft in 1999, grew to become Apple’s unique audiobook supplier in 2003, and was purchased by Amazon for $300m in 2008. However it was not till the early-to-mid 2010s that the service actually hit its stride.

It hit its stride, I feel, due to Netflix. For dumb, humanoid apes like me, Netflix’s arrival on the scene recalibrated my expectations for an web subscription service. The thought of a streaming library out of the blue grew to become mainstream. Seemingly in a single day Netflix KO’d Blockbuster, however, maybe extra importantly, created a era who now not relied upon bricks and mortar outlets or individualised pricing. All of a sudden we wished every part accessible to us, on a regular basis. And Audible was extra explicable to me as “the Netflix of audiobooks” than any earlier description I’d heard.

However, however, however… Audible is definitely a strikingly shitty product. Quite than limitless availability like Netflix or Spotify (extra on them shortly), Audible utilised an inside forex: credit. Every month, subscribers would obtain a credit score to spend on an audiobook. One audiobook per thirty days. Think about if Netflix introduced the same mannequin, the place customers received to binge just one boxset per thirty days? There can be riots on the streets of Los Gatos.

That fundamental providing was supplemented by member gross sales (titles for £2.99, which is sweet worth for an audiobook) and 2-for-1 choices. Later, in 2020, they launched the “Plus Catalogue” which gave listeners entry to a set of genuinely on-demand, credit-free materials. To start with this was largely recordings of books that have been out of copyright — Dickens, say, or Austen — however it has been supplemented through the years and is now a real, if patchy, promoting level. However actually it was a really flawed providing, relying upon the inertia of lots of people who would join the free trial (possibly they’d fallen behind in school or a e book membership) and overlook to cancel.

And for years and years, they’ve had a close to complete monopoly on the digital audiobook trade. Effectively, not anymore.

Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO introduced this week that audiobooks can be launched to the Premium tier of Spotify, beginning within the UK and Australia, and rolling out to the US later. The tab — which is dwell now right here in London — consists of many of the main titles that Audible is making an attempt to shill for a credit score. Stephen King’s Holly, Colson Whitehead’s Criminal Manifesto, Millie Bobby Brown’s (wait, what?) Nineteen Steps.

However there are limits, most notably a 15-hour per thirty days listening cap. This is able to be prohibitive for somebody like me, who averages in all probability near double that (it’s additionally not clear to me whether or not this might be measured in precise listening time, or size of content material consumed — I, like many audiobook listeners, play the content material at 1.15x velocity or extra). For individuals like me — who Spotify dubs “tremendous audiophiles” — there’s an choice so as to add a 10-hour top-up, although the press launch doesn’t clarify what the worth for that’s. Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, can also be accessible on the service. At virtually 48 hours in size, it could take 4 months’ value of allowance to finish (barring any top-ups). And let’s keep in mind, at nuts-and-bolts stage, Spotify Premium prices £10.99 a month, whereas Audible will set you again simply £7.99.

However for people who find themselves already listening to Spotify Premium, and have maybe been flirtatious reasonably than dedicated Audible members, this can be a priceless service. The restrictions — that are more likely to be associated to the advanced IP maze between publishers and authors, and led by Audible which has laid down a gauntlet of a fairly beneficiant rights settlement for the digital period — make it troublesome to drink Audible’s milkshake fully. “Tremendous audiophiles” are more likely to nonetheless want a twin subscription, simply as “tremendous cinephiles” want each Netflix and Prime, and “tremendous telephiles” require each Disney+ and AppleTV+. However let’s place this, for a second, within the broader context of speech audio.

It has been a lot remarked upon — together with on my own — that Spotify spent large, probably too large, on speech in the previous couple of years. The checklist of podcasting, and speech adjoining, corporations hoovered up by Spotify in a spree that began in 2019 runs the gamut of the trade and racked up a invoice working to the billions of {dollars}. Gimlet, Anchor, Parcast, Megaphone, Findaway, Podz, Chartable, Podsights, Whooshka, Joe Rogan, Alex Cooper… it was a grocery store sweep of pod luminaries (however no Luminary, sensibly).

Amazon, who’re the secondary protagonists of this present drama, by no means appeared totally satisfied by podcasts, and as a substitute built-up the Audible model, folding Amazon Podcasts beneath that umbrella a few years in the past. So, Audible truly grew to become a dual-purpose service — audiobooks and podcasts — however with the previous of these taking the headline slot. I don’t have entry to top-level determination making at Amazon and Audible, however I wouldn’t be shocked to listen to that they’d watched proceedings at Spotify — the burn of enterprise capital cash — and determined to not overspend on podcasts.

There are a selection of massive variations between podcasts and audiobooks, most of that are too patronising to elucidate right here. Sure, podcasts supply a large number of voices, spontaneity, design; audiobooks carry a static textual content to life, normally with out adornment. However probably the most fascinating distinction, for the needs of this piece, is that folks have all the time paid for audiobooks. In reality, they was tremendous costly. Individuals, alternatively, have by no means paid for podcasts, and radio — which is podcasting’s direct ancestor — can also be free within the creativeness of its listeners. If you happen to wished to purchase one of many Harry Potter audiobooks from Walmart within the 00s, it could’ve value $50+. Now it’s accessible as a part of a middlingly costly subscription service (the place individuals normally build-up a surplus of “credit” and subsequently psychologically cut back the associated fee per audiobook from £7.99).

So, audiobooks are, in a approach, a neater pathway to direct gross sales for speech audio. Apple, which has lengthy been the market chief for podcasts (however blew an early benefit with audiobooks), is working very arduous to combine subscriptions into its podcast providing. Spotify, its greatest rival within the podcast enviornment, has talked lots previously couple of years about their very own subscription providing, however that hasn’t actually materialised into something substantial. In reality, the launch of audiobooks appears, to me, like a pivot.

That is all in pursuit of being an all-in-one audio app. From a shopper perspective, having a single subscription the place you may hearken to music, podcasts and audiobooks makes numerous sense. In any case, it could be perceived as farcical if Netflix determined that it could solely broadcast movies and never TV, or vice versa. However audio has all the time been uniquely siloed: Spotify for music, Apple for podcasts, Audible for audiobooks (and that’s earlier than we even get to dwell broadcasts). With a market lead in music, a powerful second-place place in podcasts, and a brand new stake in audiobooks, Spotify remains to be the one firm gunning to create this audio smorgasbord.

However on a extra micro-level, I believe {that a} strategic pivot from podcasts to audiobooks might additionally converse to some frustrations with the podcast format. Firstly, there are the repeated points that Spotify has had with its golden goose, Joe Rogan. I’m fully assured that the bods at Spotify HQ knew precisely what they have been getting with Rogan and are unsurprised by what they’ve obtained. Caveat emptor, and all that. However there’s undoubtedly a difficulty with preserving Rogan at arm’s size. His settlement with Spotify is said to exclusivity ofdistribution, however he isn’t a Spotify worker nor (I consider) do Spotify have an IP stake in The Joe Rogan Expertise. However when the present is just accessible through their app, it is rather arduous for them to refute that affiliation when he says or does one thing that requires some company apology. Audiobooks implement a needed distance. Even when they’re solely accessible on Spotify Premium (as many shortly might be, I’m certain) the listener accepts a pure hierarchy of accountability: writer, then writer, then distributor.

After which there’s simply the issue of an efficient monetisation technique for podcasts. You may bung a podcast stuffed with advertisements (and switch the listening expertise from a pleasure to a torture), as Spotify have executed because of their acquisition of Megaphone. However the digital promoting market has been feeble, and also you don’t should be Elon Musk to recognise that subscription is a extra secure mannequin than one panhandling on the ft of advertisers. And so, Spotify’s monetary prerogative should be to push extra individuals into the Premium tier of subscription. However you may’t do this with podcasts.

You should utilize podcasts as a approach of migrating individuals away from a two-app system, the place they have been utilizing Spotify for music and Apple for podcasts. Incorporating reveals was a transparent lure, a Pied Piperesque tootle to attract listeners away from their rivals. However podcasts have all the time been free (that outdated chestnut) and proceed to be free on dozens of companies. Who would pay to improve to Premium for one thing that they’ll get without cost elsewhere? However audiobooks? If you happen to like audiobooks you’re in all probability paying £7.99 a month, and so the hook is simpler to sink within the cheek. All of a sudden you may have a very good incentive to get individuals onto a Premium subscription, and possibly shopping for further top-ups (although I feel that might be a difficult one to maintain).

The query that each one this raises, for me, is the place this leaves speech audio extra usually.

I’ve been arguing, for a while, that podcasts usually are not at the moment the ultimate iteration of themselves. In the event that they have been Pokémon, they’d be within the second stage: Ivysaur, ready to evolve into Venusaur (forgive me, I used to be a baby of the 90s). The rigidity of the format, the reliance on RSS, has been steadily undermined (Spotify, for instance, doesn’t use RSS for reveals uploaded through their Anchor service). However I feel it’s arduous to create a ship of Theseus model of podcasting, the place the title is saved however the constituent elements have all been exchanged. If we attempt to do that, my suspicion is that we are going to find yourself with a product far weaker than the unique and much much less dynamic than what may very well be achieved if the ship was dry-docked, and a brand new warship slid into the waters.

What’s fascinating is the shortage of innovation throughout the world of audiobooks. Audiobooks have the benefit of being pre-internet and subsequently not affected by its unique sin: pretending that every part can be free. And but there was little or no try and create unique audiobooks — audiobooks that have been by no means printed on paper — or any concerted try to use the large archive of public area materials now accessible. Within the former class, the closest I can consider is Jon Ronson’s present The Debutante, which was launched on Audible. It was actually a podcast, however a way more authorial one than we’re used to (and launched as a single 3-hour occasion). There should’ve been a temptation, for Ronson, to show that story into one other best-selling e book, however one way or the other Audible satisfied him to launch it solely through their service. It was a small innovation, however putting in an space that appears devoid of concepts.

My intuition is that the trade must fuse the very best components of each podcasts and audiobooks into a brand new speech product. Podcasting now has a mainstream ubiquity, a stage of take-up achieved because of preserving the product free. Audiobooks have a foundational value assumption baked in, in addition to pure curation to offset podcasting’s points with over-saturation. Clearly each events would have one thing to achieve from the opposite. And but we’re drifting, as soon as once more, right into a world of clear and separate definitions. A “Podcasts” tab and an “Audiobooks” tab. Isn’t any-one courageous sufficient to attempt to elide the distinction?

There are various extra fascinating issues that may undoubtedly come out of the audiobook warfare. Will Audible change its technique to attempt to stop haemorrhaging customers to Spotify? Clearly the Swedish streaming platform’s weak spot is its 15-hour cap. The rule of thumb is roughly 1-hour of listening time per 10,000 phrases, and the common novel is round 90,000 phrases (for non-fiction it’s longer). Because of this Spotify’s allowance broadly tracks with Audible’s — basically, one title per thirty days. However Spotify has the added disincentive of precluding a variety of probably the most in-demand titles from being consumed, shortly, on their service. Of the 45 books at the moment on the “New & Trending” part of the Spotify audiobooks homepage, 10 are over 15-hours and couldn’t be accomplished inside a month on that service. That’s a buzzkill.

There’s additionally the query of how publishers reply. Penguin Random Home is a sufficiently dominant power within the book-publishing trade — actually corresponding to Disney or Apple in movie/TV — that there should be some high-ups asking whether or not they might splinter and take management of this themselves. And there are different fascinating relationships on the earth of publishing: Simon and Schuster, for instance, is a subsidiary of Paramount World. Might there be a temptation to combine an audiobooks vertical into the marginally dusty Paramount+ streaming service? Harper Collins, in the meantime, is a part of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and was one of many items of the puzzle not snapped up by Disney after they purchased twenty first Century Fox (a mistake, maybe). However the Murdoch household nonetheless have large media property through the Fox Company, together with Tubi, a streaming platform looking for cut-through. Think about if that additionally grew to become the unique channel for Harper Collins audiobooks. (Disclaimer: I’m 100% assured that will be a much less easy deal than I’m making it sound! However nonetheless…).

Let’s strive for some inventive considering, because the audiobook wars start. A brand new speech product is there for the taking, however the impulse to always relaxation on the laurels of status and recognition has a profound influence. Spotify’s new audiobooks vertical has the uncommon probability to successfully reinvent the wheel — however to take action, you could recalibrate listeners expectations. Audiobook (audio + e book) is sort of as unhealthy a bit of branding as podcast (pod? + solid?). The perfect merger that would occur on the earth of speech audio, proper now, is a binding collectively of the very best and most helpful elements and preconceptions of each of those audio giants.

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