Being SaaSy about audiobooks

Nicholas Jones
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Paying attention to the changing expectations of customers is crucial to survival, Nicholas Jones writes


Movies will kill theatre. Television will kill cinema and radio. Ebooks will wipe out printed books. CDs will destroy vinyl…

The arrival of new technology certainly causes a shakedown in markets and some assumptions to be cast aside, but if you look at recent developments in the media world - of which publishing is of course a major part - it is surprising how the old ideas last and adapt.

As recently as 2010, John Oakes, of the New York self-described "digital upstart" OR Books, was heading his (actually optimistic) article: "This Halloween, I'm going as a book publisher." Traditional publishing seemed to be a zombie. But publishing models like his OR, and Unbound in the UK, which are either print-on-demand or subscription models, have helped make the printed book flourish again - as his article foresaw. As widely documented, printed books are resurgent, while ebooks have stagnated. Audiobooks are growing fastest of all, perhaps because they have all the benefits of digital delivery but remain the same familiar product: the end result for the consumer is sound waves in the listener's ears regardless of the carrier, be it tape, CD, download or streaming. That's not true for the written word, where the experience of reading from a printed book is very different from seeing it on screen.

The expectations of users can change astonishingly fast: as recently as 2008, in a podcast for the Times, Alison Flood could say that "downloads are around 10% of sales, so are they the future for audiobooks?" It seems astonishing that this remark can be so recent given the download dominance now - although it is worth noting that this year at the Booksellers Association conference, BA president Rosamund de la Hey said, "Don't abandon the physical CD market", and also that in 2008 panellist Peter Crawshaw of Lovereading was quite accurate in his prediction that CDs would continue to be important for children's books.

Again comparing expectations now to those of 10 years ago, think of how we obtain and use software. Then: physical DVDs with complex installation procedures; now, subscriptions and more or less immediate access from web browsers: Software as a Service.

So publishing a decade ago had the sense of a rabbit in headlights: Amazon had burst on the scene, Borders sold off its UK stores (they lasted another two years before liquidation), and Waterstones was in turmoil. Now, some optimism has returned. As Derek Thompson recently pointed out, if you allow for different technologies, the history of Amazon closely follows that of Sears, Roebuck; founded in 1886 as a mail order company, it opened its first store in 1925. To the average American of the first half of the 20th century, the Sears catalogue was the equivalent of the Amazon website. It was a familiar, friendly place offering almost anything you could need. The internet of the 1890s was the burgeoning mail system of the US, supported by rapidly expanding railways. In the decade from 1895 to 1905, Sears' revenue grew by a factor of 50*. (Amazon's has grown by a "mere" 10 times in the last decade - and in the same time, Sears' has halved.) Thompson points out that Sears' success followed from matching their offering to American demographics, for example expanding into car parts, insurance and hire following America's love affair with automobiles. Ironically, Sears lost its way when it failed to spot the move back to remote shopping rather than retail stores.

Perhaps publishing has now realised that what is crucial has actually remained the same: it is about finding someone who has knowledge and delivering it to someone who wants that knowledge. That has been at the heart of any successful business throughout modern times. Identifying those people - at both ends of the chain, supplier and customer - is the secret of remaining relevant, of being ubiquitous in customers' lives. And that can now be done with astonishing accuracy: see, for example, www.viantinc.co.uk.

My audiobooks studio, Strathmore, has noticed a sharp new direction in the kind of audiobook being recorded in the last year, with several You Tubers (Emma Blackery, Arron Crascall, Carrie Hope Fletcher, Jim Chapman, to name just a few) bringing their less formal, but often brilliantly performed, material to the medium. And we have been recording memoirs and diaries from radio presenters - Jeremy Vine and Eddie Mair. So the supply end adapts, broadening the offer.

At the delivery end, there are new entrants into the UK audio market with different models - in particular Bonnier's BookBeat, with its subscription model; it is also interesting to note that the latest version of iTunes has greatly enhanced support for audiobooks, perhaps suggesting that Apple is planning to enhance its offering in this area, following the German anti-trust agency's action in early 2017 which resulted in Audible and Apple agreeing to end their audiobook exclusivity agreement.

What will the market expectations be for pricing? Audible at £7.99/$14.95 for a credit for one book seems to be flourishing, but BookBeat has already cut its all-you-can-eat subscription price by a couple of pounds from its launch. Although in theory it is better value for even moderately heavy users, it does not (yet?) have the title range of Audible, and range is crucial to success. It is hard to gain traction in a market so dominated by an established player who delivers what customers want. But there are new offerings: the short audio market is being met by podcasts and by services like Blinkist.

In a parallel field, one of the Netflix founders, Mitch Lowe, is planning to revolutionise cinema-going and has just launched in the US a service called Moviepass, providing unlimited visits to cinemas for $9.95 per month, while behind the scenes paying the cinema the full admission price, absorbing the difference. How is that financed? In due course, it is hoped, by taking a percentage of all the add-ons of a night at the movies - related meals, popcorn, drinks, etc. It requires deep pockets to sustain such an offer for the time it will take to establish it, but that's what Blockbuster said about Netflix when the latter started: "We rent movies for $5 - how can you possibly make renting at $1 viable?"

What is the audiobook equivalent? I think we need to be SaaSy about it: there's software as a service, television as a service, and now movies in a cinema on subscription. The audio industry needs to keep these models in mind. We need to offer Storytelling-as-a-Service.

*Alfred D Chandler Jr, The Visible Hand, Harvard University Press, 1977.

Nicholas Jones founded audio production company Strathmore Publishing in 1995. It has since produced more than 1,000 audiobooks with readers ranging from Richard Dawkins to Cara Delevingne.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.

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