Exploring the audiobooks boom

Jo Henry
Opinion - Books Friday, 20 October 2017

The growth of the audiobook market has been one of the most noticeable market trends of the past few years. Jo Henry goes behind the figures


One perhaps slightly more unexpected consequence of the digital revolution has been a surge in interest in the audiobook format, not just among the more traditional market of younger children but among consumers of all ages - and particularly millennials. Last year, Nielsen Book carried out its first "deep-dive" into the consumer audiobook market to investigate what has been driving this growth, publishing Understanding the UK Audiobook Consumer 2016 in February this year. A second survey to understand how the market has matured and to trend the key findings from the 2016 study is underway, with results due this month.

We have a sense of the size and growing importance of this market from Nielsen's Books & Consumers survey, which measured purchases of 13m audiobooks (in both physical and digital formats) in 2016, worth some £99m; up by a sixth compared to 2015, and with double digit growth in 2017. In 2016, 63% of audiobooks bought were downloads, compared to 55% in 2014. In Q2 2017, Books & Consumers recorded that about 10% of adults (5m people) had listened to or bought audiobooks in the 12 months before being interviewed.

Nielsen's 2016 study delved further into this market, revealing that 80% of audiobook consumers access them by downloading/streaming, with 67% using physical audiobooks (rising to 80% of those aged 55-plus). Different factors influence format choice: unsurprisingly, downloading/streaming is favoured because of easy carriage of multiple titles, as well as opportunity for free audiobooks; with free access (library borrowing, for example) also a leading reason for physical. Wanting to own the physical object or lacking a device to play it digitally, especially in the car, also influences use of physical audiobooks.

So who are the audiobook consumers? They were more likely than the average UK adult to be aged 18-44, to have children in the home, to work full time, live in London, be affluent and be from Black & Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups.

Two-fifths of audiobook listeners were classified as "heavy" users, consuming more than 16 audiobooks per year in both physical and digital formats, with "light" consumers (one to five audiobooks) accounting for around a third of all listeners.

The most widely consumed (listened to/bought) genres tended to be fiction categories, with crime/thriller the most popular overall, ahead of general/popular fiction and SFF/horror. Humour is much the most popular non-fiction genre, consumed by nearly a quarter of all audiobook users, well ahead of the next most popular non-fiction genres, biography and self-help/popular psychology, which were consumed by 10-11% of all adult audiobook users - similar proportions to those listening to/buying YA/teen fiction and audiobooks for children 0-12.

In fact, humour was the genre that appealed most strongly to young men aged 18-34, with SFF/horror the most appealing for men aged 35-54, and crime/thriller top of the list for men aged 55-84. Crime/thriller also took the top spot among women aged 35-plus, with popular fiction in second place - though it was at the top of the list for younger women (18-34s).

The growth of audiobooks has to some extent been driven by the ubiquity of portable digital listening devices, but with some variance by age. The 18 to 44-year-olds who consumed downloaded/streamed audiobooks tended to listen to them on smartphones, whereas those aged 45-plus were more likely to listen on tablets. When not listening on phone or tablet, consumers were more likely to listen to audiobooks on a PC/laptop than via an MP3 player.

So how has this market changed in 2017? Early findings from the latest study indicate that there have been fewer new entrants into the market, but that those already in the market have been listening to/buying more. Use of smartphones for audiobook listening has become more widespread, with less use of tablets and laptops. Crime/thriller is still the top audiobook genre overall, but with popular fiction overtaking humour among younger males, while the ability to do other things while listening is still the top reason for using audiobooks at all.

For more information and details on the 2017 study, contact hazel.kenyon@nielsen.com.

Jo Henry is vp, insight & analytics at Nielsen Book.

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

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