The Rise of Audiobooks: What to Listen to and How

Earlier this week, my husband was discussing how fascinated he was with the book he was currently listening to. He is in the first volume of a series that includes 36 HOURS on the Civil War. Two hours in, and he’s loving every minute. There are lots of things to say about this, but for the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the discussion it lead to about the rise of audiobooks and how they can make certain topics, genres and books more accessible. As we talked more about it, Joe noted that he had recently read an article about a publication where there were more audiobooks sold than print copies. Fairly shocking! It’s an intriguing shift in the publishing industry, and our conversation prompted me to learn a little more about it. 

Surprising Audiobooks Statistics

A recent survey showed that over half of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to an audio book in the last year. This number has been steadily growing and is up from 44% in 2018. Data experts believe that the trend will continue and that audiobook usage should steadily rise in coming years. In 2018, the Association of American Publishers reported that the audiobook was the fastest growing format, outpacing even ebooks in steady growth. Both sales of audiobooks and library borrowing rates are steadily climbing. 

The most frequent listeners of audiobooks are ages 18-44 and 55% of all listeners are under the age of 45. Young adults that are college graduates are the most popular consumers of the format. 

Why Audiobooks

Experts believe that a few factors have contributed to the swift and steady rise of audiobooks. Perhaps most important, audiobooks have become incredibly easy to use. Rather than having to get a pack of CDs and then regularly change them as you listen, you can now simply download an audiobook and listen. Gone are the days of having to stop at every Cracker Barrel on your road trip to trade out books!

Speaking of roadtrips, Audiobooks are most often listened to in the car, but also are consumed while listeners are exercising, cleaning or doing other largely mindless task. Additionally, they’ve come to replace tv for some as a way to relax at the end of the day or to unwind before bed.

The rise in popularity of smart speakers, like Alexa and Google Home, seem to have contributed to their popularity, as these devices make it even easier and more appealing to listen to audiobooks. The rise of podcasts also seems to have contributed to this movement, as more and more consumers are comfortable using their devices to learn or be entertained through listening. ​All in all, while many factors are at play, the ever-increasing convenience of audiobooks primarily accounts for their growing success. 

Still, it’s worth noting that production quality has improved in recent years as has the quality of narration. As you might imagine, the person reading the book has a big impact on sales and overall success of an audiobook. The use of celebrities, popular authors and experienced readers has helped to drive success. 

The Most Popular Audiobook Services

Audible is the most popular source for audiobooks. Owned by Amazon, it has the largest catalog of books and allows for seamless use on Kindle devices. A $14.95/month subscription gives users one credit per month and a 30% discount on all titles. Each month, there are also free books available, and Audible has even begun creating original audiobooks (a concept that is intriguing and perhaps worthy of a post of its own). It’s easy to use and affordable. Plus, if you have an Alexa device, listening to books through Audible couldn’t be easier (“Alexa, play the book recounting the Civil War in real time”). 

While Audible is the most popular source for audiobooks, it certainly is not the only one. Other services like Scribd and Kobo are becoming popular alternatives. Additionally, library borrowing is becoming easier and is on the rise. Through the use of Overdrive and Libby, library users are able to access and play thousands of different titles. Overdrive is used to checkout audiobooks from local libraries, and the Libby app is a user-friendly way to play the audiobook on your device. 

If you’re new to audiobooks and not sure about trying this format, start by checking out a title from your local library. It’s a free and easy way to join the audiobook movement. 

Amidst rapid growth, some questions about audiobooks still linger. Critics challenge that listeners are not comprehending as much while listening as they would while reading. They back this up by research showing that most people’s comprehension is higher while reading rather than listening and by the reality that audiobooks are often listened to while multi-tasking, something that most people can’t actually do – i.e., their attention is elsewhere. The general response to those naysayers is that anything extra you’re able to learn or enjoy that you wouldn’t have time to read in print is a bonus. I agree. 

Plus, more and more people are using audiobooks as a way to learn about topics that they don’t think they could get through in print form. So, seems like an overall win to make more books and more information accessible. 

For the most part, the publishing industry agrees and is not yet concerned about audiobooks “cannibalizing” print sales. From their perspective, it’s still a relatively small percentage of sales and it gives authors another way to connect to readers. 

I love audiobooks and regularly listen to them while driving, cleaning or working out. If you haven’t yet given them a try, download Overdrive and Libby today and check out your local library’s catalog. And, if you’re not sure what to listen to first, here’s a list of the best audiobooks of all time to help get you started. If you have a favorite audiobook or a favorite narrator, please comment so we can all expand our listening horizons!

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