Audiobooks – an outline of the UK market
In 1935, the Royal National Institute for the Blind recorded (on 16 rpm shellac discs) a reading of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This was the first ‘Talking Book’.
Audiobooks (a term not finally accepted universally until this century) continued to be seen as ‘books for the blind’ well into the 1990s. In the US, Caedmon released recordings for a general market as early as 1954, particularly of poets reading their own work. In the UK, EMI and Argo experimented with spoken-word recordings in the 1970s. In the late 1980s, the BBC launched its Radio Collection, selections from its archives on cassette tape. Thus began a public awareness of ‘radio on demand’, but it was not until the 1990s that mainstream publishers launched audio lists – Penguin, Hodder, HarperCollins, Random House, Orion. Once audio was in bookshops rather than record shops, it began to be appreciated by the general public as a valid medium in its own right rather than as a second-best substitute for those unable to read printed books. There was clearly a demand: sales grew at about 20 per cent per year from 1995 to 2001, although they have now plateaued.
Technological developments helped. The Sony Walkman players, first cassette and then CD, encouraged multi-tasking and listening whilst travelling. By 2005, cassettes were almost totally superseded by CDs, and audiobooks are now online at sites such as audible.co.uk – downloads are perhaps 10 per cent of the market in 2007, a share growing fast.
Most high-street sales are of abridged titles, skilfully cut back to between three and eight hours (30,000 to 70,000 words); unabridged titles often run to twenty, and there is a version of War and Peace that is over sixty hours long. Library sales are usually unabridged. Downloading has removed the physical constraints which made unabridged difficult to market, and compared with sales on CD, a far higher proportion of online sales to the consumer market are unabridged.
Audio is a small proportion of the UK consumer book industry: hard sales figures are difficult to obtain, but according to 2006 industry association surveys, the UK market is about £70m – 2.8 per cent of the approximately £2,500m UK consumer book market. However, even this modest share is at odds with the mere £21m that shows up in the Nielsen Bookscan retail sales figures; the balance is presumably made up by library and mail-order sales of unabridged books.
Audio is proportionately better established in the US, with $870m retail sales – say £435m at current exchange rates; the US population is 300m, the UK, 60m. The US consumer market is about $12,200m; audio is therefore about 7 per cent.
According to a 2007 survey by the Audiobook Publishing Association, only 8 per cent of the adult population of the UK have listened to an audiobook in the past year; the US equivalent figure is 25 per cent.
Job opportunities in audio lie in deciding what to publish and acquiring rights, with perhaps some involvement in casting of readers; all production is outsourced to a small number of established producers and studios who specialize in the field.
Nicholas Jonesclose window