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Audiobooks are growing in popularity and market share, but independent authors should focus on the more foundational aspects of publishing and promotion that will bring a higher return on investment.

Audiobooks are the new darlings of the publishing industry. In fact, audiobooks are currently the fastest-growing segment of the digital publishing world, accounting for more than $2.5 billion dollars in 2017 — a 32 percent increase over 2016. Over that same period, more than 26 percent of the U.S. population listened to an audiobook. Plus, in a recent survey, 77 percent of frequent listeners “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that listening to audiobooks “helps you finish more books.”

What’s more is that publishers are equally excited — the Association of American Publishers reported a 33.9 percent increase in the number of audiobooks published in 2017 vs. 2016.

Part of this increase is simply that listening to audiobooks is an enjoyable experience. Fans of the medium appreciate how audiobooks allow you to do other things while listening and that you can enjoy them wherever you are — in the car, at home, on your phone. Plus, for a lot of us, it’s just fun being read to.

Given all of this, it would follow that self-published authors should invest time and money in producing audiobooks, right?

Not so fast. Here’s why that assumption is incorrect.

Audiobooks comprise a tiny slice of the book market

Print is still king when it comes to reading formats. In a big way.

While audiobooks are growing, 70 percent of all books sold in 2017 came in some form of paper and ink: hardcover books accounted for 36 percent of sales and softcover made up 34 percent — a level of market dominance that’s held steady since 2011.

And while eBook readership has declined, it still accounted for 17 percent of the market in 2017.

That doesn’t leave much market share for audiobooks. Even its all-time high of $2.5 billion in sales accounts for less than six percent of the overall market.

For independent authors looking to reach the largest amount of readers possible, there are a variety of better places to invest your time and money than audiobooks.

Producing an audiobook is expensive

There are essentially two ways to pay for an audiobook:
1) through royalties
2) through a pay-per-performance model

Audiobooks produced through royalties require no up-front costs for the author/rights holder. Rather, the costs are cut from the revenue. A producer or narrator will record the audio in exchange for 20 percent of the revenue generated, for example. From there, more cuts are taken, and the rights holder stands to receive about 20 percent of the revenue generated by digital download sales.

This option might look attractive for self-published authors, but narrators who work under this revenue model are typically not the cream of the crop. The audiobook format really requires top-notch voice talent to provide a great experience for the listener.

With the pay-per-performance model, the author pays for all of the audiobook production costs up front and receives all of the audiobook’s net revenue — AKA the money left over after selling costs are deducted. When you sell through an online store like Audible, for example, only 40 percent of an audiobook’s sales revenue goes to the author.

Here’s where the math gets challenging. An average novel amounts to about 10 hours of narration (roughly 90,000 words) and is likely going to cost $300 or more per finished hour. That’s an investment of $3,000.

To recoup that money, most authors list the audiobook versions of their book as double or triple the cost of the average eBook. The Kindle edition of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green costs $4.99, but the audiobook costs $17.99. The Kindle edition of Max Brooks’ World War Z costs $9.99, but the audiobook will set you back $28.00.

The problem here is that a higher price depresses sales, especially for new, unknown authors. If you list your audiobook price at $20, you will only earn $8 of each sale. That means you’ll need to sell 375 audiobooks just to cover the production cost.

Self-published authors should invest in their books

Because of how expensive they are to produce and how slim of a market share they actually command, audiobooks amount to something of a luxury only available to established authors for whom readers are willing to shell out the extra money.

For new authors, audiobooks are the last place you should be investing your money because other investments offer so much more in return.

Where should new authors put their money?

  • Editing. No matter what, professional editing is the best investment for any book. Every single successful self-published book has been worked over by an editing pro, without exception.
  • Cover design and book formatting. A close second when it comes to important investments are cover design and formatting. You can write the greatest book since Moby Dick, but if it doesn’t have an eye-catching cover, nobody will ever discover you.
  • Producing printed books and eBooks. Printed books remain the dominant format, and it’s too easy and inexpensive not to invest in eBooks as well.
  • Maximizing distribution. Having your book available on Amazon isn’t good enough for most self-published authors. Using an aggregator like BookBaby can put your book in dozens of the leading bookstores around the world.
  • Marketing. This is the part of the publishing process that most writers hate, so investing in it is doubly important. For writers who are not marketing-inclined, spending money on consultations or publicists can make a big difference in sales.

Audiobooks are a great innovation, and with the rise in ownership of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, they’ll continue to increase in prominence. Still, they remain a poor investment for new and independent authors. Until you garner a major following, you’re better off focusing on the more foundational aspects of publishing and promotion that will bring a higher return on your investment, like editing, design, marketing, and, of course, writing a really great story.


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Steven Spatz

About Steven Spatz

Steven Spatz has written 98 posts in this blog.

Steven Spatz is an author, marketer, and the President of BookBaby.

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