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Insights from Hawthorne Publishing

Audio books’ popularity soars. . .how does a publisher view this niche in the market?

New statistics show that 50% of Americans over 12 years of age have listened to an audio book in the last year. That percentage has grown from 44 percent in 2018.

A young business friend of mine said recently, “I don’t know why people keep buying cumbersome hard and softcover books. The minute I get into the car, I put on the audio book. It can be a popular thriller or a book that involves my business interest, which I’m supposed to read and discuss in an upcoming office meeting, but every minute I’m improving my mind easily as I drive.”

Smartspeakers are facilitating this surge in popularity in books that often feature well-known actors delivering the narrative and acting the characters.  A person may sit under a tree, on the beach, or on the road, and follow the latest mystery or non-fiction biography.

The popularity and success of many of these books, particularly fiction, depends on the voice and narrative, the reading of the book. Actors with rich, powerful interpretive voices will bring the narrative to life with a variety of tonalities, voices, and expressions. We enjoy hearing something coming alive, giving us some of the pleasure we receive watching a movie.

.But what value do they have for small presses or regional publishers, whose sales have been invested in soft bounds, diminishing amounts of hardcovers and e-books. The answer is not much value so far.

Small press sales can be in the low thousands for any given softcover title, at best. Historical presses are pleased to sell 2,000 at the release of any given title as a new release and then feature it for many years as a standard or backlist title. They have returned their original investment of print and typesetting costs and made a modicum of profit as well as serving their publishing mission. Authors have received some sales royalties and are satisfied.

But audio books are surprisingly expensive to produce. Any one title can cost around $3,000-$5,000 or more to record and produce with a sophisticated and talented performer doing the voice and smooth technology to produce it. E-books can be produced at a professional level for about $500 and very little trouble in India. Of course e-books do not return much when sold through Amazon for either small presses or authors, often a few dollars per sale.

Small presses sell softbound titles for $20 or more.  Audiobooks are sold by subscription usually, a situation small presses cannot manage easily.

So for now, we small presses are still in the business of producing high quality softbound books with arresting themes, titles and content. That’s the way the book business has been since the 1400s, and it’s clear that hand-held books with high quality reading content will continue to sell at least in the near future.