Audio stories for me are like the smell of chocolate chip cookies – they remind me of the simpler days of my youth. Of course growing up in the 70’s (which was ages 4 to 14 for me) we didn’t have audio books. What we did have was about 5 television stations until I was in 6th grade when we got this thing called “cable” (that added at least 12 more stations to the 5 we had – it also added a big plastic box with white buttons that connected to the television by a thick brown wire – sorry another story). Anyway, the 70s was all about television except that the other half of my life was AM radio. If the wind was right and the skies were clear I could tune in stations from New York City (where all the good stuff came from). I can’t recall the name of the show, maybe it was Mystery Theater or something, but I do remember the content. On Sunday nights they would broadcast these mystery stories. Not narratives but actors playing their roles complete with basic sound effects and always “chilling music.” Half my anxiety was awaiting the outcome of the plot, the other half was hoping and praying I didn’t lose the signal before the conclusion – that often happened. I loved those “shows” almost as much as I loved Creature Feature and Chiller on Friday nights and Saturdays.
Fast forward to 1999. I was a field investigator at the time. My “field” was from Maine to Indiana. If I wasn’t flying then I was driving – it was a lot of windshield time and I needed entertainment. One day I stumbled upon these audio cassettes in some music chain store that no longer exists. There before me were Mystery Theater reproductions. I have no idea if they were the same stories from my youth – I don’t really remember the stories, only how much fun it was to listen to them. I bought every one they had. While I loved those stories, however, I never really embraced the audio book industry as a consumer. I’ve listened to Stephen King’s short story collections here and there, along with Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. I’m a reader more than a listener I guess. Still the idea of audio stories seems a fun one. What I really wanted was to do my own stories – so I created Graveyard Radio for my own entertainment.
As authors and self-publishers we need to continuously watch this fast evolving market. One area that is gaining in popularity is audio books. By gaining I mean it has seen some decent growth in the past few years. Sales of audio books has passed the $1 billion a year mark, so it may be worth taking note. And guess which category does the best in audio? Yep – Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense at about 48% of the market share. In the latest Bowker Survey on audio books some interesting data has been compiled. That data is useful if one is considering entering the audio book market. Things like the average age of CD audio book buyers is 51 and the average age of downloaders is 44. The average incomes of these groups is $76K and $84K respectively.
So should you bother?
I think it depends on what you write.
Fiction is the top-selling stuff and a large portion of that fiction purchased is best-sellers. Only 22% of the market is composed of listeners under the age of 34 with the highest listening group being ages 35 to 44. In the US and UK there are a few more percentage points of female listeners over male listeners – in Australia they are even. These numbers however may change. So the value of audio (e.g. ability to make money) is driven by which age group represents your target audience. My guess is that YA novels wouldn’t do as well as a spy novel. But that too may change because…
Most, if not all new cars today come with an aux port for your iPod or smart phone. Digital downloads are gaining ground on CD audios. And digital downloads appeal to the younger set. CD sales however continue to drive the majority of the audio book business, so I’m not surprised that only 4% of listeners are between 18 and 24. My kids haven’t purchased a CD since they were in their teens and bought Now That’s What I Call Music or My Chemical Romance.
Digital downloads, however are gaining ground and are responsible for most of the recent growth. One driving force behind the climb in digital is the mp3 player – which we can now just call the iPod or iPhone. And behind that is Audible.com which is owned by, who else but Amazon. Audible has a very cost friendly program for listeners. $14.95 a month gives you one book a month. CD audio books can cost twice that, so if you like to listen to your stories, audible.com is a pretty good deal.
But you’re a self-published author so what does this have to do with you? Well besides taking my route of amateur audio creator, Amazon offers their own solution. Audible.com and their affiliate ACX now offers packages and options for independent authors. You can take your story to audio with the same ease (almost) as your book. Mostly ACX is a selling channel, but they do offer a platform to find a producer and narrator. You work out the costs with those folks independently – with a little research I found the costs are around $50 per production hour so I think an audio book is going to run you about $1,000. They have other options of course. You can record the book yourself – with your own equipment – and they have a network of producers who will do the work for 50% of the future royalties. Over time I think these costs will all work out -meaning it will get cheaper – but for now it seems a little difficult to come to any real cost conclusion on anything but a per book basis.
So should you bother?
Audio has been around for a few decades. It has enjoyed market growth fueled by digital downloads. A billion dollar market is nice, but it’s not as big as it seems. 42% of people surveyed say they are most interested in Best-Sellers, but remember that is what listeners “report” they are interested in, it doesn’t mean that 90% of the sales are not the best-seller list. I would assume that if self-published authors have 5% of the book market sales, then the audible world is probably less. Still, not every book in print is available in audio, so if you have the right story you may do very well offering it as an audio version and capitalize on listener demand.
Being on the cutting edge, being the first to capitalize on a market, always involves money and risk. There are other ways to test out the demand for your audio book. itunes is very accommodating and free, provided you can meet all their files standards and call it a podcast. I have four stories in their library. You don’t need much. Some free audio software, a microphone and maybe some royalty free background music. You don’t have to do a full story either. You can choose just to narrate a chapter or two of your book and use it as a marketing piece.
I’m not ready to dive into the world of audio paid services. For me iTunes and my Graveyard Radio blog is still the best – free way – to discover if anyone is listening.