Now Hear This


This is a golden age for listening to audiobooks on portable electronic devices like smartphones and iPods, but the high price of audiobooks still holds them back from becoming as popular as electronic books or printed books. Before the inclusion of compact solid state storage on portable devices, audiobook listeners were encumbered with multiple compact discs (CDs) or cassette tapes for each book. The combination of compressed audio formats with high capacity compact storage has unlocked a perfect setting for listeners to take advantage of audiobook downloads from the internet and then enjoy a seamless listening experience any time and anywhere.


While the marriage of hardware technology with software format is now ideal for enjoying audiobooks, the pricing remains a stumbling block. Regular prices can start at $15 and go on up to $100. In any case, the audiobook price is always the highest of any of the formats, from hardcover or paperback print to ebook. Production costs for publishers are higher naturally because of the need for voice talent, production personnel, and recording facilities. It may be that to produce a truly professional result the costs cannot be lowered, and therefore audiobook prices will remain high. That would be a shame, since the technological moment has never been better and that has in turn increased demand. If increased demand does not drive the price down, then most likely audiobook sales will hit a wall, and new listeners will no longer be drawn to the format.

Anker Sonntagnachmittag 1861
Sunday Afternoon, an 1861 painting by Albert Anker (1831-1910).

There are some alternatives to the business model of publishers producing audiobooks themselves or licensing their books to production studios, a model resulting in high overhead costs which increase the prices of best sellers and niche books alike. One alternative encourages authors to engage voice talent and production facilities and staff more or less on their own, knocking down the overhead costs. An author could still go for high concept production, but most have not. This business model has had the effect of increasing the overall amount of titles with audiobook versions, and at better prices than the standard publishers’ audiobook versions. It seems the publishing houses have been unable to take advantage of the audiobook’s golden age on account of their lumbering dinosaur steps, and a more nimble approach was needed.

Another alternative is the free model of LibriVox, staffed by volunteer readers using their home studios. The books they read are all in the public domain, and are free to download, with no digital rights management encumbrances. LibriVox is a laudable project, and even though there are no modern best sellers available for listening, the collection of classic literature is extensive. As can be expected with volunteer readers producing their efforts themselves from probably quite modest facilities, the results are wildly uneven, sometimes within the same audiobook, since LibriVox occasionally parcels out different chapters to several readers. Listening to LibriVox audiobooks is therefore a hit or miss experience which can be useful all the same in filling in gaps for a listener, especially when it comes to the classics.

The enjoyment of listening to a great storyteller goes back to childhood individually, and to the beginning of history for the human race as a whole.
It appears the audiobook industry has settled on the monthly subscription model as its most effective way to sell to listeners. Relatively few people are interested in buying titles outright considering the high prices. Subscription rates for only one or two audiobook downloads per month are also high, but at $10 to $20 they seem easier to swallow. The public library is yet another alternative for downloading audiobooks, although because of budget cutbacks libraries are having more difficulty than ever stocking a selection of audiobooks comparable to their print book inventory. For an audiobook fan with a middle class or slimmer amount of disposable income, putting together a home audiobook collection like a roomful of long playing records or several bookcases filled with paperback books is probably not feasible. For a frequent listener, the rental plan offerings are not very filling at only one or two audiobooks per month. A little of this and a little of that might be the best strategy for an audiobook fan with shallow pockets – a monthly subscription if it can be had at a good rate, an active library card, and an electronic bookmark for the LibriVox website.
— Techly