Today, we're going to explore how the audiobook industry has adapted to major cultural shifts, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rise of audiobooks has forced publishers to rethink their marketing strategies to reach consumers in innovative ways. One successful tactic was offering free audiobook excerpts or full audiobooks through rental car services, planting the idea of listening while driving. Macmillan even handed out free downloadable codes for early chapter listens at car washes to target commuters.

Leveraging Existing Audiences

The true crime podcast "My Favorite Murder" hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark exemplifies how to leverage an existing audience for an audiobook release. Their fans were already accustomed to hearing the duo's voices narrating true crime stories, so the audiobook edition of their book "Stay Sexy & Don't Get Murdered", narrated by the authors themselves, was "disproportionately successful" compared to the print version. The podcast's popularity even allowed them to have actor Paul Giamatti, a longtime fan, as a guest.

The TikTok Effect

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer new book releases due to printing issues, consumers turned to backlist titles that gained organic promotion on TikTok. This redefining of social media branding drove sales for various retail brands as influencers became tastemakers. The New York Times published several articles in the spring of 2021 that named TikTok and other social media influencers as the newest way to market to Gen-Z and Millennial generations who define consumer culture. With the influx of social media influencers, TikTok launched the rise of backlist sales, pushing titles from 2014 back on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Audiobooks in Cars and Smart Homes

For years, the top place to listen to audiobooks was in the car. A 2019 survey found that 74% of listeners reported listening to audiobooks in their cars as the most popular location, surpassing listening at home. With advanced in-dash entertainment systems and smartphone syncing tools, 62% of respondents with these systems have listened to audiobooks in their cars.

During the pandemic, stay-at-home measures greatly decreased commute times and car listening. As a result, audiobooks were listened to most often at home by 55% of consumers in 2021, a 12% increase from the previous year. Smart home technology like Amazon's Echo and Audible offer easy ways to play audiobooks aloud while doing chores or relaxing.

The Rise of Mobile Listening

In addition to cars and smart homes, audiobooks are often played through smartphones, a major contributor to the rise of digital audiobooks. With innovative mobile technology, consumers engage more with their devices for entertainment, including audiobooks. During the pandemic, consumers longed for an "escape" from screens, and playing audiobooks from mobile devices allowed them to listen while doing other tasks like folding laundry or walking the dog.

Audiobooks in Education

In the first year of COVID-19, audiobook listening by children under 18 increased by 14% as parents purchased more audiobooks than print books for educational purposes while reducing screen time at home. Some schools incorporated more audiobooks to correspond with lessons, as listening can help develop learning comprehension differently than visual reading.

A Time magazine study found that students who listened to a podcast performed 28% lower on a comprehension quiz than those who read the transcript. However, with more practice, listeners can train their brains to retain information auditorily. Audiobooks can help students learn sophisticated vocabulary, improve pronunciation, and foster narrative structure based on the narrator's tone.

The Pandemic's Impact

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020, stay-at-home restrictions severely impacted major retail businesses, especially independent bookstores like The Strand in New York, which called for help due to financial troubles caused by Amazon's success during the pandemic.

Publishers postponed releasing many titles to the fall of 2020 or 2021 due to printing and shipping issues, strategically planning release dates to avoid competing with major cultural events like the 2020 Presidential election.

Despite delays, the audiobook industry had more elasticity than other retail businesses because much of their business was already conducted online. Even when shipments were delayed, audio publishers could send reviewers digital advanced listening copies instead of physical CDs.

Audiobook Revenue and Listening Trends

For the ninth straight year of double-digit growth, audiobook revenue grew by 12% in 2020 to $1.3 billion, nearly achieving Deloitte's predicted $1.5 billion revenue for the year.

An estimated 45% of the U.S. population listened to an audiobook in 2020, down from 50% in 2019. However, online audio consumption (podcasts, radio shows, music, and audiobooks) became more popular than ever before.

The stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic explain why consumers searched for pleasurable and less emotionally stimulating audiobook content. Listeners found audiobooks more relaxing than reading visually due to constant eye strain from excessive screen time. Some found listening during quarantine more comforting than reading physical books, using it as a self-soothing exercise.

The Digital Transition

The rise of the digital era has played a significant role in today's audiobook market, reaching a wider range of people and persuading them to become listeners. About 95% of the industry is currently consumed through digital audiobook downloads versus physical CDs, as consumers converted to smartphone technology.

In 2020, CDs and physical products contributed less than 5% to the audiobook industry and were far more expensive to produce, while the digital product dominated sales and was favored by publishers since the 2010s. The average audiobook listener consumed 8.1 titles in 2020, an increase from 6.8 titles in 2019.

The Future of Audiobook Marketing

As backlist titles continue to make up about two-thirds of industry-wide revenue, debut authors face greater challenges getting acquired since they often don't have as strong a platform as established authors. In response, new authors are creating engagement with followers through blogs, newsletters, and other media while earning their book deal, collectively known as social branding.

Publishers are now attempting to promote through the hashtag #booktok on TikTok but are just starting to take off, while other retail businesses on the platform have already seen success from TikTok influencers. This has been a challenge since publishers are forced to adapt to a different platform with a younger audience after being comfortable advertising on other social media accounts.

When authors and narrators have large enough followings on social media, they can host live virtual events like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, or Reddit AMAs with each other and special guests, allowing consumers to better understand the creators of the audiobook. Creating a social brand for authors can be a key feature to their success, as they can build engagement on social media and within their community.

Social branding for authors can be directly related to transmedia, the idea of creating and telling a story across different channels, as authors expand their platform to construct a strong base for their author brand. Since audiobooks are mainly listened to digitally today, audio publishers sometimes look for audio-specific elements from the author's platform, such as a podcast or radio show host, before acquiring that title.

The audiobook publishing business has proven its resilience and adaptability to cultural changes, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. By leveraging existing audiences, embracing social media trends, targeting commuters and multitaskers, and exploring new marketing avenues, the industry has continued to thrive and reach new listeners. As technology and consumer habits evolve, the audiobook market will undoubtedly continue to innovate and find creative ways to captivate audiences.

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