Brian Tibbetts

November 20, 2015

Can the Audiobook Save B&N?


This week in Publishing & Technology we’ll be talking about audiobooks. As Yasmine Askari reported on the Digital Book World last week, Barnes & Noble recently announced the launch of a Nook audiobooks app for iphone and ipad, as well as a new website to support the app with more than sixty thousand audio titles available to download without the purchase of a subscription. I’ll leave the prognosticating around whether or not this will be the magic bullet that saves Barnes & Noble from the same fate as Borders to smarter industry analysts. I’m more concerned with the audiobook as a product and it’s future in publishing.

My first attempt to get into audiobooks revolved around my year and a half stint covering the Inland Northwest territory as a B2B salesperson calling on grocery stores from the eastern side of the Washington Cascades all the way to the Billings, Montana – a vast, beautiful, and relatively empty landscape. I would sometimes drive as much as six hours in between sales calls, this in the days before rental car stereos came with audio jacks and in a land with almost no local radio signals. It was dull. So, I tried to spice up the windshield time by bringing along one of those suitcase-sized collection of audiobook CDs.

I couldn’t tell you the title or author of that book so many years later. What I can tell you is that I almost died listening to that book, lulled to sleep while driving a desolate Montana two-lane highway by the sultry voice of whomever was narrating. Like so many people, I walked away from the whole audiobook thing because of lack of convenience and a love of reading the actual text and fleshing out the characters with the voices my imagination created for them in my head. I figured that audiobooks were fine for older folks losing their sight, or for drivers that could stay awake in the face of narration, but not for me. What I learned years later while getting into the publishing business regarding the stagnation of audiobook sales would reinforce this impression.

My second attempt to get into audiobooks was on the production side, while working for a podcast marketing startup here in Portland. What I was told by industry professionals at the time was that Amazon’s purchase of Audible and ACX (the largest audiobook producer), along with prior arrangements between Audible and Apple RE: distribution through iTunes pretty much had the entire industry locked down. It remains to be seen if what I was told at the time was true or not. People have a way of populating their thoughts about Amazon and any of its subsidiaries with their feelings and the general need for a scapegoat. Suffice it to say that I am a bit surprised to see Barnes & Noble making a big deal of their staggered entry into the audiobook distribution game. Will audiobook distribution apps for Apple devices help to resurrect the once easily blamed corporate bookselling giant? Time will tell, but I remain skeptical.

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  • Laurel Kashinn says:

    It must be you picked a book that’s not very interesting; I suspect it wasn’t the format that put you to sleep, but the content and/or the writing. I’ve cracked open many a print book that’s put me to sleep.

    Working at a public library, I can say that there is a definite demographic of people who prefer audio over print books, and consume them voraciously. Recently I’ve gotten into them, too, along with my 13-year-old, after we started listening together to her favorite YA author on a road trip. We now have a book going all the time, which we listen to while cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and in the car. Its a fun way for families to bond, listening together to favorite authors. With all the awful news in the world today, it also is far less stressful than having the radio on!

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Clearly you do not have three young sons that your DR. has called “highly active” and a 70 pound puppy with you in the car on a regular basis! Audio books are our salvation. We live 30 minutes from the closest town and so any drive is a longer drive. I am constantly renting audio books from our local library, we always have one going, currently it is “My Friend Flicka” last month it was one of the “How To Train Your Dragon” books by Cressida Cowell, which by the way are read by this Scottish actor who has such a cool accent…very fun. Audio books are a must for us and a way to delve into classic books that I couldn’t quite make it through if I actually had to read them, but that I adore listening to and being able to say “I read that” and sound all smart. But you are right in that they are bulky, thus the library! Did I mention how much I love our library???

  • Heather Frey Blanton says:

    I have modest hopes for my audio books, but I will say my sales have doubled for the third month in a row and my books have only been live for three months. So, we shall see.

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