Here’s another way digital could complement print
Here's how to turn book samples into a powerful B2C tool

Which digital book format has the most growth potential?

Microphone-38120_1280The answer might surprise you…

Amazon’s Kindle format dominates the ebook market today and it’s easy to assume that will remain the case going forward. Despite that fact, I see a number of trends indicating the digital book space could be ripe for disruption.

Notice I use the term “digital book”, not “ebook.” That’s because the digital format with the most upside isn’t MOBI or EPUB. It’s audio.

Amazon also dominates the audio book space, of course, thanks to their ownership of both Audible and Brilliance Audio. Amazon’s audio book subsidiaries are built around yesterday’s business model though, and I believe technology and consumer habits have evolved to the point where a new business model will emerge.

Have you ever priced an audio book? Let’s use George Orwell’s 1984 as an example. Audible currently offers the audio version for $20.97 while Amazon sells the paperback for $11.42 and the Kindle edition for $9.99. There are exceptions, of course, but the audio format is typically the most expensive option.

What might happen if audio editions were priced at or below the print or Kindle editions? The recent trends in ebook sales might be a good indicator here. As ebook prices have increased over time (thank you, agency model), print has experienced a resurgence and ebook sales have flattened and even declined for some genres.

Next, consider the growing interest in podcasts, as described here. Two factors drive this trend shown above: convenience and laziness. Low-production YouTube videos have replaced how-to books on a variety of topics. It’s also a lot easier to watch or listen than read. I’m sure that last statement made quite a few of you bristle, but it’s true. Reading isn’t going away, but overall consumption could be dramatically increased if it weren’t for the painfully high price of your typical audio book.

Why are prices so high? The obvious culprit tends to be the professional talent (and additional time) required to create the audio format. But is it really critical to limit recordings to either the author or voice professionals? If you want to continue charging those high prices the answer is probably “yes.”

If you’re open to exploring other pricing models though, you’ll be inspired by the approach used by The Week. I recommend you subscribe or at least listen to a few of the podcasts created by The Week. You’ll quickly discover their editors and other staff members are the voice talent. The voices are clean and crisp, not robotic, and the finished product is terrific. Yes, these are free streams, but they give you a sense of what’s possible with a much lower investment.

Technology is opening new doors here as well. Remember the monotone, computer-generated audio of the 90’s? Text-to-speech has improved quite a bit over the years and will only get better over time. If you’re still not convinced, scan this related article and be sure to listen to some of the audio samples; it’s virtually impossible to distinguish the human-generated segments from the computer-generated ones.

Despite all this, why would publishers have any interest in seeing lower prices for audio formats? Because it represents an enormous opportunity to break the stranglehold Amazon currently has on all digital formats.

Imagine a world where publishers could establish a strong, direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel featuring audio. The D2C audio edition of 1984 could be computer-generated and sell for $9.99, the same price as the Kindle edition; but in this case, the publisher keeps 100% of the selling price, not whatever percentage they’re receiving from Amazon for the Kindle edition.

Are you worried that consumers will buy one audio copy and share it with all their friends? If so, please don’t fall back into that digital rights management (DRM) trap that only reinforces Amazon’s dominance. Rather, create a simple mobile app where all the purchased audio files live. Most publishers don’t realize it, but the fact that a reader’s Kindle files are buried in their app is more of a file-sharing deterrent than DRM itself. If you don’t believe me, ask a few of your friends if they even know how to retrieve their ebook files from their Kindle app, for example.

The opportunity here is huge, and not just for selling audio books directly. It’s a chance for publishers to forge a more meaningful, ongoing relationship with their customers. I’ve grown to love history books over the years, mostly ones about WWII and the civil war. I subscribe to a few publisher newsletters but I still sometimes overlook interesting new publications. Wouldn’t it be cool if audio samples of those new books could be sent directly to the app on my phone? I just set a few preferences and I’ll never miss another new title.

Today most publishers sell transactionally, one book at a time, to nameless/faceless consumers. The model I’m describing isn’t ideal for all publishers, but for ones with genre depth it represents a new approach where they could better serve their customers as well as take more control over their own destiny.


Michael W. Perry

Good advice. I'll add another suggestion. Check out the free, public-domain books on:

Listen and find one of its volunteers who's a perfect match for your book. For instance, the "Anne" of this dramatized version of Anne of Green Gables has the perfect voice for the imaginative young Anne.

Here's an illustration of her voice:

When you find the right voice, see if she or he would be interesting in making an arrangement with you, either for a fixed fee or a share of the income.

--Mike Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

Michael Miller

Joe, for someone who's been involved in content creation for most of his career, I find it interesting that on this issue at least you're devaluing the content creators. Yeah, audio book prices are a little higher than p-book prices, and that's due at least in part to the professional talent that reads the books. That's value added content, right there. So why get on the bandwagon of devaluing that content by using non-professional or machine readers? Those of us who create and collate content lend value, and value needs to be compensated. You trying to put us all out of work or what?


Joe Wikert

Hi Mike. Would my option really put people out of work? I suspect there's some significant number of current audio customers who prefer the more polished, professional voice version. If so, they'd probably opt for the higher-priced, higher-production edition available today. It would be very interesting to do an a/b test of both editions though to see if one ends up outperforming the other. At the end of the day, I'm not convinced the market should limit itself to only one option simply to preserve voice talent jobs.

Michael Miller

Well, I'm sure all the voice talent would argue with you on that, Joe. Do you think the audio book market is big enough to support two formats (pricey pro and cheap machine/amateur)? In any case, I'm on a drive to support professional content in all media and applications; while many keep pushing the "content should be free" notion and thus devaluing professional content, I earnestly believe that you get what you pay for, and the current dreadful state of news and other media is proof that expertise should be more valued. When any neighbor or jackhole can weigh in on an issue (or provide how-to "content"), we drive the baseline for truth and accuracy into the ground. Not everyone's opinion is created equal. Frankly, you or me reading an audio book would be a lot less enjoyable experience than having professional voice talent do it.

Joe Wikert

Mike, you ask a very important question: Is the audio book market large enough to support two formats? If your last point is correct and the higher quality experience is preferred, what does the market have to lose by testing my theory? These cheaper, amateur editions would simply die on the vine and publishers would stop creating them.

I think you're more concerned that the cheaper, amateur editions would be the winner though. And if so, wouldn't that mean consumers really don't place a premium on professional voice talent?

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