Readers, Listen Up: Amazon Is Shaking up the Audiobook Market

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Readers, Listen Up: Amazon Is Shaking up the Audiobook Market – WSJ

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Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market

When Olympic snowboarder

Shaun White’s

memoir lands later this year, readers will have to wait. That is because his book will be released as an audiobook a month before the hardcover and e-book editions.

The force behind this unorthodox rollout is Audible,

Amazon.com
Inc.’s


AMZN 0.70%

audiobook subscription service. Audible paid for the lion’s share of the memoir to gain rights to the audio version, which will be published by its in-house studio. Audible said it would be the first time one of its audiobooks precedes a print book in coordination with another publisher.

With the help of its deep-pocketed owner, Audible is trying to extend its dominance in a fast-growing corner of the book business. It already accounts for about 41% of U.S. audiobook unit sales, according to researcher Codex Group LLC. Audible said Mr. White’s book is a blueprint for the sorts of deals it will pursue.

Audible dominates the audiobook

market†

Audible

41%

Physical store CD sellers

AudiobookStore.com

Audiobooks.com

Apple iTunes

Audiobooks

Other

Amazon.com Audiobooks

(excluding Audible)

As a publisher of audiobooks rather than simply a retailer, Audible can develop exclusive audio content that differs from the print version, helping to lure subscribers and fend off rivals. In working directly with authors, Audible controls the content instead of traditional publishers, which normally own all rights to books and distribute audio versions through firms like Audible and Apple Inc.’s iTunes.

Audible is pitching literary agents on the benefits of using its services, saying authors will get a competitive bidding process that could mean more money in their pockets, and will get more attention and marketing for their audiobooks.

The company is adding pressure on book publishers to hold on to a modest but growing area of an otherwise challenged book industry. In the first eight months of 2017, publishers’ revenue from audiobooks grew 20% from the same period a year earlier, while print books only rose 1.5% and e-books slipped 5.4%, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data reported by 1,200 publishers.

Beth Anderson,

Audible’s publisher, said the company has been a disrupter since before it was acquired by Amazon in 2008. She noted the company’s entry into downloadable titles when others were selling CDs and cassettes, and its introduction of digital rights management to protect against piracy.

“We’re going after the people who aren’t yet listening,” said Ms. Anderson. “And we’re trying to serve authors who have entrusted their rights to us.”

0

’13

’15

2012

’16

’14

’17

Publishers’ revenue from ebooks

Through August

1,500

million

1,000

500

0

2012

’14

’15

’16

’13

’17

Amazon built a dominant position in print books and e-books with discounted titles and self-publishing services. With audiobooks, the company faces new hurdles in its quest to expand market share, including greater competition and pushback from publishers.

Last month,

Alphabet
Inc.’s

Google began selling audiobooks through its Google Play store, and Walmart Inc. said it was working with Japan’s No. 1 e-commerce retailer,

Rakuten
Inc.,

to sell audiobooks in the U.S. The Audio Publishers Association estimates U.S. audiobook sales rose 18% to $2.1 billion in 2016.

Several major publishers, including Penguin Random House and HarperCollins Publishers, say they generally won’t buy a new book without audiobook rights, which may deter authors from signing deals with Audible.

“Authors are best served if they are published as a whole and marketed as a whole and in lockstep with our digital sales team and our print team,” said Ana

Maria Allessi,

publisher of HarperAudio, a unit of HarperCollins Publishers. HarperCollins, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by

News Corp
.

With Audible, the publisher typically gets a set fee for each audiobook download, part of which is passed on to the author. When Audible owns the audiobook rights, print publishers no longer get a cut. Typically, this means more money is passed on to the author.

“As e-book sales decline and hardcover sales flatten, publishers need audiobook rights to boost their bottom line,” said

Robert Gottlieb,

chairman of Trident Media Group LLC, a New York literary agency. “What’s different is that Audible is trying to get agents to sell them the audiobook rights before they go out with the other publishing rights.”

Although Audible sells audiobooks a la carte, its subscriber revenue is far greater. The service charges members $14.95 a month for a single audiobook with a 30% discount on additional titles. Ms. Anderson would only say that Audible has “millions” of members.

To entice subscribers, Audible is seeking more original content beyond actors or authors simply reading a text. For example, Audible Studios produced a special edition of

Margaret Atwood’s

“The Handmaid’s Tale” read by

Claire Danes,

with new material that extends beyond the end of the novel.

The audiobook edition of Mr. White’s untitled memoir, which will be released in September only on Audible and iTunes, may include conversations with Mr. White’s coaches or competitors and play-by-play narrations of competitions, Ms. Anderson said. The print and e-book versions will follow in October from the education and publishing company

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Co.


HMHC -3.14%

Houghton was a unique partner because it typically sublicenses its audio rights to others.

Ellen Archer,

president of Houghton’s trade publishing group, said the print edition will feature photographs, journal entries and art created by Mr. White.

In some scenarios Audible is going after more than audio rights. Literary agent

Richard Pine

said that after the success of a client’s audiobook, Audible recently approached him with interest in buying all publishing rights to the author’s next novel. Audible would then likely sell off print and e-book rights, he said.

“Today the audio business is a business to be reckoned with,” Mr. Pine said.

Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at jeffrey.trachtenberg@wsj.com


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