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The audio revolution

13 November 2006

The recent Bookseller seminar on audiobooks highlighted rapid changes and huge potential in what has often been seen as a backwater of the publishing world. The seminar's chairman Damian Horner called audio 'the runt end' of publishing.

In the States the market is considerably more developed than in the UK and the rest of the world. A recent survey funded by the US Audio Publishers Association showed that nearly 25% of the US population listens to audiobooks and audio book clubs will have contributed to this. The research showed that in many cases book readers and audiobook listeners are the same. The American market is dominated by the unabridged format, which suggests keen readers, and the long car journeys many Americans make to work may also have helped grow the demand for audiobooks.

Horner argued that the digital era would prove the tipping point for spoken word content and urged: 'Don't treat audio like it's just a recorded version of a book. This is about product reinvention - a huge opportunity to go for non-book readers.'

Audio has long been a Cinderella in bookshops, which speaker Scott Pack of the Friday Project put down to lack of radical thinking and effective marketing. The Read Smarter campaign promotes the idea of listening to an audiobook whilst undertaking other activities, hooking up with audiences such as that for BBC Radio 4. Many readers - and non-readers - who might enjoy them have simply never got into the habit of buying audiobooks.

The Bookseller concluded that: 'The central message was that audio had huge potential to grow its profile, reach new markets and cross-fertilise print and digital publishing. The key is to treat audio as it own medium rather than a lesser version of a book.'

And the future? Ana Maria Allessi, publisher of HarperMedia, speaking about the US, warned that 'there are two to three years of opportunity left for the CD'. Taking the usual time-lag between the US and the rest of the world into account, that might mean a possible five years of CD sales elsewhere. Or does the ever-increasing speed with which technological change impacts on the market mean we'll move to audio downloads much sooner? Whatever happens, it looks as if the spoken word may at last be coming into its own as a publishing medium, and consumers will be listening to books in greater numbers in the future.

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