Audiobooks may add millions to their bottom lines each year, yet publishers have yet to realize the digital category’s full revenue potential, according to Bill Wolfsthal, who advises book publishers and publishing technology providers on strategies to grow sales and revenue.

The US-based Audio Publishers Association reported audiobook revenue rose in 2020 to $1.3 billion, a 12% hike, and the ninth straight year of double-digit growth for the format.  However, only a fraction of published titles is commercially available as audiobooks.  While some books cannot reasonably become audiobooks – heavily illustrated children’s storybooks as well as art books and photography books – most fiction and many nonfiction titles likely can.

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Talking Up Synthetic Narration for Audiobooks

“Right now, our best estimate is that only between 5% and 10% of books in print are available in audio,” Wolfsthal tells me.

“That’s a disappointment because [audiobooks] could be new revenue for publishers who need it,” he says.

“And it’s a disappointment in terms of accessibility, because there are so many book lovers, so many readers, so many students that have a visual impairment and can’t read or have a learning disability like dyslexia that makes reading difficult for them.  Audiobooks are hugely popular in that audience.”

Synthetic voices created by machines and algorithms like those from Speechki might address the audiobook deficit quickly and inexpensively. For now, though, Amazon stands in the way, with a policy prohibiting AI-generated voices from reading texts on its Audible platform.

“I think [Amazon is] just failing to keep up with the times,” says Wolfsthal. “Two or three years ago, if you listened to synthetic narration, it sounded very robotic.  But in the last two or three years, great improvements have been made, and listening to an audiobook with synthetic narration is really an enjoyable experience.

“I believe that Audible and Amazon are going to change that policy once they realize that it was put in place to protect their consumers, and their consumers don’t want protection.  They want choice,” Wolfsthal says.


Author: Christopher Kenneally

Christopher Kenneally hosts CCC's Velocity of Content podcast series, which debuted in 2006 and is the longest continuously running podcast covering the publishing industry. As CCC's Senior Director, Marketing, he is responsible for organizing and hosting programs that address the business needs of all stakeholders in publishing and research. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Independent (London), WBUR-FM, NPR, and WGBH-TV.
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