Audiobooks Go Global, Competition Rises In Germany,
Yoshi Mixes Tunes in Japan
As PT continues its foray into the audio delivery of the word, we leave behind the car-loving Americans who drive twice the distance at a third of the cost, for the land of the TGV, the U-Bahn and the AVE. A land where audiobooks on cassette and CD failed to garner a substantial audience, because people spend less time behind the wheel. With the transfer to digital download, however, expansion is on the horizon, sure to mimic the post-Pod US market explosion. But, for the time being, Europe — with the exception of the UK and Germany — has yet to catch the audio bug.
Turning to Spain, past attempts to launch “audiolibros” into the market by Alfaguara in 1996 and Círculo de Lectores have notably failed. Representatives from major publishing houses gathered in April 2004 to discuss the state of Spanish audiobooks. While opinions on the future ranged from pessimistic to positive, all seemed to agree that the lack of specific audiobook in-store displays in key retailers as well as the consumers’ unfamiliarity with the spoken word concept were impeding its success.
Nevertheless, Pedro Huerta, marketing director at Random House Mondadori, spoke hopefully of a possible massive campaign to promote and sell audiolibros in all formats in Spain that, according to optimistic estimates, could arrive in time for Christmas this year. The unpredictable audiobook climate in Spain might be one of the reasons Urano, the publisher of the Spanish language version of The Da Vinci Code, decided not to release it in audiobook format. Instead, they licensed the worldwide rights to Fonolibro, a publisher based in Miami that sells Spanish audiobooks exclusively. They also threw in Angels and Demons. Spanish speakers may now purchase the 19 CD’s of The Da Vinci Code online for $39.95. Whether or not El código Da Vinci will take off in the Spanish-speaking American market where there already exists a place for it beside the English bestseller is yet to be determined.
A similar story is told in Italy, where a few publishers are splashing around the audiobook pool but not making any waves finding their market confined by a limited distribution. Some organizations commission audiobooks for the blind, but attempts to bring audiobooks into the mainstream have failed. Publishing powerhouse Mondadori launched a series of audiobook titles in the 1970’s. The idea never took root and fizzled out after a year. As in Spain, in store display issues were given as an excuse for failure. In both countries newsstand kiosks are popular printed-word pushers (along with edibles and trinkets) — visited on a daily basis by millions — and in both countries this lucrative retail venue was ignored. In addition, there is still resistance among Italian publishers who consider the audiobook as a competitor to its printed predecessor.
Audible has staked its claim in France, the UK and Germany where sales have grown exponentially over the past few years. Although comprising a minor fraction of the overall German book trade, audiobooks are the industry’s fastest growing segment. The upward swing began as far back as 2001 when the nation’s largest audio publisher, Hörverlag, saw its sales grow by a staggering 88%. As the audiobook market grew 14.7% to 140 million Euros last year, sales for the publisher reached 16.5 million euros (an impressive increase of 25% over 2003). Bookstores are still the main distribution channel, and the number of booksellers who offer audiobooks has doubled since the 1990s. Similar to the US, publishers have just reached the tipping point between cassettes and CDs. Still, Hörverlag predicts that with the rise of digital download, only 60% of their sales will go through bookstores five years from now.
Much of the appeal of audiobooks in Germany is that unlike books in print, there are no legal price restrictions on sound media. (It is unclear whether this exception to retail price maintenance exists in France and other European countries where it applies). It is not unheard of for a discounted audiobook to cost less than the hardcover copy of the same title. It’s no wonder so many German language publishers are throwing their hats into the ring. One of them, Swiss-based German language publisher Diogenes, will launch a line of six audio titles this October, including Paulo Coelho‘s latest, The Zahir.
In yet another demonstration of the power of the audiobook, American author T.C. Boyle traveled with German narrator Jan Josef Liefers during his most recent reading tour of Germany for his novel The Inner Circle. Harry Potter titles (in both German and English language editions) have broken audio sales records across the board. Some German publishing companies are now producing English-language CDs of world literature classics, and John Updike, was recently commissioned by Marebuch, a publisher that specializes in water-related titles, to read his maritime-esque poems for a CD to accompany a printed collection of the same!
Though Audible still leads the pack in digital audio, as in the US, competitors are springing up to Audible.de. Most notably, a new site is set to be launched at next month’s Frankfurt Book Fair by Focus Magazin Verlag and Hörverlag (which still doesn’t have a deal with Audible), called Claudio.de, an online portal for downloading audio content. And with industry audio sales up 18.5% for January through May of this year compared to last, with no sign of stopping, Audio. Libri has launched a wholesale service for publishers and internet retailers. Participating publishers register their audiobooks in a centralized database, where they are converted into MP3 files and embedded with a watermark to prevent corruption. Publishers also receive comprehensive sales reports through the service.
Traveling 8,932 kilometers to the east, we arrive in Japan, where audiobooks have met with a cool reception, despite last month’s launch of the iTunes Music Store — a venture that brought the downloading public access to 10,000 audiobooks, including works by Japanese authors. There are a few historical novels and language learning audiobooks, but tiny mobile type is more in vogue thanks to author Yoshi (see PT, April ’04), whose first novel paved the way for books on cell phones, and who has received more than 20 million hits on his website. In the spirit of a multi-media experience, Yoshi’s new novels, which rank at the top of this month’s Japanese bestseller list, are accompanied by theme music, an original CD with lyrics written by the author created to be listened to while reading the books – an audible twist, Japanese style.