Hey, did you hear season two of Serial has started? Serial’s return was hard to miss on social media last Thursday. People were hungry to hear more of Sarah Koenig’s addictive storytelling and reporting. The keyword is “hear” — Serial, of course, is a podcast, and podcasts are growing in popularity, as are audiobooks. In publishing, trends come and go, but this love of all things audio may be indicative of a sea change. This year was a first in publishing: a podcast spawned a book. Not a collection of stories from the podcasts, nor a collection of new material with old; it’s a novel with all new material based on the popular fictional podcast Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial, 2015). Published in October of this year, it has been on the New York Times Best Seller list, and sold over 47k copies according to BookScan. It’s available in print, ebook, and of course, audio.
Audio is a sector of the industry that has been steadily growing with no signs of stopping. Here’s a look at some important moments in audio history that have led to the boom that we’re seeing now. There are general timelines for audiobooks and podcasts, but I think to completely separate the two is a mistake. As the trajectory of a book like Welcome to Night Vale shows, the success of one of these mediums informs the successes of the other. So, here are some important moments in the respective histories of audiobooks and podcasts.
In 1970 audiobooks made the transition to cassette tapes, which were much more affordable than LPs. Audiobooks on cassettes allowed public libraries to easily purchase audiobooks for patrons to check out. This caused rapid growth for audiobook sales and publishers. By August 1988, there were 40 audiobook publishers, up from about ten in 1984.
Audible opened for business in 1997, they sold a digital media player that held 2 hours of an audiobook at a time. In 1998, they became the first company to sell digital audiobooks.
In 2002, CDs became the dominant format for audiobooks instead of cassette tapes. They reached their zenith of popularity in audiobook sales in 2008, and have been on the decline as a format for audiobooks ever since.
Digitally Downloaded Audiobooks
The Audio Publishers Association has been tracking the growing popularity of digitally downloaded audiobooks on and off since 2001, and regularly since 2006. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a steadily growing area for audiobook since 2006. In 2011, they reported that digital downloads had increased 300% since 2005 per dollar volume. Their most recent press release stated “73 percent of all audiobook listeners and 82 percent of frequent users report listening to audiobooks downloaded digitally. The younger the listener, the more likely they are to go digital.” Digital is here to stay.
The capability to podcast began in 2000, with the website myaudio2go.com that offered users audio-only broadcasts of sportscasts, the news, and so on. The website itself did not last long. Late in 2000, the ability to subscribe to certain audio-only feeds via RSS was instated as was the ability to “audioblog.” The term podcasting did not appear in print until 2004 in a Guardian article by Ben Hammersly. (His other suggestions for the medium were audioblogging and GuerillaMedia.) “Podcasting” was quickly adopted by many early podcasters and podcast enthusiasts and became the commonly accepted term for the media. Read More