Publishing Forecast–Part 1

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

What is publishing’s next iteration? Every once in awhile I like to take a look to the future to see where publishing might be headed. As I “guess ahead,” I see several trends that I believe will affect how we read and what that might mean for publishing and writers. This is the first part of a multi-part examination of publishing’s future.

The Rise in Audio Downloadable Books

Audiobooks have traditionally occupied a small, dark corner in the publishing world. In the past, very popular physical books generally also were available as audiotapes and then audio CDs. But when books became downloadable and we carried smart phones that could read to us, audiobooks transformed into highly portable entertainment.

Geekwire’s Frank Catalano wrote a thorough article on the rise of digital audio you can read here. He pointed out, as I have been noticing, that the rise of books being accessed in audio has been on the rise–in double digits each year–since 2013. Considering that the rest of book formats have struggled to maintain flat sales, or at best low single-digit sales, for those of us who want to stay on top of publishing trends, checking into what’s going on with audio makes sense.

Measuring the Growth

I want to be clear that I’m  not predicting audio with overtake other formats. It’s much too small a piece of the pie to begin to talk like that. Plus, I believe that ebooks showed us that readers love their physical books. (Ebook sales have flattened out for at least a couple of years, and physical books have gained strength.)

The Pew Research Center earlier this year surveyed readers to find out how they consumed their books. This chart puts the sales for each format into perspective.

Who Listens? And What Are They Listening To?

As Catalano reports, the Pew survey showed “the sharpest uptake among two demographic groups, younger adults and college graduates. Use by each increased seven percentage points over two years. Overall, nearly one-quarter of 18-to-29 year olds have listened to an audiobook in the past 12 months, up from 16 percent in 2016.”

Both Audible, a division of Amazon, and libraries, which have seen significant increases in borrowers checking out audio versions, note that fiction is the most popular book category. For Audible, mysteries and sci-fi are the most popular specific genres. Both libraries and Audible agree that, if a celebrity reads the book, that alone can explain its popularity.

The top title over the past twelve months at the Seattle Library, which has 22,000 digital audiobooks available, is The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer. A seemingly odd choice is also popular: Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, a science book about the nature of time. But that makes complete sense when you realize Benedict Cumberbatch narrates the book. As a matter of fact, the audiobook is more popular than the ebook and is almost as popular as the print book.

What Does This Mean to the Writer?

Perhaps the most obvious take-away is that you want your book to be available digitally. If you self-publish, you can do so through Amazon’s Audible, which is a tad labyrinth but doable.

If you traditionally publish and have a recent release, your publisher probably insisted on retaining audio rights and then licensed those rights to an audiobook publisher. It took most publishers a few years to pay attention to the little slice of the sales pie labeled “audio” that grew a bit bigger every time the sales figures were studied. But eventually audio sales were sizeable enough not to ignore that revenue stream for every publisher’s titles.

Long-Term Possibilities

Another way of looking at audio’s growth is to ask, What about launching a book in audio before any other format? The publishing industry is light years away from making such a decision, but Audible, which has a significant history of creating original content, recently released an Audible Original by Vanity Fair contributor Michael Lewis. “Rather than writing one of his 10,000-word magazine articles, Lewis created a piece for Audible and narrates it himself,” Catalano reports.

What percentage of books you consume are physical books, what percentage audio? When do you like to “read” via audio?


What’s the fastest growing part of publishing? Click to tweet.

How do readers consume their books? Click to tweet.

Before I Go…

I want to celebrate with our blog readers. Recently “Between the Lines” was named among the Top 50 Blogs for Writers by Freewrite. We’re thankful for the recognition and also to each of our readers, who makes his or her contribution to great writerly discussions through your comments.

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  1. As my life has become increasingly complicated, I have found audiobooks to be a life saver. I still prefer print books, but in this season of packing to move, caregiving, and chauffeuring family everywhere, audiobooks have saved my sanity. Even before this season, our family generally chooses an audiobook to listen to on road trips. It has been a fun way to draw the family together. I am glad that more audiobooks are forecasted, oftentimes it can be difficult to find a Christian Fiction book I want to listen to available at my library. Audible may have more but I haven’t found it worth it to do a subscription yet. When going with a traditional publisher, do they plan up front whether or not they will do an audio or do they wait to see how sales do? I know creating an audiobook can be expensive.

    Thanks for the insight, Janet.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Crystal, most publishers are licensing the audio format to an audiobook publisher, who bears the cost of production. That enables publishers to release audio either simultaneous to the print book’s release or following on shortly after. And with audio sales doing so well, it doesn’t take a lot for the venture to be profitable for the audio producer, the publisher, and the author.

  2. My favourite book review is very short:
    “This is not a book to be lightly put aside. It should be thrown with great force.”
    * Doing that with a Kindle or Audible, kind of expensive, yeah?

  3. My husband and I carefully select audio books for long road trips. When I commuted an hour to and from work every day, folks assumed I listened to books. I didn’t. I listened to the top-of-the-hour news, and the rest of the trip I filled the silence with God–it was my prayer and praise time. We live in a culture overflowing with noise. We can easily get uncomfortable with silence. Prayer and reading create companionable quiet.

  4. I either read print from the library (or reread a print book that was a gift, I rarely buy myself print, unless it is a writing craft book) or ebooks on my Nook. My husband listens to Audible though and he rarely drives anywhere without either a podcast about interesting info or a book on audio. My mother almost exclusively listens to audiobooks as she drives for work and is often cooking or sewing. Our family listens to audiobooks when we are in the car for a distance, for short trips we read in the car. If you do it regularly, you are less likely to get carsick while reading! We listened to Alcatraz Smedry vs. the Evil Librarians on our way to go camping and it was hilarious and a fun experience together as a family.

  5. Congratulations on making the Top 50. I’m not surprised. In my world, Books and Such is in the top 3. Thank you for your wisdom.

  6. Janet, thanks for this post. Part 1 of The Publishing Forecast is not a surprise to me. I’ve been paying attention to this growing trend for several years. I personally enjoy reading a physical book first, but I do love a good listen, no matter if it’s a book, a Podacast, a radio program when I am doing things around the home or driving. Although, like Shirlee, I also like silence and prayer time as I do tasks and drove. It just depends on the day and what is going on.

    I know my oldest sister loves books, and she reads hard copy and listens to Audible.

    I am glad I have always enjoyed reading out loud to my son, and others. I have already had people TELL ME my WIP with Great Aunt Lizzy need to become an Audible book, and it must be me that does the reading because of my slight southern accent and the inflections I use. So, Lord willing, that is in my future.

    In an so grateful for this blog. I have learned so much. Books and Such absolutely deserves to be named among the top 50 websites for writers. Congratulations! Please pass that on to the rest of the ladies at the agency.

    I’m looking forward to reading the next part of the post on publishing trends.

    • Please excuse the typos, I am in a fog from getting supplies for wedding decorations. You know, yards of various ribbons, mostly ivory, lace, a tin and beaded edge. I have candles, and candle holders a plenty. I’ve been to three Hobby Lobby stores today not to mention a Target, two Walmarts, Ulta Beauty, Barnes and Noble, and finally Freddy’s for a steak burger. I knew if I went straight home it would be tough to get to read the blog, as my sweet husband is waiting for me to sit, relax, and watch something. So here I am, entering in the little rolling box that sometimes is a challenge…but a good one.

      Anyway, my burger and fries are done. So unhealthy, BUT AWESOME in the deliciousness category of food. Today’s Labor Day, and the end of my summer ice cream treats and burgers. Fall and fires are starting to call to me, and THAT speaks to me of chili and cornbread. I 😁

  7. Teresa Haugh says:

    I buy audio books almost exclusively, and have for years. I’ve found that a lot of enjoyment of the book depends on the narrator and quality of the production. I listen while driving, working out at the gym, and cleaning house. It is also a great cure for occasional insomnia.

  8. I truly enjoy listening to an audio version, but I rarely do. For me, I think the issue is that if I like or expect to like a book, I want it in my preferred format – print, and rarely is it cost effective to purchase both. Lately, however, I’ve had a few projects that would be so much easier to focus on if I had an audiobook to distract my brain (Focus and distraction? Well, it made sense in my head).

  9. One problem with e-books and audio books is that the technology keeps changing so they may not be “readable” in a few years. But hard copy books can last almost forever. When I was a student in the 1960s working in a library I got to mend a Gutenberg Bible.

  10. I definitely read more Kindle books now. They are so convenient. I usually only get the physical book when it’s written by one of my favorite authors or friends, and I know I’ll want to take a picture of it for Instagram. And I know I’ll want to read it again and savor it forever. 🙂 I don’t do many Audible, except on long trips. But even then, sometimes I read to my family. The last audible version we got, my husband didn’t like the reader’s voice, and he wanted to cancel the Audible account. Yikes! 🙂 And congratulations for the Top 50. I’m not surprised at all. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, I get a bit huffy when our book club selects a book that isn’t available on Kindle. My first thought is that I’ll have to find a place to put that physical book on my burgeoning bookshelves. I love physical books, but they do become a weight–literally–after you have collected so many.

  11. Congratulations, dear Janet and team, for your most recent award. Your blog is one I may not always comment on; however, I read every post.
    I have enjoyed Focus on the Family audio books with my children back in our homeschool days. Now I’m a huge fan of podcasts such as: Write from the Deep.
    I read mainly Kindle books to help keep costs down as we’re still paying for piano lessons etc for one young adult. 🙂
    In fact, I just bought the Kindle version of: It’s Momplicated.
    I think I would enjoy audio books recorded in the author’s voice for memoir. I’m thinking of Ann Voskamp when I say this. I could listen to her all day.
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  12. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain that, Janet! I truly appreciate it!

  13. I have tried several times to listen to fiction but I lose the thread easily (ADHD) and have given up. a friend with a recent release from NavPress was brought in by her publisher to read her book for audio ahead of its print release (she has a beautiful, calming voice).

    Even though it doesn’t work well for me, I think you’re right that this is a trend we should take into account.


  14. Carol Ashby says:

    Off topic: Andrew’s having chest pains and difficulty breathing right now. Prayers appreciated.

  15. I never really thought I would like audiobooks, but without them, I never would have read the Harry Potter series. Now that I am on the road so much, they really are convenient.