Hear, hear, audiobooks are hot

Best-selling author Michael Lewis (above) signed a multi-year contract for four original audio stories with Audible, which is run by David Blum.
Best-selling author Michael Lewis (above) signed a multi-year contract for four original audio stories with Audible, which is run by David Blum.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Best-selling author Michael Lewis signed a multi-year contract for four original audio stories with Audible, which is run by David Blum (above).
Best-selling author Michael Lewis signed a multi-year contract for four original audio stories with Audible, which is run by David Blum (above).PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Sales of audiobooks are on the rise as people who had little time to read are now listening while they commute, exercise or do chores

NEW YORK • Listen to what Michael Lewis just did.

The author had an idea for his next book, a contemporary political narrative, and decided to test it out first as a 10,000-word article.

But instead of publishing it in Vanity Fair where he is a contributing writer, he sold it to Audible, an audiobook publisher and retailer.

Lewis, one of the most successful non-fiction writers with book sales topping 10 million copies, is betting Audible will expand his audience.

He has signed a multi-year contract for four original audio stories, with the first set to come out this month.

He is part of a growing group of A-list authors bypassing print and releasing audiobook originals.

But the rise of stand-alone audio has also made traditional publishers nervous, as Audible strikes deals directly with writers, including best-selling names such as historian Robert Caro and novelist Jeffery Deaver.

While e-book sales have fallen and print has stayed anaemic, publishers' revenue for downloaded audio has nearly tripled in the last five years, data from the Association of American Publishers shows.

This has set off a new turf war over audio rights, pitting Audible, owned by Amazon, against traditional publishers, which are increasingly insisting on producing their own audiobooks.

Audible, with more than 425,000 titles in its online store, has an enormous advantage in this increasingly crowded arena.

Amazon has been pushing audiobooks on its platform, listing them as "free" with a trial Audible membership, which costs US$15 (S$20) a month and includes a book each month. The typical price of a la carte audiobooks ranges from around US$15 to US$40 depending on the length.

Amazon is looking for new ways not just to sell audiobooks, but also to create them independently from publishers.

Audible executives said they are investing in original works in part to meet growing consumer demand and also to generate stories designed to be listened to.

In the last two years, it has released 77 original audio works.

In May, it announced a deal with actress-producer Reese Witherspoon to develop audio originals.

Audible has been aggressively courting authors, dangling six-figure advances that rival what major publishers pay.

Forthcoming originals include a memoir by comedian-actor David Spade; an original children's book by Jack Gantos, author of the popular Joey Pigza series; five new science-fiction novels by Dennis E. Taylor; and a new science-fiction novella by the best-selling novelist John Scalzi, a follow-up to his audio original The Dispatcher.

Scalzi decided to write an audio original in part because he had seen audiobook sales of his books mushroom. He pointed to his 2014 novel Lock In, which had sales of 22,500 hardcovers, 24,000 e-books and 41,000 audiobooks.

Cellphones now function as audiobook players. People who felt they had little time to read are now listening while they commute, exercise or do chores.

Consumers bought nearly 90 million audiobooks in 2016, up from 42 million in 2012, driving audiobook sales up to US$2.1 billion, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

Publishers have invested in elaborate, multi-cast productions and building new recording studios.

Mr David Blum, who joined Audible from Amazon in 2016 to oversee its originals, said it can still be challenging to convince authors who have made their careers in print to take a risk by working in a medium that is still evolving.

"We're trying to break down the boundaries of what people think content ought to look like," he added.

More writers are coming around to the concept. Audible's recent deal with Lewis represents its biggest victory to date.

Lewis said: "I've always liked the test of having to tell a story. One of the reasons I'm doing it is I think it's going to make me a better writer."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2018, with the headline 'Hear, hear, audiobooks are hot'. Print Edition | Subscribe