I have a confession to make (shareholders in my podcasting business, cover your eyes now): I’m a big audiobook guy.
I am currently, at time of writing, 16 hours into Walter Isaacson’s 20 hour-long biography of Elon Musk. I have already selected my next listens (Michael Lewis’s embedded reporting on the fall of FTX, and a 34-hour murder mystery by an author of increasingly questionable reputation). In my Audible library, I have some 81 titles.
In point of fact, I’ve basically replaced podcasts with audiobooks in my listening habits. I still tune in to the occasional football show (especially if my team, West Ham, have won at the weekend) but generally I listen to, predominantly, long, non-fiction audiobooks. There is no podcast I’ve heard in the past few years that comes close to the pleasure I took from listening to James B. Stewart’s 26-hour opus, DisneyWar.
For me, audiobooks have always been part of a balanced reading diet. I grew up listening to audiobooks — particularly vivid memories of Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s №1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and, of course, the Harry Potter books — as part of a voracious reading habit. I have two English degrees (the first, to make it hard to get a decent job; the second, to make it impossible) and was unusual (possibly unique) in my classes as someone who did some of the mandatory reading via audiobook. For my Masters, I contemplated writing my thesis on audiobooks (it made the final three, losing out, in the end, to the literature of post-war housebuilding).
Audiobooks have always seemed like big business to people like me. I grew up begging my mother to take me to Ottaker’s and spend £25 on CDs for my stereo. When Audible arrived on the scene in the 2010s, it was a no-brainer for me. Access to the world’s entire audiobook collections for just a few quid a month? Sign me up. Of course, Audible had been around for longer than that — it was founded in 1995, took an $11m cash injection from Microsoft in 1999, became Apple’s exclusive audiobook provider in 2003, and was bought by Amazon for $300m in 2008. But it was not until the early-to-mid 2010s that the service really hit its stride.
It hit its stride, I think, because of Netflix. For dumb, humanoid apes like me, Netflix’s arrival on the scene recalibrated my expectations for an internet subscription service. The idea of a streaming library suddenly became mainstream. Seemingly overnight Netflix KO’d Blockbuster, but, perhaps more importantly, created a generation who no longer relied upon bricks and mortar shops or individualised pricing. Suddenly we wanted everything available to us, all the time. And Audible was more explicable to me as “the Netflix of audiobooks” than any previous description I’d heard.
But, but, but… Audible is actually a strikingly shitty product. Rather than unlimited availability like Netflix or Spotify (more on them shortly), Audible utilised an internal currency: credits. Each month, subscribers would receive a credit to spend on an audiobook. One audiobook per month. Imagine if Netflix announced a similar model, where users got to binge only one boxset per month? There would be riots on the streets of Los Gatos.
That basic offering was supplemented by member sales (titles for £2.99, which is good value for an audiobook) and 2-for-1 offerings. Later, in 2020, they introduced the “Plus Catalogue” which gave listeners access to a suite of genuinely on-demand, credit-free material. To begin with this was largely recordings of books that were out of copyright — Dickens, say, or Austen — but it has been supplemented over the years and is now a genuine, if patchy, selling point. But really it was a very flawed offering, relying upon the inertia of a lot of people who would sign up for the free trial (maybe they’d fallen behind at school or a book club) and forget to cancel.
And for years and years, they’ve had a near total monopoly on the digital audiobook industry. Well, not anymore.
Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO announced this week that audiobooks would be introduced to the Premium tier of Spotify, starting in the UK and Australia, and rolling out to the United States later. The tab — which is live now here in London — includes most of the major titles that Audible is trying to shill for a credit. Stephen King’s Holly, Colson Whitehead’s Crook Manifesto, Millie Bobby Brown’s (wait, what?) Nineteen Steps.
But there are limits, most notably a 15-hour per month listening cap. This would be prohibitive for someone like me, who averages probably close to double that (it’s also not clear to me whether this will be measured in actual listening time, or length of content consumed — I, like many audiobook listeners, play the content at 1.15x speed or more). For people like me — who Spotify dubs “super audiophiles” — there is an option to add a 10-hour top-up, though the press release doesn’t make clear what the price for that is. Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, is also available on the service. At almost 48 hours in length, it would take four months’ worth of allowance to complete (barring any top-ups). And let’s remember, at nuts-and-bolts level, Spotify Premium costs £10.99 a month, while Audible will set you back just £7.99.
But for people who are already listening to Spotify Premium, and have perhaps been flirtatious rather than committed Audible members, this is a valuable service. The restrictions — which are likely to be related to the complex IP maze between publishers and authors, and led by Audible which has laid down a gauntlet of a quite generous rights agreement for the digital era — make it difficult to drink Audible’s milkshake entirely. “Super audiophiles” are likely to still need a dual subscription, just as “super cinephiles” need both Netflix and Prime, and “super telephiles” require both Disney+ and AppleTV+. But let’s place this, for a second, in the broader context of speech audio.
It has been much remarked upon — including by myself — that Spotify spent big, possibly too big, on speech in the last few years. The list of podcasting, and speech adjacent, companies hoovered up by Spotify in a spree that started in 2019 runs the gamut of the industry and racked up a bill running to the billions of dollars. Gimlet, Anchor, Parcast, Megaphone, Findaway, Podz, Chartable, Podsights, Whooshka, Joe Rogan, Alex Cooper… it was a supermarket sweep of pod luminaries (but no Luminary, sensibly).
Amazon, who are the secondary protagonists of this current drama, never seemed fully convinced by podcasts, and instead built-up the Audible brand, folding Amazon Podcasts under that umbrella a couple of years ago. So, Audible actually became a dual-purpose service — audiobooks and podcasts — but with the former of those taking the headline slot. I don’t have access to top-level decision making at Amazon and Audible, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they had watched proceedings at Spotify — the burn of venture capital money — and decided not to overspend on podcasts.
There are a number of big differences between podcasts and audiobooks, most of which are too patronising to elucidate here. Yes, podcasts offer a multitude of voices, spontaneity, design; audiobooks bring a static text to life, usually without adornment. But the most interesting difference, for the purposes of this piece, is that people have always paid for audiobooks. In fact, they used to be super expensive. People, on the other hand, have never paid for podcasts, and radio — which is podcasting’s direct ancestor — is also free in the imagination of its listeners. If you wanted to buy one of the Harry Potter audiobooks from Walmart in the 00s, it would’ve cost $50+. Now it’s available as part of a middlingly expensive subscription service (where people usually build-up a surplus of “credits” and therefore psychologically reduce the cost per audiobook from £7.99).
So, audiobooks are, in a way, an easier pathway to direct sales for speech audio. Apple, which has long been the market leader for podcasts (but blew an early advantage with audiobooks), is working very hard to integrate subscriptions into its podcast offering. Spotify, its biggest rival in the podcast arena, has talked a lot in the past couple of years about their own subscription offering, but that hasn’t really materialised into anything substantial. In fact, the launch of audiobooks looks, to me, like a pivot.
This is all in pursuit of being an all-in-one audio app. From a consumer perspective, having a single subscription where you can listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks makes a lot of sense. After all, it would be perceived as farcical if Netflix decided that it would only broadcast films and not TV, or vice versa. But audio has always been uniquely siloed: Spotify for music, Apple for podcasts, Audible for audiobooks (and that’s before we even get to live broadcasts). With a market lead in music, a strong second-place position in podcasts, and a new stake in audiobooks, Spotify is still the only company gunning to create this audio smorgasbord.
But on a more micro-level, I suspect that a strategic pivot from podcasts to audiobooks could also speak to some frustrations with the podcast format. Firstly, there are the repeated issues that Spotify has had with its golden goose, Joe Rogan. I am entirely confident that the bods at Spotify HQ knew exactly what they were getting with Rogan and are unsurprised by what they have received. Caveat emptor, and all that. But there is undoubtedly an issue with keeping Rogan at arm’s length. His agreement with Spotify is related to exclusivity of distribution, but he is not a Spotify employee nor (I believe) do Spotify have an IP stake in The Joe Rogan Experience. But when the show is only available via their app, it is very hard for them to refute that association when he says or does something that requires some corporate apology. Audiobooks enforce a necessary distance. Even if they are exclusively available on Spotify Premium (as many shortly will be, I’m sure) the listener accepts a natural hierarchy of responsibility: author, then publisher, then distributor.
And then there’s just the difficulty of an effective monetisation strategy for podcasts. You can bung a podcast full of ads (and turn the listening experience from a pleasure to a torture), as Spotify have done thanks to their acquisition of Megaphone. But the digital advertising market has been feeble, and you don’t need to be Elon Musk to recognise that subscription is a more stable model than one panhandling at the feet of advertisers. And so, Spotify’s financial prerogative must be to push more people into the Premium tier of subscription. But you can’t do that with podcasts.
You can use podcasts as a way of migrating people away from a two-app system, where they were using Spotify for music and Apple for podcasts. Incorporating shows was a clear lure, a Pied Piperesque tootle to draw listeners away from their rivals. But podcasts have always been free (that old chestnut) and continue to be free on dozens of services. Who would pay to upgrade to Premium for something that they can get for free elsewhere? But audiobooks? If you like audiobooks you’re probably paying £7.99 a month, and so the hook is easier to sink in the cheek. Suddenly you have a really good incentive to get people onto a Premium subscription, and maybe buying additional top-ups (though I think that will be a tricky one to sustain).
The question that all this raises, for me, is where this leaves speech audio more generally.
I’ve been arguing, for some time, that podcasts are not currently the final iteration of themselves. If they were Pokémon, they’d be in the second stage: Ivysaur, waiting to evolve into Venusaur (forgive me, I was a child of the 90s). The rigidity of the format, the reliance on RSS, has been steadily undermined (Spotify, for example, doesn’t use RSS for shows uploaded via their Anchor service). But I think it’s hard to create a ship of Theseus version of podcasting, where the name is kept but the constituent parts have all been exchanged. If we try and do this, my suspicion is that we will end up with a product far weaker than the original and far less dynamic than what could be achieved if the ship was dry-docked, and a new warship slid into the waters.
What’s interesting is the lack of innovation within the world of audiobooks. Audiobooks have the advantage of being pre-internet and therefore not suffering from its original sin: pretending that everything would be free. And yet there has been very little attempt to create original audiobooks — audiobooks that were never printed on paper — or any concerted attempt to exploit the enormous archive of public domain material now available. In the former category, the closest I can think of is Jon Ronson’s show The Debutante, which was released on Audible. It was really a podcast, but a much more authorial one than we’re used to (and released as a single 3-hour event). There must’ve been a temptation, for Ronson, to turn that story into another best-selling book, but somehow Audible convinced him to release it exclusively via their service. It was a small innovation, but striking in an area that seems devoid of ideas.
My instinct is that the industry needs to fuse the best elements of both podcasts and audiobooks into a new speech product. Podcasting now has a mainstream ubiquity, a level of take-up achieved thanks to keeping the product free. Audiobooks have a foundational cost assumption baked in, as well as natural curation to offset podcasting’s issues with over-saturation. Clearly both parties would have something to gain from the other. And yet we are drifting, once again, into a world of clear and separate definitions. A “Podcasts” tab and an “Audiobooks” tab. Is no-one brave enough to try and elide the difference?
There are many more interesting things that will undoubtedly come out of the audiobook war. Will Audible change its strategy to try and prevent haemorrhaging users to Spotify? Clearly the Swedish streaming platform’s weakness is its 15-hour cap. The rule of thumb is approximately 1-hour of listening time per 10,000 words, and the average novel is around 90,000 words (for non-fiction it’s longer). This means that Spotify’s allowance broadly tracks with Audible’s — essentially, one title per month. But Spotify has the added disincentive of precluding a wide range of the most in-demand titles from being consumed, quickly, on their service. Of the 45 books currently on the “New & Trending” section of the Spotify audiobooks homepage, 10 are over 15-hours and could not be completed within a month on that service. That’s a buzzkill.
There’s also the question of how publishers respond. Penguin Random House is a sufficiently dominant force in the book-publishing industry — certainly comparable to Disney or Apple in film/TV — that there must be some high-ups asking whether they could splinter and take control of this themselves. And there are other interesting relationships in the world of publishing: Simon and Schuster, for example, is a subsidiary of Paramount Global. Could there be a temptation to integrate an audiobooks vertical into the slightly dusty Paramount+ streaming service? Harper Collins, meanwhile, is part of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and was one of the pieces of the puzzle not snapped up by Disney when they bought 21st Century Fox (a mistake, perhaps). But the Murdoch family still have big media assets via the Fox Corporation, including Tubi, a streaming platform searching for cut-through. Imagine if that also became the exclusive channel for Harper Collins audiobooks. (Disclaimer: I am 100% confident that would be a less simple deal than I am making it sound! But still…).
Let’s try for some creative thinking, as the audiobook wars begin. A new speech product is there for the taking, but the impulse to constantly rest on the laurels of reputation and recognition has a profound impact. Spotify’s new audiobooks vertical has the rare chance to effectively reinvent the wheel — but to do so, you need to recalibrate listeners expectations. Audiobook (audio + book) is almost as bad a piece of branding as podcast (pod? + cast?). The best merger that could happen in the world of speech audio, right now, is a binding together of the best and most beneficial parts and preconceptions of both of these audio giants.