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Circa 1994: The Audio Book Buyer

This is a second sidebar to the Making Book On PDAs story published below, in the August 8, 1994 edition of Digital Media: A Seybold Report. An examination of the CD- and tape-based audiobook market, it predicted a transition to digital a year-and-a-half before I became an advisor to Audible Inc., the company that invented downloadable audio players and that now dominates the audiobook market.

Forebear of the handheld E-Book consumer?

She’s a typical audio book buyer: Forty-four years old, has some college in her background, makes a little less than $45,o00 a year and listens to audio books in her care or while working on a report or at dinner. For her, books speak. Reading has been transformed by the introduction of analog tape technology.

The $1.2 billion market for books on tape has skyrocketed in the past five years, growing 40.3 percent in 1993 alone, according to the Audio Publishers Association. Random House, which publishes about 150 books-on-tape titles, saw sales climb 81 percent from the first quarter of 1992 to the same period in 1993.

If selling CD-ROM titles has been difficult, getting titles for handheld devices such as WinPad and Newton into the retail channel looks next to impossible. Audio books are proof that a new media can make headway in bookstores, and even lead to the establishment of an independent channel. According to investment bankers Veronis, Suhler & Associates, approximately 125 audio bookstores, carrying an average of 7,000 titles, have sprung up around the country. A hit title in this industry can sell as many as 300,000 copies. Rush Limbaugh did it this year with The Way Things Ought to Be.

Granted, there’s an important difference between the audio book, which works in the tape players in millions of cars and homes, an the handheld electronic book, a medium that only 200,000 consumers are prepared to use. But from a marketer’s perspective, the audio book may provide some important clues about how to sell Newton, WinPad and other handheld titles: they are an odd size that was, initially, difficult to shelve and required “repurposing” of the original text—in other words, audio books often are abridged to fit onto cassettes.

Sales of audio titles have grown as publishers discovered that audio introductions should coincide with hardcover release and as booksellers have broken down conceptual barriers by shelving tapes with their hardcover companions.

Can handheld electronic books gain credibility with the same type of consumers that blazed the trail for audio books? Perhaps. Audio books attract the more affluent and educated consumers who tend to be early adopters of technology. Devotees of books on tape make about $8,000 more than the average book buyer described in an American Booksellers Association comparative shopper study conducted by the Wirthlin Group.

Early adopters generally are more affluent than the consumers that make a mass market. They also tend to be information junkies, according to a 1992 study by SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. The electronic books search and display features, which put large amounts of data in an accessible form, seems an ideal complement to the early adopter’s hunger for information.

Business titles gave the audio book industry its early boost. According to Publishers Weekly, motivational titles by Zig Ziglar, sales guru Tom Hopkins and neurolinguistic programming shill Tony Robbins gained an important foothold in the tape players of commuters’ cars in the mid-eighties. Business people’s heavy travel schedules, particularly those of salespeople, made the audio book an obvious choice for folks who wanted to maximize their information intake.

Once the market was established, religious-inspirational titles assumed the first place spot on the audio hit parade; children’s titels have captured second place, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

If the trends begun in the audio book market are any indication, the business buyer who adds a handheld device to their information arsenal will likely gravitate to business-related electronic book titles first, then to entertainment.

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1 comment to Circa 1994: The Audio Book Buyer

  • Amazon seems to be selling plenty of Kindles. I think it’s better for the environment but what does this mean for the future of the library? Everything will be distributed electronically?

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