By Ally Marotti
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Though the category still holds just a small fraction of the market compared with print and e-books, sales of audiobooks are growing briskly.
At some of the Chicago area’s independent bookstores, “Kindle” used to be a swear word.
Over the past decade, some predicted rising e-book sales would spell gloom and doom for hardcovers and paperbacks alike — and, by extension, the independent bookstores that sold them.
But those morose predictions didn’t came to pass. Now, as screen fatigue takes hold for some, e-book sales are declining.
“Just like any other electronic device, (people) get really excited about it at first then the glory of it kind of wears off,” said Katie Anderson, a manager and buyer at Anderson’s Bookshops and the daughter of one of its owners.
The family-owned bookseller, with shops in Naperville, Downers Grove and La Grange, still sells some e-books through its website, and from 2012 to 2014 it sold an e-reader device called Kobo as an answer to Amazon’s Kindle.
But in February, Anderson’s started working with a company that brought its customers something else: downloadable audiobooks.
Though the category still holds just a small fraction of the market compared with print and e-books, sales of audiobooks are growing briskly.
Publishers saw a 30 percent increase in revenue from downloadable audiobooks in the first seven months of 2017 over the same period in 2016, according to the most recent data available from the Association of American Publishers.
The shifting demand between print, e-books and now downloadable audiobooks is playing out between the stacks in Chicago-area bookstores.
At Anderson’s, overall sales during the holiday shopping season were up over last year, Anderson said, though she declined to disclose specific numbers.
E-book sales over the past year have stayed basically the same, said the shop’s marketing director, Larry Law. But digital audiobook sales increased every month since the store started offering them, with November and December being the best months.
That mirrors national trends.
Book sales — not including e-books and audiobooks — at independent bookstores increased about 2.6 percent in 2017 over the previous year, said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association.
The number of books sold at indie bookstores during the week before Christmas was the highest it’s been since the organization began collecting the data about a decade ago.
Women & Children First, a shop in the Andersonville neighborhood specializing in feminist literature and children’s books, saw increased sales this holiday shopping season over last year, co-owner Lynn Mooney said.
“If you had asked me five years ago about the future of e-books, I would have been really nervous,” Mooney said. “E-books have not taken over the landscape the way … some people feared.”
The store also started selling digital audiobooks through a platform called Libro.FM earlier this year. Bookstores get a cut of sales made through the platform.
The Book Cellar in the Lincoln Square neighborhood started offering its customers downloadable audiobooks through Libro.FM in August. The store’s focus is making print books exciting for its customers, said Portia Turner, a bookseller at the shop.
Recommendation cards fill their shelves, and customers can sip wine and beer at the store’s cafe while paging through their purchases. But every so often a customer needs an audiobook.
“Someone just came in the other day, they were looking for something for their mom and we pointed them to Libro,” Turner said. “(We have a) regular customer who moved to New York who now is subscribed to Libro through us.”
The Book Cellar had its second-best December ever in overall sales, owner Suzy Takacs said.
On a recent December afternoon, customer Eve Noonan sat at a table in The Book Cellar’s cafe. Sitting on top of a stack of books she had piled next to her was a flyer with information on accessing audiobooks through Libro.FM.
Noonan has never downloaded an audiobook, though she often reminisces about a drive up to Mackinac Island a few summers ago when a recording of “Just Kids” by Patti Smith filled the car. She wants to try listening to books with her husband and thinks being able to pause for discussion will be helpful.
“Some books are so overwhelmingly long and heavy that I know sharing them, one of us reads and then the other reads, and the discussion never happens,” Noonan said.
Customers have been listening to books for decades, on vinyl, tape and then on CD. Many earlier audiobooks were abridged to keep costs down for customers — it wasn’t cheap recording a 10-hour novel onto cassette tapes. All of that has changed.
“We’re publishing more titles than ever on audio,” said Chris Lynch, president of the audio publishing division of New York-based publisher Simon & Schuster. “We used to publish primarily just best-sellers, but as technology has improved, we’ve been able to bring down production costs.”
Simon & Schuster Audio published more than triple the number of audiobooks in 2017 that it did five years ago, Lynch said. And all of them were available in a digital format.
Lynch said he expects the growth to continue. “Everybody’s walking around with an audiobook player in their pocket,” he said.
Certain genres do better on audiobooks than others. If a celebrity, particularly a comedian, narrates their own audiobook, it often sells well.
Overall though, audiobooks are not the dominant format for most genres, Lynch said.
In 2013, e-books accounted for almost 21 percent of what publishers sold, according to data from the Association of American Publishers. That dropped to 14 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which complete figures are available. Hardback books remained fairly steady during that time period, making up 22 to 24 percent of publisher’s sales, and paperbacks increased from about 39 percent to 42 percent.
Downloadable audiobooks almost doubled their share of units sold, increasing from 1.7 percent in 2013 to 3.3 percent in 2016.
Of course there are nuances to meeting those changing demands. Many people read books in multiple formats.
“E-books, print and digital audio will always be with us,” said Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins Publishers. “At this current moment in time, the public wants them in different percentages.”
HarperCollins is expanding its digital audio efforts due to the demand. The New York-based publisher also doubled down on the premium it puts on physical books when e-books were growing in popularity and has continued that effort, Marwell said.
Those efforts by HarperCollins and other publishers haven’t gone unnoticed.
Rekha Vaitla was looking through the display of books autographed by the author at Women & Children First one recent afternoon as she waited for a friend to pick up an order.
Vaitla, 28, said she goes straight to the display tables when she’s browsing. “I like being able to see the covers,” she said. “That’s my thing.”
The display tables at the store capture customers’ attention as soon as shoppers step through the door. On one table sits “What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons, with bright blood orange flowers on its cover.
Nearby is “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, with a line meandering through a bright red backdrop on its cover. Last fall, the store had a display table just for gorgeous book covers, said Mooney, the co-owner.
Judging books by their covers gets a bad rap, but Teresa Kirschbraun, the owner of City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood, says she sees customers doing it all the time. Some breathe a sigh of relief when the cashier tells them what a good choice they made.
“It’s funny,” she said. “People will be almost embarrassed to say they picked up a book judging it by its cover.”