The audiobook phenomenon is most prominent in North America but it is spreading across the world, as discussed in a panel on Wednesday at the New York Rights Fair entitled “The Audiobook Heard ‘Round the World.’”

The panel was loosely divided into two camps, each representing different business models. One, represented by Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Sweden’s Storytel, was in favor of streaming services. The other camp works on a “credit-based” download system, or a-la-carte model, as supported by Nathan Maharaj, senior director of merchandising at Rakuten Kobo and Jemma Wolfe, marketing communications manager at Audiobooks.com, both Toronto-based.

Gustafsson, whose company Storytel is market leader Audible’s main competition in Europe, noted that streaming services may have “been ahead of their time,” but for Storytel, which operates under a revenue-sharing model with publishers, they are particularly attractive in countries that have relatively “immature” audiobook markets. She noted that the all-you-can-listen-to model is very effective at getting listeners to try the services and sample books on topics or in genres they might be unwilling to purchase, thus “expanding the number and type of book they are willing to try”—itself an attractive proposition for publishers.

That said, Gustafsson lamented the lack of selection in some of the twelve markets where the company operates: “In Sweden, there were just 1,000 audiobooks produced last year and in some countries, that number was just 100.” This is compared with nearly 80,000 produced in the U.S. last year.

Wolfe, of Audiobooks.com, said that recent acceleration in demand for digital audiobooks is due to the prevalence of on-demand, just-press-play entertainment. “People want instant access, and in a busy culture, you often need to multitask to get what you want done in a day.” The company has adopted the promotional slogan “Turn a waste of time into reading time” to highlight the utility of audiobooks in a busy age. As a manifestation of this, the company has partnered with several automotive car companies, including Jaguar and Land Rover, to have their app natively installed in the vehicles’ entertainment systems, which will allow drivers to listen to audiobooks in their cars during their commute.

For its part, Kobo only launched its audiobook service in September 2017 in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia, and just added France this year. “Part of our mission as a company to help turn leisure time into reading time, and we asked ourselves ‘If you can’t use your eyes or your hands were busy, how would you read?’,” Maharaj said. “In that case, we understood audiobooks was where you have to go.”

One of the main questions for Kobo, which produces its own e-readers, proved to be whether or not to implement a hardware solution or opt simply to make the audiobooks accessible as apps or online. “Would we take an e-reader that would last a month on a charge, and by adding audiobooks reduce the battery life? How would you add a headphone jack to an existing device, especially if that device was waterproof? Would there be a new navigation interface just for audio? All questions that led us to go app-only,” said Maharaj.

Another concern for the company was whether they would see cannibalization of their own customers, who might move from reading e-books to listening to audio. “There has been no evidence of that so far,” said Maharaj.

Looking ahead, each panelist was confident that the market for audiobooks would remain vital as a wider number of titles become available to listeners. “Right now, our biggest genres are fiction in general and mystery and thrillers and ‘feel good’ books, in particular,” said Gustafsson. For Wolfe at Audiobooks.com, where the audience tends to be clustered in the 25-44 age-range, Wolfe said, “they are higher earning and educated, and are divided along the lines of 75% fiction, 25% nonfiction, and read genre and political memoirs and stuff, and more recently self-help—which probably relates,” she joked. And at Kobo, Maharaj says he is witnessing the consumption of more and more middle grade books. “In e-books there is virtually no middle grade market, so this is nice to see,” he said.

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