Are academic audiobooks scalable?

by Charles Watkinson on June 1, 2021

A June 1, 2021, press release from the Audio Publishers Association noted that audiobook revenue grew 12% in 2020 to $1.3 billion, the ninth straight year of double-digit growth as tracked by the Association’s annual Sales Survey of American audiobook listeners ages 18 and up. The most significant change in listener behavior was the shift in listening location from the car to the home as American commuter patterns were so dramatically affected by pandemic stay-at-home orders. More than 71,000 audiobooks were published in 2020, a 39% growth over 2019, the largest growth in new titles since 2015, and the highest number on record. The most popular audiobook genre continues to be Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense, but there were sharp increases in interest for Romance, Self-Help, and Business genres.

Scholarly monographs remain challenging for audiobook publishers as they require labor-intensive adaptation to handle scholarly apparatus such as references, footnotes, and indexes. Monographs often have images and tables, which need to be described. Some publishers include a PDF with the audiobook to make sure that all these extra materials are to hand if needed. University of Michigan Press has experimented with both human-narrated and auto-narrated audiobooks:  Academic Ableism by Jay Dolmage has been made available free-of-charge on Audible thanks to support from the University of Waterloo. Trade and Taboo by Sarah Bond is also available on Audible thanks to support from University of Iowa Libraries.  Paying the combined costs of narrators, engineering, and distribution is difficult to afford for all but the most bestselling academic books. While some third-party audiobook publishers license academic titles, the contracts often preclude opportunities to distribute copies for accessibility purposes. Using text-to-speech artificial intelligence, an increasing number of U-M Press titles are available through Google Play. Some open access examples are Just Vibrations by William Cheng and Gaming the Stage by Gina Bloom. While these are no substitute for an experienced human actor, the hope is that usage patterns for the autonarrated titles can help inform the Press’s investment in the substantial costs of human narration.

Audiobooks of academic monographs are still a work in progress, but the opportunities to offer born-accessible audio titles and learning opportunities for students who prefer to “study on the move” are encouraging innovation.

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