Insights October 11, 2021

All ears for audiobooks and podcasts

By Living Word

On-demand audio is soaring and the field is becoming more creative with whole ensembles and high-tech productions, increasingly available in multiple languages for listeners around the world.

This is good news for the publishing industry, as audiobooks are increasingly popular and pulling in new audiences, Clare Thorp reported for the BBC last year. As most people have their hands increasingly full, audiobooks make a great way to keep up with our favourite authors and perhaps dive into a new topic. More than half of UK audiobook buyers listen for their convenience, and 41% choose audiobooks when reading printed books is not possible, such as when exercising, cooking or driving.

Some authors write exclusive audio content, skipping print altogether, and studio productions are ambitious with high-tech advances and sometimes even entire ensemble casts. “Gone are the days of dusty cassette box-sets and stuffily read versions of the classics,” Thorp says. “Now audiobooks draw A-list talent – think Elisabeth Moss reading The Handmaid’s Tale, Meryl Streep narrating Charlotte’s Web or Michelle Obama reading all 19 hours of her own memoir, Becoming.”

Richard Lennon, publisher at Penguin Audio, also celebrates the progress: “There’s a real enthusiasm around the opportunity to do exciting, creative things, and broaden the audience for books. Our approach to it has been to think about how we can keep pushing the listening experience further and further.”

Thirst for audio content

The increased demand for audio has spurred enthusiasm in the industry, means Thorp for the BBC: “The booming popularity of audiobooks coincides with the rise of podcasts, and shows an increasing thirst for audio content, which has led to publishers ploughing resources into the format, building dedicated teams and creating in-house studios in order to produce increasingly creative and ambitious listening experiences.”

In a recent report on market growth for the podcast industry, Insider Intelligence predicts that podcasting’ will be a $1 billion industry in 2021: “The podcast industry is in a particular moment of creative and innovative renaissance, from content creation by publishers and hosts, to listener discovery. And while podcasts have been around for nearly two decades, the format has only just entered the mainstream.” It is believed that Spotify will become the leading podcast platform in the US with around 28.2 million listeners, surpassing Apple Podcast.

Earlier this year, Mark Sweney reported on the growing popularity of Spotify podcasts. “Spotify recorded a doubling in podcast listening hours in the fourth quarter of 2020, as locked-down listeners hunting for entertainment tuned in to Michelle Obama and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex,” he says. “A quarter of all users engaged with podcast content in the final three months of 2020 in what Spotify sees as validation of its decision to spend millions on a roster of new talent in a strategic shift beyond music.”

Bridging the audio gap

Podcasts are not only available in native languages; there’s a boom in translation of audio content. Slator’s deep-dive into multilingual podcasts shows that some big providers are releasing multilingual podcasts to bridge the audio gap. In 2019, it was announced that Wondery Media’s hit podcast Dr. Death was to be made available to a wider audience with releases in seven languages. Wondery’s founder and CEO Hernan Lopez said in a statement: “90% of the world’s smartphone users live outside of the US, but only 22% of Wondery’s listeners do. Today, that starts to change.”

iHeartRadio followed suit, announcing translations of podcasts such as Stuff You Should Know. Another example of a multilingual podcast is The Nobody Zone, a co-production between Ireland’s RTÉ and Denmark’s Third Ear. This true-crime series in six parts was simultaneously released in five languages.

Writing for Harvard’s NiemanLab, Caroline Crampton says about the benefits of podcast translation: “Translating and rerecording episodes with new voice talent is a moderate one-off cost, but it makes the shows accessible to millions more people in markets where podcast listening is really ramping up, such as South America and India. Not only are there plenty of listeners to acquire there, but via local distribution and [monetisation] deals, these new language editions of existing shows can bring in fresh ad dollars.”