Audiobooks 101

About the $1 Billion Audiobook Industry

Audiobook listenings
••• The typical audiobook customer tends to combine book listening with commuting, travel, or other lifestyle activities. Getty Images

Audiobooks are book content in recorded form.

Audiobooks generally exist alongside their print (or ebook) counterparts to provide the book content in a format for consumers who would prefer to listen rather than read. For the publisher and author, audiobooks serve to exploit the book's content for an additional revenue stream.

According to the Audio Publishers Association (APA), audiobooks are a $1+ billion industry.

Audiobook Formats

Throughout their history, audiobooks have been created using materials ranging from metal cylinders to vinyl recordings, from cassette tapes to CDs. Today, MP3 and other digital file formats are the predominant audiobook media, and most audiobooks can be obtained via traditional bookstores or downloaded via digital distribution channels (like iTunes, or subscription services such as 

Audiobook Types

• Unabridged Audiobook - When an audiobook is labeled "unabridged," it means the complete original source material has been recorded without editorial alterations.

• Abridged Audiobook - Sometimes written books don't lend themselves to a word-for-word audiobook recording. In those instances, the audiobook publisher shortens the work while retaining the defining characteristics of the story's plot, the writer's style, the character nuances, etc. These edits are done by professional abridgers and, as with other versions of the printed book, the changes are generally made with the author's approval, as dictated by the author's book contract.​

• Audio Original - Audio originals refer to content that is not originally published in book form and/or have no book counterpart (see the example of Dylan Thomas's seminal 1952 recording in the "Key Milestones" section, below). Examples of audio originals include (but are not limited to) dramatic readings, poetry readings, stand-up comedy, instructional or motivational seminars, or interviews.

Audio originals are sometimes also referred as Audio Only or Spoken Word.

Audiobook Narration
Audiobooks might be narrated by the author, or by a dramatic professional, such as an actor or voice-over artist. If the book has special cache, it might be even be narrated by a celebrity. Audiobook recording is demanding in terms of time, energy and reading / dramatic talent.

Read this book narrator and audio publisher's insights into audiobook narration.

Key Milestones in Audiobook History

1877 - According to the book, Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, he envisioned that "phonographic books" would be utilized by the blind.

1932 - Funded by the Carnegie Foundation and in cooperation with companies like RCA Victor, the American Foundation for the Blind begins making recordings for the blind. The initial test recordings included the book Midstream by Helen Keller, and the poem "The Raven," by mystery genre icon, Edgar Allen Poe.

1933 - Early in the history of recording technology, the ethnologist and linguist John Peabody Harrington created an extensive recorded database of Native American languages. According to the Audio Publishers Association, he used a car battery-powered turntable to record on aluminum cylinders.

1933 - The United States government sets aside monies for Talking Books to be added to the Library of Congress Books for the Blind program.

1952 - Dylan Thomas recorded a series of his poems, including, "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night," as well as his now-classic story, "A Child's Christmas in Wales." According to the APA, it was one of the first examples of a spoken word record.

1994 - First they were called "talking books"; then, after the development of the audio cassettes in the 1970s, they were often referred to as "books on tape." In1994 the Audio Publishers Association established that "audiobook" would be used as the industry standard terminology.

Who Listens to Audiobooks?

According to the APA, the typical audiobook customer:

• Is a frequent book reader who sees audiobooks as a way to "read" more while multi-tasking (usually while traveling or commuting, but also during exercise, gardening, crafting, doing repetitive tasks, etc.)

• Is well educated

• Has a higher income than non-listeners

• Skews older (30+)

• Is attuned to book trends through reviews and bestseller lists.

Read more about the demographics and habits of audiobook listeners

Children's audiobooks are also popular, both with families (who use them on car rides, etc.) and in the school and education marketplace, where teachers use them as learning tools.​

Other Audiobook Facts

• June is Audiobook Month in the annual Book Publishing Industry Calendar

• The APA (the aforementioned Audio Publishers Association) considers itself "The official Voice of the Audiobook Industry." Founded in 1986, the APA is a not-for-profit trade organization whose primary goals are to work with publishers to increase interest in audiobooks by promoting awareness of the industry, gathering and disseminate industry statistics, encouraging high production standards, and otherwise representing the interests of audiobook publishers.

• The Audies are the annual awards for excellence in audiobooks. The Audies are presented by the APA around the timeframe of BookExpo America each year.