Despite the encroachment of digital downloads, sales of physical audiobooks remain resilient, with Nielsen BookScan reporting that units were up 6% through the first five months of 2014 compared to the same period last year. While online retailers and book clubs (primarily Audible) account for the largest slice of all audiobook sales, bricks-and-mortar stores remain important outlets, accounting for 21% of units sold in 2013, according to data from Nielsen Market Research.
Barnes & Noble has an audiobook section in over 600 of its stores, and a spokesperson said that B&N remains committed to the format even as it reworks its marketing strategy for digital audiobooks. “[Physical audio] is a strong business for us and is complementary to our trade book business,” the spokesperson said.
Sales of physical audiobooks at bookstores tend to be strongest during the year-end holidays, Father’s Day, and the summer vacation season. Books & Books Westhampton Beach on Long Island, N.Y., has devoted two front-of-store racks to audiobooks since it opened in July 2010. This summer it plans to add more, according to co-owner Jack McKeown, who is clearing out shelf space formerly reserved for music CDs and DVDs. “Our audiobook business has been increasing in single digits over the last 12 months,” said McKeown. “But we expect that figure to rise substantially when we offer a broader selection and more front-of-store display.” For his customers—second-home owners and renters, the visually impaired, and vacationers in the Hamptons—price is not an issue. “They understand the economics of a high-quality studio recording and are willing to spend to get that quality,” he said, “within reason, of course.”
Brewster Book Store in Brewster, Mass., reported stronger year-over-year audiobook sales growth for May 2014 than the 6% figure posted by BookScan so far in 2014. “I don’t have an explanation,” said store manager Val Arroyo. But with tourism expected to be up this summer, she anticipates that audiobook sales will continue to increase. She’s begun stocking more value audios, or discounted audiobooks, of titles that are about to be released in paperback, such as Elin Hildebrand’s Beautiful Day. Susan McAnelly, general manager of Browseabout Books & Cafe in Rehoboth Beach, Del., also caters to price-sensitive customers and is ordering more repackaged audiobooks, which retail between $15 and $20. In both cases, customers prefer unabridged audiobooks.
Elaine Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., is a personal fan of physical audio and often listens to audiobooks on drives to Lake Tahoe. “There’s something about the CDs that I still like,” she said. She hand-sells audio editions of Benjamin Black’s mysteries and nonfiction titles read by the author, such as David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. Petrocelli also makes a point of selling audiobooks side by side with print books at author events. She gets frustrated when she can’t purchase audio CDs for books such as local author Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure, which is available in a digital format from Audible.
Petrocelli would also like to be able to sell digital audiobooks online. “[Indie] booksellers are losing sales, because we can’t supply what our customers want,” she said. While acknowledging that she could sign up for Baker & Taylor’s Acoustik digital audio program, she questions whether it’s a good idea to offer a service that forces customers to leave the Book Passage website in order to make a purchase.
Matthew Norcross, co-owner of McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., shares her pain. “We’ve always had audiobooks,” he said, “and always will as long as they are available. Because we are a travel destination, they are perfect for us. Folks want a good story for the drive.” Lately, Norcross said that he can’t get physical audiobooks of some of his favorites, such as Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, which is still available only digitally. McLean and Eakin does offer digital downloads through Acoustik. “We are gaining users now, but what will really help sales take off is greater integration into IndieCommerce so that digital audio appears on our website like any other format,” said Norcross. He estimated that his current digital-audio customer base isn’t quite as big as the one for e-books. He’d also like to have publishers provide shelf-talkers and other physical marketing materials that he could display in his store.
Amazon, which owns Audible and just announced that its Kindle app for iPad and iPhone will allow integration with audio versions of titles, continues to sell physical audiobooks through its site. According to spokesperson Maggie Sivon, romance, mysteries, and thrillers, along with business and self-help books, do particularly well. Currently what’s selling at Amazon is the same as what’s selling in other book formats and through other retailers: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.