It’s good to see audiobook sales going up and up. “By almost 20% again” says the Publishing Perspectives account commenting on 2016’s sales numbers.

One of the graphics shown in the Publishing Perspectives report is tantalizing. It shows readership of audiobooks to be distributed pretty much in line with the US population’s age distribution, with a slight slewing towards the youthful end of the range. This is the opposite of what I’d have assumed: as our eyes go, you might have expected readers to turn to audio for their “reading”. Maybe we oldies are just giving up altogether.

In their graphic showing where people listen to audiobooks I was surprised to see “at home” ahead (71%) of “car/truck” at 58%. I had always assumed that listening while driving would be the most common situation. In the 2018 report this situation has been reversed: 74% now listen in the car, 68% at home. Of course the categories are not mutually exclusive: if you listen in the car, you might well keep on listening after getting home in order to reach the end of the chapter.

A couple of years of progress have passed since that first report. Last week I caught a reference in Schumpeter’s column in the 21 December Economist to the finding by The Audio Publishers Association that “This year, for the first time . . . half of Americans listened to an audiobook”. Naturally I was impressed. I wondered if one could say the same for reading a book — knowing full well that one could not. But of course with statistics you can say anything — it’s all in the presentation.

The APA is of course not really claiming that 50% of Americans listened to an audiobook in 2018 though naturally this headline point is what press coverage picked up on. What they are actually saying is that of the 1,009 people surveyed for them by Edison Research 504 or 505 had listened to an audiobook during the year — a somewhat less impressive finding! In order to qualify to participate in the survey you needed to have read an complete audiobook at some time in the past.* Nor do they seem to be claiming that all 505 listened to a complete audiobook, though the average number of titles listened to in the year was up to 6.8. Nor are they saying that anyone actually bought an audiobook. Apparently 56% of new audiobook listeners are “making ‘new’ time to listen to audiobooks” — whatever that means.

Now good news is good news: and the fact that audiobook sales and readership are up is good news. Am I alone in thinking that choosing vocabulary which conceals the real news and emphasizes something more exciting, even implies something which is downright untrue, is not a real service to your industry or to the public? We went through the same sort of thing with ebooks, and many of us fell into a panic in the face of double-digit increases in sales and readership every year. Once again let me remind you all that while an increase of $185 million on sales of $755 million is a 24.5% increase, the same rise on sales of $25.8 billion would represent an increase of 3.6%. The American Publishers Association shows $25.8 billion as total book publishing revenue for 2018. An increase of 3.6% is not to be sneezed at but is obviously not liable to the same frantic over-interpretation as an increase of 24.5% is. (As always with American Publishers Association’s numbers we have to enter the caution that self-publishing sales are not included — because not shared with APA— so of course total book sales are a good deal higher than $25.8 billion.) Not only are the percentages misleading, just what qualifies as reading a book or listening to an audiobook is hard to pin down. Maybe just glancing inside a Farmers’ Almanac would qualify 50% of Americans as having “read” a book.

Sales revenue for audiobooks jumped 24.5% during the year 2018, rising to $940 million. “44,685 individual audiobook titles were produced, up 5.8% from the prior year”.

A PDF of the Audio Publishers Association’s 2018 report about the readership survey can be found here, and the sales report here.

Again: this is good news. It’s a lily that doesn’t really need gilding. No gloating, commentariat. None of this means that traditional publishing is in trouble: quite the opposite.

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* Given that only “listeners” were included in the survey, should one not think that any result less than 100% might require explanation? What the results could be said to show us is that 504 ex-audiobook listeners have given up the medium!