Speaking of Audio: In the Driver's Seat

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

By Robin Whitten

The audiobook listener is in the driver's seat when it comes to choosing the CD or cassette format. Significant changes are underway in the availability of media formats as audio publishers pay closer attention to customer audio book purchase patterns and format preferences in an effort to increase sales.

Let's look at what's happening with listeners. Audiobook users listen predominantly in their cars. National transportation studies show that average commute time lengthens each year, and that Americans spend as much as 62 hours a year stopped in traffic. Listeners use audiobooks to make their commute more enjoyable and to increase their reading time. A key factor in what these listeners purchase is based on whether they have a CD or cassette player (or both) in their cars.

Automakers have been relatively slow in switching from cassettes to CD audio systems. The cycle of change began five to seven years ago, as CD players started replacing cassette players as the prime option in new cars. Recent automotive reports state that 70 percent of all new cars are CD player-equipped. But, since many people drive older cars, only 50 percent of cars on the road have CD players. As a result, the cassette format still flourishes in the audiobook industry, despite the now miniscule music-cassette business and increasing scarcity of portable cassette players.

However, generally speaking, listeners are going to have just one media system in their cars and, obviously, that dictates their decision about which audiobooks to purchase. Therefore, if I have a CD player in my car, and I am looking to purchase the audiobook version of Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House Audio), for example, I will look to purchase it in that format. If I find it on CD, great. However, if the bookseller only sells it in cassette, the sale might well be lost.

Shelving both formats together is important, and displaying the audiobook versions with the print editions gives your customer plenty of options. Remember -- this is a format choice issue: Customers interested in listening to Seabiscuit want it in a format that suits where and how they listen to it. Sales numbers bear this out.

Eyes on the Road

The audio publishers are paying attention to this, and sales reflect the success of offering format choices. BookScan's audiobook numbers for the first week of July show that 10 out of the top 15 audio titles were CD versions. Even more interesting, in the same group of top 15, five titles held two slots -- one for the cassette and one for the CD version. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Living History (S&S Audio), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson (S&S Audio), The Lake House by James Patterson (Time Warner Audio Books), The Da Vinci Code (Random House Audio), and Seabiscuit each held two positions. It could be misleading to surmise that each title sold twice as many copies because it was available in two formats, but the sales were unquestionably strengthened by the two formats. There is a customer for each format: two formats equals two sales.

Since I wrote about CDs in the January 2001 edition of Bookselling This Week ("To CD or Not to CD"), audio publishers have embraced the dual format and have tracked customer purchase patterns. Such early CD adopters as Simon & Schuster and Naxos AudioBooks offered CD and cassette choices for nearly every title. Now, watching the numbers closely, Gavin Caruthers, VP of marketing at Simon & Schuster Audio, notes, "In some cases we make the strategic decision to publish in CD-only. This occurs in categories where we have found that customers buy the CD in much greater numbers than the cassette, usually motivational and business titles."

An increase in sales of the CD format is very apparent at Random House Audio, where 18 months ago only the biggest audio sellers like Grisham titles were available in both the CD and cassette format. Currently, roughly 40 percent of audiobooks sales at Random House are in the CD format. David Naggar, president of the Random House Audio, has a close watch on the distribution of formats and has the manufacturers on deck to respond quickly to reorders. "Random House is trying to find out what the consumer wants -- one format or another," says Naggar.

Audiobooks are now "on the radar" of readers. Many book lovers use their drive time for extra reading time, and booksellers can be ready with format choices. Take this opportunity to give the customers what they want, CDs and cassettes.

Robin Whitten is editor and founder of AudioFile: The Audiobook Review. Bimonthly issues cover audiobook news, features, and reviews. Check it out at www.audiofilemagazine.com. Comments and questions welcome at robin@audiofilemagazine.com.

[Source: Traffic survey information from Texas Transportation Institute, 2002 Urban Mobility Study.]