Audio Book Publishers Battle for iPod Profits

Audio books comprise only about 10 percent of the book market, but their soaring popularity is boosting otherwise static publishing profits. Now Web sites such as Audible.com, an online seller of audio books, and other audio book publishers and content providers are in a battle for your space iPod or MP3player.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Books are always a good holiday gift standby. For our Wednesday book segment, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report on a special kind of book that's rapidly gaining in popularity.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

If you spend any time walking around town or in the gym, you probably can't escape seeing folks with little wires sprouting from their ears. They're listening to MP3 players like the iPod or its many competitors, and while you think they're listening to something like this...

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Take me out.

BATES: ...what they really might be listening to is something like this.

(Soundbite of audio book)

Former President BILL CLINTON: My mother named me William Jefferson Blythe III after my father William Jefferson Blythe Jr., one of nine children of a poor farmer in Sherman, Texas, who died when my father was 17. According to his sister, my father...

BATES: That, of course, is former President Bill Clinton reading from his doorstopper autobiography "My Life." It topped standard best-seller lists for several weeks, and it's a perennial favorite in the audio book category, too. Audio books have been around for several decades now, notes Publishers Weekly audio editor Shannon Maughan. But earlier editions were literally books on tape, and they were frequently used in dashboard tape decks by commuters. Later the tape decks were replaced by CD players, but the continued popularity of MP3 players, Maughan says, allows listeners a new freedom.

Ms. SHANNON MAUGHAN (Publishers Weekly): Audio books can allow people to experience literature and non-fiction in any number of subject areas in a new way and can let them do that while they're doing something else.

BATES: That multitasking addiction is a hallmark of impatient baby boomers and their younger siblings, generations X, Y and Z. Don Katz is one of them. He's also the founder and CEO of Audible, a decade-old business that provides downloadable digital content to consumers via the Internet. Katz came to the business after being on the other end of it as a journalist and best-selling non-fiction writer. That experience taught him that there are far more good authors than opportunities to publish them. He says downloadable books vastly expanded the audience for audible books but, says Katz, Audible couldn't get going until people, including investors, grasped the concept of the downloadable audio book.

Mr. DON KATZ (CEO, Audible): Very few people who--both in the investment community to the technological community knew anything about audio books. And one of the things that did allow us get going so early was that once they checked it out, that the experience seemed so profound to them and the product seemed so underappreciated as a powerful part of people's lives that they actually grasped the idea out of the surprise that it even existed.

BATES: Once they latched onto the idea, Audible.com was up and running in short order. It developed not only its own software, but its own digital audio player four years before the iPod debuted. Keeping an ear to the technological ground has given Audible an enviable head start in the digital audio book market. Publishers Weekly editor Shannon Maughan.

Ms. MAUGHAN: They certainly have been providing downloadable audio for the longest time, and, yes, they are the market leader at this point in time.

BATES: Audible's chunk of the audio book market continues to grow. It recently announced third-quarter revenues of $16.8 million. That's up 81 percent from the same time last year. Audible's Don Katz says flexibility is a large part of his product's allure.

Mr. KATZ: We have a consistent level of hearing that our regular customers are consuming--you know, reading, experiencing--20 books a year and most of them hardly touched, you know, single digits in the previous year because people just don't have enough time to read anymore.

BATES: Not only the things they want to read, but the things they feel they have to read, which is why Audible has been aggressive about adding newspapers, professional journals and even radio broadcasts to its inventory. Digests of everything from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times to the Scientific American are offered.

But the bulk of Audible's business, for the moment anyway, remains books, and there's a reason for that. Since ancient times there's always been something intensely pleasurable about being told a story. And it's not a pleasure that's reserved solely for children. In fact, traditionally the audio book audience has been a little older, better off financially and better educated than the general population. But, says editor Sharon Maughan, the age part of that education is starting to change.

Ms. MAUGHAN: As the technology changes, you're seeing that the whole wave of MP3 technology is attracting a traditionally younger audience because of its popularity in the music world.

BATES: And if you don't own an MP3 player, don't worry; Audible is determined to get you one way or another. The company's latest venture, Audible Air, involves delivering the news or a book chapter over Wi-Fi-enabled phones. So soon, even if you don't want to be seen with those little wires sprouting from your ears, you could listen to the latest installment of, say, "The Nanny Diaries" on your cell phone and none of us will be the wiser. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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