Frankfurt Show Daily feature: The 'vast opportunity' in audiobooks
Cortina Butler talks to Will Lopes, MD of Audible UK.Will Lopes, the Managing Director of Audible UK since September 2011, is a quietly spoken, charming man imbued with a sense of mission. He first joined Audible in 1999 in the early days of internet growth and worked across the marketing, product development and operations disciplines, later spending four years as Vice-President of Business Development before his London appointment. His time spent managing Audible's mobile and social networking acquisition strategies, creating new member acquisition channels and developing strategic partnerships, will be put to good use in continuing the growth of Audible in the UK.
Audible was founded in 1995 by Donald Katz, CEO, who still operates out of its Newark, New Jersey headquarters. As Lopes tells it, Katz noticed that people were consuming fewer and fewer books as they commuted longer, losing the time to consume long-format content. He put together an "ancient" format called audiobooks with developing technology, and started to digitise audio - "probably way too early given that the iPod didn't launch until 2004 and it probably took two years after that for people to really understand what MP3 was, let alone what an audio download was", Lopes says.
Audible commercialised the first digital audio player in 1997. Soon it started to see a pattern in consumption. Rather than the irregular purchases that would be typical of a bookstore model, it saw that people were using Audible as a service supplying regular entertainment for their daily commutes. In 2005, the company introduced Audible Membership. In 2008, Audible was bought by Amazon.
Business as a service
The business as a service is central to Audible's identity. Lopes talks of "working really hard creating a service that finds time-poor people and gets them to consume great quality content". Under the membership model, customers sign up for monthly payments that give them credits that can be used to buy downloads at a significantly lower cost than the list price - typically £7.99 in the UK against £15-25. It's quite hard to find out how to buy recordings "à la carte" when you first visit the website, and although Lopes recognises that some people might want to do that, he clearly believes that the membership model is so advantageous to the customer that it would be foolish not to sign up.
Membership gives Audible the opportunity to engage directly with the community, and the focus is all on pointing customers to the right content, including making it easy to find series of books or all the recordings by a particular narrator. Close attention to customer profiles is paying off. An average member will consume 19 books this year ("unheard of in the industry"), and membership has grown 40% year on year for the last two years.
Although Audible has built exponentially from having 10,000 customers in 1999 to millions globally, Lopes believes that attitudes towards the audio download industry are still in a transition phase. While Audible is firmly established as a consumer-facing service, creating brands and assisting in the discovery of content in ways they weren't doing three or four years ago, many in the publishing industry still see audio download as a niche for historical reasons - because "maybe they don't see what we see yet".
But he thinks they are rapidly getting past that stage with productive partnerships within and beyond the publishing industry, and palpable enthusiasm for audio download as a medium for introducing people to content. As he says: "You can't not pay attention to a company that has millions of customers globally."
When a new title such as JK Rowling's The Causal Vacancy comes out, it's pretty much guaranteed now that the audio will be available. But Lopes wants to get past the top 100 to a situation when all suitable new titles published in a year are available in audio. Audible lists 100,000 titles in English globally, but this figure still reflects only about 5% of suitable titles published last year.
Getting more content into audio form is the main business focus for Lopes. As he says: "We are forging a new customer business and these people are just as demanding as someone who walks into a high street bookstore" - they, too, are interested in some of the 95% of titles not published in audio.
In response to this, and to encourage all of the different players to be producing more audio versions of books, Audible launched the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) in 2011 to connect authors, agents, publishers and other rights holders with producers and narrators, and facilitate the process of getting more audio into production. In a further initiative, designed to get authors more focused on the commercial potential of audio, it has introduced Audible Author Services, which rewards authors who take advantage of the facility to promote audio versions of their books with an additional payment on top of their usual royalties.
Lopes wants the publishing industry to see audiobooks as an important part of the any-format, anywhere content future. "We just want to create more content because we really do believe that this is a business of the future. We're here to help. If they want to produce the content, great we'll support it. If they can't afford to produce the content, call us; we'll figure out a way we could strategically produce more content. If they don't want to deal with it all and would like to sub-license the rights, we would be happy to talk about it."
He also urges a change of mindset about the way the economics are calculated: "The return on an investment in creating a piece of content today isn't going to end a year from now, it will continue for four or five years down the road, because we see it through our sales. People discover an author and they'll go back and listen to an entire backlist."
The launch of Whispersync in the US, which allows customers to sync ebook and audio, provides additional cause for excitement. "If ever there was a message that, OK you have to pay attention to audio now, this is it, as the industry is really moving very quickly towards ebooks, and now for every ebook that's out there there's an opportunity to continue the experience with audiobooks. There's over a million ebooks in the UK today and just 60,000 audiobooks so the opportunity is vast." Getting the publishing industry to see that opportunity as well is Will Lopes' mission.