A First Look at Digital Audiobook Tracking from The NPD Group

by Kristen McLean, executive director of business development and books industry analyst

Digital audio has been one of the highest growth sectors of the U.S. book market for several years. In a mature industry, it’s also one of the only true “whitespace” areas where the publishing industry is gaining new readers. In some ways, audiobooks might be a better native digital format than e-books, especially on smartphones where they can compete with other forms of entertainment more successfully.

Since 2004 NPD BookScan has delivered books industry data, analytics, and industry expertise for publishers, retailers, and entertainment companies. In 2020 NPD added audiobooks to our digital dataset with a beta version of a new service: PubTrack Digital Audio – the first publisher-verified retail measurement service for digital audiobooks in the U.S.

Here is a closer look at audiobook trends NPD discovered in the first set of data:

  1. Audiobook unit sales grew 17% in 2020, year over year, despite a mild dip in sales during the early pandemic period. During this time audio listening of all kinds declined, as people spent more time at home and less time commuting and working out – activities where audio is typically consumed at a higher rate.
  2. One in six books sold last year were in the digital audio format. Audio share was highest in adult non-fiction, where one in five books sold were digital audiobooks.
  3. Not surprisingly, there are higher rates of audio penetration in categories where there is a natural overlap with podcasts and other narrative audio forms. Adult categories with the highest listening share in 2020 included business, self-help, and humor.

The biggest takeaway from the data is just how variable the share of audio can be, once you look at the actual sales data, rather than using top-line consumer-survey data to estimate the market share of audiobooks, as in the past. In this new data set, the audiobook sales share for a single title can range anywhere from 15% to 70%, depending on the subject and the author’s profile. The immediate implications are obvious: It’s difficult to make assumptions about the potential of an audiobook project or program just by looking at the topline market trends; detailed data is also needed to make effective fact-based decisions.

As this new year begins, there will be a lot of new questions to dig into. For instance, can narration metadata be used to pull apart the effects of different narrators? Can a determination be made about how podcasts and other cross-category media affect audiobook sales? What is the natural ceiling for the audiobook format, and will it overtake e-books in the future?

There are bound to be even more interesting insights to glean from the data in 2021, as audiobook sales data is combined with sales data for print books and e-books, which will create a more complete view of the overall publishing industry. NPD BookScan analysts will continue to explore this data, bringing forward key insights for our clients and APA colleagues.

NOTE: PubTrack Digital Audio is a cooperative data service, and NPD is now expanding its panel. In fact, publishers in the current group of beta testers are already gaining a competitive advantage using this data to inform strategic data-driven decisions. If your company produces and distributes audiobooks, and you would like to subscribe to receive this data, please let us know.

Email NPD BookScan at books@npd.com to learn more.

About The NPD Group
NPD offers data, industry expertise, and prescriptive analytics to help our clients grow their businesses in a changing world. Over 2,000 companies worldwide rely on us to help them measure, predict, and improve performance across all channels, including brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, and B2B. We have services in 19 countries worldwide, with operations spanning the Americas, Europe, and APAC. Practice areas include apparel, appliances, automotive, beauty, books, B2B technology, consumer technology, e-commerce, fashion accessories, food consumption, foodservice, footwear, home, juvenile products, media entertainment, mobile, office supplies, retail, sports, toys, and video games. For more information, visit npd.com. Follow us on Twitter: @npdgroup.