#JIAM What’s New from Digital Audiobook Providers

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Librarians curious about audiobook vendors – get the scoop here before ALA. Or if you can’t make the American Library Association’s annual conference, my “Voices in My Head” column in this month’s issue of Booklist details what new bells & whistles are added to library digital download providers of audio. Plus, some observations about a big elephant in the marketplace. The column’s full text is below, plus I’ll be posting the full remarks from the vendors along with my hands-on report once I return from ALA in Chicago.

There’s plenty of good news about audiobooks and libraries as longtime library partners make innovative improvements to digital download platforms. An Association of American Publishers survey states that downloadable audiobooks have an annual publishing growth rate of nearly 30 percent, topping the rate for paperback and hardcover segments. So what’s new with download providers?

OverDrive, the market leader in library audiobook distribution, notes that the digital shift now has mobile momentum, with mobile devices accounting for 30 percent of checkouts via the OverDrive platform. Librarians attending the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago will be able to preview a long-requested OverDrive upgrade—the ability to browse, check out, and download titles directly from a library’s digital catalog, with a one-step checkout of digital content.

Matt Walker, vice president of Recorded Books, says, “Our OneClickdigital platform highlights our shift from physical audiobooks toward a digital service provider. With a significant investment in infrastructure and staff, we now maintain our services completely in-house. Recent improvements include free telephone support for library patrons to help relieve librarians from dealing with technical issues. Recorded Books’ exclusive content is available on smartphones and tablets by providing apps for Android, Apple, and Kindle Fire.”

Baker & Taylor has partnered with Findaway World, maker of Playaway, to offer the Acoustik app platform for audiobooks, which is incorporated within Baker & Taylor’s existing Axis 360 e-book digital collection. Audiobooks (more than 26,000 available titles) can be checked out from Axis 360 and downloaded instantly to the Acoustik Android and Apple app.

Scott Wasinger, vice president of sales at EBSCO Publishing, says, “Our collection of 20,000 audiobook titles from more than 70 publishers is available through multiple business-model options, including a subscription model, single-user or multi-user options in perpetuity, short-term rentals, or by creating patron-driven acquisition lists. Audiobook titles are seamlessly integrated in the EBSCOhost database platform and EBSCO’s Download Manager will automatically check out the audiobook, with 100 percent compatibility with virtually any portable device.”

Midwest Tape entered the digital marketplace in March 2013 with a beta release of “hoopla” in eight public libraries. Jeff Jankowski, vice president of Midwest Tape, says that “hoopla offers video, music, and audiobook content that can be seamlessly streamed or downloaded. There are no setup fees, annual maintenance charges, or initial collection-development costs. All titles are available for simultaneous use, and your library only gets charged for titles that are checked out. We currently offer around 9,000 audiobook titles priced between 99 cents and $2.99. And with no upfront costs, if the platform doesn’t provide value, your library can get rid of it without the buyers’ regret inherent in other platforms.”

Robin Nesbitt, collection-management director at the Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library, a hoopla beta site, says, “I want our library staying relevant for as long as we can. There is no way to capture all digital consumers, but for those who seek digital options at the library, I want to provide products that mimic the best consumer products out there. I am concerned with some of the embargoes I see from publishers. I may have the newest online experience from Overdrive, hoopla, or other content providers, but some publishers will not let me buy titles unless they are a year old, or I can buy solo titles, but not as a consortium. Overall, public libraries are in a better place now than a year ago, but we have a ways to go to provide full access to all content in an easy manner to our customers. I remain optimistic that we are making headway.”

Librarians are well acquainted with the bad news of consumer-only content that is unavailable to the library download market, but they may not be aware of another significant audio issue. Audible (owned by Amazon) has a virtual monopoly on consumer audiobook download sales and recently moved into audiobook production with the creation of Audible Studios. Amazon has also developed Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), a clearinghouse that matches authors and narrators and produces audiobooks for distribution via Audible. Brilliance Audio, another Amazon subsidiary, suspended availability of all audiobook download titles to library vendors in 2012. Brilliance titles are only available as physical products to libraries. In fact, no audiobook titles from any Amazon production arm are available as library downloads through any vendor. Amazon is now a major player in the audiobook world, and this enormous elephant blocking the library marketplace door is so powerful that I could only elicit one quote from an audiobook industry insider who must remain unnamed: “More audios are being produced; however, there comes a point at which production quality begins to suffer, and we’re already seeing it. Also, taking libraries out of the equation seriously limits who will ultimately access these audiobooks, and that is what bothers me most.”

Patrons depend on librarians to provide the best current materials in the format that suits readers’ and listeners’ needs. But when publishing constraints limit library access to downloadable content, even the best digital content platform cannot offer what can’t be purchased. With enough library leverage, perhaps we will see a day when the same materials available to consumers can be accessed by library patrons.

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About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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