Christie Henry, director of the Princeton University Press, is having a hard time deciding how to refer to her audience. It used to be easy: they were readers. But now, as audiobooks grow in popularity, some of the press’s titles have more listeners than readers. It’s not clear that there is a generic term to encompass both of these groups. “Those who engage with a book in any medium” doesn’t have a great ring to it.
This is actually a good problem for Henry to have, as the press has recently launched its own audio division, which is bringing in a whole new crowd of book-engagers.
Audio is making waves throughout the publishing industry. In a year-end e-mail to employees, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said that the publisher’s audiobook unit was its fastest-growing division and predicted that the proliferation of Amazon Echo and other smart speakers and listening devices will fuel more rapid growth in audiobooks.
One such device on the horizon is the Waze Audio Player, made by the same company that makes the popular navigation app. Waze is partnering with Scribd to make audio books for the platform. The collaboration is banking on the association between audio and driving, since audiobook consumers do much of their listening in the car anyway.
Princeton University Press has not been sleeping during the audiobook trend. For years the press has partnered with Audible (owned by Amazon) to record and distribute audio versions of its books, but last summer the press launched its own in-house audio division, with a starting list of nine titles.
Henry said Princeton University Press’s Audible licensing agreement is going well, but its downside is that there is little clue to listeners that they are listening to Princeton University Press titles. The logic of branding demanded that Princeton have some titles under its own banner on its own website.
The business considerations of audiobooks are different from their print counterparts, and calculating the cost and profit margin of one format versus the other is not always straightforward. “The costs of audio are in large part driven by the length of the books, as that correlates to hours of narration,” Henry wrote in an e-mail.
“Many of the actors charge by the hour — and the costs of audio include narration and distribution. It’s hard to say audio is significantly cheaper to produce, as the variables of narration rates are considerable. And each distributor also has different terms associated with releasing them into the world,” she wrote.
The press assigned its former international rights manager, Kim Williams, the task of managing the audiobooks. She partnered with British audio production company Sound Understanding, which produces the popular Economist podcast. PUP picked out nine of its titles to turn into audiobooks. Although the press turns out a large number of academically focused books, the ones it picked for its audio division launch were aimed at the general public.
“Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy is Threatening our Future” by Louise I. Shelly covers how computers and social media have supercharged black markets. “Making Up Your Own Mind: Thinking Effectively through Creative Puzzle-Solving” by Edward B. Burger discusses how you can learn to be better at solving real-world problems by learning puzzle-solving skills and creative thinking techniques.
The roster also includes “Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology” by Adrienne Mayor, which tells the story of how ancient people imagined robots and other forms of artificial life. One unique title is “Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain,” edited by Michael Rosen and read by a variety of narrators.
Henry said the press is experimenting with scholarly audio but wanted to try books that had already proven popular with general readers. One reason for this approach is that the audiobooks are not likely to cannibalize paper book sales. The press’s market research shows that audiobook listeners are not the same people as book readers. Listening to the audiobook will likely come at the expense of podcasts or other audio entertainment.
Edward Burger’s book was a natural selection for audio because Burger also has a popular podcast and could bring in a crossover audience. The author narrated his own audiobook. Adrienne Mayor also has a strong social media presence, and Henry said the subject matter of gods and robots lent itself to audio very well.
Rosen’s book is the boldest experiment and posed the biggest challenge to record, as it included 160 different narrators. But this was a hidden marketing boost, as each of those narrators promoted the book to his or her own audiences.
Another new marketing technique the Princeton University Press is trying out is making video trailers to go along with the audiobooks. The trailers are produced much like movie trailers and are easily sharable on social media.
Henry said the initial selection covers multiple topics because the press wanted to reach multiple audiences. “We didn’t do all economics books or all science books,” she said. One reason for covering this range over a relatively small number of books was to give the new audio publisher a reasonable workload so she could give a lot of attention to the production of each title. The PUP also did not want to jeopardize the audio publishing deals with Audible and other publishers.
It will be a few months before the Princeton Press has statistics on how well the new audiobooks did. “It’s still a relatively small data set,” said Henry. “But early attention has been really high, and the excitement of the authors is tangible.”
The PUP is working on a new website to showcase the audio books. But for now, they are available for reading, listening, or engagement at press.princeton.edu/audiobooks.
Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton 08540. 609-258-4900. Christie Henry, director. press.princeton.edu.