Out-Thinking Amazon: Bumping Audiobooks To The Next Level

There are times when I think I should just turn this column over to my daughter or my wife. For all of the time I spend ruminating on the possibilities for mobility, they often blindside me with torrents of fresh ideas that come directly from their own experience with media interactions.

“Why can’t my audiobook bring me back to a scene if I just described it?” my wife asks. Which is a damned good question. She is infamously averse to mobile apps and to the entire mobile computing ecosystem. But she is intimately acquainted with audiobooks, because her decades of long-distance running have brought her through multiple technologies: portable CD players, cassette players, MP3 players, and now mobile phones.

“I listen to my audiobooks in bits and pieces and often over the course of many weeks with some days off. When I restart the book it will be talking about a character that I can’t remember. Why can’t I ask the book to remind me who that character is?”

Again, great question. The other day I was recounting to her my conversation with Ian Small, the general manager of, perhaps the main rival to Amazon’s ubiquitous Audible. About a year ago, Ian launched his service as a mobile Web app with a unique model for audiobooks: for $30 a month, listeners could have smorgasbord access to the entire catalog of audiobooks. They were pitting the subscription model against the Audible model, which charges users either by the title or with a set monthly fee that only allows a limited number of books for download.

“We were really happy with the success and with going to the lowest price we could,” says Small. While they got a number of users via the model, they found that the all you-can-hear approach was ideal for a very high consuming user. “But we were only capturing one segment of the market without a lower tier plan,” he says. “It shrunk the market for us.” And so recently the company instituted tiered pricing that allowed access to one or two books a month at $14.95 a month or $22.95 a month respectively. They tested the model on a smaller audience and found that it attracted a larger following in the end.

After several months of the revised plan, Audiobook's customer base is divided about 50-50 between all you can hear and the lower tiers. The marketing challenge now is how to promote the service’s chief differentiator, the unlimited plan, while also getting across that lower-tier plans are also there. also distinguishes itself with instant access streaming. The mobile app is very snappy and does not require that the books be downloaded to the device unless you want off-network listening.

Small believes that the user experience is one of the major battlegrounds for user loyalty in this space. The native apps represent the lion’s share of use, and iOS far outdistances Android in this regard. The problem with the apps is that they are much more expensive to promote.

Small tells me that the company uses the mobile web presence to acquire new audiences. He can use organic search and search advertising to draw people to the mobile web location, but most of the time they migrate to the native apps for regular use once they’ve subscribed. And the company says that it has proven the model works especially for the price points, because it expects to go into the black sometime this year. seems to enjoy its David and Goliath dynamic. It is not only contending with Amazon and its massive marketing machine but also Apple, which uses and promotes audible books as the source for its own iBooks app.

Small and I began speculating on what the next generation of audiobooks really should look like. After all, for all of the changes in the technology and the distribution vehicles, let alone the business models, there is virtually no difference between the audiobook that we experience today and the one we first experienced on cassettes decades ago.

Small suggests that publishers could think outside of the usual box and bring more educational material into the format. “There is evidence that listening to a book improves test scores.” So why not find ways to blend audio and visual material into audiobooks or even print books?

I was wondering whether the voice interactivity that mobile phones allow could open up new and interesting paths. Why not a return to the old choose your adventure formats of our teenage years? Digital storage and interactivity allow for a much richer and deeper branching structure to these sorts of novels.

But as my wife was quick to remind me when I recounted some of this conversation to her, the best ideas for mobile utility come from the people who are actually using these media every day and have incorporated it into their lives. They have a richer understanding of the problems that need solving. For her the use of voice search in an audiobook would help her solve an everyday frustration: finding her place or understanding where she is in the book. It would also address some of the unique problems of audiobook listening, an experience which tends to be fragmented.

She suggests that audiobook publishers think about ways that the user could easily invoke quick catch-ups and summaries that would help remind listeners where in the book they left off. There is absolutely no reason why this sort of audiobook enhancement couldn’t be a part of digital distribution. And yet we have a media format that is several decades old stuck in its original form, while using technology capable of making the experience so much richer and more convenient.

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