The best time to listen to audiobooks is while you're driving. That's a no-brainer. If you've ever done a really long drive -- say, over three hours -- you can only listen to so much Satellite. Same drill if you're commuting, stuck in traffic, hearing what you already know from 1010 WINS, and ready to blow your lid.
Audio entertainment has meant music and talk for time immemorial -- the more ranting among the latter the better, when it comes to the "talk" side. But how many people listen to books while driving? I don't have the stats, but I'll bet it is a very small number today. Does that mean a really big opportunity, a big sandbox just waiting for players? Or a a solid, permanent niche market? Right now it is most certainly an educated, affluent base of people listening to books, and learning content. You know: they are learning Mandarin while driving to Kennedy for that flight to pitch a deal in Shanghai.
Ian Small, general manager of streaming media company Burlington, Ont.-based Audiobooks.com, says that the industry is, indeed, heavily commuter-focused. "That’s where our customers are using smartphones [to hear content]. And consumers just have a higher expectation of what their vehicles are able to do with infotainment.” He says 80% of the Audiobooks.com customers listen while driving.
The company has gotten a toehold with General Motors via GM's new OnStar AtYourService platform, which was unveiled at CES this year, and will be available fleet-wide in 2016 model vehicles. The location-based service connects drivers to retailers based on destination. He says the company also learned that word of mouth is growing the user base. The top company in the category is Audible.com, which Amazon.com acquired for $300 million in 2008.
One issue for an app company like Audiobooks.com is fragmentation in the auto business in terms of solving how the product is paired with different infotainment platforms. Which is why mirroring is kind of the easy way to go. Especially with Android, which will be supported by just about every automaker. What gets mirrored? The player, hopefully in a simplified format that minimizes or just about eliminates driver distraction. Smalls says that means you can't shop for books while you're driving, which would be an obvious recipe for disaster. With Jaguar Land Rover's platform you can browse for book samples or go through the Audiobooks.com booklist of best sellers, he says. That also sounds like a bit of a distraction.
Another issue for on-board systems that don't require a smartphone: unplanned obsolescence, because cars are on a three-year development cycle. “So we are often trying to work with hardware and operating systems that were in place three years ago and three years is a dinosaur. Now, automakers have much larger telematics departments, where it's a priority now. So planning will get better. But we are still dealing with circa 2012 technology,” he says.
In addition to being relatively affluent, the user base, per Small, tends to be more female than male. The key for a company like Audiobooks.com in terms of competing with Audible.com isn't stealing from the market leader, but wider adoption -- much wider. "Right now, in terms of the typical consumer, it's business professionals, higher-income folks, but I think what will happen in coming years is we will have a relaunch to educate other demographic groups around the pleasure and entertainment value of audiobooks."
But the other big issue is that Americans don't read. Very few Americans read books, in fact. I read one stat that 70% of Americans haven't been in a bookstore in five years. Yes, yes, I know -- Kindle and the like are the cause. But still. USA Today reported in 2005 that in the two prior years sales of books worldwide dropped by 44 million because of the Web, TiVo, cell phone screens, PlayStation Portables and DVDs.How about this: the average American watches 28 hours of television each week, and reads an average of three books per year. Now you can argue that they will LISTEN to books, especially if they are trapped in a car. I think that's possible, but I'm skeptical because of distraction and competing voices. And because we have been separated from our ability to focus: we no longer have the attention span. And the media competition in a car is only different from outside a vehicle in terms of visual alternatives. Audiobooks will still have to compete with screaming morons, 600 sports channels, every genre of music imaginable, plus navigation, social media, phone calls, etc. etc.