Academic Publishing, Audiobooks, Digital Publishing, Trends in Publishing

Audiobooks in Academic Publishing – Princeton University Press

In September we published a short blog post on audiobooks in order to offer a short overview of this topic.

We have since had the opportunity to speak to Kim Williams, Digital and Audio Publisher at Princeton University Press, who kindly gave us an interesting insight into the world of audiobooks in academic publishing.

When Princeton University Press announced its new audiobook programme in 2018 it was the first University Press to do so.  Kim Williams told us that they had been licensing rights for audiobooks for several years – first primarily to Audible, later also to others, including Recorded Books, which is the largest independent producer of audiobooks in the world.

However, interest in audiobooks had evolved into something of a trend, with the US market seeing its 7th consecutive year of double-digit growth in sales. Taking this on board together with the increased interest in audiobook licences, Princeton University Press saw an opportunity to enter the market and not only license, but also produce, audiobooks for their readers. After a lot of investigation and costing, a business case was made and in July 2018, Princeton University Press announced the launch of PUP Audio – an audiobook programme aiming initially to publish 24 titles each year. Princeton chose Sound Understanding as its production partner. It is an audio production company that specialises in non-fiction. A great deal of care needs to be taken with the choice of titles to be converted into audiobooks, as Kim Williams explains:

“When choosing the titles for PUP Audio, we first of all have to think about the potential listenership for the book – will an audiobook increase the audience for the title? I then read the book to check if I can ‘hear’ the text; we also have to make sure that charts and diagrams can either be omitted or explained in a simple way without a visual prompt. And then we have to check that the length of a book is right for audio – we don’t want the audiobook to be either too short or too long – and we have to bear the intended readership in mind. In our portfolio, economics books, biographies and big histories tend to work quite well, but we are excited about the potential for our trade science list.”

PUP decided still to maintain its business relationship with Recorded Books; and last month  announced an exclusive partnership with Recorded’s mother company, RBmedia, for the audiobook licensing of further titles (approx. 40 per year).

Kim Williams believes that there is a need for academic audiobooks as well as the various print formats. Audiobooks can support different learning styles, especially now that accessibility of learning content plays an ever more important role at universities. People for whom English is not their native language can find audiobooks a helpful complement to the print book, and of course listening to a book can be time-saving, as it can be done whilst driving a car, exercising or doing other activities that allow you to listen. She thinks that, like e-books, there is a time and place for audio and that having the choice of multiple formats – including audio – ensure a “frictionless reading experience”.

The distribution of audiobooks has not caused difficulties, as they are treated in a similar way to e-books and all big e-book wholesalers will also include audiobooks in their distribution channels. Princeton’s current wholesaler also has good distribution agreements with large audiobooks platforms like Audible, audiobooks.com, Kobo and many independent platforms.

Princeton University Press is not the only academic publisher who publishes audiobooks, but it was certainly one of the first – and the first University Press to do so. Since the publication of their first titles 13 months ago, many others have taken the leap, including Cambridge University Press and Kogan Page.  

So, who are the readers, or should we say listeners, of audiobooks?
“Students of course, but also lecturers who commute, policymakers, the interested public – anyone who wants to save time or who prefers the spoken word over the written one. That stresses the importance of a good narrator: it is crucial to get the right person, someone who is an authority on the topic; they need to show confidence in what they read and therefore must understand the subject, and at the same time have a likeable and clear voice.  Many of our authors have considerable experience in public speaking, but not always the vocal stamina to read a whole book over five or more days. Several of our authors have narrated their own audiobooks, but we have had wonderful readings from professional narrators, too,” says Kim Williams.

Only one year after launching an audiobook programme of its own, Princeton feels that there are many aspects to success as an audiobook publisher.  The production costs of audiobooks are not inconsiderable – on top of hiring studios and the associated costs of this, the narrator puts considerable time and energy into the preparation of an audiobook and deserves fair compensation; and as a publisher that takes pride in the quality of its content PUP (with Sound Understanding) appoints proof listeners for all audiobooks to ensure that the quality control is as rigorous as it is for its print publications. But even though the revenue may not yet exceed the production costs, Princeton University Press has gained many positives from this first year beyond the obvious marketing advantages, as Kim Williams explains: “It certainly has given us a new lens and has opened ways to reach new readerships. One of our missions as a University Press is to reach diverse people across the world, and the audiobooks initiative lets us frame books in new ways and helps us in achieving this goal. Part of our role is to educate people, not only through the content we publish, but also in the way this content is being accessed. Audiobooks are still an evolving model, but we want to be part of shaping this as part of our effort to educate. We have had great feedback from readers and authors alike; and, after all, they are the ones we are here for.”

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