Essays

Why Are Audiobooks So Expensive?

I have a wonderful relationship with audiobooks, and I am certain my life would be very different had they not found their way into my reading life.

Audiobooks were a great companion when I worked as a cleaning lady for eight years – they made the work a lot easier – and they continue to be a trusted distraction while commuting to work or doing chores. Mind you, I sometimes come up with chores to do just because I want to finish an audiobook. When I contemplate picking up a new hobby, my first thought is usually whether audiobooks can be included in it (maybe it is not a coincidence that the answer is usually “yes”). You’ll see me often recommending them to people unprompted, and yes, I will verbally fight anyone who dares tell me audiobooks don’t count as reading. Luckily, encounters of this sort are less and less common, especially as the number of people listening to audiobooks continues to rise steadily. 

In 2019, half of Americans older than 12 had listened to an audiobook, a number 44% higher than that of 2018. The data points to there being an increase in those numbers in the years to come. Audiobooks became so vital in my life that I ended up getting a subscription to Storytel; it’s an audiobooks on demand app similar to many others out there, where you pay a monthly fee to have access to a catalogue of books. A sort of Netflix for books.

I share it with two other friends, and it costs me close to $8, which is a great deal for all of the books I have available on the app, since the catalogue is pretty decent. Of course, this also means I don’t own any of these audiobooks, but I don’t tend to re-listen, so it works perfectly for my needs and budget. On top of this, I am also part of Libro.fm’s ALC (advanced listening copy) program, and I get a few audiobooks for free each month, which I get to review on different platforms. It is safe to say I am currently not lacking in audiobooks to listen to each month, often my biggest issue is really choosing what to listen to next. But it wasn’t always like that.

When I first started listening to audiobooks, Audible was the most known audiobook app out there (Libro.fm was not yet a thing), and I couldn’t really afford their monthly subscription. Or rather, for $15 a month, I preferred to invest my money on a print book I could own and touch. So I used to check their audio daily deal every single day. For $2–4 I managed to grab wonderful audiobooks once in a while, especially nonfiction.

But even with daily deals and whatnot – or maybe especially because of their daily deals, since it lowered the initial price substantially – I still wondered what made audiobooks so expensive. Why was a print copy I could hold, own, and loan the same price – with all of the process involved in printing that book – when an audio copy seemed so much easier to simply copy and distribute.

It’s a question that popped into my mind again recently, when I needed to buy an audiobook for its full price. That prompted me to do some research to find out what the deal with the prices of audiobooks is. I hope this post helps you understand a little bit of what goes into creating an audiobook.

What, in the end, makes them so expensive. Or are they, really?

Cost Of Production

When we have the final audiobook in our hands, it is difficult to imagine all of the work that went into it. After all, it’s not even a physical product, just a file we keep in an app on our phone. But the production of an audiobook is no small matter. Some claim that the creation of an audiobook resembles a movie more than it does a print book, and I guess they have a point, although it is more comparable to that of a radio show.

But like in movies, you need a studio, (voice) actor(s), editors, producers, and engineers. A whole array of people, really. Finally, you need proofreaders, who make sure the final product is good to go into the ears of listeners. Most audiobook platforms have strict rules regarding the quality of audio that is submitted to them. All of the work listed above needs to be conducted by professionals, and professional work means high costs.

With a team of this size, an audiobook can cost around $400 per hour to record. An audiobook which averages 12 hours can easily reach a total production cost of $6000. And this is just the production of an audiobook with a single narrator; if you have a full cast, sound effects, or famous narrators, the expenses go way, way up. 

If you are listening to a well known celebrity read an audiobook, you can be sure it was an expensive recording to make – famous people charge up to $1500 an hour to record. While a book in print requires a writer, editor, publisher, proofreaders, printing and etc., audiobooks require all this, plus an audio production. And then, of course, you have the additional cost of advertisement, which does not come cheap.

Higher Royalties For Authors

Print book royalties and audiobooks royalties work in different ways. 

While print book royalties given to the author can go from 5% (on mass market paperbacks) up to 15% (on hardcovers), audiobooks usually offer the author 25% in royalties (which can go up to 40% if a book is exclusively sold on Amazon platforms). This is yet another expense that needs to be covered in the sale of the audio. There are also instances in which the author and producer get paid once, if the costs are covered up front, but royalties are the most common agreement. 

Lower Demand

I pointed out above how audiobooks are becoming more and more popular every year, and yet they still do not sell as much as print books. This scarcity makes them, like many other products with a high production cost and a low demand, more expensive to the final consumer. Of course, while this explains a lot in regards to the cost of audiobooks, there are a lot of questions that still go unanswered: movies cost millions to produce, and yet you can get a DVD for $10; how is that possible? To that I found no final answer, but I am willing to accept that it certainly goes back to demand and distribution.

On the other hand, for many years, Amazon had the monopoly on audiobook sales, and when you’re the only one selling a product, you can pretty much set your own prices. Similar apps that arrived later had to do their best to match Amazon prices, and there aren’t many at the moment providing these same services out there. The more competitors there are, the more the prices will start to lower.

Although audiobooks have been around for a very long time, their popularity has only recently started to increase. And in the same way that businesses like Blockbuster – where you rented per movie – ended up evolving to become on-demand apps like Netflix, there are several options for on-demand apps with different monthly fees. For almost all budgets. 

Personally, I believe one of the reasons prices are high is due to the fact that audiobooks are still seen as a luxury product, a side-effect of all the new audio media (read:podcasts) available out there. But they are becoming popular fast, soon we will start seeing changes in the market.

And, let’s not forget: YouTube and Spotify are also great sources of free audiobooks for those who can’t take the extra expense. Libraries also provide several titles in audio, through apps like Libby.

If you are looking for budget friendly – or even free – audiobooks, Book Riot has a few posts with golden tips:

The Best Audiobook Apps

Where To Find Free Audiobooks

An Audiobook App I Can’t Live Without

9 Of The Best Audiobook Subscription Services

How Does Libro.fm Work


Sources

Audiobook store

Scribe Media

Chron

Goodereader

TrinityAudio

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