Building an audio list: how collaboration helped us achieve our business goals

The last time Apple made a MacBook with a CD drive was in 2016. That same year, Audible reported that a record 2 billion hours of audiobooks had been downloaded over the previous 12 months. If the medium was changing, so, clearly was the market – fewer people might have been listening to audiobooks on CD, but more and more were downloading them. By 2017, Profile Books had decided to take part in this emerging market: we wanted to make sure that we were serving our authors and their books best, expanding the range of formats in which our titles were available and having greater control over their creation.

Finding a partner

Like many publishers, we’d been sublicensing our audio rights for years, but we now turned our attention to ways in which we could also make audiobooks ourselves. As a still-smallish independent publisher, without experience in the sector, we began by speaking to larger publishers who already had long-established audio publishing programmes. We also spoke to audio publishers who specialise in the market. After discussing options, learning about the process, and trialling two of our titles with separate houses, we entered into a relationship with Little, Brown at the very start of 2018. We chose them because we were impressed by their deep expertise and infectious enthusiasm for the audio format – we knew that we would be working alongside, and learning from, some of the best people in the industry, and that it would be an enjoyable and transformative experience.

And so it’s proved to be. For the past three years, Little, Brown has produced and distributed our audiobooks under the Profile Audio imprint – as well as audiobooks for our Serpent’s Tail, Viper, Souvenir Press, Economist Books and Wellcome Collection lists. A couple of times a year, we sit down with Sarah Shrubb, Audio Publisher at Little, Brown, to look through our lists and decide which books we want to put into audio together. Our choices are informed by considerations that might seem obvious, from whether or not the text will translate well into audio, to sales and publicity expectations – but also by considerations whose importance has become clearer over the years, like if there is a US publisher who might buy our finished files.

We have now published over 70 audiobooks together and it’s a varied selection, though weighted towards non-fiction, as is our publishing. It was great to discover, early on, that this is a genre that does particularly well in audio – it’s no longer a world dominated by abridged classics and cosy dramas, but a market where a majority of listeners are urban-dwelling men aged 25-44, listening as they travel. We’ve seen our business titles in particular work very well in this format, with Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature and Ryan Holiday’s Stillness is the Key both becoming bestsellers.

Discovering audio audiences

Though we usually expect audio to follow print in its sales curves, we’ve also had surprises, and titles that have really outdone themselves in the format: US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s Together and The Unfair Advantage by Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba were both published under lockdown when bookshops were shut, and while this may have benefitted the audio format, success in audio also seems strongly connected to digital marketing and publicity, which crosses borders and endures online. Audio is, after all, also digital. We saw this effect on our recently published The Last Thing He Told Me: Laura Dave’s crime novel soared in audio, selling over 2,000 copies in its first week, after being recommended by Reese Witherspoon on Instagram. Crime is another genre that is strong in audio – a good discovery after we launched our new Viper imprint in 2019. Of course, traditional sales-boosters like prize listings have an effect on audio too, as with Women’s prize-listed Detransition, Baby by Torrey Petersand Booker-shortlisted Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.

As our audio list grew, we looked to our backlist to consider other titles that we could bring into audio, and acquired audio rights to all our books by Atul Gawande, including Being Mortal and The Checklist Manifesto. Given the long life of audio, and the high initial costs involved in creating an edition, we’ve learned the importance of books that backlist, and those that already have a proven track record.

A challenging format in a challenging time

Throughout, our relationship with Little, Brown has developed. Audio of course takes much longer to create than an ebook, and once that final manuscript is ready to record from, timings can often be tight – everyone has to be responsive, and it has been a great privilege to work with people who are able to think creatively and strategically, adapting figure-heavy texts into more readable formats, and finding studios across the country for authors to record in locally. We work closely with Little, Brown’s team and our authors to find the right narrators for our audiobooks, whether that’s the author themselves or an experienced actor – under lockdown, Little, Brown’s knowledge of which actors had home studios, and the Covid precautions taken at the Hachette studios, were invaluable.

We’re at a very different stage now than we were in 2016, having observed or been closely involved in every stage of creating audiobooks and bringing them to market. It’s a format that feels a natural part of our publishing, and whose existence we fold into our publishing and promotional strategies from the start.

At the start of 2020, Deloitte predicted that the global audiobook market would grow by 25% – they did not predict a pandemic, which saw sales of consumer audiobooks in the UK surging by 42% to £56 million in only the first half of the year. It’s an exciting time to be publishing audio, and we’re looking forward to seeing what the next three years brings.  

Louisa Dunnigan is a Commissioning Editor and Head of Audio at Profile Books, an independent publisher based in London. Louisa’s Twitter handle is: @louisaclaire_d.