PRH’s Markus Dohle says audiobooks are the future, not the ebook, as Storytel Arabia ramps up production. But is Dohle missing the bigger picture?

“Audiobooks are the future, not ebooks,” said Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle last week at Spain’s Forum Edita at the Barcelona School of Management of the Pompeu Fabra University.

Talking about book publishing in general, Dohle said,

The sector is experiencing the best moment of the last fifty years … and maybe of the last five hundred. There are always experts who talk about the end … but it’s not like that.

Ticking off his reasons, Dohle noted.

  • The world market does not stop growing, more than ever, in circulation of copies and billing, although there have been years of ups and downs.
  • We have a stable model of distribution, which has added to the physical books the sale of e-books and audiobooks.
  • The relationship between paper books and e-books has stabilized around 80% for the first and 20% for the second, who would have believed this ten years ago?
  • The planet has many more readers every year, due to the increase in population and literacy.
  • The changes in e-commerce and online distribution have allowed to reach places without a strong structure of bookstores.
  • Children’s and young people’s literature grows much more than the rest, which heralds a good future.

Very little to argue about there. But then Dohle apparently said,

In seven years, there will be more audio books than e-books, that’s the future.

At which point we need to ask just how accurate the translation was, because in his next breath Dohle says,

The internet allows us to serve a book anywhere in the world, instantly, 365 days a year.

The report over at La Vanguardia is worth reading for other insights into PRH operations, and its relationship with Amazon, but for this essay I want to focus on the ebook and audiobook relationship.

If Dohle indeed said, “In seven years, there will be more audio books than e-books,” that makes little sense unless he is speaking just for PRH and PRH has a policy to slow ebook production and just produce print and audio.

If so that would be beyond illogical. Everything Dohle says about why the book market is in robust health applies even more to ebooks than to audiobooks.

Most especially, “The changes in e-commerce and online distribution have allowed to reach places without a strong structure of bookstores.”

Even if PRH were to embrace the Storytel all-you-can-eat menu option at the consumer end, which would remove the unaffordability element that holds back audio in the nascent markets, it would require an unrealistically huge investment of time, energy and cash to produce audio versions of the PRH catalogue enough such as to exceed the number of ebooks.

And in any case to slow the production of ebooks would be to disadvantage PRH in its plans to embrace the nascent markets.

At which point, let’s bring Storytel into the equation.

As reported here on TNPS this past week, Storytel’s global project seems to be paying off, and emerging this week in the localised follow  ups to the central press release from Storytel is a report from Ammar Mardawi, Country Manager for Storytel Arabia, Storytel’s eleventh market launch, on how Storytel’s Dubai-based pan-Arabia project is faring.

We were drawn to the region because of its high smartphone penetration rate, easy access to online payments, and successful online music and video subscription services. The UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are among the highest countries with smartphone penetration rates in the world, while online payment methods are available and growing rapidly in the region. The success of online subscription services such as Anghami in the region validates that the market is ready for Storytel.

Mardawi said Storytel Arabia entered the market with 600 Arabic titles amounting to 5,000 listening hours, and is launching one new book per day through the year..

Reports Gulf Today,

Storytel is introducing more and more people in the region to the experience of the audiobook with the launch of its service in the UAE. This is expected to help boost the entire local audiobook sector.

Which brings us neatly back to Markus Dohle, because what Storytel is doing in the Middle East North Africa region is not just “introducing more and more people in the region to the experience of the audiobook,” but introducing more and more people to the idea of consuming book content on their smartphones.

And that in turn feeds into Dohle’s observation that “changes in e-commerce and online distribution have allowed to reach places without a strong structure of bookstores.”

It’s interesting to juxtapose this with Dohle’s comment that “The relationship between paper books and e-books has stabilized around 80% for the first and 20% for the second, who would have believed this ten years ago?”

Here we have Dohle stacking his First World case against his global aspirations.

The reason the First World industry has stabilised at 80%-20%, and bearing in mind this is in relation to “traditionally published” books, not the self-publishing sector, is that the big publishers, including PRH, manufactured that balance by hiking frontlist ebook prices to protect their investment in print and the bookstore infrastructure.

All of course for very sound business reasons – ensuring some level of independence from Amazon.

But Amazon isn’t a player in the nascent markets, either in ebooks or audiobooks. Dohle is well aware of this, which is why I find his remarks about audiobooks, not ebooks, being the future, either misguided or, more likely, a matter of weak translation.

I’m seeking clarification from PRH on this, and will update this post with any response forthcoming.

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