Digital Audiobooks in Public Libraries: A Current Assessment
by Michael Blackwell, Dianne Coan, Cathy Mason, and Carmi Parker
Downloadable audiobooks are a cultural phenomenon, exploding in popularity in the last decade. A 2019 Pew Research Center report suggests that while print remains more popular than either ebooks or audiobooks, the percentage of adults who read print books or ebooks declined slightly from 2016, while the percentage of audiobook listeners rose—the only format to increase. 1 Sales have also risen, according to a 2018 Association of American Publishers (AAP) report, which states, “Since 2013, downloaded audio has been the trade book format with the greatest percentage growth. In 2018 it grew by +37.1%.” Substantial growth is expected through 2027. 2
|As North America reopens in 2021, we can expect e-audiobook circulation to continue to grow, so librarians would do well to consider the recent changes in publisher licensing - and the issues in acquiring and managing digital audiobooks.
Library circulation of e-audiobooks reflects this pattern, as library patrons explore the format on their commutes or while multitasking at home. The format’s ease of use is especially beneficial to vision-impaired people and reluctant readers. In 2020, OverDrive reported that 114 million audiobooks were borrowed in 2019, an increase of “+30%, outpacing ebooks for the 6th straight year.” 3 Our libraries, whose service areas include the East Coast, Midwest, and Northwest—and range from small rural to urban consortium—are in line with this trend (see Chart 1).
Growth was down slightly in 2020, probably due to stay-at-home orders, which significantly decreased the time many spent commuting. As North America reopens in 2021, we can expect e-audiobook circulation to continue to grow, so librarians would do well to consider the recent changes in publisher licensing and vendor availability and practices as well as the issues in acquiring and managing digital audiobooks. In this report, we aim to provide the following:
- A better understanding of the e-audiobook pricing and licensing models available under different vendors
- An understanding of which of the big publishers offers better terms
- Actionable steps readers can take to continue learning
- Actionable steps readers can take to advocate for improvements
Changing Publisher-License Models
In the last decade, the major publishers began offering e-audiobooks under perpetual use—also known as one copy/one user (OC/OU)—licenses. Unit prices initially approximated those of retail, but have increased 70% over the years. 4 In June 2019, Simon & Schuster and Hachette moved from a perpetual access model to metered access, expiring licenses after 24 months, without significantly reducing costs. As such, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House (PRH) currently offer libraries better value on e-audiobooks. In March 2020, PRH also introduced multiple purchasing options in response to COVID-19, allowing OverDrive libraries to choose whether to purchase a perpetual use license or a 12-month license at half the price of perpetual use. (Other content vendors, such as Axis 360 and cloudLibrary, do not currently have the technical capabilities to offer more than one model per title.) Library selectors have responded enthusiastically, since multiple models per title allow them to optimize their selection dollars, purchasing higher-priced perpetual use licenses on books they know they will want in their collections long term and using the lower-priced 12-month option for titles with unknown demand. Anecdotally, libraries appear to be purchasing more emerging, midlist, or niche titles, which broadens and diversifies their collections. PRH plans to enable multiple options at least through June 30, 2021. 5 We hope that the PRH acquisition of Simon & Schuster (if permitted) might result in better e-audiobook terms on Simon & Schuster titles.
Discussion of Pay-Per-Use
In addition to the models described previously, some publishers also enable pay-per-use (PPU) options, in which libraries pay for individual circulations; these can occur simultaneously (as opposed to metered access and perpetual use licenses, which enable sequential loans only). hoopla offers a collection of mostly backlist titles under PPU, as does cloudLibrary. In OverDrive, libraries can purchase individual titles under PPU licenses (known on that site as cost-per-circ; CPC), although not all publishers make their full catalogs available. The costs tend to be high. For example, a single circulation of A Promised Land by Barack Obama costs a library $9.50. While the price may be prohibitive under normal circumstances, many libraries made use of the PPU capability in summer 2020 to meet patron demand for access to books related to Black Lives Matter. The PPU model may also be useful to libraries supporting book clubs or community reading events. For example, Fairfax County Public Library uses the capability for its Book of the Month event (fairfax.overdrive.com/library/availablenow).
Chart 2 on page 22 shows currently available models with average prices for 29 titles from The New York Times’ Best Sellers list from Dec. 13, 2020 (15 fiction and 14 nonfiction). (Data for each title is available at readersfirst.org/eaudio-prices-and-models.)
We will look first at the four vendors that primarily support metered or perpetual access models and compare them to one vendor that primarily supports a PPU model. Among the four traditional vendors, we did not find significant differences in prices, with minor exceptions: HarperCollins prices were consistently $15 more at two of the four vendors we reviewed. RBmedia showed a difference, but only had one title in our sample; therefore, these data may not represent a pattern.
An earlier article in Computers in Libraries included a larger sample of titles and found variations in the availability of titles from each of the vendors. Libraries that are considering a migration to another vendor may wish to explore that article. 6
We also found differences in license models offered. OverDrive has the technical capability to offer multiple models per title, as does the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). OverDrive enables PPU options on individual titles; Axis360, cloudLibrary and DPLA do not—although one model that DPLA offers to publishers includes 40 total loans, 10 of which may be simultaneous. One model is worthy of note: On some older titles, RBdigital offers 100 loans—all of which can be simultaneous—for $174.40. This model has advantages. Metering by circulation is preferable to exploding time-bound licenses, simultaneous use prevents waiting lists, and the cost-per-use is better than in some models—albeit on older titles. It is an innovative example of offering multiple models at the point of licensing.
One of the vendors we studied works differently than the others. Midwest Tapes’ hoopla operates primarily on the PPU model, but it has begun offering a 2.0 version combining PPU with metered or perpetual licensing options. 7 In PPU, titles are always available, without a waiting list. Having a wide swath of simultaneously available titles in an easy-to-navigate platform has made hoopla a popular option. Furthermore, libraries only pay for what their patrons use.
However, hoopla 1.0 does not appear to offer many popular titles, including only one of the 29 bestsellers we reviewed. hoopla 2.0 did not fare better on PPU; the titles were not available in that license. But 27 of the 29 were available in metered or perpetual license, with the other two pending. If libraries that use hoopla are interested in access to current titles, they would do well to adopt version 2.0. Moreover, on Simon & Schuster titles, the items averaged only $22.49 per unit rather than $69.99—a substantial savings. (More study is necessary to see if this price difference is temporary—perhaps a sale—or if it will be affected by the possible merger with PRH.) Beware, however, that unlike with version 1.0, wait lists on titles can build because of the new licenses—a fact that might frustrate users because they are not used to waiting in this platform. Moreover, hoopla’s primary model (PPU) can also be costly, with circulations costing up to $3.99. Less expensive PPU ($1.99–$2.99) titles are available, but they tend to be older/backlist.
Finally, by checking out many expensive titles per month, a relatively small number of power users can ramp up costs, benefiting a few rather than spreading opportunities among many patrons. For this reason, two of our four library systems/consortiums don’t offer hoopla. One of us has severely cut back on its use by restricting the number of circulations per month and eliminating access to titles that cost more than $2.99 per use. The other limits monthly checkouts and supresses titles in hoopla that are available in other platforms, finding substantial cost-savings but taking away the anytime option. These practices are not uncommon among libraries. None of this should be taken as a criticism of hoopla, which is a reliable platform that is much liked by library patrons. However, hoopla and other PPU options require careful management. Quite simply, the PPU models are often budget busters—perhaps this is the reason they finished last in a ReadersFirst survey of librarian selectors. 8
Another option for consideration is DPLA, a platform that aggregates library ebooks and e-audiobooks from other vendors, such as OverDrive. Its app, SimplyE, ensures that patrons can access all library content through a single interface, enabling libraries to purchase content from multiple vendors without forcing patrons to use multiple apps.
DPLA is a nonprofit and currently does not charge platform fees. The state libraries of both Texas 9 and Washington 10 have recently begun deploying SimplyE for use by public libraries in those regions, with Georgia soon to follow, while Maryland and Connecticut have been active for a longer period. At the time of this writing, some 300 library systems have it in place.
In addition, the DPLA Exchange marketplace is allowing libraries to purchase new content on the platform directly, currently offering five of the 29 aforementioned titles. DPLA is working out innovative agreements with various publishers to offer multiple models. 11 Perhaps most interestingly, at the time of this writing, DPLA and Amazon are negotiating to provide Amazon’s original content, which is currently unavailable to libraries. 12
Special Mention: Audible
Unfortunately, the DPLA negotiation with Amazon does not include Audible-exclusive titles. Thanks to Audible, library patrons cannot listen to such culturally significant titles such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Popular titles, such as Born a Crime by Trevor Noah or Elsewhere and Devoted by Dean Koontz, likewise cannot be purchased by libraries. The exclusive deals also include teen and children’s content such as The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling, and The Sesame Street Podcast With Foley and Friends. Blackstone Audio currently supplies 10 new titles per month exclusively to Audible, disallowing the purchase of the titles by libraries for 3 months after release. 13 Some states, including New York, are responding on behalf of libraries by proposing legislation that would require publishers to offer electronic book licenses to libraries if they sell that book at retail. 14
Are audiobooks on CD still viable in libraries? We checked the availability and cost of CDs for our sample. As with digital, 29 titles were available. The cost averaged $26.35 per item, which is a bargain compared to the $68.29 for digital. A library could get five CD titles for every two digital. And unlike with digital, the library owns its CDs. Libraries that serve rural or poorer populations may also wish to retain the CDs for patrons who cannot access or afford the data services and devices that streaming requires.
However, cost and ownership are not the whole story. Changes in consumer behavior are making streaming and downloading dominant. Portable CD players are available, but because of the smartphone, they seem destined to be relegated to the dustbin. Most new cars no longer come with CD players. Also, libraries must repackage CDs, usually in expensive and durable library-use cases. CDs require shelving space and need to be physically checked out and shelved. CDs are subject to disc rot, being scratched, or being lost—often making an entire title unusable with only one damaged disc. They cost more than their average base price indicates. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed another issue: At times, they will sit unused. After seeing yearly declines in CD circulation, one of our libraries not only ceased buying them but, rather than them phasing out gradually, asked the Friends of the Library to offer the lot up for sale. Complaints have been few.
Recommendations for Action, Advocacy, and Further Study
Our study suggests the following sources of action for librarians monitoring e-audiobooks.
1. Keep Up With Changes in the E-Lending Landscape
- Subscribe to email from ReadersFirst or its Twitter feed. 15 The Twitter feed by Alan Inouye, senior director of public policy and government relations for ALA, is also an excellent resource. 16
- Attend ebook-related and e-audiobook-related discussions at state and national conferences.
2. Advocate With Legislators
- In 2021, at least three state legislatures (New York, Maryland, and Rhode Island) are likely to have bills in place stipulating that publishers that license to consumers must also license to libraries. Advocate for such bills in your state. They ensure that no publishers can embargo content or make it exclusively available on a for-profit platform, such as Audible.
- Advocate for initiatives that help close the digital divide. Anthony W. Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library, stated recently in the New York Daily News that “while free library e-books were the solution for so many … during isolation, if you can’t afford a data plan or device, you can’t access any of it.” 17
3. Advocate With Publishers
Publishers are not solely responsible for the complex, expensive e-audiobook landscape; changing prices and models requires support from the content vendors too. Still, current models prevent libraries from optimizing use of their digital audiobooks. Librarians can advocate for change. The ALA Working Group on Libraries and Digital Content, Urban Library Council, Canadian Urban Library Council, and other groups are working to improve access. Individuals can also reach out to publishers directly, as many did when Macmillan instituted its embargo on ebooks in 2019. Specific requests to publishers may include the following:
- Support for multiple models per title—The PRH experiment with multiple models has given libraries new ways to optimize their collection dollars. We would like all publishers to support multiple model options, including the following:
- Metered access at retail prices. HarperCollins offers 26 loans at prices that approximate retail on both ebooks and e-audiobooks. Libraries can request that other publishers do the same.
- A perpetual use option, which greatly benefits preservation and long-term access, especially with series. Libraries can reward the publishers who continue to offer it on e-audiobooks by spending with them. Publishers that do not should be asked to reinstate this model.
- PPU has benefits but is seldom cost-efficient. Libraries can advocate for lower costs and more title availability.
- Reduced cost—Hachette and Simon & Schuster currently charge libraries significantly more for e-audiobook titles than they charge at retail, and libraries must repurchase them every 24 months. Libraries can request these publishers either restore the perpetual use license or reduce prices on metered access to retail levels.
- Migration from time-bound metered access to circulation-based metered access—Titles that expire after a certain time period are an impediment to emerging and niche authors whose titles do not circulate as frequently as those of popular authors. Publishers that want to use libraries to grow audiences for new authors should maximize exposure to library readers with circulation-based metered access models.
4. Coordinate With Vendors
- Advocate with vendors to invest in platform infrastructure. Several of the vendors we studied do not currently have the technical capability to offer multiple models, even when a publisher makes them available. Vendors must support progress by enabling all beneficial license terms.
- Explore whether your state library, consortium, or library system can enable the SimplyE app and use the DPLA Exchange, which aggregates content from multiple vendors, allowing libraries to purchase under the pricing and models that work best for them.
5. Conduct Further Study
A more in-depth study of the terms and prices on a wide range of titles would provide a more accurate idea of availability, pricing, and license terms across library vendors. Adding titles from smaller publishers may show where some lower-cost titles might be found, perhaps with perpetual licenses. It would be useful to study bestseller lists from Amazon and Audible, which would indicate how many high-demand titles are not currently available to libraries. Studying children’s and teen titles in depth would be helpful in understanding those high-demand areas.
Change remains constant in libraries, as 2020 certainly proved. But libraries’ mission to provide quality resources in the most cost-efficient way possible remains unchanged. Meeting demand at a time when the use of an increasingly important format is challenged by disadvantageous licensing terms will require advocacy and care.
The research reported here was conducted in December 2020 and January 2021 by a team of librarians using data from their own CMSs.