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Audiobooks will be a real challenge for Spotify (plus: one good, free alternative for audiobooks)


Spotify have jumped into the audiobook pool and, look, I’m not feeling confident for them.

Ben Thompson summarised the challenge [$] well:

The good thing about music is that it is widely popular, which means that there is much more money to be made from increasing the customer base than there is in maximizing the average revenue per customer. A relatively small number of readers, though, buy a disproportionate number of books: offering them a subscription would dramatically decrease how much they spend on books, and I can imagine that publishing executives were skeptical that Spotify could provide enough new users to offset the loss in revenue. Thus the same old pay-per-title model.

Spotify want to be your singular home for audio. And, as Thompson goes onto explain, they “showed with podcasts is that they can grow the pie” by finding more listeners for aural delights.

But most podcasts on Spotify are free, so “there was no barrier to Spotify subscribers in giving them a try”. People will have to buy audiobooks. That’s a problem.

And that’s before factoring in the unintuitive and user-hostile payment system Apple will force Spotify to use to sell books. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to buy someone via the app:

  1. Find a book you’d like to listen to
  2. Ask Spotify to send you an email
  3. Open that email and click a link through to a website
  4. Check out through the website
  5. Go back to the app

See, Apple eat 30% of any sale using their in-app purchase system. That’d obliterate the margins on any book sale, making the whole system useless. And Apple won’t let apps use their own in-app options so you get this baroque sales two-step.

The audiobook business model is just… weird

Here’s the thing: I should be a dream customer for audiobooks.

I love books. I buy a lot of them. I love podcasts. I listen to a lot of them. But I’ve never gotten into audiobooks. I just find the business model off-putting.

You subscribe to Kobo or Audible and get one book free a month. But you still have to buy any other book. So what’s the subscription for? And why aren’t there more audiobook/ebook combo deals?

I’m sure it’s fine in practice. There’s just too much competition in audio and ebooks are wildly cheaper that their audio brethren.

But there’s an alternative that’s starting to work for me.

Free audiobooks are the way to go

Here’s the thing about services that give you books: libraries have been nailing it for years.

Sure, like most public services, they’ve been slow to adapt to online platforms. But they’ve gotten a lot better over the years.

If you like ebooks and audiobooks, download Libby. Join your local library service. Add your library card to Libby.

Bang. Start borrowing and downloading books, audio or otherwise. (Also magazines: Libby is great for them.)

I have access to the catalogues of three different library services on my phone. They’re adding more audiobooks all the time.

You have fewer options than on platforms like Kobo or Audible but the price is right. Give it a shot.

And, you know, support your local library. They’ve been in this game for a long time and they do a world of good for the communities around them.



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