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The Sound and the Story: Audiobooks and Podcasts

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on our parent site, Publishing Trends.

Hey, did you hear season two of Serial has started? Serial’s return was hard to miss on social media last Thursday. People were hungry to hear more of Sarah Koenig’s addictive storytelling and reporting. The keyword is “hear” — Serial, of course, is a podcast, and podcasts are growing in popularity, as are audiobooks. In publishing, trends come and go, but this love of all things audio may be indicative of a sea change. This year was a first in publishing: a podcast spawned a book. Not a collection of stories from the podcasts, nor a collection of new material with old; it’s a novel with all new material based on the popular fictional podcast Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial, 2015). Published in October of this year, it has been on the New York Times Best Seller list, and sold over 47k copies according to BookScan. It’s available in print, ebook, and of course, audio.

Audiobook & Podcast Timeline

Click here to see a full-size PDF download of a condensed audiobook and podcast timeline. Image by Jen Donovan.

Audio is a sector of the industry that has been steadily growing with no signs of stopping. Here’s a look at some important moments in audio history that have led to the boom that we’re seeing now. There are general timelines for audiobooks and podcasts, but I think to completely separate the two is a mistake. As the trajectory of a book like Welcome to Night Vale shows, the success of one of these mediums informs the successes of the other. So, here are some important moments in the respective histories of audiobooks and podcasts.

Cassette Tapes

In 1970 audiobooks made the transition to cassette tapes, which were much more affordable than LPs. Audiobooks on cassettes allowed public libraries to easily purchase audiobooks for patrons to check out. This caused rapid growth for audiobook sales and publishers. By August 1988, there were 40 audiobook publishers, up from about ten in 1984.

Audible opened for business in 1997, they sold a digital media player that held 2 hours of a digital audiobook at a time. In 1998, they became the first company to sell digital audiobooks.

Compact Discs

In 2002, CDs became the dominant format for audiobooks instead of cassette tapes. They reached their zenith of popularity in audiobook sales in 2008, and have been on the decline as a format for audiobooks ever since.

Digitally Downloaded Audiobooks

The Audio Publishers Association has been tracking the growing popularity of digitally downloaded audiobooks on and off since 2001, and regularly since 2006. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a steadily growing area for audiobook since 2006. In 2011, they reported that digital downloads had increased 300% since 2005 per dollar volume. Their most recent press release stated “73 percent of all audiobook listeners and 82 percent of frequent users report listening to audiobooks downloaded digitally. The younger the listener, the more likely they are to go digital.” Digital is here to stay.


The capability to podcast began in 2000, with the website that offered users audio-only broadcasts of sportscasts, the news, and so on. The website itself did not last long. Late in 2000, the ability to subscribe to certain audio-only feeds via RSS was instated as was the ability to “audioblog.” The term podcasting did not appear in print until 2004 in a Guardian article by Ben Hammersly. (His other suggestions for the medium were audioblogging and GuerillaMedia.) “Podcasting” was quickly adopted by many early podcasters and podcast enthusiasts and became the commonly accepted term for the media.


LibriVox is an early intersection of audiobooks and podcasts. Writer Hugh McGuire asked on his blog in 2005, “Can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?” What he’s talking about here is clearly an audiobook, but it’s a notable slip of the tongue, connecting the two mediums so closely. The website now has over 9,000 books in the public domain recorded on their website for free.


The wildly successful podcast Serial debuted on October 3, 2014. Just to quickly break down how successful this podcast was: It’s the fastest podcast to ever reach 5 million downloads.  Thirty-nine million Americans had listened to the series by December 2014 (the month and year that the first season ended). As of December 22, 2014 each episode had been downloaded an average of 3.4 million times (even before the last episode aired). An aside: I am not a podcast person. By now, my friends know not to recommend podcasts to me because I probably won’t listen to it. After every single one of my friends told me I must listen to Serial, I broke and gave it a shot. Reader, I loved it. This is only important because I listened to it when I would normally be reading.

Serialized Fictional Podcasts

Even before the rampant popularity of Serial, there were serialized podcasts – even fictionalized ones. Of course there’s Welcome to Night Vale, which at the date this story was published boasts 80 episodes.  After Serial ended, there came Limetown, a fictional tale of a town full of people that all just disappeared one day. There’s also The Black Tapes, which has been described as “what might happen if a perky NPR journalist decided to investigate the Blair Witch Project,” by the Daily Dot. There’s a clear hunger for hearing stories, whether it’s in serialized chunks or through a several hours-long tale.

Podcast Growth

The Pew Research Center released a fact sheet on podcasts in April of 2015 that showcased the skyrocketing popularity of podcast consumption in the United States. The first paragraph of the sheet unsurprisingly notes the incredible popularity of Serial, in addition to the growing popularity of smartphone ownership and in-car podcast listening. They found that in 2014, the amount of regularly hosted podcasts increased to 22,000+, from 16,000+ in 2013. At the time of the publication of their fact sheet, one third of all Americans had listened to a podcast, a significant growth from 11% of adults listening to podcasts in 2006.

Audiobook Growth

Audiobooks have seen an explosion in popularity in the past few years. In the first half of 2015 alone, the Association of American Publishers found that trade audiobook sales have risen 41%. While in 2014 overall, downloaded audio grew 26.8% in revenue, physical audio sales were down in 2014. One might think that the prevalence of smartphones and being able to have everything on one’s phone had a lot to do with that boost in digital downloads and the downward trend of  audio CDs. Audio Publishers Association reported in July 2015 that the number of published audiobooks has increased each year since 2010, where only 6,200 audiobooks hit the market. In 2014, 25,787 titles were published in audio, up from 24,755 the previous year.

So let’s put this all together. The main takeaways are that technology has advanced to a place where anyone with a smartphone can easily listen to audiobooks wherever they go. People have responded positively to this possibility. Perhaps we’ve moved past the novelty of having a bunch of books downloaded to a phone, an ereader, or a tablet, and have transferred that fascination to portable stories in an audio version. The more advances in audio technology, the more the number of audiobook and podcast listeners grows. People like hearing stories, but only if it’s convenient. And as the success of Welcome to Night Vale shows, if the stories are really good, readers and listeners will want them available in any way they can have them, in print or audio.

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