Academic Audiobooks: Princeton University Press’s Initiative

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications

The impact of digital media on book publishing has challenged some expectations. Instead of cannibalizing print sales, e-book sales have plateaued or declined recently, while recorded books have suddenly taken off. The Audio Publishers Association’s 2018 report boasted of seven years of double-digit sales growth, and revenue from downloadable audio had grown by more than 180% in the past five years. Libraries reported 114 million audiobooks checked out via the OverDrive app in 2019, a 30% increase over 2018. An estimated 50% of Americans over the age of twelve listened to at least one audiobook in 2019. Of those listeners, 74% listened in the car and 68% at home. Perhaps most heartening for publishers, 56% of listeners say they’re making more time for audiobooks, not replacing reading or other leisure practices. (Publishing Perspectives offers a useful digest of the APA report.)

Scholarly books may not seem like ideal candidates for the audio format, given their weighty topics, presentation of detailed evidence in support of complex analyses, and often elaborate apparatus—everything from complex tables and charts to extensive citations. Nevertheless, academic presses have been putting out audiobooks for many years now, typically by licensing them to specialized audiobook producers. And nonfiction audiobooks have been rising as a percentage of audio sales, from 22.6% in 2014 to 32.7% in 2018.

No doubt taking note of this trend, Princeton University Press decided in 2018 to start producing its own audiobooks. The press had been licensing its books to audiobook producers for about ten years with some success, but taking production in-house means having much greater control over the selection of titles, production values, and distribution channels. Of course, the press also incurs the costs and overheads, but receives revenue directly from retailers and libraries, rather than only the royalties that a licensing deal yields.

To find out more, I talked with Kim Williams, the head of Princeton’s audiobooks division. She told me they aim to put out twenty-four titles a year, selected from the forthcoming print titles and published simultaneously with the print and e-book editions. They don’t have enough sales data yet to establish any pattern in the types of books that work best in the audio format, but they’re betting on those that take on “big ideas” in science, global history, and economics and business, as well as professional self-help. (Publishers Weekly reports that the top nonfiction audiobook genres are history/biography/memoir, self-help, and “general,” whatever that means.) The key is that they all have strong narratives, rather than being (for example) primarily data reports or methodological inquiries.

The books will not be abridged, though narrators will not be required to read the notes and references (no doubt much to their relief, and ours too, but also an indication that recorded monographs won’t replace print for serious scholarship). Handling illustrations is a challenge; currently, narrators are describing figures that are essential to understanding the book. Stepping up to this challenge, Princeton has included some art and urban studies titles in its audiobook catalog. Some are sold with a link to a pdf containing the illustrations. As you might expect, the number of such challenges a particular book offers in conversion from print to audio factors into the decision about which titles to record. Kim says they haven’t done any math books yet, but she’s itching to try.

Princeton’s aim is to reach new readers, people who are already downloading recorded books but perhaps had never tried or weren’t even aware of university press publications. Industry statistics show that most audiobook listeners are between the ages of eighteen and forty-one. They are far more likely than non-listeners to have a smart speaker at home and to listen to podcasts. According to Kim, increasingly people who read a book in one format may also read or possess it in another format. Access and ease of use are key, not the specific format. Princeton also sees university students, especially those for whom English is not their first language, as a prospective growth market.

Authors have generally been excited and intrigued to hear their books have been selected for recording. Princeton works with both author-narrators and professional narrators. The advantage of working with authors is that they are familiar with any technical or unusual language in the book and won’t need to do the extensive pronunciation preparation that professional narrators do. But voice quality and the capacity to speak consistently and continuously for many hours, day after day for the week or so it takes to record the 100,000 to 120,000 words in the typical monograph, are the most important abilities. In many cases the press hires professionals who have the necessary vocal stamina and experience in recording.

Distribution is a crucial element for audio as for other formats. Given the costs involved in hosting and transferring very large files and the availability of distribution networks, Princeton funnels its audiobooks through services like Kobo,, and Audible, along with many others, and they are also available through iTunes. Libraries offer them to patrons via OverDrive and Hoopla.