3 Questions for OverDrive’s Steven Rosato on Audiobooks in Academic Libraries

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Last year, I wrote a piece called The Problem With Audiobooks. In that post, I argued that listening to audiobooks is a privilege of the privileged. And I wondered if academic libraries could play a role in expanding access to audiobooks within our academic communities.

In my writing about audiobooks, I focused on Amazon-owned Audible.com and the absence of Audible as an option in academic libraries. After my post appeared, I heard from Steven Rosato, the general manager at OverDrive. In chatting with Steven, I learned that OverDrive is providing audiobooks (and e-books) to the academic library community. To better understand what OverDrive has to offer as an audiobook option for higher ed, I asked Steven if he’d answer some of my questions.

Q1:  How many colleges and universities are working with OverDrive to provide audiobooks? What have been the trends in terms of growth during the pandemic?  Is OverDrive the only option for academic libraries to offer students, faculty, and staff access to audiobooks?

Thank you Josh for taking the time to look into what is happening with Audiobooks that is specific to the Academic market.  Audiobooks have been growing unabated in use and sales for 20 years, but especially over the last 10 years.  Of course, being able to consume them on a smartphone and not needing 10 CDs changed things dramatically in making audio more accessible for the end-user.   

This article provides some reliable data on use trends while this next link shows the expected continued growth for audio in terms of sales.  Pre-pandemic, schools were interested in Audio as an alternative format to make content more accessible to more students.  The major trend we have seen is that audio as a format continues to outperform other content in terms of use, and that is by a wide margin. 

Most universities have 5 to 6 times as many ebooks as they do audiobooks and yet, audio is circ’d at nearly the same rate despite there being so many more ebooks in terms of both selection and availability.  That disparity in what is available in audio vs. ebook is a function that audio is expensive to produce and roughly only 10% of published titles get converted to audio, there is always going to be a lot more to choose from in ebooks or print vs. audio.  That is an anecdotal estimate on my part, but based on what I know is available. 

Both EBSCO and ProQuest have audiobooks in their offerings but with OverDrive, we have so much more trade-type (popular) content and our Libby app is the highest-rated app for libraries and schools, and it makes audio accessible and easy to discover in a school’s collection.  OverDrive has more than 315k audio titles in our academic catalog.

Q2:  How does the financial and licensing model for colleges and universities to offer access to audiobooks work?  My understanding is that providing audiobooks for academic library patrons is prohibitively expensive, or at least very difficult.  Is this understanding accurate? 

I can’t speak to the user experience for other platforms, but with OverDrive, it is extremely simple and easy.  OverDrive collections are integrated with any academic institution’s ILS, so when a student or faculty conducts a search, the audio title will show up in their results.  With OverDrive, the end-user will be automatically authenticated, and they can either then borrow the title directly from their computer and listen there or use OverDrive’s Libby app on any smart device. 

Audio does cost slightly more than an ebook, typically $10 to $15 per title.  Publishers set the terms for the lending models, but the majority of audiobooks are available in perpetual access (OverDrive calls this model One Copy/One User, aka OC/OU), more of the NY trade bestsellers are available in Metered Access (MA) but those tend to be much less expensive than the OC/OU.  There are additional options for Simultaneous Use (SU) as well as Cost Per Circ (CPC).  CPC titles are a great option as the university only pays when a title is borrowed and 90% of those titles cost $2 to $4 per circ.  I have to note, not all titles are available in all lending models but credit to publishers for being flexible in offering multiple options that let schools use their budgets in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

Q3:  My hypothesis has been that even with the ability to work with OverDrive, that the people who can pay for audiobooks from Audible (and also pay for the synched-up Kindle ebook) will have a better listening and reading experience than what is available from an academic library.  If you can pay for an Audible subscription, you can download and listen to any of the over 200,000 audiobooks on their platform. How is my hypothesis flawed?  What am I getting wrong about privilege and audiobooks?

I would not categorize your hypothesis as flawed, but it is comparing a retail solution vs. an institutional solution.  Because I love analogies, I would suggest someone’s ability to acquire audiobooks is not too different than a meal plan.  If they have means, they can order GrubHub, Door Dash, or go out on a nightly basis to a restaurant vs. what would be available through the university at a dining hall. 

Doing the math, it is a lot more expensive and less practical to sustain, but still something you can do when there is something specific you want.   Audible is a fantastic option, but because it is retail, it is purchasing titles on a per-user basis.  You may be able to get Adam Grant’s very popular Think Again for $28.50 or even $20.00 thru Audible, but that is on a per-person basis.  OverDrive has that available under OC/OU for $66.50 and that can be borrowed by one user at a time for many years.  Therefore, the cost-per-use will be much lower than the retail model. 

OverDrive is obsessive about the user experience, and we are proud of the awards we have won and the high ratings we have earned in the app stores – which are on par with or better than the retail options Google, Apple, Audible, Scribd & Kobo.  

A prediction from me, sharing a point I offered when we last spoke, I foresee with AI and Machine Learning narration options coming into the market, publishers are going to be able to offer good quality narration and audio titles for any book for a fraction of the cost of what now takes to create an audio title.  You will see even the most scholarly journals available in audio – more formats will only increase access and availability. 

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