From July 2020 to June 2021, audiobook purchases in the UK saw their highest 12-month period on record, surpassing the previous record highs that the format had been setting basically every month since last spring. The rolling 12-monthly total reached 20m for the first time in April 2020 and hasn’t fallen below since, as audiobooks continue their path toward bookworld domination. At 6% share, they have a bit further to go before toppling print or e-books, but the format has certainly carved out its place in the book market, especially after gaining a host of new fans throughout pandemic lockdowns.

But one big question is, will those new consumers stick around when life gets closer to normal? Realistically, probably not all of them, or at least not at the listening frequency they may have adopted while under restricted living. According to our 2020 Understanding the UK Audiobook Consumer, a third of those who had started listening within the last six months (from when the fieldwork was conducted in August 2020) did so for either entertainment or self-improvement during lockdown, and for all audio consumers, more time during lockdown was understandably the leading reason for increased listening. 2021 results show that the newest adopters were still driven to the format by lockdown, just not at the same rate as in 2020, but more time during lockdowns did once again cause the most increased listening for overall audiobook consumers. So while some may maintain their listening sprees, it’s understandable if we see that upward trend slow a bit.

That doesn’t mean that the format’s adoption rates will automatically drop off. While lockdowns may have accelerated the audiobook boom, many of the broad patterns preceded the pandemic. Since we started this annual survey in 2016, the newest converts have made up the largest portion of consumers each year, supporting that there is an continuously expanding base of users. And further to that, consumers who had been listening for one to two years were also gaining share up to 2020, which shows a good number of people sticking with audiobooks beyond their free trials, with curiosity turning into satisfaction and then into habit. Even if some of the newest consumers take a step back as post-COVID life picks back up, recent history tells us that there are more waiting in the wings, ready to join the seasoned listeners.

Shifts in the leading barriers to more listening point to consumers becoming more accustomed to audiobooks and developing stronger opinions about the buying or listening experience itself, rather than negativity or ambivalence toward the format on the whole. Some of the largest drops when comparing 2021 attitudes to those in 2016 include fewer audio consumers showing a preference for other reading/listening over audiobooks, along with fewer respondents preferring their own interpretation of a book or just not thinking of audiobooks as an option. Accessibility and awareness have become less of an issue, whether in terms of finding audiobooks in general, finding books that aren’t abridged versions or finding reviews and recommendations. The few barriers that have become more prominent have to do with the narration (mainly not liking a narrator’s voice, but speed also a factor) and price – both things that can indicate consumers want to continue with audiobooks for the right price and right experience, not turn completely off them.

Despite those barriers, something else we were already seeing pre-pandemic was consumers listening to digital audiobooks more frequently along with audiobooks gaining time away from other reading and listening activities. The 2021 results show that 40% of audiobook consumers listen digitally at least weekly, up from a third in 2019 and 2020 and less than a quarter back in 2017. With that rise in engagement, audiobooks now account for 17% of weekly listening and 37% of weekly reading time among audio consumers, up from 12% and 25% respectively a few years ago. So while lockdown may have spurred on the increased listening for a number of people, there was already a long-term trend for it to build on.

The report for the 2021 instalment of the Understanding the UK Audiobook Consumer will be available by the end of the year and will cover the current makeup of the audio consumer base and the key factors at play in this rapidly moving market. For more information, please contact infobookresearch@nielseniq.com, and a preview of the 2020 report can be found here.

Data extracted from the annual Understanding the UK Audiobook Consumer reports as well as the monthly Books & Consumers data. For more information, please contact infobookresearch@nielseniq.com.