Audible vs. Kindle: E-books Outperform Audiobooks During Social Distancing

Frank Ying Frank Ying
April 24, 2020, 5:18 PM ET #covid-19

As many of us cut back on real-life adventures, what better time is there than now to get lost in a good book? Recent data on Amazon's Kindle and Audible apps answer the age-old question: Are e-books or audiobooks better? Well, not really, but at least we can see which is more popular at the moment.

Still Using Our Eyes to Read

Over the past couple years, Amazon's Kindle (e-books) and Audible (audiobooks) have become good friends. They followed the same cycles and trends - holding steady through most of the year, surging with a wave of New Year's resolutions, and then tapering back down by Q2.

This year, Covid-19 brought an unexpected spike in mid-March. Having averaged around 26k downloads per day throughout 2019 (on iOS), both Kindle and Audible shot up by more than 100% to roughly 54k downloads per day on March 25th. Following the surge, Kindle has managed to hold these levels, whereas interest in Audible clearly dropped off.

While Audible held a slight lead in early 2020 and remains well above pre-pandemic levels, Kindle, on the other hand, was winning by a margin of 20% by April 21st.

Is Audible in the US Telling a Different Story?

It might look this way at first glance. Audible led in downloads for more than a year, even through the onset of the pandemic. However, if you look closely you'll see similar behaviors reflected here.

Both apps spiked in mid-March and even though Audible managed to stay on top, downloads soon pulled back near pre-pandemic levels. Again, we’re seeing Kindle maintain a steady stream of downloads at an average of 20k downloads per day - holding tight to their new levels.

One factor which contributed to their divergence was how they promote themselves. In this case, both companies responded to the Covid-19 by opening up more content for free, but only Kindle's offering was structured in a way that drove more downloads:

  • Audible started offering Audible Stories on March 19th. Free stories, available worldwide, but accessible via web - not necessarily a strong driver for app downloads.
  • Kindle began offering 2 month free trials for Kindle Unlimited one day earlier. Available only in the US, this requires a kindle device or app download.

Are Kindle and Audible Representative?

Audible and Kindle have long held the #1 and #2 ranking positions in the Books category, raking in the lion's share of downloads, especially with regards to published literature. If there are trends to be spotted, this isn't a bad place to start.

Examining the performance of two companies under the Amazon umbrella also adds an interesting perspective by factoring out some disparity in resources, access to users, and other competitive advantages. Promotional activities are aligned and, in some cases, even complementary (listen as you read e-books).

What We’re Keeping an Eye On

More time to ourselves means more time to try new things, but it doesn’t mean new behaviors will stick.

  • The New Year's Effect. Based on patterns we typically see driven by New Year's resolutions, it will be interesting to see where everything settles 3 months in.
  • Willingness to Pay. As mobility restrictions begin to be lifted, we expect Kindle’s 2 month trial to phase out as well. At that point, we’ll be able to see just how much promotions propped up Kindle’s performance during this period.

In the end, keep in mind that Audible's higher download volumes don't necessarily mean more people are listening than reading - just that adoption rates are higher. Broader studies on book consumption formats have similar findings, so the trend is definitely there: more Americans are currently reading e-books than listening, but audiobook popularity has been gaining steadily over the last five years.

Ultimately, this boils down to personal preference. As we do less outside, the big question is: how much of this excess energy do we want to exert on reading? The ancient two-handed book holding approach? Flicking a finger across an e-book? Or just popping in some earbuds and sitting back?

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