The use of audiobooks is increasing steadily in Japan, providing a boon to the publishing industry, which is facing declining sales of ordinary books.
Audiobooks already account for 10 percent of book sales in the United States and Europe. In the U.S., audiobooks, which started as cassette tapes to listen to while driving, currently form a market worth ¥160 billion.
In Japan, audiobooks as cassette tapes started in the 1980s, but were limited to niche markets such as learning foreign languages and listening to rakugo (comic stories).
People in Japan shunned bulky cassette tape players because they usually commute by train, said Wataru Ueda, chairman of Otobank Inc., an audiobook distributor founded in 2004.
“The situation has changed drastically thanks to easy access (to audiobooks) via smartphone apps,” Ueda said.
Otobank opened a downloading site, called Febe, in 2007 and the number of users has increased from about 2,000 to 180,000. The company now offers 19,000 books, ranging from business titles to literary works.
Otobank has stimulated demand for audiobooks due partly to the adoption of poets, as well as popular actors and dubbing artists, as readers.
Users often listen to audiobooks while commuting, jogging or doing household chores.
Audiobooks have a market of ¥5 billion in Japan. Given their market share of around 10 percent in the U.S. and Europe, the market “could grow to ¥90 billion to ¥100 billion,” Ueda said.
To capitalize on the growth potential, U.S. e-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc. broke into the Japanese market in July 2015 with its Audible audiobook service already available in countries such as the U.S., Britain and Australia.
As part of its marketing offensive in Japan, Amazon decided to use actor Morio Kazama to record all seven books in the popular Harry Potter series. Although the number of audiobooks offered by Amazon is limited by comparison with Otobank, it allows users to listen to as many books as they like for a fixed monthly fee of ¥1,500.
This compares to Audible services overseas, which in principle require users to pay each time they download a book.
“The market is expected to expand in Japan, which, like the U.S. and other countries, has a large population of educated people who like to read books,” said Misako Furuya, head of the Audible business at Amazon Japan G.K.
In April 2015, a total of 16 Japanese publishers, including industry leaders Shinchosha, Kodansha Ltd. and Shogakukan Inc., formed the Japan Audiobook Association to conduct joint market research and studies on the protection of copyrights in order to prepare for an expansion of the market here.
Pending issues are the high cost of producing audiobooks and low public recognition of them, Otobank’s Ueda said.
Compared with electronic books, which are produced by converting physical books into digital data, the production of audiobooks costs more because it uses dubbing artists and, when necessary, special sound effects.
The future of audiobooks will depend on whether producers can overcome cost and other difficulties and offer an extensive lineup of works.