Commuters and tourists passing through Toronto's Union Station this week may stumble upon a dystopian scene.
Elisabeth Moss, star of the TV series based on The Handmaid's Tale, will be reading from the book on Wednesday morning. Author Margaret Atwood will also speak. With the success of the series sparking a reinvigorated interest in the book, audiobook retailer Audible Inc. is hoping to borrow some of that buzz. The event marks the launch of Audible.ca in Canada.
The company will now sell audiobooks on a bilingual website in Canadian dollars for the first time. Audible says it sold more than one million audiobooks in Canada last year, to customers shopping through its U.S. site (as well as its France-based site for French speakers). Canada marks the retailer's eighth international market with a dedicated e-commerce presence. (Germany was the first, in 2004. Globally it lists titles in 38 languages.)
"It's been a fascinating experience, trying to be culturally relevant" in each of those markets, Audible founder and chief executive Donald Katz said in an interview.
In an attempt to localize its marketing to Canadians, the company has signed on as the audiobook sponsor of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, including its award ceremony broadcast on CBC and its "Between the Pages" promotional tour. Scotiabank remains the title sponsor. It will sell titles in Canadian dollars at the same price as the U.S. site, an unusual move for the publishing industry. It has also acquired 150 new Canadian titles, including a reading of The Handmaid's Tale by actress Claire Danes, They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars; and Le mur mitoyen by Catherine Leroux, read by actress Julie Le Breton. Wednesday's launch event comes one day before the premiere of the Netflix/CBC miniseries adaptation of Alias Grace, adapted by Sarah Polley, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The star of that series, Sarah Gadon, has recorded the book for the new Canadian site as well.
Just as with other services such as Netflix, the rights deals for content differ somewhat from country to country; there are roughly 375,000 titles available worldwide on Audible and about 300,000 of those will be on the Canadian service. (It also offers other shorter-form content.)
"When we went public in 1999, we had only 3,000 audiobooks," Mr. Katz said. "This was not a category worth even talking about when we came into it."
Audible.com launched in 1997. The company was purchased by Amazon.com Inc. in 2008 for $300-million (U.S.) Its business model is ad-free; it makes money through both individual audiobook purchases and through subscriptions (roughly $15 Canadian a month here) that give customers one free audiobook each month and discounts on further purchases.
The service is a tiny part of Amazon's business, but was acquired to cement the online retail giant's dominance over books. In recent years, as Amazon has broadened the range of products it sells – and launched its Prime service to draw subscription fees from shoppers for services such as faster delivery – it has invested heavily in video content to sweeten the deal. Some Audible content is also included with Prime.
"Prime is the driver of retail; entertainment is the driver of Prime," Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said in an interview.
Audiobooks, to be sure, represent a minute niche in the entertainment landscape in which Amazon plays. However, as Amazon broadens its reach into the home with voice-activated service Alexa and hardware such as Echo speakers, there is a fit: While it is used by commuters, Audible also says more than half its customers do at least some of their listening at home.
Amazon dominates the paid market for audiobooks in Canada: Asked where they bought or rented their last audiobook online, 21 per cent said Amazon and 20.7 per cent said Audible, according to a 2016 survey of 400 Canadian listeners by BookNet Canada, a non-profit that tracks the publishing industry. When asked where they got most of their audiobooks, subscription services were preferred by 17 per cent of listeners, while 19 per cent said they mostly made individual purchases from an online retailer.
However, a good chunk of the Canadian market is currently devoted to free services. The same survey found that 21.2 per cent preferred to get their audiobooks from the public library; 28 per cent from other types of legal downloads online; and 8.5 per cent from file-sharing websites.
Audible believes there is room for growth: More than half of new members have never bought an audiobook before, Mr. Katz said. The company's own research, conducted last year, found that eight million Canadians had either listened to an audiobook in the past six months or said they would do so in the next six months. Globally, Audible customers on average download 17 books a year.
Audible competes with the plethora of free audio services – including the growing popularity of podcasts not exclusive to its service and audiobooks people can get elsewhere – by investing in original content. It has hired celebrities to record titles, including Scarlett Johansson, Thandie Newton and James Franco, and creates versions of books only available on its service. In early August, the company announced a new service called Audible for Dogs, developed with celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan. The audio service, which can be left playing for dogs when no one is home (on an Echo device, Amazon hopes), is meant "to foster calm, relaxed behaviour" – and perhaps alleviate the guilt of owners leaving their pups alone during the workday. And in May, it announced a $5-million (U.S.) fund for emerging playwrights, who can apply for grants to create one- or two-person audio plays.
"We have a lot of data scientists working to try to present things that are appropriate to your tastes and we try to create new stuff all the time," Mr. Katz said.
With the growth in smartphone use has come an increased importance of the mobile phone as a media device. That has transformed how people consume media and has helped to fuel a surge in podcasts. Audible has been advertising heavily in podcasts, attempting to capture some of that audience attracted to audio content.
Last year, Amazon launched Channels, betting that podcast addicts would pay to listen ad-free, as well as audio versions of articles from print publications, comedy specials and other short-form content. It also works as a kind of gateway to the Audible service: The standalone subscription fee is about one-third of Audible's price, and customers who like it may be more likely to take the plunge into the full subscription product. (Audible subscribers get everything in Channels as part of that service.)
"Someone is listening to podcasts or has the affinity to be in an online environment, and we try to get the brand in front of them," Mr. Katz said of the company's marketing strategy. "… Audio right now is very hot."