Silicon Valley suddenly seems to care about books again

A bid for your ears.
A bid for your ears.
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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Of the big tech companies, Amazon has long had the market cornered on selling and making print and digital books. Now a whiff of competition is wafting north from Silicon Valley heavyweights.

On Jan. 23, Google announced that for the first time it’s making audiobooks available in its Google Play store. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Apple has redesigned its long-ignored iBooks app, and renaming it Books. (Apple has yet to comment on the changes or when they would roll out.)

The two companies appear to be trying to glom onto the success of audiobooks. Though the book format is expensive and still relatively small in terms of unit sales, it’s quickly gaining ground in the publishing industry as a popular format in the car, on the train, or at home through a voice assistant.

“Interest in audiobooks is on the rise, along with audio content generally (e.g. digital music, podcasts, etc.),” a Google spokesperson writes via email. “But most importantly our users are asking for them.”

Google Play is making a clear dig at Audible, Amazon’s audiobook company, by loudly advertising the fact that no subscription is required to buy books. Audible, by contrast, pushes users to start a trial subscription.

Audible boasts that it’s the world’s largest retailer of digital audiobooks, but it’s also a formidable publisher. For the moment, it doesn’t look like Audible Studios is sharing with other companies, so listeners will still have to go directly to Amazon for some of its big-name books and big-name narrators, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, read by Claire Danes, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, read by the author, and Andy Weir’s Artemis, read by Rosario Dawson.

Audible does, however, have one nagging flaw. iPhone users can’t buy ebooks or audiobooks directly through the Audible, Amazon, or Kindle apps, as Apple takes a 30% cut of in-app purchases of books. Amazon seems to think this is financially untenable, leaving users with a frustrating interface that requires them to switch between apps, or between their phone and computer, to buy books.

Meanwhile, though news outlets have reported that ebook sales are slowing down, sales are still healthy from self-published ebooks. So if Google is able to push audiobooks through its assistant, or if Apple brings the (i)Books interface up to speed, readers of both self-published ebooks and audiobooks could be lured away.