I’m not sure that I know the answer to this question, so I thought I’d outline what I think I know, and ask others for their takes about what’s happened to LDS audiobooks.
I have the impression that the market for LDS audiobooks has faded away. Despite a relative revolution in audio, due to technology, LDS spoken-word audio materials are somewhat difficult to come by and not a bit part of the market. Deseret Book seems to be the only producer and, for downloads, the only place to purchase.
This wasn’t always the case. In the late 1970s and early 80s, following on the heels of the introduction of the Sony Walkman, a burgeoning market for LDS books on tape developed, led by Covenant Communications, which pioneered the format for the LDS market. Customers could purchase classic conference talks, BYU Education Week presentations, and various kinds of works of fiction. I recall going into some LDS bookstores at that time and seeing an entire wall full of audio materials on display.
Somehow the attention to audiobooks that I saw then has disappeared. I know that there are still audiobooks produced for the LDS audience, but relatively few compared to the current number of books being published. And the few audiobooks produced now don’t seem to get the emphasis in LDS stores that audiobooks once did. I suspect that the reason has to do with the changes in the technology used for audiobooks, and the resulting changes in customer expectations.
After the boost that the walkman gave audiobooks. I believe technology has had a significant effect on audiobooks. The walkman was succeeded by portable CD players. In the 1990s came mp3 players and the Internet, leading to the rise of audible.com and sites that distribute mp3 and other audio files. In the past decade we’ve seen the rise of the ipod and its cousins and competitors, leading to the itunes store. And smartphones in a huge variety have provided even more ways to consume audiobooks. For many people, its somewhat difficult to know where to go to get audiobooks (let alone those that are LDS), and with some devices its even hard to know how to get the audiobook onto the device so that it can be heard.
In all of this, LDS works seem to have been lost. Although Covenant was the audiobook pioneer in the LDS market, it did not specialize in audiobooks, instead also selling printed books and other products. And instead of relying on a specialized producer to prepare and market audiobooks based on their products, Deseret Book and other LDS market publishers (such as Bookcraft), developed their own inhouse capability to produce audiobooks. But since these were sidelines instead of core functions of these book publishers, when the move to mp3 files occurred, I suspect that these publishers had difficulty making the switch and providing downloadable audiobooks in a way that they could be added to the devices then current. As near as I can tell, Deseret Book (which in the ensuing years purchased both Bookcraft and Covenant, two of its erstwhile audiobook competitors) is currently the only publisher of LDS audiobooks, and the only way to download mp3 files of these titles is through Deseret Book’s website. Deseret Book’s audiobooks do not appear in the catalogs of either audible.com or itunes.
I don’t want to imply that the fact that LDS audiobooks aren’t available on itunes or audible is somehow Deseret Book’s fault. Neither itunes nor audible is known for making it easy for small providers to participate in their online distribution systems (unlike audible’s current parent company, Amazon.com, which makes it easy for almost every book publisher to sell their wares through the giant bookseller). As a result, on audible.com or itunes.com, the only results you get when searching for “Mormon” or “LDS” are the handful of general market titles in which Mormons are a subject–things like Jeff Benedict’s The Mormon Way of Doing Business and Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.
Of course, there are many Mormon spoken word audio files available for free — General Conference talks, LDS Church-provided audio files, BYU’s audio materials and many files produced by third parties. But very little, aside from a few podcasts, is available through audible and itunes, where many consumers look first.
I’m not quite sure where this leaves the LDS market. I believe that we should have Mormon audiobooks available, but I have no idea where they should be distributed. Perhaps there is now room for an audiobook specialist company in the LDS market, someone who can specialize in producing audiobooks for Mormons and who knows how to effectively distribute them–perhaps even get them into itunes and audible.
In any case, if my understanding of what happened to LDS audiobooks is correct, then the their decline may be an example of what technology can do to a niche market, and what the LDS market as a whole might face if we don’t work better with the general market.