Amazon's Whispersync for Voice: The Ultimate Add-On

Navigating the target market of a premium add-on.

What if I told you I had a way for you to finish a new book every two days?

Maybe that excites you, maybe not, but that’s a promise that Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice can deliver.

Whispersync for Voice allows users to both read and listen to the same book using Kindle and Audible, without ever losing their place. The technology tracks exactly where you’ve left off in either app and will seamlessly update when you switch between the two. The combination of Kindle and Audible allows readers to double-down, reading a book when they’re able, and listening when reading isn’t possible, allowing them to finish books at superhuman speed.

After learning about Whispersync a while ago, I started to wonder how many people actually use it. I consider myself an infovore and have never considered purchasing both the Kindle and Audible version of a single book. This question started me down a rabbit-hole that prompted this post, anchored by my belief that Whispersync, while a novel idea in theory, doesn’t make much sense in reality.

There are three factors that I believe limit Whispersync’s adoption:

  1. Market factors: Whispersync’s serviceable market and available inventory make up a minuscule cross-section of the market.

  2. Format factors: Audiobooks and eBooks are two very different reading experiences better served for different material and different readers.

  3. Pricing factors: Whispersync is a premium experience in a market where the product is often available for free at the local library.

The following exercise is aimed at understanding Whispersync’s prospective userbase, and why I believe the opportunities for adoption are limited.

Quick note: Whispersync for Voice is an upgraded version of Amazon’s basic Whispersync technology, which allows users to sync Kindle eBooks across multiple devices [e.g., Kindle, iPhone, MacBook, etc.]. Basic Whispersync functionality is included with the Kindle app at no cost. In the following exercise, when I refer to Whispersync, I mean Whispersync for Voice.

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Market Factors: Whispersync’s Niche

Before digging into Whispersync’s market opportunity, it’s important to note that among American readers, physical books are still the most popular reading format by far. While digital book usage has steadily grown, as of February 2019, 65% of the population either do not read or only read physical books. That leaves ~35% of the reading population that engages with digital books as a starting point for Whispersync’s target market.

Within that cohort, there are two axes that further limit Whispersync’s adoption: access and inventory. First, we have to consider the total serviceable market for the technology. Fundamentally, in order to access Whispersync, readers need to use both Kindle and Audible. To make it simple, consider the Venn-diagram below:

While tastes change, and readers may switch between physical books, eBooks, and audiobooks, this simple intersection represents the people that have access to Whispersync technology.

The next limitation is Whispersync’s available inventory, which we can calculate by looking at the titles that are available across both Kindle and Audible:

According to the Audible support website, this amounts to roughly 60,000 titles. While this sounds like a lot of books and is surely considerable, it makes up about a quarter of Audibles’ total inventory, and barely a sliver of Kindle’s 3m+ titles.

If you’ve ever struck-out on Amazon searching for the Kindle version of a book you wanted to read, you start to get a feeling for how many books are in circulation. For what it’s worth, the total approximation is ~130 million titles.

To hone-in on the Whispersync opportunity, we have to find the intersection of Whispersync’s serviceable market and available inventory. This represents readers who use both Kindle and Audible and are interested in Whispersync’s 60,000 available titles. I promise this is the last Venn-diagram:

For simplicity's sake, let’s call this the Whispersync Opportunity. Fundamentally, the adoption of Whispersync relies on the taste of serviceable readers orbiting the titles offered. Unless, of course, readers become addicted to Whispersync technology and allow the available inventory to dictate their reading list. In the next section, I’ll expand on two reasons that is unlikely to happen.

Format Factors: eBooks and Audiobooks

While market realities inherently limit the adoption of Whispersync technology, format challenges might be an even bigger barrier. Specifically, eBooks and audiobooks are two completely different ways to read, and the material that works best for each format can vary widely. Part of our format-preference is likely informed by our understanding of how we prefer to learn.

Early on, most of us either inherently know or discover that we prefer a specific learning style. While there are different models, the VARK modalities are perhaps the most widespread and include: Visual, Audio, Read/Write and Kinesthetic. We aren’t going to dig into these in detail, but the overarching concept is that people learn differently, and should tailor their information consumption to the method that works best for them.

Recent studies challenge the legitimacy of learning styles, but that’s beside the point for this exercise. It doesn’t really matter if people actually learn better using one strategy over another, the important part is that if they think they do, it influences their consumption.

For instance, whether someone who self-identifies as an auditory learner actually learns better by listening to an audiobook rather than reading a book doesn’t matter - the point is that they think they do, so they choose the audiobook. 

While learning style may influence how readers choose their preferred method of digital consumption, it’s also important to think about the high-level value proposition underpinning each format.

A fundamental difference between eBooks and audiobooks is how each medium commands attention. While the Kindle is ideal for concentrated reading, highlighting and notetaking, Audible is better served for books that you can listen to while doing something else. This inherently weeds out more technical books, and books with visuals or illustrations in favor of books with a compelling narrative. This bias is reflected in Whispersync’s available inventory as well:

As you can see, the three most abundant genres available on Whispersync are Romance, Mystery, and Fiction. The interesting thing about these genres is each feels better served by one medium per book.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading a fictional book is crafting the characters and envisioning the world in your own head. Alternatively, one thing people love about audiobooks is the way enhanced production and voice actors bring the story to life. It seems counterintuitive to switch back and forth between these two formats.

Most of my reading falls on the nonfiction side, and one of the most important factors for me is the ability to highlight favorite passages, something the Kindle makes easy, even allowing automated email export of highlights and notes. Judging by the “popular highlights” recommendations I see on my Kindle, which identifies when a particular passage has been highlighted frequently by other readers, it seems this is a common thread among nonfiction readers.

It’s also one of the biggest weaknesses of Audible. Even with recent product enhancements, the best you can do is create a bookmark, which requires using your hands – nullifying one of Audible’s strongest value propositions.

As someone who highlights quite a bit, the prospect of being able to highlight while reading the book, and not being able to highlight when switching over to the audiobook would be frustrating enough to be a nonstarter for using Whispersync.

Maybe these barriers aren’t as significant as I think, but the bigger point is that there are practical hurdles to switching mediums for either use case. This leads me to believe that Whispersync’s strongest value proposition comes down to one thing and one thing only: speed.

Pricing Factor: The Whispersync Premium

After further refining the hypothetical Whispersync target market, we now have users of both Kindle and Audible, that are interested in Whispersync’s available inventory, and prioritize book completion speed above all else. There’s one more barrier to adoption that stands in the way of becoming a Whispersync power-user: willingness to pay.

What’s interesting about books in particular, is that most books are available for free at the public library, which makes the content table-stakes. For those that don’t care about anything but the actual words, the library is the easy choice. Beyond that, format preference comes down to personal priorities and willingness to pay.

The way Whispersync works, a reader buys the Kindle edition of a book first, then can add the Audible version for a discounted rate. Pricing for the added audio varies by book but typically ranges between $1.99 and $12.99. Here’s an example for Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s biography of Rolling Stone Magazine founder, Jann Wenner (a great read): 

In this case, the price escalates from eBook to audiobook to Whispersync. And while this can vary from book to book, adding Whispersync always costs more, typically between 50%-100% of the original cost of the Kindle version.

This begs the question; how much are you willing to pay to read faster? While demand is probably inelastic for some speed-readers, I’d imagine many prospective users would be deterred by the idea of doubling the price of the book just to finish it faster.

This leaves us with our final target customer for Whispersync, readers who use both Kindle and Audible, are interested in the titles available to both, and are willing to stomach a sizeable premium for the ability to finish the book as fast as possible.

While I’m sure these unicorns are out there, I haven’t met any, and imagine they are few and far between. That said, I would love to be proved wrong. If you or anyone you know is a heavy Whispersync user, please reach out and set me straight.

Final Thought

For what it’s worth, I do believe there are promising use-cases for Whispersync for Voice. A particularly strong use case seems to be learning a new language, where the technology can accelerate auditory and reading comprehension.

I also believe immersive reading (using Whispersync for Voice to read and listen simultaneously) has the potential to be super powerful for studying and improving retention in general.

Trends are also on Amazon’s side. Audiobook users skew young, and as AirPods become more pervasive, AudioBooks could be one of the main beneficiaries. There’s also the chance that future studies suggest Whispersync does in fact improve retention, in which case I would imagine Whispersync for Voice will see a huge boost in popularity.

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