An update for Spotify’s iOS app released Thursday had a big change for its audiobooks vertical — and not for the better. The app no longer indicates how you can buy any of the audiobooks in its store, posing a major roadblock for its new business.
Now when you go to make a purchase, the app displays a mostly empty screen saying, “Want to listen? You can’t buy audiobooks in the app. We know, it’s not ideal.” There’s no indication of where you might be able to buy the book.
The update follows a statement from Spotify on Tuesday in which the audio streamer accused Apple of “choking competition” with its app rules for audiobook purchasing. It is worth noting that Apple also sells individual audiobooks through its Books app, which can be purchased in-app.
When Spotify’s audiobooks feature launched a month ago, users could not buy titles directly in the app, but they could tap a button that would email them a link to purchase the book on the web. Once the purchase was made, the title would become available for listening in the app. Now, users have to go to Spotify’s audiobooks hub in a web browser or through the desktop app in order to make a purchase.
At issue seems to be Apple’s rules around in-app purchases. Apple requires that basically all digital purchases, like audiobooks, run through its own checkout system and give the company a 30 percent cut. That means Spotify would either have to eat the fee or raise prices — either of which would make it challenging to compete with Apple’s own Apple Books store, which isn’t subject to the same cut.
It seems as though Spotify’s initial purchase flow — where the app told you a book was for sale and would email you a link to buy it on the web — wasn’t fully in line with Apple’s strict rules. Spotify said this week that Apple rejected two proposed fixes before it finally allowed this new interface for audiobooks. The Spotify app is usually updated weekly; this is its first update in over a month.
Apple spokesperson Adam Dema said Apple gave Spotify guidance on how to bring its app into compliance, and that Spotify’s update was approved once the changes were made. “The Spotify app was rejected for not following the guidelines regarding including explicit in-app communications to direct users outside the app to make digital purchases,” Dema said.
Dema did not respond to a question about why Spotify’s audiobook feature was approved in the first place if it was not in compliance with the rules. Dema said that Apple has no issue with “reader” apps — apps like Spotify and Netflix that offer access to a catalog of content — “linking users out to websites to sign up for services, or communicating with customers externally about alternative purchase options.” He did not respond to a question about why Spotify’s emails to users about audiobook purchase options do not comply with that guidance.
Apple very gently loosened its rules earlier this year, allowing reader apps to link to the web in certain circumstances. Spotify, for instance, can use an external link to direct users to sign up for a premium account subscription. That exception, apparently, does not extend to buying audiobooks.
Spotify’s move into audiobooks is an extension of its goal to move beyond music. With royalties inching higher, the company is relying on spoken word content like podcasts to turn larger profit margins over time. Earlier this year, CEO Daniel Ek told investors that he believes audiobooks will be an area of growth for the company. In June, Spotify bought audiobook company Findaway for $123 million.
Update October 27th, 5:20PM ET: This story has been updated with comment from an Apple spokesperson.