By Paresh Dave
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Alphabet Inc's Google introduced audiobooks to its online store on Tuesday, making its smart speakers and virtual assistant more competitive with Amazon.com Inc's Echo devices and Alexa voice assistant.
Listening to audiobooks is among the most popular nighttime uses for smart speakers, a burgeoning type of home appliance that provides audio streams of music, news and other data based on user commands to an embedded virtual assistant.
But Google's Home speakers have lagged Amazon Echo in terms of audiobook features. Amazon-owned Audible, the top provider of audiobooks, has not been supported on Home and other speakers with Google Assistant.
Google launching an audiobooks store widens the battle, which has also seen Google's YouTube unit stop supporting an Amazon product.
Greg Hartrell, head of product management for Google Play Books, listed subscription-less buying as the top selling point for the new audiobooks store.
"You can buy a single audiobook at an affordable price, with no commitments," he said in a blog post on Tuesday.
Audible offers one-off purchases, but promotes a $14.95 monthly subscription that includes one free download and 30 percent off further purchases. Amazon and Audible did not respond to requests to comment.
Google began selling ebooks in 2010. Hartrell told Reuters in a statement that audiobooks are being added because "our users are asking for them."
About 16 percent of U.S. adults own a smart speaker, according to an Edison Research survey conducted in late 2017. The firm in conjunction with Triton Digital also found last spring that 30 percent of frequent audiobook listeners had used a smart speaker to take in an audiobook in the previous 12 months.
Audiobook sales surged nearly 20 percent annually for three consecutive years, reaching $2.1 billion in 2016, according to the latest Audio Publishers Assn. data.
Thad McIlroy, an online book industry consultant, said audiobooks represent the only publishing category with "strong growth" so it makes sense for Google to challenge Amazon despite having a weak ebooks business.
Google-purchased audiobooks can be accessed through Google Play Books on the web, apps for Android and iOS devices or through Google Assistant in speakers, Android smartphones and "soon" cars with Android Auto, Hartrell wrote.
(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Susan Thomas)