There was a once a time when I considered listening to a book as a cop-out. Why would you listen to someone else reading you a story if you were able to pick up a book and read it yourself? This was before I discovered the world of digital books – when I had not yet considered that a good book is still a good book regardless of whether it is printed on paper, displayed in e-ink, or narrated.
If I were a trend-setter, I would clearly be out of a job because audiobooks are reportedly the ‘fastest growing segment in the digital publishing industry’. In the US, more than a quarter of the population listened to an audiobook in the past year. And they listen to a lot: on average, fifteen books per annum. Sales figures are not recorded in Australia, but the US market generated USD 2.5 billion in 2017.
Audiobooks are a burgeoning business, but they are nothing new. As this timeline shows, the original talking books were invented for the blind as early as the 1930s.
So what’s changed to make the audiobook market boom?
Broadly, evolving technology has made the production of audiobooks easier and faster, building a wider listenership along the way. Accessing an audiobook is now as simple as opening an app on your smartphone.
The landscape is also ripe for audiobooks to flourish. Subscription companies like Audible (more on this one below) are key players fuelling market growth. These companies charge users a monthly fee to access a huge library of titles which are then available at a discounted rate for renting and/or downloading onto a mobile device. At a time when Netflix and Spotify have changed the way people access content, it makes sense that similar services for books should appeal.
Typically late to the party, I am just starting to give audiobooks a proper go. I’ve just finished Little Women, which I chose because this was the university book club’s pick of the month. I used Audible because it has several versions of Little Women among its 200,000 titles, and it offers a one-month free trial. After the deal is up, you pay $16.45 per month and receive one book for free, with the option to buy additional books for $14.95 or less. Other sites like Scribd operate on a similar basis (in fact, Scribd is a bit cheaper and also has libraries of ebooks, magazines and newspapers). If you’re looking for a more in-depth comparison between the top companies, I would recommend this list.
Browsing the home page of Audible is like browsing any online store, but there is an added element of discovery: listening to excerpts. I loved being able to hear the narrators before I purchased the book, which was especially valuable for Little Women as the first few samples were not compelling. This changed when I reached Tantor Media’s unabridged version, narrated by Justine Eyre. The narrator’s accent and tone felt suited to the setting of nineteenth century America, and she adjusted her voice well for every character, meaning each was easily distinguishable.
It is an odd experience to read a book without your inner voice doing the work of narrator, and I found myself wondering whether this was encouraging me to feel differently about the characters than I would have done if I was reading the book on paper. Overall, I think the characters’ voices matched their descriptions, but listening to someone else’s interpretation illuminated elements that I might not have otherwise picked up on. For example, Eyre adopted a whining tone for all of Amy’s dialogue, which swayed me to dislike her more than I might have done otherwise.
My only real complaint about my first audiobook was the length – a whopping 17 hours and 16 minutes. But I might be the exception here because the length of audiobooks is actually a selling factor for many people, especially long-distance commuters.
My first taste of audiobooks has given me an appetite for more. My next one will be The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan. I felt in the mood for a contemporary crime novel, and Aoife McMahon’s narration suggests a feeling of urgency and grit which I think will match the tone of the novel.
Already I can see a sort of audiobook addiction coming on. Perhaps I’ll soon be able to match the US average of 15 books per year.
Image by Michael Casey, used with permission.