AUDIOBOOKS: FROM THE MARGINS TO THE MAINSTREAM

This article was originally published in The Bookseller, 23 September 2016.

Audiobooks are now an established part of publishing - and they are growing fast. In the UK, downloaded audio sales were up 29% year on year in 2015 compared to 2014. Markus Dohle, C.E.O of Penguin Random House, picked out digital audiobooks in a recent letter to staff as having "a significant upswing".

The Association of American Publishers reports that downloaded audio sales were up 37% year on year over 2014, during which time revenue from hardbacks and paperbacks grew by 8% and 3% respectively, and e-book revenue declined 11%. Amazon subsidiary Audible, by far the biggest retailer of audiobooks, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that its customers around the world are on track to listen to two billion hours' worth of programming in 2016, double the 2014 figure (and since it has earlier indicated that an average customer listens to 18-20 hours per month, that suggests the service has eight to 10 million customers).

When I started in the industry 25 years ago, I often came across the view that audiobooks were only for children, the visually impaired or the elderly. That began to change in the 1990s, as audiobooks appeared in bookshops rather than being hidden away in the corner of record stores, and the market was later transformed when MP3 players and digital downloads arrived. Audiobooks had clearly reached mainstream awareness in 2013 when the Radio 4 sketch show John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme had a running gag about the process of making one, and it is now five years or so since I heard someone patronise the audiobook audience with the implication that an audiobook is somehow second-best; a medium to be used only by those who are unable to read printed text (a group that is perhaps now only 5% of the market).

Guardian books editor Claire Armitstead wrote about this presumption in November 2015, contrasting New York Times literary critic Harold Bloom—"Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear...you need the text in front of view"—with Neil Gaiman's view, that Bloom's view is "just snobbery and foolishness...I don't believe there are books I've never 'read' because I have only heard them, or poems I've not experienced because I've only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can't), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it."

I am firmly of the Gaiman view and our audio narrators endorse it, too. Actor Samantha Bond, recently at Strathmore to record the new Bridget Jones book, told me what her father, also an actor, said to her when she first started in audio acting: "Create the world in your head. Then all you have to do is tell the truth. You will draw the listener in and establish an emotional connection." Actor Allan Corduner, with us for the new Anthony Horowitz, observes: "I love going into worlds of make-believe and then finding a way of lifting them off the page to the listener."

REACHING OUT

E-book sales seem to have stalled, yet audio goes from strength to strength. That might be because an audiobook is the same experience however it is supplied: a matter of sound waves reaching the eardrum. How they get there is irrelevant to the experience. In contrast, reading text by scrolling through an e-book is very different from turning the pages of a printed book, and the retention of information is affected by reflow and the impossibility of rapid flicking between pages marked by Post-It notes or fingers. Audiobooks are reaching a whole new audience for content that printed books do not reach: some Millennials are choosing Audible subscriptions for Christmas, but shunning Kindles.

Until recently, only a minority of a publisher's print list would reach audio form. But the possibility of an audio version is now considered a standard part of the publishing process at most major companies. It is very clear to us at Strathmore that we are producing in a far wider range of genres than a few years back for our long-term clients like Orion, Little, Brown or Pan Macmillan. I note that in the past year, HarperCollins has publicly stated its commitment to release every feasible print title as audio; PRH UK has unified its audio lists into a standalone division; Audible has established its own studio; and many backlist titles (e.g. the whole Georges Simenon canon) are being systematically recorded. Authors and listeners appreciate this greater choice. More titles are accessible for all. 

This rapid growth has brought opportunities for all in the audio production chain: studios, producers, readers, editors. However, the diversity of titles has somewhat broken down norms and expectations about fees payable to those involved in the process. As with printed books, budgets need to be matched to expected markets. There is certainly no direct relationship between budget and quality, but some audio does seem to be produced as a commodity rather than with bespoke craftsmanship. Rachel Redford, who has reviewed audio for more than 20 years (for the Observer and Spectator), told me: "I find many wonderful recordings around now, and some impressive new readers, but I have noticed that as the sheet number of titles grows, the narration of some is merely adequate. And mispronunciations—analogous to typos in a printed book—are too frequent."

Naxos Audiobooks has been producing unabridged titles for 22 years, including a War and Peace and a 116-hour version of Samuel Pepys' diary. M.D. Anthony Anderson is very positive about the industry, but shares concerns: "The future looks brighter than ever. Much of the growth in sales is coming from digital platforms, but the CD business is proving remarkably resilient for us. More and more audio content is coming onto the market, and that has to be good for growing the audience, but I do see a potential risk of an overall deterioration in quality given the increase in self-produced home recordings. Quality is especially important for Naxos as a specialist in the classics, and we are heartened to see more and more people choosing to access the great works of world literature through our recordings."

Ali Muirden, founder of audio publisher Creative Content, one-time head of Macmillan Audio and co-programmer of the Audiobook Revolution strand at this year's FutureBook Conference, says: "I think it'd be very interesting to look closely at the correlation between the quality of production and the sales of audio titles. It's so important that sound clips—the 'shop window' for audio—are good. If I listen to a clip and the sound is poor, it stops me purchasing."

Very few experienced audio readers do first-class recordings on their own. Those I have asked about it mostly feel that they "need someone to read to". A producer is a "first listener", someone to respond to and reassure the narrator. Everyone involved in a recording needs general knowledge and to develop a sense for Rumsfeldian "unknown unknowns", so as to know when to check things. It is safer to have more than one person involved in a production. Another factor in producing good audio is working a space with appropriate acoustic. Domestic rooms are too reverberant and home studios are often too small, and give a "boxy" sound that is tiring to listen to.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Almost all audiobooks are unabridged now that running times are freed from the limited capacity of a cassette or CD. This has broken down the barriers between the retail and library markets, and enables library publishers such as W F Howes and Bolinda to reach both markets, or to co-produce with trade publishers. Release is almost always simultaneous with publication of the printed book, which means that the audiobook benefits from publicity at the time of print publication, but it also reduces the time available for audio production.

Studios must consequently be flexible in helping readers fit audiobooks around other commitments such as film and television, where schedules can change at a few hours' notice. Patch McQuaid, founder of ID Audio in north-west London, took this into account when enlarging his facility recently: "We made all our studios as near-identical-sounding as possible, so as to increase the chances of fitting in odd sessions. That helps readers feel understood and appreciated." Pleasant and supportive working conditions make for better recordings.

As publishers gain confidence, innovative new formats are coming into the audio world. Audible has created several productions such as standalone audio drama The Child, the likes of which would have been only on radio a few years ago, and I know of preparations for at least two adaptations of graphic novels as multi-voice audiobooks. "The line between audiobook and dramatisation is less distinct than it used to be," says McQuaid. "Audio needs to be fun to diversify the listenership."

It also needs to be findable. As the number of titles released each year nears 40,000, and nothing goes out of print, discoverability is an increasing problem. These are exciting and challenging times for an industry that is now in the mainstream of publishing. 

Nicholas Jones

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