Storytelling, it seems, has come full circle.
Always an oral tradition, stories were designed to be listened to. As children we listened to adults at bedtime and during quiet time at school. History has told us that ancient folk sat around fires to hear the tales of gods, giants and heroes.
That all changed with the invention of the printing press and therefore mass production of books, plus the education to make readers of us all. The novel (novelty) took off during the Victorian era and we haven't looked back. Yes, there have been fears that books and reading faced dying out - from television, videos, bright lights. But the book has survived it all.
However, developments over the last decade have seen the sales of audiobooks rise exponentially. In the United States, sales topped $2.5 billion dollars in 2017, which was an increase from the year before. Michelle Cobb of the Audiobook Publishers Association stated that: “26% of the US population has listened to an audiobook in the last 12 months". Publishers HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House have all verified that ebook sales have declined by around 5% and the only way their digital unit has consistently seen profit, is due to audiobooks. According to Nielsen Book Research, the only really accurate scanning system for book sales and consumer behaviour, 59% of audiobook consumers in the UK started purchasing and listening to the medium in the last two years. In 2017, 42% of the UK market joined the audiobook club. Reflecting this trend, some books have gone straight to audiobooks bypassing print and ebook altogether.
Why is this though?
Troy Juliar, chief content officer for Recorded Books, suggested that a convergence of consumer, technological and demographic trends as a likely reason sales of digital audio will continue to grow. He stressed that listening to audio is becoming easier thanks to an increasing number of digital outlets for audiobooks in the U.S. and globally, as well as a proliferation of “smart speakers” and other integrated home systems from Google, Amazon, and others. The age group of 18 - 34 is the primary buyers group, with 72% of sales coming from this demographic listen to audiobooks on their smartphones.
Stephen Lotinga, the Chief Executive of the Publishers Association, said:
“The fact that one in ten people are now listening to audiobooks is testament to the incredible flexibility of the format...it is also a great way of making books more accessible. As well as providing a wonderful opportunity for people with print-disabilities to enjoy published products, audiobooks are a great way of removing barriers to reading for those who might otherwise struggle.”
Another draw is books when driving. Most of us drive on autopilot relying on our subconscious brain and our eyes to take us safely where we need to be, freeing up our listening brain. Ideal for listening to a story. On most of my journeys I like to listen to music but on the long ones I need something else. I'll admit that I wasn't keen on the idea (but what if I don't like the accent of the voice? I may get distracted). But last year I had a lot of long-distance driving and I finally succumbed. The narrator's American, high-pitched drawl ended up being just right for this particular Stephen King book and it certainly took some of the tediousness out of the travelling.
It's not just driving, either. Although that is the top activity, any task can be made more palatable if you just pop in your earphones while you mow the lawn, do the dishes, go for a jog, attend a boring meeting...
And because audiobooks are becoming such big business, producers are upping their game. Narrators such as Colin Firth, Stephen Fry, Nicole Kidman, Jim Dale and Dustin Hoffman ensure that the listening experience is top-notch. We can become hypnotised by the reader and totally lose ourselves in the story. Just like being a child again.
My only fear is that books may become plays. Some audiobooks have music and a couple of different voices to tell the tale. John Cleese's audiobook has a sketch from Monty Python as well as a bit of ad-libbing - great in itself but not really what I expect from a novel. Or perhaps it is a sign of a real storyteller because don't we all listen to different voices in our head?
Will audiobooks replace reading? No. Audiobooks are no threat to writers, publishers or anyone else. They will provide a distinct service and can work with the traditional print book. There may come a time when we buy the full package - print, ebook and audiobook in one transaction so the story will always be accessible no matter what our mood. It's all good.