the unlikely rise of audiobooks
Earlier this month, Audible announced a major partnership with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes. Mendes will direct three Dickensian adaptations, beginning with Oliver Twist, with an as-yet-unannounced cast recorded at Audible Studios and on location using sound effects techniques in Rotherhithe. Audible, started as an audiobook company in 1995 and bought by Amazon in 2008, is well used to working with celebrities – their Idris and Sabrina Elba podcast was one of the lockdown hits – but the Mendes commission, with its expected hit production values and A-list creative brilliance, feels like a game-changer. “Technology has come a long way in audio,” says Aurélie de Troyer, senior vice president of English content international at Audible, whose goal with big-budget adaptations is to create “cinema for the ears”.
This seems a long way from the days when audiobooks meant big Catherine Cookson tapes. Far from being relegated to the analog dustbin of history, the audiobook has been reconfigured for the digital age. Now you can listen to Benjamin Zephaniah and Cerys Matthews read Robert Macfarlane’s collection of poetry The Lost Words, filled with field recordings to mimic Jackie Morris’ original nature drawings, or Charlie Mackesy’s bestselling book The Boy The Mole The Fox and The Horse with a singing soundscape by Max Richter.
The rise of binaural technology (which conveys the uncanny effect of 360-degree sound) means that listeners can experience audio adaptations using it as if they were in the same room. One of Audible’s biggest recent sellers was a sonic reconstruction of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman, starring James McAvoy, Riz Ahmed, and Taron Egerton with an immersive and epic soundtrack. Listening to it feels like having an Imax theater in your brain.
Audio sales, of course, have been steadily growing for years, helped by the rise of famous narrators such as Elisabeth Moss and Stephen Fry, whose plum avuncular tones often draw listeners more than the book does. he tells. Their rise hasn’t always been a good thing either, as parents forced to put up with David Walliams reading one of his endless books on a long car journey will testify. In fact, children’s audio on Audible is a case of quantity over quality, with most consisting of incredibly popular mass-market authors reading their own rather bad books, instead of boosting adaptations.
All the same, while the market share remains relatively low – audio accounted for 6% of all-format book sales in Britain in 2020 – it has increased by 71% in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. The boom coincides with the coming of age of podcast culture, but also with the pandemic, which has not only imposed unexpected leisure on millions of people around the world, but has also pushed more and more more of us to live in their heads. Three and a half billion hours were spent listening to Audible globally between 2020 and 2021, an increase of 25%.