The Rise of Audiobooks

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Scarlett Johansson, who recently read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

It’s no longer a case of ‘Reader, I married him’, but ‘Listener, I married him’: audiobooks are on the rise, and are proving a popular alternative to good old-fashioned reading. According to figures compiled by the Publisher Association, sales of audiobooks rose by 29% between 2014 and 2015, and by 148% over the last five years. It’s proving to be the latest phenomenon of the publishing world, and changing the way we engage with literature.

After the heyday of ebooks and Kindles – both of which have seen sales plateauing and even declining – audiobooks are the next chapter in the technology revolution that has impacted on the way we read over the last decade. Innovations in streaming, download speeds and the growing sophistication of smartphones are the main factor in these changes. Books have become accessible to anyone, anywhere and at any time: at the click of a button, you can have an entire volume of works ready to go.

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Tom Hiddleston, who recently read High Rise by J G Ballad

The result of this has also been in a surge in the number of younger people downloading books. Separate research conducted by Hachette Book Group last year found that more than a fifth (21%) of those who had downloaded audiobooks were aged 18-24, and that 24% were aged 25-34. This isn’t a bad step forward for a generation often deemed to have turned away from reading in favour of the mediums of film and television.

There are also the practicalities that audiobooks bring over the likes of kindles and ebooks. Where hectic daily lives may limit our amount of precious reading time, listening instead enables us to multitask. You can play your audiobooks while you’re commuting, jogging or even completing routine chores. It means that these so-called “hyper-readers” can now plough through a higher amount of literature in a lower amount of time.

Part of the growing appeal of audiobooks is also down to the high-profile names that have been cast as their narrators. Scarlett Johansson’s reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Emma Thompson’s The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Tom Hiddleston’s High Rise by J G Ballad are all among the latest celebrities to brace your earphones. The effect of a distinctive or even ‘favourite’ voice can sometimes enrich the story we’re reading.

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Emma Thompson, who recently read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Perhaps most interestingly, this joy of being read to – a pastime which harks back to childhood – has placed the ancient tradition of oral storytelling at the heart of the digital age. We’ve rediscovered the enjoyment of being read to, and the intimacy that can exist between the teller, the tale and the listener. By somewhat reviving this old art form, audiobooks have enhanced the experience of reading and the way we connect with literature.

And the revolution isn’t over yet. On top the services of Penguin and Harper Collins, the Amazon-owned Audible recently announced its aim to become the Netflix of audiobook publishers. With plans to roll out a subscription service for podcasts and books featuring exclusive content, the audiobook might become a leading medium in its own right.

We often hear how digital technology is destroying art, diminishing the publishing trade and killing the object of the book. But it’s hard to dismiss the growing trend for audiobooks in this way. If anything it reflects the changing ways in which we’re able to enjoy reading, and the strength of appetite that still exists for it. More literature, more often: which readers – or indeed listeners – could argue with that?

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2 responses to “The Rise of Audiobooks

  1. Great post! I also enjoy audiobooks, but have found that it’s difficult to keep up with the story, if you are starting and stopping a lot and perhaps reading an ebook on your kindle. ~Sherry

  2. US survey:
    73% said they had read a book in the last year
    14% said they had listened to an audiobook in the last year

    It seems it is not quite the case. I doubt that audiobooks will ever be more popular than print books or ebooks. More people are visual learners than auditory learners, about 2X. Also, when people have headphones on, they tend to prefer listening to music. These things of course can change.

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