Mastering the Allure of the Audiobook

Audiobook sales rose 21% in U.S. and Canada last year. Revenue in the U.S. grew 38% in 2014. And according to recent findings, the flow of sales and revenue are projected to continue through 2016. Audiobooks are the fastest growing format in the publishing business today, with users consuming some 2 billion hours of audio this year – that’s roughly two hours of content per day.  

Audiobooks are convenient, easy, accessible, but that alone can’t account for the radical shift in perception audiobooks now take in popular culture. Resisting the temptation to credit convenience and accessibility, a huge factor in their embrace is the familiarity podcasts and audiobooks have acquired in recent years. Like many new tech introductions, audiobooks were approached with a distance, skepticism, and dystopic nightmares of a zombie-civilians glued to their headphones. But like all modern innovation, heretic thoughts turned hedonistic, and the market became glutted with every genre imaginable – all at the tips of your fingers and ready for consumption. Now that audiobooks hold a familiar place in our daily routines (and we’re less worried about becoming brain washed zombies), there’s less stigma and less of the ‘book vs. audiobook’ debate.

Image courtesy of GoodReads

In addition to familiarity, audiobooks have gotten a helping hand from some interested creatives and some fat pockets. Quality of audio production has increased, partially due to budget and partially due to publishers roping in famed writers and celebrity voices to narrate new audiobooks.

This past year Stephen King released Drunken Fireworks on audiobook. Fred Armisen published a 15 minute Portlandia style skit. Richard Armitage gave a reading of Charles Dickens’ The Chimes, and Reese Witherspoon debuted a reading of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Image courtesy of The Savvy Reader

Getting the backing (monetary and creative) of writers and celebrities has done wonders for the industry, lulling new customers to iTunes store and GooglePlay to explore the vast universe of audiobooks. The sheer volume of listening options has increased exponentially, and sharability has made listening all the more enticing. Audible users can make sharable audio clips and exchange loved episodes through text or email so you never have to see your friends in person again.

As the snark boils up in me and the book snob comes out, it’s important to keep these figures in check. Despite growth, audiobook sales still represent only a fraction of the industry – a wee 3% – and a marginal growth compared to that of hardcovers and paperbacks. People are still reading, but rather than confining their format to books, they’re expanding to audio, using it as a tool to engage with books they wouldn’t traditionally pick up. Although I’d rather read Virginia Woolf by the book, I’m not opposed to having novels that operate equally as bricks, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for instance, read to me in the honeyed voice of  some millennial sweetheart on my way to work. Author Colm Toibin says it best in an email to the Wall Street Journal:

“I really believe in the slow solitary silent business of reading… An audiobook is a kind of performance, like a radio play. On a long car journey, I can’t think of anything better. But it doesn’t replace reading.”

Books aren’t going anywhere, but readers are expanding the genres they engage with and the means in which they engage with them. For the time being, books and audiobooks can live in harmony, and our dystopian nightmares can be kept at bay. 

Featured image courtesy of NPR.