The surge in popularity of the audiobook begs the question: is pressing play the best way to read?
About 10 years ago, I was given Peter Benchley’s Shark Trouble as a present. Ever since being terrified by Jaws as a child, I have been obsessed not only with sharks but also the man who wrote the blockbuster that inspired Steven Spielberg.
Even more exciting, the gift was an audiobook read by Benchley himself, whose cultured tones promised in the introduction to describe the writing of Jaws, actual encounters with Great Whites and his commitment to marine ecology.
The problem was I never actually got around to listening to more than the first 10 minutes. The book’s unabridged length filled no fewer than five CDs, which were housed in a less-than-compact box. My only CD player was at home and I quickly found that no one else in my student house wanted to spend an evening listening to the Jaws guy tell ‘True Stories about Sharks and the Sea’. I didn’t have a car (where American bibliophiles tend to listen to audio-books on long trips), and the only portable music player I owned was a cassette Walkman (Google that, kids). It wasn’t until I was able to ‘rip’ MP3 files from CDs that I finally enjoyed Shark Troubles on a flight to the United States.
My experience describes a broader trend. After years in the shadows, audiobooks are enjoying a boom – The Wall Street Journal calls it an “explosion”. This is news indeed when sales of physical books are in decline. The 19.5 per cent rise in audiobook unit sales last year is, according to the American Publishers Association, nearly five times that of the industry as a whole (roughly 4.2 per cent as of June).
“I think we’ve been told ‘this is the year audiobooks are taking off for about eight years’, but in the last couple, it really has,” says Tom Tivnan of the publishing industry bible The Bookseller.
Like most experts, Tivnan believes the rise is largely down to technology. “Streaming and speed of downloads helps, but simply that most people have a smartphone is probably the main factor,” he says. Similar developments in digital recording and distribution have resulted in sharp falls in prices. The Wall Street Journal notes that Stephen King’s lengthy The Stand cost US$100 (Dh367) in 1978. Today it can be downloaded for $33 – less with a monthly subscription.
This success story goes hand-in-hand with that of Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook download website. Set up 20 years ago, it had released up to 26,000 audiobooks by 2014. Growing at about 1,000 titles a month, Audible aims to bring its online library closer to 100,000.
Such popularity has attracted bigger names to the narrating feast. Audiobooks have made stars of otherwise jobbing actors like Simon Vance, Orlagh Cassidy and Ron McLarty. As the market and prestige increases, bona fide A-listers like Colin Firth, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman have all now read books.
This steep ascent asks important questions, not least: is the way we consume literature undergoing a profound change? Don Katz, Audible’s founder, certainly thinks so.
“We’re moving toward a media agnostic consumer who doesn’t think of the difference between textual and visual and auditory experience,” he told The Wall Street Journal. Bestselling crime writer Mark Billingham agrees, in slightly different terms. “I think people will always enjoy having a story told to them. It’s not something that happens often after childhood and it’s a rare and special treat.”
One can find these childish connotations troubling. Being read to undercuts one of literature’s great joys: namely the creation of an individual imaginary world. Readers decide how characters look but also how they sound. Handing this over to someone else removes some of the demands and freedoms of a good book. Whether you are listening to Harry Potter or À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, it ceases to be your Harry Potter or À La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
“Even a ‘straight reading’ is an adaptation,” says Tivnan. “It can be jarring if, say, your favourite character audiobook voice isn’t how you imagined.”
Reading for the ear differs from reading with the eye in other ways. How do you say italics? Do you attempt different voices? What about David Foster Wallace’s many footnotes? Do you include them in the main text or wait to the end? (The answer provided by Sean Pratt’s 28-hour audiobook of Infinite Jest is to leave them out entirely.)
One way to address this bind is for a writer to read their own work. As Tivnan notes, “I think that’s why the best audiobooks are ones where the production is sympathetic to what the author would have wanted.” Even this has its pros and cons. Eimear McBride’s gorgeous voice and sensitivity to sound and rhythm makes her A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing an audio-masterpiece. Julian Barnes’s rumble when narrating Flaubert’s Parrot suits his pompous character but doesn’t make for an attractive listen.
Another self-reader is Billingham, an actor and comedian before he hit bestseller lists with his Tom Thorne crime novels. The decision to read was, he admits, more by accident than design.
“There was a mix-up with dates when it came to booking the usual reader and I stepped in. I really enjoyed myself and now I always read them.”
As for the main challenges, he says: “It’s far harder work than I ever imagined. It usually takes around four days and at the end of each day’s recording I’m always exhausted.”
Billingham names dramatising voices as the real test.
“When I’m writing I’ll blithely say that one character is Welsh or Polish and then forget about it until I have to do the accents!
“Trying to distinguish between characters is a real art.”
Finding the right narrator is also an art. Publishers choose different actors to read the same book in different territories. While Stephen Fry reads Harry Potter in the United Kingdom, Jim Dale does the honours in America. Nor are big stars a guarantee of quality. Matt Dillon may seem ideal to read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but his grizzled, weary voice is a far cry from the effervescent tone of this young man’s novel.
Louise Penny faced a melancholy problem when Ralph Cosham, the award-winning narrator of her internationally-bestselling Armand Gamache mysteries, died last year. “When Ralph passed away we lost a great friend, but also the voice of the books. Over 10 years he fixed himself in people’s imaginations as the voice of Armand Gamache. They felt they were walking beside the characters, not as voyeurs, but as actual participants. People felt Gamache had died.”
Despite these pitfalls, more redolent of television than literature, the audiobook market shows no sign of slowing down. Industry commentators predict that its current market share of 10 per cent may rise to 20 per cent. Publishers are realising that audiobooks can promote physical books and vice versa.
Tivnan notes how Penguin Random House used Reese Witherspoon narrating Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as a trailer for the hardback publication. Stephen King has done something similar with his audio-story Drunken Fireworks, which was released months ahead of his new collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.
In 2013, British crime writer David Hewson became the first established novelist to write fiction for audiobooks as his primary medium.
The picture in the Middle East is less certain, but clearly at a far more embryonic stage. In 2014, Hala Salah Eldin Ali, editor of the online literary quarterly Albawtaka Review, boldly announced she was releasing the “very first literary audiobook in the Arab World”. Entitled This Is Not Chick Lit: Stories by Ordinary Women in and Beyond Turmoil, the book is an anthology, Ali has said, of “great authors who wrote passionately about women’s lives and challenges”.
Like the very first audiobooks produced in the 1930s, this one is aimed at blind and visually impaired young people in Egypt and Libya. Her project, which was partly funded by Unesco, has attracted some impressive narrators, including the Egyptian-Lebanese novelist and journalist Sahar Mandour, Lebanese translator Iman Humaydan, Iraq’s Alia Mamdouh, and Egypt’s acclaimed Miral Al Tahawy. Ali says she hopes to launch the first contemporary audiobook online store in the Arab world by the end of the year.
The challenge for Ali and the industry as a whole is maintaining quality both in the books selected and production values. But whether you listen on your phone, CD or even a tape through your local library, the 21st century audiobook has already changed publishing for good. Read ’em and weep is so last century. Listen and weep is here to stay.
James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.