A word in your ear… why the rise of audiobooks is a story worth celebrating

When I look back on 2020, audiobooks may not be the first thing I remember, but they will occupy a prominent place in the list of crutches that propped me up in this strange and perturbing year. One of the first things I did when I undertook my own Covid-19 journey in early April – three weeks of coughing and night-sweats in the spare room – was to draw the blinds and put on an audiobook. In all, I got through four novels (all repeat listens) and Tom Holland’s Dominion (narrated by Mark Meadows) during my weeks in bed. I’d read all of the novels before – Carry On, Jeeves, A Month in the Country, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ and Cold Comfort Farm – and it was like having old friends with me as I coughed my way towards dawn, both the familiarity of the words and the intimacy of having someone’s voice in my ears a huge comfort at a frightening time. I even managed a chuckle or two.

I was not alone in this – audiobooks have been riding a wave of popularity in the past three years, and it appears that lockdown only intensified our engagement with the spoken word. A recent report by Deloitte put some numbers on the phenomenal rise. Global sales have been growing at 25-30% per annum for the past three years and will hit $3.5bn in 2020, driven by the US and China, which each make up around a third of the market (for comparison, global print book sales are a whopping $145bn per annum). Britain comes in fourth, accounting for a mere 2% of the global market.

Deloitte points out that it doesn’t appear that the growth in audiobook sales is at the expense of printed books. Audiobook listeners tend to be younger – in their 20s and 30s on average – and it may be that audiobooks are taking market share from ebooks, whose sales have been declining in recent years (Deloitte predicts that audiobook sales are likely to overtake ebooks in the next few years). The report also suggests that audiobooks could be reaching people who had previously eschewed books altogether, but were now devouring this new medium.

I contacted Duncan Honeyman, senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House and a key player in the firm’s audiobook strategy and asked him why he felt that audiobooks had done so well during lockdown, particularly given that no one is commuting any more. “Being read to is a really intimate and comforting thing,” he points out, “a human connection at a time when a lot of people are feeling isolated from one another.”

There’s also the convenience factor. “You can buy and download a whole digital audiobook in an instant so you can start listening immediately, and you can multi-task so you can listen on your daily exercise, or while you’re cooking or doing the housework.” It’s striking that a quarter of smart speaker owners have listened to at least one audiobook through their device.

As to what people have been listening to, Honeyman says that he has seen “a trend towards heavyweight nonfiction, with readers looking to spend their time at home learning about the world around them, with titles such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers both regular fixtures in the Audible charts.”

Illustration by Martina Paukova.
Illustration by Martina Paukova.

Sean McManus, senior director of content at Audible, recognises this move towards serious nonfiction, particularly when it comes to books that help people make sense of a sometimes bafflingly complex news cycle. “We’ve seen a surge of interest in nonfiction stories which examine issues of race, equality and privilege,” he tells me, citing Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Akala’s Natives and Afua Hirsch’s We Need to Talk About the British Empire.

One book I loved both in print and in the superb audiobook narrated by Lenny Henry is Kit de Waal’s My Name Is Leon. De Waal is a patron of the audiobook charity Listening Books, which provides more than 50,000 people in the UK who have difficulty reading physical books with discounted access to audiobooks. I asked her why she felt audiobooks were so important. “They are different,” she says. “They enable the time-poor to stay in touch with reading. It is a bridge for those for whom reading and literacy is a challenge – for example, you don’t have to know how to pronounce big words and you can gather the meaning from context, you won’t be put off by the size of a big book.” De Waal’s son, Luke, has dyslexia, and audiobooks have been a lifeline to the world of books for him. “Audiobooks help dyslexic and other vulnerable learners to keep up with their peers – my son could read all the Harry Potter and Michael Morpurgo stories and didn’t feel excluded.”

The last book I listened to was a debut thriller, The Girl Before You by Nicola Rayner. I tracked down the narrator, Lucy, an actor in Los Angeles who makes her living narrating audiobooks, and also happens to be the author’s sister (she told me recording Nicola’s book was “terrifying”). We spoke about how the burgeoning of the audiobook industry had provided new income streams for actors and had come at just the right time for her, as she has two small children. “It’s been a brilliant fit for me,” she says. “I’ve been able to spend my days with my children and set my hours to record during nap times and after bedtime. It’s given me some security in an industry where that can be hard to find – and a creative outlet. I really love telling stories. I feel very lucky.”

She has continued to work throughout lockdown, although recording from home presents challenges. “When self-recording, you have to wear all the hats: the reader, the director, the engineer,” she says. “Jumping between the technical side – did that leaf blower make it on to the track? – and the artistic side, and not getting pulled out of the story, is a balancing act. Working alone can be daunting. Am I on the right track in terms of tone, pace, characterisation? Am I honouring the author’s work to the best of my ability?”

I’d already read The Girl Before You in print, and the audiobook gave me a fresh perspective on the novel. It seems to me that Deloitte’s analysis of the audiobook market may miss something: that experiencing a book aurally is quite different from reading it, and that perhaps the publishing industry isn’t a zero-sum game.

When I think of my favourite audiobooks – Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker’s dramatisation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Juliette Stevenson’s rendition of Middlemarch, Sara Collins’s magnificent reading of her own The Confessions of Frannie Langton – I recognise that these are all books that I’d loved first in print and then experienced anew through my headphones. The success of audiobooks need not come at the expense of any other format, but rather it feels like we are all recognising that a good story, well told, is a balm in these fractious days, however it finds its way into our heads and however many times we’ve read it.

The Guardian

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