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Can Audio Books Be Cool?

I’m not going to lie – I’ve always thought audio books were lame as hell.  The disappointing nephew of the hardback; the ugly duckling of the literary landscape. They bring back memories of long car rides to boring towns when my mum would put on a tape of some Victorian period drama read by an artist’s rendering of Jane Austen. Invariably I would hear half of it and then miss some and then hear some more of it and the leaps in narrative would piss me off and the English accent would clash with the Australian landscape, and the cases for the tapes were ugly and would get under my feet  – a car accident waiting to happen. 

Plus, isn’t having something read to you a throwback to the time before you could read? I mean, how lazy do you have to be?

Yet for some incomprehensible reason, the audio book’s stock is on the rise. You can’t stream a TV series, get onto a London tube line or open a newspaper at the moment without hitting an advertisement  for audio books – always from Audible.com (unsurprisingly an Amazon subsidiary) and always making them look fan-fiction level sexy.

I haven’t seen many reports about audio book sales, but where I have seen them, they’ve been positive about uptake – increasing with less vigour than eBooks but just as steadily. The main point is they’re not falling, like printed formats are.

Weirdly, this rise isn’t to do with anything a publisher has done to push the issue with consumers. I mean… they’re not marketing them anywhere, and are leaving it up to retailers like iTunes and Audible to push them or not push them as they see fit.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t necessarily think publishers should be marketing them in a particular way. But it is odd that audio books are increasing in sales and proving to generate a decent amount of revenue given the ambivalence with which they are treated. It makes me wonder what would be possible if publishers invested some Real Money in them.

Just as strange, Random House pulled DRM on audio books as early as 2008. Is this news out of date now? Perhaps… but even so, why did they do that when publishers all over are still obsessed with the idea of DRM being the only way to battle digital piracy. Audio books don’t really represent a difficult target. It’s as though the parallel was drawn with the music industry and they saw the bad reaction to DRM, and then the similarity was retracted when publishers saw the potential for eBooks to eat into paperback sales and wanted to control it as tightly as possible.

I can see audio books going to same way as eBooks, honestly. They’ll be relegated to the back bench until a retailer starts taking an interest in them, perhaps buying up backlist audio rights, and then there’ll be a slight tussle which publishing houses will be slated for participating in (except for a select few, who will already have audio rights and will throw their heads back and laugh).

Then again, maybe they’ll always be the Richie Cunningham to eBook’s Fonzie so who cares who’s behind the wheel.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

Comments (9)

  • I’d suggest their rise in popularity might have something to do with the concurrent rise in popularity of podcasts as a medium, opening up the market for spoken word generally. It probably doesn’t hurt that, at least in my experience, several podcasts appear to take sponsorship from Audible, and run ‘try a free download now’ deals with them.

    • Not god forbid at all. Maybe I come across as harsh towards the format, as I don’t like or understand the appeal of it, but more to the point I am asking why there is a rise in this format NOW. Is it retailer, publisher or consumer driven? Is there pull from the market, or is the increase from people like Audible giving it a good wrap?

  • Interestingly I love audio books. I have two literature degrees, have worked in a library for years, own a Kindle (which is amazing) AND buy audio CDs – do you really have to stick to one format! Last year my son – who was driving up and own the motorway for work – loaned a Penguin Classics literature pack of CDs (10 books in all including Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations etc). My son was never a great reader but he listened to every CD and took great pleasure from discussing the books with me afterwards – how wonderful is that? This year my youngest daughter (who read from a very young age and always was a compulsive reader until about 14) listened to Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird – both GCSE texts – because she hated the books, but after listening to both unabridged versions she loved the stories! I think there is room enough for all formats, after all storytelling is an ancient art which brings together families and communities, and listening to a talented actor reading a possibly difficult text is a fantastic and enlightening experience. Also if audio books can reach a new audience of non-readers or help a person understand more fully a GCSE or A Level book then it’s got to be a good thing surely…

    • Absolutely there’s room for all formats. I’ve always (personally) had a stigma against them for one reason or another and I never thought much would come of them. If anything, I would have assumed they would become more obsolete with the rise in eBooks and so on, but I guess it is as you say a different market. 

      Probably all based on bad experience with annoying readers and not great texts. A lot probably depends on who does the reading of a book.

  • Personally I love audiobooks, they make a long walk to uni a lot more interesting. But I see what your saying, audible adverts are round every corner and seem unchallenged. But as ever its not audiobooks that have publishers walking up in cold sweats its ebooks.

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