Beyond the book: How audiobooks have expanded on other formats across publishing

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Across the UK audio publishers are joining forces this week to raise the profile of audiobooks as part of the #LoveAudio campaign. Each year the campaign brings publishers together to celebrate the audio market as well as the accessibility, innovation and creativity of the format.

At BookMachine’s recent #TalkingAudio event we looked at what was coming next for audio publishing, and the importance of experimentation in order to progress our market was recommended resoundingly by our speakers. Playing with audio as a format brings with it the potential to reach a wide variety of listeners and during the course of our audio month over at BookMachine the value in sharing ideas and publisher collaboration as a means of innovation and enhancing audio accessibility has been highlighted. 

Speaking to the non-profit audiobook service Listening Books, we were reminded of the importance of audio as a format for all. “For some, audiobooks aren’t an alternative way of reading a book, it’s the only way to experience a story,” says Amy Flinders. “Bringing texts to life through audio can make a world of difference for someone that finds it difficult or impossible to read print.”

With the help of the Publishers Association, we spoke to several audio publishers. The audio titles discussed in this piece are not Audio Originals (stand-alone titles that have been created specially as audio-only projects) but were titles that were simultaneously published alongside the other formats (print and ebook) and that were organically engineered as enhanced audio products that arguably carry a unique power of their own entirely separate from the other formats.

Author reads

Comedic memoirs are often on the bestseller lists across audio retailers and are often neck and neck with the other formats or outselling them.

Over at Little, Brown when recording Once Upon a Tyne with Ant and Dec we worked closely with the comedy duo bringing their infectious humour, warmth and affection that has characterised their 30-year relationship to the audiobook with improvised asides and spontaneous hilarity. The book had to be adapted for the audiobook as it contained integrated photos which the pair had huge fun describing. Recording during lockdown came with its challenges which the brilliant team at Strathmore Publishing overcame using specially designed, bespoke apparatus to ensure Ant and Dec were safely socially distanced while facing each other in the same booth. It was incredibly important that they could sit and joke together during the recording as it was an essential element in creating spontaneity, allowing them to go off script and for their infectious humour to come through on the recording.

However, Audio Publisher Sarah Shrubb was quick to note that innovation in audio doesn’t always involve big changes to the text. “We’ve recorded full-cast productions of novels from two of LB’s biggest authors, Mark Billingham and Ant Middleton, and worked with Garrick Hagon’s production company to cast brilliant actors such as David Morrissey, Robert Glenister and Steven Mackintosh to bring drama to the dialogue, while the author plays the role of the narrator to read the rest of the text. The result is a dynamic, action-packed audiobook that has all the drama of a play, yet retains all the nuanced writing of the full-length novel.”

The recent release of Seth Rogen’s highly original audiobook of Yearbook (recorded with a cast of over 80 voices) really highlights the power of audio as a hybrid format. “Why read these ribald autobiographical essays when you can hit play and hear Rogen himself reading them to you in his hearty baritone?” asked The New York Times, reporting with pleasure the “droll sound effects (flies buzzing around a rotting eggplant in Rogen’s kitchen),” and a backup cast “that includes his deadpan mother, his friends and a handful of cameos by performers like Snoop Dogg and Sacha Baron Cohen”.

Publishers across the UK have similarly found huge opportunity in creating unique audio products when working with comedians or skilled writers who are able to adapt quickly in the studio.

“With James Acaster we’ve seen phenomenal audio success and that is in no small part due to the format allowing the text to return to its origins as a performance,” says Hannah Cawse, Managing Editor for audio at Headline and Quercus. “With James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes he took an aural format (from his radio segments), translated it to text for the book and then back to a different kind of storytelling for the audiobook.”

Bringing resonance to powerful writing

Archival material has proven to be highly resourceful in bringing historical resonance and empowering an already important narrative. Kimberley M. Williams, Digital and Audio Publisher at Princeton University Press recalled working on the audiobook of The Fire Is Upon Us by Nicholas Buccola, which tells of the historical Cambridge Union debate on race in America between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr, and how they were able to get hold of the original recording of the debate for the audiobook.

“The debate had originally been televised, part of it is now available on YouTube, but the whole recording was never made publicly available,” Kimberley M. Williams explained. “There were various inaccurate partial transcripts, and the Cambridge Union reported that the original recording had been destroyed in a fire. We were fortunate that the author was able to connect with a former President of the Cambridge Union, who had acquired a copy of the original audio of the debate during his tenure. The author sought specialist help in digitalising the recording in order to write his book, and we were able to clean it up further to add the surviving audio to our edition.” In doing so, they were able to secure permission to include the debate on their audiobook and make it available to listeners for the first time – a notable achievement.

In their audio publication of Let’s Do It, the authorised biography of Victoria Wood by Jasper Rees, Orion saw an opportunity to uniquely celebrate the life of Victoria Wood not only through multiple voices on the audiobook (including key figures Victoria Wood worked with throughout her career) but they were also keen to feature Victoria’s voice, in some way.

The team worked closely with Jasper Rees to allocate chapters to readers. The book was ultimately recorded in eight different locations, with no loss of quality or continuity, with a stellar final cast list: Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Anne Reid to name a few joining the audiobook narration.

Jasper Rees had extensive access to the Victoria Wood archive while researching the book and came across several versions of ‘The Ballad of Barry and Freda’, the iconic song which inspired the book’s title. “With permission from the Victoria Wood estate we identified two different recordings from different parts of Victoria’s career, each with a different style and both deploying some of Victoria’s stand-up as an introduction, and clipped samples into the beginning and end of the audiobook to give Victoria Wood the first and last word of this wonderful tribute to her life and work,” says Paul Stark, Senior Audio Manager at Orion.

“It meant a great deal to have these much-loved voices narrating Victoria’s story,” added Jasper Rees. “They had all helped me to tell that story in the first place, and their participation as readers felt like the best stamp of approval we could offer to listeners that the biography could be trusted. Everyone we wanted said yes, and it became a brainteasing challenge to allot chapters to readers. What completes the audiobook, speaking as her biographer who listened to her voice every day for two years, was to be able to top and tail Let’s Do It with the inimitable sound of Victoria Wood herself.”

Working with authors

From our conversations with audio publishers, in order to create unique audio formats of the book a close relationship with the author has shown to be hugely important. Dominic Brendon, Audio Publisher & Sales Director (Online and Digital) for Simon & Schuster UK recalled in Skin’s autobiography It Takes Blood and Guts that Skin sang a snippet of the songs she was talking about ‘a cappella’ in each chapter, at once elevating the listener’s experience of the lyrics whilst bringing the passion behind her songs to life.

Chloe Rose, Publicity Manager for Audio at PRH UK, reflected on how the team saw a brilliant opportunity to expand on the visually stunning bestseller The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy; even managing to turn the audio into a vinyl record in June 2021. “In many ways The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse might not immediately strike you as perfect for audio, being such a visual print book, but we found that (the author) Charlie’s calming voice, the sounds of rural England, and the beautiful score from Max Richter and Isobel Waller-Bridge combined to make a calmative and relaxing listen that can be returned to again and again. It was recorded from a barn in Suffolk and there were many moving parts coming together to produce the audiobook, but we have seen it go from strength to strength since we published it.”

Laura Smith, Senior Acquisitions Editor at WF Howes, similarly expanded on this. “Many of our titles have included enhanced creative content or bonus material. In the past year we have commissioned original music (for Monique Roffey’s award-winning book The Mermaid of Black Conch), we have created multi-voice recordings, included bonus content and interviews, and premiered a new song from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, with more innovative projects in the pipeline.”

In children’s publishing, having multiple readers and sound effects on an audiobook can often result in a very special audio product. “Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay works particularly well in audio for children as it allows us to utilise incredible voice talent such as Sandi Toksvig, Reece Shearsmith and Rose Matafeo,” says Chloe Rose. “Comedians can use their skills to entertain and delight children, parents and grandparents alike, and on this audiobook our readers were expertly led by our author Adam Kay, who acts as a guide through the human body sharing his expertise. With the sound effects peppered throughout, the audio is a really immersive and cinematic listening experience.”

“We’re seeing more opportunities to push the boundaries of our audio editions”, Hannah Cawse added. “Hachette Children’s Group recently published Billie Eilish: In Her Own Words which is an audio accompaniment to a full-colour illustrated title by Billie Eilish. We’ve seen the option to listen alongside a physical book prove popular with Billie’s fans and makes for an immersive experience we’ve not experimented with before.”

Studio view

Speaking to Nic Jones at Strathmore Publishing, additional content such as bonus interviews and creative add-ons have been experimented with in audio for many years. Backlist titles have also benefitted from a refresh of additional content bringing new insights to a celebrated audiobook for listening fans.

However, the interaction between podcasts and audiobooks does appear to be an interesting one. “The audiobook of 13 Storeys, by Jonathan Sims (which we produced with Rachel Winterbottom and Paul Stark at Orion) was inspired by Sim’s podcast series The Magnus Archives. There are 13 stories, each read by a different narrator, whose main character lives in one of the 13 storeys of a block of flats,” says Nic Jones. “And the whole lot came together in the last chapter, which we did with full sound effects, and with Jonathan himself as narrator.”  The intelligent use of multiple narrators appears to have helped to round the concept out and to great success.


What really resonated from our discussions was the way in which audio allowed listening readers to not only read the book but to also hear the way in which the narrative was said. The moment when you’re reading a book and identify a thought, a feeling, an experience or a sense of being that you immediately recognise within yourself takes on a greater resonance and is all the more empowering as a narrative when explored creatively and sensitively through audio as the recordings in this piece have done. With technological advances and audio sales on the rise the future possibilities for audio appear endless and we’re excited to see where audiobooks and digital storytelling take us.

Louise Harvey is the Audio Manager at Little, Brown Book Group. She sits on BookMachine’s editorial board and is involved in their annual #TalkingAudio event. She’s in audio publishing for the thrill of finding the perfect reader for an author’s work. Louise was SYP London Chair 2017. Louise’s Twitter handle is @louiseinbooks.

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