Sound and the story: The rise of the audiobook

Audiobooks have become big business, thanks to a former writer with a singular vision

Simon Usborne
Friday 09 May 2014 08:46 BST

Don Katz enjoyed audiobooks long before he sold his audiobook company for almost £200m. In a previous life, he lived in New York and would go jogging in Riverside Park, weighed down by his Walkman and a bumbag filled with cassette tapes. “They would come in this big brown box,” he recalls. “Books would get cut to ribbons and abridged because the cost of the tapes was so high.”

Katz says he was listening to Ten Days That Shook the World, an account of the Russian Revolution, when he thought of an idea that, more than 20 years later, is shaking the publishing industry. Audible, the company he founded in 1995 and still runs after selling it to Amazon in 2008, is driving record demand for the spoken word, placing the ancient tradition of oral storytelling at the heart of the digital revolution.

Typically, an author gets an agent who signs a book deal with a publisher. The publisher then chooses whether or not to buy audio rights to the book. Before the boom, they often chose not to, or would include audio rights but not bother with the expense and hassle of making the audiobook. Now, everything has changed and publishers are racing to catch up.

Jo Forshaw, the director of audio at HarperCollins and a veteran of the industry, says up to 75 per cent of her titles are now recorded, compared with 10 per cent before the boom. Moreover, nothing gets abridged anymore. “It’s a bit like Peckham,” she says, comparing audiobooks to south London. “It’s been up and coming for years and now it’s finally happening.”

At Hachette Audio, publisher Sarah Shrubb is enjoying similar growth. “We’re finally seeing the audiobooks and books working together,” she says. “The phrase we like to bandy around is ‘format-agnostic publishing’,” Forshaw adds. Videl Bar-Kar goes further. Penguin Random House appointed him as its first audio publisher last September, and will produce more than 300 titles this year. Among its biggest sellers have been the newly recorded works of Roald Dahl. “I’m not sure ‘audiobook’ is even the right word for it anymore,” he says. “What is a book in the digital realm? I prefer ‘stories’.”

Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, the leading publishing magazine, says audiobooks are “following almost the exact pattern and trajectory as e-books in that we are seeing a massive explosion in response to a switch to digital. But it’s also more exciting because you can do so much more with audio – it’s not just a facsimile of the print book.” He predicts a pitched battle in the industry for audiobook rights, adding: “It’s a fascinating area for the book trade.”

Kate Winslet, who recorded Roald Dahl’s Matilda for Penguin, has joined Colin Firth, Anne Hathaway and Nicole Kidman behind the microphone, further enhancing the audiobook’s popular appeal. Veteran specialists you probably haven’t heard of (Scott Brick, Barbara Rosenblat, Simon Vance) fight it out for the biggest titles while, for jobbing actors, audiobooks have become a lucrative sideline. Audible trains young talent “by the week” at drama schools including Rada in London. In New York, the company is now the city’s biggest single employer of actors.

In his jogging days, Katz, who grew up in Chicago, was a writer, not a businessman. It was while studying at the London School of Economics in the 1970s that, almost accidentally, he became a roving correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine. He reported on the last days of Franco and genocide in Ethiopia before writing books about the modern American family and big business. Then, after a 20-year career, he had “what my wife calls a non-toxic mid-life crisis.”

Several things moved Katz, who is now a very youthful 62, to change direction, including his own fondness for audiobooks (as cumbersome as they were). He says he was inspired the great American novelist Ralph Ellison, his old tutor at New York University, where he studied before moving to London. “He was an absolute student of the character of literature and how it had evolved as the function of oral culture,” Katz says. “I’d always loved the oral elements of writing – dialogue that brings people to life. I wanted to celebrate the sound of literature.”

Katz also received in the early 1990s an advance to write a book about technology and the media. It never materialised, but Audible did. He bumped brains with an old computer scientist friend who was experimenting with data compression and flash memory, which had just been invented. What he saw as fundamental, undemocratic flaws in book publishing motivated him further. “I’d go on a 12-city book tour and couldn’t find my own book in the stores,” he says. “I was shocked by the profound inefficiencies in getting what people wrote into the heads of other people.”

Fast forward to September 1997 and Katz, who had founded Audible two years earlier, unveiled the world’s first portable audio digital player, four years before the iPod. The handheld device, advertised as “smaller and lighter than a Walkman”, included just four megabytes of memory, enough for two hours of speech (it would refresh overnight to keep a book going). It was clunky and so far ahead of its time that, Katz says, “people had no idea what we were talking about”. Steve Jobs did, and summoned Katz to a meeting. “He said he had a secret project and wanted to talk about it,” Katz recalls. When they arrived, iTunes and the iPod greatly accelerated the digital revolution, which, thanks to Audible, would now include audiobooks.

Gramophones were the first devices for listening to the spoken word. In 1877, Thomas Edison recorded “Mary had a Little Lamb” on his revolutionary phonograph, which he hoped would, among other things, “speak to blind people without effort on their part”. But it took decades before longer works could be laid down. In 1935, the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) launched its talking book service, which still has 35,000 subscribers. Helen Gunesekera, the charity’s head of reading services, says that even five years ago, “if you wanted to listen to a book on the Man Booker shortlist, you had to wait for months for an audiobook to appear if it appeared at all.”

Katz just about survived the dot com-bubble burst, and shifted focus away from physical hardware (his first player now has a place in the Smithsonian museum in Washington). But it took a while to transform audiobooks, for which the shift from cassette to CD still seemed like progress. It really wasn’t; the longest novels would still occupy 20 discs, or undergo savage abridging.

Many partially sighted users still rely on physical formats but digital audiobooks are transforming the market for many others – and the demographics of all listeners. Dominic White is head of publishing at W F Howes, Britain’s leading audiobook publisher. “It’s becoming an accepted alternative to reading rather than niche or something for the elderly,” he says.

Last month, Howes announced growth of almost 50 per cent to include the publication of almost 750 books this year. And, as Sarah Shrubb puts it, “It’s not all Agatha Christie and sagas for the elderly anymore – if a title is No 1 in books, it’s No 1 in audio, too.”

Perhaps the strongest market for audiobooks is lazy people who feel guilty about not reading enough. Publishers say we are not only easy to hook once we’ve tried an audiobook, but also tend to read more and longer works. Audible says its subscribers listen to 17 books a year on average, typically during dead time such as on the daily commute or while doing chores.

Katz says fatter books and classics that might be a daunting prospect on the shelf or bedside table are enjoying greater demand in audio form. Consumers also seem to enjoy the performance that is central to audiobooks. “Let’s not forget that one of the great pleasures of childhood is being read to,” Katz adds. “It is a warm and luxurious experience.” The art of narration, he believes, is “to create and sustain almost a seductive intimacy.”

Simon Vance can do that. The British former BBC radio presenter and now actor worked as a volunteer narrator at the RNIB in the early 1980s. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he is a leading voice in audiobooks. His works include The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

The process starts before recording with thorough reading. “Mantel makes reference later in the book to Henry VIII’s slightly high-pitched voice,” Vance, who’s 58, says. “I have to take that into account from the start because in my mind he had the voice of Richard Burton.” Some writers try to read their own works. “John le Carré is one of the great narrators,” Katz says. “Others try it and say, get me a pro!” Vance says great satisfaction comes with a good review by an author. “I’ve heard them say listening to their own book, it’s like someone else wrote it – they hear it in a different way,” he says.

Audible has transformed the industry, Vance says, but many voices on both sides of the microphone are concerned about its dominance. Actors report falling rates (they range from roughly £100 to £160 per finished hour) and worry that quality can only drop, too, in the audiobook boom.

Katz counters any such criticism by restating his writing past and mission to democratise the medium. Audible has taken that mission further with its new “audiobook creation exchange”, or ACX, a platform that pairs writers with narrators to record books that would otherwise still escape the attention of publishers. “I just used it for one of my own books,” Katz says.

At the bestseller end of the market, technology continues to transform reading. Publishers tend to demand straight narration, but in the case of the Roald Dahl recordings, Penguin worked with Pinewood Studios to add sound effects.

Downloading is now so advanced, meanwhile, that, in the US at least, if Katz wanted to go jogging today, he could buy an e-book on his Kindle e-reader, and get a deal to include the audio version. A morning run might come after a chapter of text read over breakfast. Step out the door with headphones in, and Audible’s smartphone app takes over, automatically picking up – with voice – where the e-book left off.

Katz says he tried for 17 years to work out how to synchronise text and audio between devices in this way. The breakthrough has also given rise to “immersion” reading, where young or challenged readers can see words highlighted on an e-reader as they hear them (neither service is available in the UK yet). Looking back at the bad old days of books cut to ribbons, Katz says: “It was the strangest industry but I knew the content was transcendently good when it was good. We’re talking about literature as performance.”

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