the unlikely rise of audio books

At the beginning of this month, Audible announced a major partnership with the Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes. Mendes will direct three adaptations of Dickens, beginning with Oliver Twist, featuring an as yet unannounced cast and recorded at Audible studios and on location using foley techniques in Rotherhithe. Audible, established as an audio book company in 1995 and bought by Amazon in 2008, are well used to working with celebrity talent – ​​their Idris and Sabrina Elba podcast was one of the hits of lockdown – but the Mendes commission, with its anticipated blockbuster production values ​​and A-list creative sheen, feels like a game-changer. “Technology has come a long way in audio,” says Aurelie de Troyer, senior vice president of international English content at Audible, whose aim with the big-budget adaptations is to create a “cinema for the ears.”

This seems a very long way from the days when audio books meant chunky Catherine Cookson cassettes. Far from being consigned to the analogue dustbin of history, the audio book has been reconfigured for the digital age. Now, you can listen to Benjamin Zephaniah and Cerys Matthews read Robert Macfarlane’s poetry collection The Lost Words, replete with field recordings to emulate Jackie Morris’s original nature drawings, or Charlie Mackesy’s hit book The Boy The Mole The Fox and The Horse featuring a lilting soundscape by Max Richter.

The rise of binaural tech (which conveys the uncanny effect of 360-degree sound) means listeners can experience the audio adaptations that use it as though they are standing in the same room. One of Audible’s recent biggest sellers was an aural reconstruction of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman, featuring James McAvoy, Riz Ahmed and Taron Egerton with a doomy, epic immersive soundtrack. Listening to it feels like having an Imax cinema in your brain.

Audio sales, of course, have been growing steadily for years, helped by the rise of the celebrity narrators such as Elisabeth Moss and Stephen Fry, whose plummy avuncular tones are often more of a draw for listeners than the book he is narrating. Nor has their rise always been a good thing, as parents forced to endure David Walliams reading one of his interminable books during a long car journey will testify. In fact, children’s audio on Audible is a case of quantity over quality, with most consisting of bewilderingly popular mass-market authors reading their own rather bad books, instead of stimulating adaptations.

All the same, while the market share remains relatively small – audio accounted for 6 per cent of sales across all book formats in Britain in 2020 – it increased by 71 per cent in the first six months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2019. The boom coincides with the coming of age of podcast culture, but also with the pandemic, which not only imposed unexpected leisure time on millions across the world but also pushed more and more of us to live inside our heads. Three and a half billion hours were spent listening to Audible worldwide between 2020 and 2021, an increase of 25 per cent.

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