ONE PRESBYTERIAN church in Newark, New Jersey, has taken many forms. Built in 1810-11, it was one of the city’s most imposing buildings before it was destroyed by a fire in 1930. When it was rebuilt, architects opted for a Gothic style, with vaulted stone ceilings and exquisite stained-glass windows. But in 1995 the congregation was dissolved and the property fell into disrepair. In 2019 the edifice was resurrected once again, this time as the “Innovation Cathedral” for Audible, an audiobook and podcast firm.
The historic site is now an office for hundreds of Audible employees. In some ways the new building, as a combination of old forms and modern sensibilities, is an apt visual metaphor for the audiobook itself. “Talking Book” programmes were first developed nearly a century ago, in the 1930s, when both the American Foundation for the Blind and the Royal National Institute of Blind People in Britain recognised that such diversions might help soldiers who had been visually impaired in the first world war. Early recordings included passages from the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays. Since then, audiobooks have passed from vinyl to cassette to CD and to digital files. They are increasingly experimental in form as well as content.
The sector enjoyed double-digit annual growth in sales between 2011 and 2020 in America and between 2014 and 2020 in Britain. (Figures for 2021 have not yet been released.) In 2020 there was a 39% year-on-year increase in the number of audiobooks published in America. Publishers suggest the pandemic has bolstered this increasing popularity, as a form of entertainment that is readily available at home yet doesn’t require screen time. Audible, which reaches 180 countries, says it saw a 25% spike in listening hours between 2020 and 2021, to a total listening time of 3.4bn hours. The format is appealing to new demographic groups, too, including younger male listeners—whom the publishing industry has traditionally found it hard to engage.
Celebrity narrators have played a role in audiobooks’ popularity. Elisabeth Moss, star of the hit television series “The Handmaid’s Tale”, lent her voice to an audiobook recording of Margaret Atwood’s novel. Richard Armitage has recently narrated “Grapes of Wrath” and Thandiwe Newton bravely took on 60 hours of “War and Peace”. But producers have become bolder, too. Historically, publishers had a clear idea of what would make for a good audiobook (usually crime capers, family sagas and star autobiographies). Now, according to Richard Lennon, audio publisher at Penguin Random House, “almost anything is up for discussion”.
Charlie Mackesy’s hit book, “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse”, was an interesting challenge as an illustrated volume with few words. When it was adapted, the dialogue was developed and descriptions of each drawing were provided; lilting music by Max Richter and Isobel Waller-Bridge provides an accompaniment. Mr Mackesy describes the experience of listening to it as like “seeing with your ears”. An audio version of “The Lost Words”, a nature book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, used field recordings to complement its poems, rather than the drawings in the original publication.
Clever sound design can also mimic the subjectivity of perspective in novels and other forms of writing. In “Descent”, a haunting play developed for Audible, the listener can, like the protagonist, hear things the other characters cannot. This creates what Natalie Abrahami, the director, describes as “the sense of the paranormal being normal to the person who’s experiencing it”. In “Sour Hall”—another Audible production—a short story by Naomi Booth is adapted by Laura Kirwan-Ashman into an immersive six-part horror series. Both works were made using binaural recording techniques, which produce the effect of 360-degree sound, especially when heard through headphones.
The innovative audiobooks of recent years reflect an increasingly open approach to genre and the boundaries between audio and print. James Felton’s “The Year That Was 2021”, a witty recap of the year’s news stories, was released by Hachette in December in an audio-only format. Rumaan Alam’s “There Are Flowers in Ohio: A Short Story” was written specifically for audio as part of Audible’s “Original Stories” collection. Hosting audiobooks alongside other content, Audible blurs the lines between audiobook and podcast, audiobook and audio drama, and even between audio and theatre (one initiative involves staging productions off-Broadway before recording them; another works with young British playwrights via the National Theatre).
A future development will be audiobooks created with the help of artificial intelligence. Companies including Speechki and DeepZen are developing synthetic narration as a cheaper, faster alternative to human-narrated books. Speechki has voices in 77 languages; DeepZen has licensed the voice of Edward Herrmann, an actor who died in 2014, and is using it to create new audiobooks. Arguing that only a small percentage of the books printed each year are turned into audiobooks, Speechki claims that synthetic voiceovers provide publishers with cost-effective ways to produce their backlist and could prove particularly useful for technical or academic books. Hachette says it is investigating AI narration for some titles.
Publishers emphasise the continued value of the customary audiobook, read by a single narrator, as well as its appeal to listeners. (Many youngish adults recall with fondness Stephen Fry’s rendition of the “Harry Potter” books.) Yet the reason modern iterations impress is that they draw from a well of 21st-century technological innovation and creativity alongside a venerable tradition of oral storytelling. ■