Audiobooks: the Allure of Streaming Stories

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audio For a long time I would go to bed early — and listen to an audiobook. Way past the age where my parents would come and read me a story, I would relish the experience of being a listener. Being told a good story still carries some pleasurable sense of safety — probably precisely because for many of us it was a part of our bedtime routine as children.

The popularity of audiobooks, especially those aimed at adult audiences, has surged in the last fifteen years, and the supply therewith: nowadays, anything from great classics to the most recent bestsellers are available in audio format. While the growing demand has widely been attributed to advances in mobile technologies, one can think of other reasons too. For one, audiobooks are a multitasker’s best friend. We are more pressed for time than ever, and many spend hours in traffic or public transport day after day. Even if you don’t get a seat on the morning tube (and let’s face it, who ever does?) and stand squeezed between your fellow commuters in that canned-sardine fashion, unable to move your hand, let alone hold a book, you can still listen to a story with your earphones and let it carry you away from the commuting hell. You also no longer need to choose between a good book and going for a run, or doing the dishes.

The pioneering force behind audio storytelling in the UK was the Royal National Institute for the Blind, who wanted to make literature available to the blind and the partially sighted. The first ‘talking books’ were delivered as early as 1935, featuring titles such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie and Typhoon by Joseph Conrad. The earliest commercial audiobook company was Caedmon Records in New York, whose first release in 1952 was a collection of poems by Dylan Thomas, read by the author himself. In the 1970s, the wide adoption of cassette tapes created a retail market for audiobooks, and the trade kept growing with the introduction of portable audio equipment such as the Walkman. In the 1990s things really kicked off with digitisation, and the first website solely for the sale of digital audiobooks was set up in 1998 by Audible. By 2015, sales of audiobooks as digital downloads had surpassed sales in other formats.

Audiobooks, truly handy for the consumer, have also had quite an impact on the publishing industry itself. Over the last decade, with Kindle and other digital reading devices taking over, print sales of fiction have fallen — and with them, the publishing advances for most writers. Intuitively it might seem that the escalating popularity of audiobooks would only add to the blight of the printed book, but not so: audiobook rights have become a new means of supporting fiction and the authors who write it. Since the production costs of audiobooks are relatively low, an author is much more likely to sell the audio rights than secure, say, a film deal.

The surge of audio storytelling has also created a demand for narrators, offering actors an income stream between acting jobs. “The work is within our skill-set,” says actor and voice artist Aoife McMahon, “and you still feel you’re a part of a creative world and part of storytelling, which is what we do — in one way or another — on the radio, on stage, or on TV.” The rapid expansion of the industry has changed the nature of the work, though — and not necessarily for the better:

“When I started reading audiobooks seventeen years ago,” tells McMahon, “you had all the time in the world. You would have meetings with the literary publishers, the producer and engineers — and the pay was much better. Now, the budgets have been cut, and the time has been cut, and what it means is that the project can be physically really hard. You do marathon recording sessions, which is taxing on your voice, your eyes, your throat, as well as your brain.” Many of the studios are now located outside London, which means city-based actors have to travel and stay in a local hotel for the duration of the project. Audio narrators get paid by the finished recorded hour, each of which requires roughly twice as much time in the studio and the same again in preparation.

“While it is satisfying when you know you’re doing a good read — when there’s dynamism and energy behind the story telling,” says McMahon, “it’s not very rewarding financially, compared to other audio work such as commercials or games audio.”

This seems counterintuitive, considering how heavily an audiobook’s success relies on the narrator. A good reader can instantly draw you into the story and make even mediocre writing interesting, whereas a bad reader can ruin the text for you in a few seconds. According to McMahon, the key to good narration is doing the groundwork — both getting to know the text and preparing physically through breath-work, yoga, and vocal warm-ups. As for the rendition itself, the requests vary according to the audio publishers:

“The current trend seems to be to fully ‘do’ the characters, to play them as you would on stage,” says McMahon who personally prefers a more toned down approach — one in which the actor’s voice indicates very subtly the differences in who is speaking. This style leaves the listener’s imagination more room to roam — and the experience remains closer to that of reading the text yourself.

There is something universally human about telling stories, and the pleasure we take in listening to them. Since the dawn of time, stories have been told around the fire and passed on from one generation to the next, with the intention to educate and recount history, as well as to entertain. Other times, stories have saved lives by offering a means to escape — think of prisoner-of-war camps for instance, where good things are often left exclusively to the imagination. Of course, stories are never just a tool, but the very stuff from which our lives are composed. Most importantly, they allow us to feel, explore and understand others and ourselves better.

And what might be the ultimate secret behind the audiobook’s appeal? Perhaps it is the narrator’s voice, which creates a sense of intimacy, the feeling that the story being told precisely to you.

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