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  • Writer's pictureAlice Marks

Listen Up. Put Your Headphones In.

The continued rise of the audiobook and why we should be paying attention to it...

The boom of the audiobook has undeniably transformed the way readers access and absorb books, and has created an exciting avenue for narrators, many of whom are performers and actors. Digital media has played an exponentially important role in the dissemination of books in this format to wider audiences of readers. Key players like Audible are dominating the market, offering subscription streaming services to keep their readers loyal. Ears are pricked.

To listen or not to listen?

There also continues to be a debate about the legitimacy of the ‘reading experience’; when readers are not physically turning a page or having the chance to re-read a passage that they enjoy of don’t particularly understand. Some critics cite research suggesting that our learning capacity decreases when we opt to listen through headphones instead of reading in print. But the way I see it, the benefits far outweigh the downsides. In an ever-increasing and evolving digital landscape, audiobooks are the accessible weapon to keep technology users (and importantly, young readers) connected to literature. Moreover, they are highly regarded as a way for people who struggle with literacy to access stories and books for people, and for those who live with visual impairments.

An expert in audio

Audiobooks are not only easy to listen to, they’re also easier than ever to create, thanks to technology and digital media. So says Gail Shalan, fulltime audiobook narrator/actor/puppeteer with credits for Audible, Audible UK and Blackstone Publishing under her belt. Shalan records her audio work from her own Ridgewood apartment, New York, in a closet she has built up with sound-proofing padding and microphone equipment.

Shalan has always loved listening to stories but had never considered making them herself until she attended seminar at Audible HQ in 2013. “I realised I could easily start telling stories and start making money telling stories – from home – with basically no barrier of entry.” Shalan’s recording process has been largely self-taught, and her work’s centralised presence on digital media programs and platforms has allowed her to grow professional networks with authors and publishers – as well as to producing content – while moving to different homes throughout the past decade, including the UK.

“We have these little media kits in our pockets at all times,” Shalan says with a smile. Audio media technology is making it easier for narrators and readers to listen back to themselves, she continues. I agree – I utilised the program Audacity during my own experience of recording audiobooks, which was freely available to download and contained functions such as the ‘roll-over’ effect, whereby I could re-record a sentence or passage of text if a mistake was made, without having to start from the very beginning of a page or chapter.

Audio addicts

The availability of the narrating medium for audio professionals and actors is mirrored in the accessibility of the audiobook format for listeners and readers. And they’re hungry for their audio. “These are folks who can’t get enough stories,” says Shalan. “I heard a statistic somewhere that the top consumers of audiobooks – the people who listen to the most books – are also the people who read the most books.” Readers can now listen to their books on their commute, or while they exercise or clean the house. The convenience factor is hard to ignore, and publishers are certainly paying attention. In fact, it is predicted that audiobooks will increasingly be included in a package ‘bundle’ when readers purchase their books and ebooks. Programs like WhisperSync for Voice, an audio companion to Amazon, now also enable readers to go from listening to their book, marking their place, and then picking it up on their Kindle or e-reading device to continue from where they left off. Readers can also listen and read simultaneously using the ‘immersion reading’ function.

So, what can we expect for the future of audiobooks?

In a recent BBC Culture article, Laurence Howell, content director at Audible, stated that original content is the focus for audiobook producers and publishers with a particular surge of new work emerging from playwrights, made exclusively for audio platforms: “Access to theatre can still be fairly limited, and I think a lot of playwrights are excited about the opportunity to reach out to new audiences through audio.”

According to Shalan, while the content of audiobooks may remain the same, the time we spend consuming them may be shifting. She sees the long-form narration trending out and favouring “bite-sized snippets that you can binge, like we do now with television”.

With global audiobook downloads taking yet another soar during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems clear that their popularity is far from waning.

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