The Rise of the Audiobook

PUP AudioOnce considered a format predominantly for the visually impaired, audiobooks have become increasingly popular in recent years.  According to Publishing Perspectives, “a six-year trend of double-digit growth in audiobook sales continues in the US [and] … audiobook sales [in 2017] totaled more than $2.5 billion”. In the UK, “audiobook sales are continuing to rocket, with a number of the biggest publishers in the space confirming they are still experiencing “strong double-digit growth” year on year” according to The Bookseller.

In addition to being a publicist in PUP’s European office, I am also a passionate consumer of audiobooks. This has let me to wonder: what has wrought this relatively sudden increase in what many had written off as a dying format, gathering dust in the form of bulky CD box sets? Well, put simply; the smartphone. After Apple released the iPhone, it was possible to have a library of fiction and factual knowledge in your pocket.

The audio industry has kept pace with others when it comes to digitizing content, and a vast array of titles can be downloaded when out and about in a matter of seconds. Most audio consumption is now done through apps, either by a subscription model where you get a certain number of credits per month (from companies such as Audible – Amazon’s audio platform and the biggest in the field – and Libro.fm), from public libraries where you can listen for free but may have to wait for a book (such as Hoopla and OverDrive’s Libby) or on an all-you-can-eat monthly subscription model such as Scribd and Hibooks.

Audiobooks are popular for several reasons: many people find it easier to ingest information aurally rather than visually; you can make your way through the complete works of Dickens whilst doing your weekly housework or other chores; audiobooks are great for driving, exercising and other tasks that couldn’t be done whilst reading a book. There is evidence that some people use the companionship of an audiobook to combat loneliness. I personally find that familiar audiobooks can be very comforting when travelling abroad alone, and can even calm my nerves whilst sitting in the dentist’s chair!                          

Under the leadership of our Digital and Audio Publisher, Kimberley Williams, Princeton University Press embarked on a new audiobook program in 2018, releasing our first in-house audiobook, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity by UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and narrated by Samuel West in October. This was followed by Michael Rosen’s edited collection of Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain and a handful of other great titles. One of the joys of audio is finding the right narrator for each book, and we had great fun with Workers’ Tales, casting a wonderful group of narrators, including Samuel West, the inimitable Miriam Margolyes, and Michael Rosen himself.

In December 2018, I was thrilled to travel to Bath to the recording studios of PUP’s audio partner, Sound Understanding. I was there to witness Juliet Stevenson, star of stage and screen and one of the UK’s most beloved audiobook narrators, recording her first audiobook for us, Why Nationalism by Yael Tamir. I was interested to find out how audiobooks are recorded, how a narrator prepares for recording, and whether some books lend themselves to audio more so than others.

I visited the studio on the third day of recording, just as Juliet was finishing up her narration and recording some of the retakes, which allowed her the time to speak with me about the recording process. Juliet explained that these days, they record using the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” method, which means that if you “fluff” your words, you simply start again from the beginning of that sentence or paragraph, and the producer will cut the fluffed line out later on. (This explains the many times I have heard repeated sentences in audiobooks over the years – clearly missed by less vigilant producers!)

As for preparation, Juliet admitted that she doesn’t always finish the book before starting to record, but she always reads the section she is recording beforehand, in order to prepare the tone and rhythm as intended by the author. Then, she says, you have to prepare the characters: “In my head I often cast them . . . I might think of an actor, or I might think of . . . the lollipop lady on the street outside my kids’ school, I might think of a school mum . . . and then I cast him or her in my head, and then it’s a very quick jump” from character to character in a big scene.

Juliet’s main advice to an author writing a book with a view to it being recorded as an audiobook was to “Think about the rhythm of the spoken word . . . maybe when you’re writing, occasionally pick a random paragraph or two or three, and read them out loud and see how the rhythms are working when they’re read out loud . . . think musically”. However, she did not feel entitled to give too much direction to authors as she firmly believes that the role of the narrator is “not to get in the way of the writer . . . not [to] impose your own response to the story in between the writer and the listener . . . You’re delivering it up for the listener. The listener and the writer are the two most important people”.

My visit to the Sound Understanding studios showed how much work goes into making an audiobook; from finding the right narrator in the casting process, to the narrator’s careful preparation and casting of voices for characters, to the careful editing after recording, and much more.

Princeton University Press’s audiobook program is off to a strong start, and we have a great list of titles lined up for audio next season. Kimberley intends to grow PUP’s audiobook publishing year on year, through publishing and licensing, with the aim of making at least 65 books available each year in audio. As a passionate audiobook listener, I am excited about this new chapter in PUP’s publishing, and look forward to consuming many more PUP books in this wonderful format.

The full interview with Juliet Stevenson will be available shortly

–Katie Lewis, Senior Publicist, UK