Not too long ago the audiobook was a relatively unheard of form of media. In fact, so limited was its niche that NGO’s like Tape Aids for the Blind existed, specifically to promote the production and distribution of audiobooks to help blind people and those with reading difficulties.
The humble audiobook has in fact been around for almost a century, although it is only now starting to come into its own. Like so many other seemingly overnight success stories, the journey of the audiobook has been long and, dare we say it, storied. For those people who are only just stumbling onto this form of media and starting to appreciate its convenience and power, here is a quick look at the audiobook’s journey, from its inception to the hear (see what we did there) and now.
The first record of an audiobook being produced was as long ago as 1932. According to pbs.org, the original audiobooks were produced by The American Foundation for the Blind who set up their own recording studio to make records for their clients. Unlike the modern digital audiobooks we know today, or even old-school analogue tapes, the original audiobooks were laid down on vinyl records with each side of the album boasting around 15 minutes of speech.
There are no definitive lists that cover all-time sales of audio books, but a great indication of the most popular titles was produced by Audible in 2017 when they marked their twentieth anniversary. Audible is one of the most popular Audiobook platforms globally and given that audiobooks have only really started to move in significant volumes in the last couple of decades, their list seems like a great place to start to gauge the biggest success stories of the format.
The Audible list was broken into a number of categories which included Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ as the best-selling work of fiction, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ as the best-selling romance and JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ as the book with the most repeat listens. When it comes to South African audiobooks Deon Meyer is a leader. What is clearly visible from this list is that if it works in the traditional format then it wins in audiobook format as well.
The higher the profile of a book the more likely the narrator will be high profile as well. For instance, the legendary Stephen Fry narrates the Harry Potter series. In a wonderful talk he delivered at the Hay-on Wye Book Festival he told an anecdote of how even a master actor and orator like himself found it difficult coming to grips with certain elements of the process.
But the reality is that anyone can actually record an audiobook. If you have a good voice and the ability to read fluently you can sign up on LibriVox and get your recording career started. And if narrating is not for you there is also scope to get involved by producing or proof-listening to books. According to the popular blog lovelyaudiobooks.info, the LibriVox site is for volunteers who produce free audiobooks of classic literature that is in the public domain. Alternatively, find a local partner who produces the format and make your services available – Print on Demand in South Africa are a good starting point.
The days when audiobooks were for blind people are long gone. According to pbs.org, more than 55 million people listen to an audiobook each year and that number continues to grow. The reality is that as digital platforms become more sophisticated and ubiquitous, so it becomes increasingly easy to listen to an audiobook. And it’s not just to pass the time in traffic or on long commutes, the rise of in-home devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home mean that people can be cooking or cleaning at home and still be taking in a story or some educational material.
As long ago as 2013 Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was already informing the world how Audible meant that it was possible for you to read when your eyes are busy. Ultimately you want to find a local partner to help you produce your product, if your intended audience is South African then seek out a company that is creating audiobooks in South Africa so that accents and pronunciations sit well on the ear and make for a good experience.
In days gone by if you wanted a book printed you would go to a printer and if you wanted an audiobook created you would go to a specialist audiobook producer. There are still some companies that seek to specialise in just one of these mediums, but increasingly publishers have looked to merge the services into one space – which is an especially important convergence for self-publishers and writers who don’t have major deals and who are looking for specialist and print on demand solutions.
Indeed such have been the advancements in technology that now an aspiring writer can partner with a company like Print on Demand who will not only be able to produce them copies of their book one at a time (as opposed to doing large runs when the demand is limited), but they will also be able to turn the work into an audiobook at their in-house studio. Admittedly costs of producing an audiobook can be a little more than doing small print runs, given that there are costs for voice artists and studio time, but even so, there are ways to produce the audiobooks on a tight budget.
The clear reality is that audiobooks are here to stay. They have crossed over from a service for the disabled to being an indispensable part of life for millions of people. According to Audiobooks, more than 70000 audiobooks were recorded last year (2020) alone. If that is not a signal that there is now a huge demand for this format then nothing is. Let’s make it official here and now by stating: Audiobooks are here to stay!