By Anne McCarthy
Actress Viola Davis joined EGOT status when she won a Grammy this month for her audiobook performance for her memoir Finding Me, published by HarperCollins in April 2022. The Hollywood powerhouse now has a Grammy, an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony, and she has her work in the audiobook field to thank for this newly minted status. Accepting her award, Davis said joyfully at the Grammy’s, “I wrote this book to honor the six-year-old Viola, to honor her, to honor her life, her joy, her trauma, her everything.”
The demand for audiobooks, such as Finding Me, continues to rise among consumers. Their success can be attributed to factors like accessible online audiobook platforms, A-list narrators like Davis, and even the demise of anti-audiobook snobbery (more on that below). Audiobooks are big business, and we need only to look at recent titles to see that the proof is in the digital pudding.
In addition to Davis’s 2022 memoir, another hot title in the audiobook world is Spare, Prince Harry’s tell-all memoir published by Penguin Random House. The title gave January 2023 a massive boost for book sales when it published on January 10 and sold 1.4 million copies in all formats – including audiobooks – in the UK, U.S., and Canada on its release day.
Spare’s audiobook version, like Finding Me, was read by its author, the redheaded prince himself. Everyone I knew reading Spare didn’t get the hardcover edition – they wanted the audiobook because Prince Harry narrated it.
Audiobooks are the single fastest-growing format in all of book publishing, and the publishing world is wise to take note of this fact and invest resources accordingly. Publishers Weekly reports that the number of audiobook titles published in 2021 was nearly 74,000, which is a 6% increase from 2020’s audiobook titles published. Fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers are among the top-selling genres for audiobooks.
Audiobooks Are the Fastest-Growing Format
According to Writers Digest, audiobooks are the fastest-growing format in book publishing. Amid the pandemic, audiobook sales skyrocketed and continued to increase steadily. In 2020, publishers saw a 12% increase in revenue from audiobooks. The Audio Publishers Association’s annual sales survey showed, for the tenth year in a row, a double-digit increase in the sales of audiobooks, Publishers Weekly reported in June 2022. Not only do the sales figures rise with each consecutive year, but audiobooks are also predicted to become a $19 billion dollar industry within four years, by 2027.
According to a presentation by EBSCO, the audiobook market doubled over a six-year period from 2010 to 2017. As a result of this continuous growth, publishers are pouring more capital and investment into the production and distribution of audiobooks. The production value for high-end audiobooks keeps readers coming back for more. Some audiobooks even use a full cast rather than one narrator.
Changes in Consumer Behavior
One of the most notable changes in consumer behavior around audiobooks is that most consumers now listen to audiobooks digitally instead of on physical CDs or audiocassette tapes. The tide changed dramatically in the early 2010s. As of 2009, 58% of consumers listened to audiobooks via physical CDs or tapes. But by 2017, only 13% of consumers listened from a physical source, and 87% had shifted to digital.
Companies like Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon, offer subscription services, making it easy to consume a book on your smartphone or computer. Audible has a vast collection of audiobooks to choose from, and some are free to subscribers. Audible also records “Audible Originals,” which are new and existing works, some in the public domain. Heavy hitters like Oscar-winner Laura Dern have even stepped into the Audible world. Dern narrates Little Women in an Audible Original.
But Audible isn’t the only game in town. Other audiobook platforms include AudioBooks.com, Blinkist, Bookbeat, Chirp, and more. Book Riot compiled a roundup of audiobook digital platforms, citing prices, pros, and cons.
Narrators Draw in the Listener
Some zeitgeisty books like Spare are heavily desired as audiobooks, thanks to the narrator. Comedian and actor memoirs are greatly enhanced when the author reads them. And, in my opinion, a David Sedaris book is best consumed via audiobook because his narration makes the stories even more engaging. I’ve listened to Tina Fey’s memoir Bossy Pants more times than I can count; Fey’s reading of her story makes it even funnier. And Neil Gaiman – the celebrated fantasy author of Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Sandman, and more – is beloved by fans for not only his work but also for the soothing sound of his voice. Many Gaiman fans clamor for audiobook editions of his work which he reads.
Horror books can be even scarier when heard via audiobooks. In The New York Times’ “Best Audiobooks of 2022,” it’s noted how “creepy books feel even creepier in audio.” The article points to Simon & Schuster’s 2022 novel We Spread by Canadian author Iain Reid. The book – cited as especially creepy on audiobook – tells the story of an elderly woman named Penny who is strapped in a mysterious facility. The audiobook is narrated by Robin Miles.
Neuroscientists Deflate Anti-Audiobook Snobbery
How many times have you heard someone dismiss “reading” a book when they learn you read it by listening to it? If you’ve been spared this exchange – trust me, it exists. However, the more popular audiobooks become, the fewer people seem to be snobs about them.
In research published by the Journal of Neuroscience in 2019, neuroscientists found that reading a book and listening to a book activates the same part of the brain. The article, “The Representation of Semantic Information Across Human Cerebral Cortex During Listening Versus Reading Is Invariant to Stimulus Modality,” presents the findings of the research, writing: “Here, we show that although the representation of semantic information in the human brain is quite complex, the semantic representations evoked by listening versus reading are almost identical.”
The Benefits of Consuming Audiobooks
Francisca Goldsmith, a contributing editor at AudioFile Magazine, says in a presentation on audiobooks for EBSCO, that audiobooks hold much appeal for readers for various reasons. Goldsmith notes how audiobooks allow multitaskers to extend their reading opportunities. In other words, they can read a book while doing the dishes.
She also says that “audiobooks provide more opportunity to do more reading, and thus the opportunity to try new genres of books.” In her presentation, Goldsmith cites the communication benefits, too, saying, “sustained listening strengthens a person’s capacity to communicate more effectively.”
Chris Gonzalez, a Digital Production Manager at Macmillan and the author of I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat, tells New York Book Forum, “Much has probably already been said about how audiobooks have made reading way more accessible for individuals who are unable or have difficulty reading printed text. They also are greatly appealing to multitaskers, those who want to continue their story while doing some household chore or just enjoying an afternoon walk.”
Gonzalez says, “I know people who fall asleep to audiobooks, especially if it’s a familiar book. We return to our favorite movies and TV shows and songs for comfort, and this is another form of comfort.” He says he can’t pinpoint one specific reason for their increase in popularity. Gonzalez adds, “I would, however, love to shout out just how much care and effort goes into creating each audiobook, from production to casting the right reader, and that audiobooks are so special.”
Audiobooks are a special format that continue to soar in the publishing world. New York Book Forum remains enthusiastic about the continued potential of the format and all the growth to come.