Who’d have thought that someone could improve on the timeless classic that is: the book? The ‘audiobook’ may sound like this new-fangled trend with an appeal that lies with a small minority of avid readers, but alas, the ‘talking book’ trend has been around for quite a while now and is growing in popularity at remarkable rates! In this piece, I’m digging into the origins of the audiobook, detailing everything from its origins as a brief audio recording by Thomas Edison, all the way to the modern-day explosion of audible content worldwide.
So, what is an audiobook? Well, in plain terms it’s a book that is read aloud and recorded for later listening at the reader’s discretion (confusion alert! – you’re referred to as a reader even when you’re technically not reading but listening).
It all began back in the late 19th Century when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph which allowed users to record their voices. Such inventions couldn’t come close to storing enough audio for a full-length book, but it was an admirable start! Later, the concept of learning via audio means became popularised in the US as veterans of the first and second world war suffered from a great number of eye injuries. The United States continued the pioneering of this young industry in the 1950’s with Caedmon Records. This company was the first to dedicate itself entirely to the production of audiobooks and recorded short texts on LP records. Jumping forward to the 1970’s, cassette tapes exploded onto the market, and expanded the recording and production capabilities for audiobooks. After that, things switched to CD’s, then MP3 players, and finally, we land at the present day, with an audiobook available to download on almost all mobile devices (perhaps the very same one you are reading from now).
The current vogue in audiobooks lies firmly in the online website ‘Audible’. Founded in 1995, the Amazon company is now the worlds largest seller of audiobooks. It’s companies like this that have thrust the US into the forefront of audiobook production, with about 50,000 separate titles being produced in 2018 alone. Audible has successfully conquered the market and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
The production of an audiobook has become somewhat of an art form in itself. Readers crave for the voices of well-known actors, with some narrators reaching fame through their work on audiobooks. Popular books are regularly read by their esteemed author’s too. For example: Stephen Fry enthusiastically reads his enchanting tales from Greek mythology in his novels ‘Mythos’ and ‘Heroes’, and Jordan Peterson reads his books ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ and ‘Maps of Meaning’ with his ever-noticeable Canadian twang.
The Podcast has also grown exponentially in the online scene over the past decade. Its variants range from talk shows to podcast novels (audiobooks released episodically). Typically requires some sort of subscription, or alternatively free of charge with advertisements within in order to monetise the production; the podcast can take many forms on almost any topic you can think about: If you’d like to listen to it, there’s probably a podcast for that. So, if you want to listen to your favourite comedians chat rubbish for an hour, or learn about philosophy through the ramblings of a few guys, there’s a podcast for that.
Audio Drama or Radio Drama is also regaining popularity. First popularised at the turn of the 20th Century, the radio drama consists of a dramatic work through dialogue, music and sound effects. The latest surge in the audiobook market, through the work of companies such as ‘Audible’, has paved the way for Audio Drama’s to make a comeback. Similar to the podcast, this medium releases dramatic content episodically, causing readers to come back time and time again, enticing readers into the fictional world within.
The Audie Awards or ‘the Audies’ are the awards granted by the Audio Publishers Association, a US based organisation for the promotion and recognition of audiobooks. The awards ceremony has categories such as ‘Audiobook of the Year’, ‘Best Male & Female Narrator’, ‘Audio Drama’, etc. Such prestigious awards are a pretty big deal in the audiobook community and provide much-deserved reward for an arguably underappreciated medium of entertainment.
In the past, readers had to set aside time to read (perhaps as you are doing right now) and dedicate their entire attention to reading words on paper and processing the information in their brains. There’s a finite percentage of time in the day in which we can set aside for such leisurely activity. With widespread access to audiobooks, it’s now possible for readers to enjoy their favourite novels throughout the day. No longer must we set aside time to read a book, we now can read stories while pursuing other activities.
If the 20th Century taught us something novel, it’s the importance of the pen, and how communicating information has the power to change the world. The sheer potential for information exchange in recent years has skyrocketed, with the audiobook being a growing medium in this shift, we can truly become the learned and educated people we aspire to be, and it’s easier than ever before! We are faced with a plethora of audiobooks available for us to read while cooking some pasta, mowing the lawn or going to sleep; it’s high time we start recognising the vast potential for reading via audiobooks, and choose whether to delve deep into the world of a children’s classic, exciting thriller or some light comedy, the choice lies with the reader.
By Conor Capplis – Features Editor