Digital Culture

All things Audio: The rise of the paperless book

Image Credit:  Marco Verch Professional Photographer/ Flickr

By Elizabeth Walsh

We are reading more books. During the pandemic one medium in particular reached new heights: the audiobook. From 2019 to 2021 Scribd saw a 515% increase in searches that included ‘audiobook’ and The Bookseller reported that audiobook sales reached £76 million within the first six months of last year. However, audiobooks aren’t new. They first appeared in the 1930s recorded on vinyl records and have prospered ever since. I talked to York alumni Stella Newing, an Audio Editor at Penguin Random House, about her experience working in one of publishings fastest growing markets. 

I started by asking about what attracted Stella to work in audio. She explained that she always loved audiobooks and podcasts but hadn’t considered the possibility of working with them until she saw the job specification for her first role. She noted: “It sounded like such an interesting combination of skills and responsibility, in an industry that was still in the process of developing. Audio is the fastest growing area of publishing and it is such a dynamic, exciting space to be working in.” 

This enthusiasm is shared by Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishing Association, who said “the steep rise of audiobooks is a truly interesting development as it may suggest that new demographics are embracing this format.” Finding the answers to Lotinga’s speculation, about potential readers, is part of Stella’s job: “I find the studies and analysis of what kind of readership audio attracts and what under or overperforms really interesting; there’s so much to learn and apply to our publishing strategy.”  

With this rise in interest, I asked Stella whether she thought audiobooks had the potential to overtake sales of physical books. She explained that, whilst audiobooks currently make up a small percentage of total book sales, they dominate certain genres. Memoir, self-help, and crime are top performers whereas literary fiction is not as popular. This doesn’t surprise me as reading about other people’s experiences reminds us that nobody’s life is perfect, even those of celebrities.

Stella finished by saying: “While I don’t think we’ll be seeing audiobook sales overtake physical sales anytime soon, I think they are often offering something quite different in terms of the reading experience – they are a unique product rather than a subsidiary of the physical book.” My first audiobook was 1984 read by the actor John Hurt. His distinctive voice brings the words to life, as one listener Dion Yates comments “This is one of the rare readings I can listen to without feeling nauseated – so many classic texts are nowadays read by precocious actors who seem to think it charming to put on an unbearably mannered voice.”

Whether you love them or loathe them, it seems audiobooks are here to stay. Although they don’t provide the same reading experience as physical books, they allow wider access. As technology advances and people’s lives get busier, audiobooks will ensure reading (and the enjoyment brought by gripping storylines and intriguing characters) remains integral to modern culture.