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The way we do books is changing, so what kind of reader are you? 

Audiobooks are expected to generate revenues of £115 million in the UK next year
Audiobooks are expected to generate revenues of £115 million in the UK next year Credit:  Esther Moreno / Alamy Stock Photo

Back before air travel was affordable, my family would undertake interminable car journeys every time we set off on holiday. The only thing that prevented them from being intolerably dull was the voice of the actor Martin Jarvis. If you haven’t heard his side-splittingly funny narrations of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, you should, no matter your age, or whether or not you’re driving from Yorkshire to Barcelona. He brought those books to life so vividly that even now we find ourselves quoting lines from them in his incredible range of accents. 

You might think the leisurely, analogue pleasures of story tapes, as they once were, have no place in today’s world. In fact, the reverse is true. Audiobooks (their modern incarnation) are expected to generate revenues of £115 million in the UK next year, a 30 per cent increase on 2018. The latest annual technology and media trend predictions report from Deloitte forecasts that the global audiobook market will grow by 25 per cent to nearly £4 billion in 2020.

This is quite something when you consider that, just a few years ago, commentators were seriously debating whether books were dead. The answer appears to be no. But the way we read has changed undeniably, with the rising popularity of audiobooks just one of the ways. Here’s how we’re doing books now…

Printed books and the rise of the book-boast

Sales of printed books still accounted for more than 80 per cent of the combined print and digital UK book market of £3.6bn last year, according to figures from the Publishers Association. Not that it was all good news for fans of reading the old-fashioned way: in 2018, sales of physical books fell in the UK for the first time in five years, by a margin of 5.4 per cent (£168m in sales). 

At the same time, our relationship with books is changing. Thanks to our reduced attention span, we hunger for easily digestible snippets at the same time as wanting new ways to show off about our love of culture. 

Ebooks offer 'the ability to download a book to your Kindle at a moment’s notice' Credit:  Jane Mingay

Bringing a new meaning to the term ‘snackable content’, in October, the University of Lincoln reported the installation of free vending machines on campus, printing off and dispensing passages from classic novels or poems instead of selling packets of crisps. Similar machines had lately been installed in London’s Canary Wharf too, servicing time-poor commuters. Vending machines dispensing entire books (not actually a new concept) have also sprung up around schools and transport hubs here and there, though the choice of titles they offer is necessarily limited.

Elsewhere, the enduring popularity of the conventional printed book has been helped by the social media “shelfie” trend - that is, people taking pictures of their bookshelves and posting them online. A friend likes to call this book-boasting: reading not as a mind-engaging activity but as a performance; a sly means of courting admiration and approval by others. Which tallies with a Sky Arts poll in October that found more than half of us pretend we’ve read books we have not. (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, War and Peace and The Odyssey were among those people lied about the most.) 

Sonic boom: The explosion of the audiobook

For the time-poor, tech-rich among us, audio is the obvious answer. Income from consumer audiobook sales rose by 194 per cent in the five years to 2018, according to Publishers Association figures. 

Imogen Church, an actress who has voiced more than 300 audiobooks including Bridget Jones and Jilly Cooper’s The Common Years , attributes their appeal in part to the pressures of modern life. “I think we’re just too busy,” she says. “We’re [listening] while we iron, wash up, hold the baby, whereas people don’t have time to ‘eye-read’. 

Imogen Church: 'I think we're too busy to eye-read'

“Hopefully most of us were read to as kids so it is soothing, but also we were telling and listening to stories way before printed text, so I feel it’s hardwired in us.” 

Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, reckons certain book genres lend themselves to listening better than others, with non-fiction titles such as Sir Elton John’s memoir Me, read partly by Sir Elton himself, among those that work well.

Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, welcomes the recent sonic boom. “It is fantastic to see such phenomenal growth in the audiobook market,” he says. “Even more exciting is that audiobooks are reaching a wide range of consumers, including those who didn’t previously buy books.”

E-books for convenience reading

Total consumer e-books sales were down two per cent to £251m in 2018, representing a slow decline. But Jones doesn’t expect them to be overtaken by audiobooks in the short term, attributing their appeal to “convenience and price: [they give you] the ability to download a book to your Kindle at a moment’s notice, and usually cheaper than print. It’s tapped into that market for people who want to read and read, but don’t want to put the books on their shelves.”

For most writers publishing commercial fiction today, at least 30 per cent of their sales are likely to be e-books and, in some cases far more, he suggests. Genres such as sci-fi and romance, and other airport bestseller titles, tend to be popular.

 Digital literature, whether in e-book or audio form, is riding high. As if we needed another reason to be wedded to our phones...