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Why we’re ditching our Kindles in favour of audiobooks

An illustration of different speakers / people with headphones in 
Longer commutes and better headphones are helping to fuel a rise in audiobooks

Once upon a time, the rise of Kindles was thought to spell the end for printed books. Today, however, the popularity of ebooks is waning. Just 26pc of Britons own an e-reader compared to 31pc in 2015.

Instead, the greatest success in storytelling appears to be a different innovation altogether: the ever-convenient audiobook

According to new research by Deloitte, the global audiobook market will grow by 25pc to almost £4bn by 2020, with the US and Chinese market making up over 75pc of the total.

The Tech Trends 2020 report forecasts that audiobooks will generate revenues of £115m in the UK alone next year, up 30pc on 2018. By 2023 audiobook revenues in the US, the world’s largest market, are expected to surpass e-books for the first time.

This is partly driven by an increasing willingness for celebrities and film stars to narrate new readings of both classic and modern texts. 

For instance, you can now indulge in Hollywood A-listers Meryl Streep and Clare Danes reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

Elton John narrates his own autobiography alongside Taron Egerton, who portrayed the music star in cinematic hit Rocketman Credit: Getty Images

There is also a growing trend for authors to narrate their own work. The audiobook version of Elton John’s autobiography has the glam rock star reading excerpts alongside Taron Egerton, the actor who plays Elton in cinematic smash Rocketman. David Walliams snappy readings of his children’s books have proven hugely popular.

It isn’t just celebrity endorsement – a time-honoured gambit for books of all stripes – that has fuelled the rise of the spoken word. It’s the convenience and accessibility audiobooks provide in our daily lives.

“Part of it is the growing fondness for the spoken word; it’s always been there in radio,” says  Paul Lee, Deloitte’s global head of technology, media and telecoms research.

“But now most people have a smartphone to access audiobooks and other changes are making a difference; wireless headphones, linking phones to speakers in cars, better noise cancelling and longer commutes. People like having spoken books for commutes. If you are on a train, you can shut your eyes and lose yourself in an audiobook. If you are driving it’s something you can listen to in the background and you can keep your hands on the wheel... which is advisable.”

Deloitte also suggests that the growing presence of smart speakers in our homes is another contributing factor. 

Around 20pc of British households now own a smart speaker, up from 12pc last year. We now have access to a vast library of books, instantly streamed from subscription services such as Amazon’s market leading Audible or downloaded individually, available on an increasing number of devices.

The increased presence of smart speakers in the home are said to have contributed to audiobooks rise

Fittingly, it is also increased word of mouth that is helping to drive a boom in audiobooks.

“The UK Audiobook Consumer study shows that curiosity is the main drive behind people buying audiobooks for the first time,” says Jaclyn Swope at Nielsen Book Research. “But there’s also been increases for things like recommendations and seeing advertisements.

“Basically the more we keep talking about them the more consumers are going to be aware of audiobooks as an option. And audiobooks allow for multi-tasking so they’re engaging consumers who previously might not have had time to read or might not have had the inclination to pick up a print or e-book.”

Those concerned that the proliferation of audiobooks might have a dire impact on the pleasure of reading traditional print books needn’t worry just yet. The projected £115m value of audiobooks in the UK remains a sliver of the £6bn book market at large. 

Globally the market is set to be worth almost £100bn in 2019, according to PWC. While print sales dropped £168m last year, they are still 8pc up on five years ago and make up over 80pc of total book sales.

“I wouldn’t say the cause of the fluctuations of the print and e-market is the growth in audio,” says Swope. “Buyers are just figuring out which formats work for them in given situations or for different types of books.

“For most genres and circumstances consumers still prefer print books to audiobooks, to varying degrees. But it’s also popular for consumers to listen to books they’ve already read. Audiobooks provide the opportunity to gain a new perspective on a favourite book or experience it in a different way.”

Lee agrees, citing the example of the autobiography of Everything But the Girl singer Tracey Thorn. Read by Thorn herself, the audiobook precedes chapters with music tracks. Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke’s acclaimed Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible features numerous clips of young women interviewed for the book.

While audiobooks may not be troubling print just yet, that impressive 30pc growth will ensure that publishers and authors alike will be pushing the boundaries of the genre. Publisher HarperCollins has said that it has a “total audio policy”, turning every book with a narrative structure into the spoken word. The publisher has also experimented with “StoryCastle”, an app for Google Assistant that delivers daily audio stories for children.

Some books are, naturally, a better fit for print – pre-school picture stories, cookbooks and lengthy tomes for example – but spoken storytelling has its own benefits.

“I can see trends from films moving into audiobooks,” says Lee. “Stories being created for two hour commutes so you can lose yourself in it, but it has an end. There is no law that says a book has to be a particular length. With audiobooks, one of the things is to make it more accessible. You can still deliver a really good story in 100 pages.”

The long-term effects of audiobooks’ rise on the art of storytelling is hard to gauge, but there seems little doubt it will continue to grow as technology allows us to fit books more easily into our lives. 

Even producing them may become simpler and less expensive, as companies such as London-based start up DeepZen work on sophisticated machine-learning text-to-speech programs that could synthesise an audiobook at a stroke using AI.

Then again, there is a good chance that any robotic voice may miss the point of audiobooks increasing popularity. Yes, technology is making them more accessible. But perhaps the reason we are increasingly drawn to them is much simpler than that.

“When you are a toddler you get read books until you are five or six” says Lee. “People like being told stories. I think that never goes away, even if we can argue forever about what the purest experience of a book is.”