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78-Storey Treehouse

Audiobooks: why they matter and why authors should care

The companionship and delight of a voice telling stories is incomparable. Stephen Fry

I’m not usually a consumer of audiobooks, but circumstance has recently led me to a couple of excellent audiobooks, and it’s got me thinking about the medium. My children have long been fans, partly, I suspect, because we have a No-TV-after-school rule. This means they often listen to an audiobook while drawing, or doing craft. I mentioned this once to a fellow writer and her response was, ‘But is that actually the same as reading?’ The question holds an implication. That listening to books is somehow cheating, that it doesn’t count. That audiobooks are an ‘easy’ way to digest books with all of the rewards and none of the ‘work’.

My local library’s homage to the audiobook

The fact is that at a cognitive level there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. Listening comprehension and reading comprehension have a strong correlation. And while it’s true that listening to an audiobook does not require ‘decoding’ of the text, studies have shown that by Year 5 this ability is pretty much automatic and therefore not a particular benefit of reading over listening to a book.

What’s more, there are benefits that are specific to audiobooks. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at seven my son was completely obsessed with audiobooks (there was always one playing). At this age his intellectual capacity was more sophisticated than his reading ability, and audiobooks supplemented equivalent books that I read to him at bedtime, and the lower-level books that he was able to read to himself. An additional benefit is that audiobooks teach the rhythms of language, and the way inflection and intonation are important when telling a story. Of course parents and teachers reading aloud can also do this, but who has four hours a day to read to their child? Masters Ten and Six both love print books but they can also gleefully recite whole slabs of audiobooks that contain sophisticated vocabulary. Now what could possibly be wrong with that?

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When I was a kid, my brothers and I had a cassette tape of Captain Beaky and his Band, an album of poetry set to music. I have no real memory of its content, but I do recall that it was roll-on-the-floor hilarious, eliciting the kind of violent laughter that makes everything hurt. We never tired of it, we listened to it so many times the tape eventually snapped. But as an adult who loves nothing more than curling up with a cup of tea and a print book, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered the pleasures of audiobooks for adults.

Later in the year I’m travelling to South Africa and I’ve been trying to read as much as I can by South African authors. I wanted to get my hands on Damon Galgut’s The Imposter but the library only had an audiobook, so I checked that out. Turns out it’s a stunning book and I’m keen to read more by Galgut. But this particular narration by Humphrey Bower, which gives each character a distinct South African voice, enriched the experience for me. I listened to the story whenever I was alone in the car and I found myself looking forward to previously mundane trips to the markets or school pick-up or meetings, because it meant I could sink into the story again. I was bereft when it ended, but not for long, because as it turned out my book club had scheduled Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. I left it too late to get hold of a copy and when I rushed to the library only the audiobook was available. (I am, as you might have guessed, a big library user, but more on that another time.)

Whale Rider includes large chunks of Maori language which frustrated some of my fellow book clubbers on the page, but Jay Laga’aia narrates the audiobook and listening to these words in his mouth was like poetry washing over me. I only got the gist of their meaning but I could appreciate their beauty. Combined with Jay’s whale song and snippets of music, I found the audiobook a moving experience. Interestingly both these books were set elsewhere — South Africa and New Zealand — and the narration added another layer, bringing those cultures alive in ways not possible in print.

Of course there are audiobooks that miss the mark. It goes without saying that the quality of an audiobook hinges on its narrator. In May, the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) introduced its inaugural Audiobook of the Year Award, with Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s 78-Storey Treehouse taking out the gong. Stig Wemyss is the voice behind all the Griffiths/Denton books and consequently quite the rock star in our house. (It is a terrible oversight that he is not credited on ABIA’s list of award winners.) My kids met Stig at an event at our local library and Master Ten has never forgotten the moment he was invited on stage. At Stig’s request, Master Ten responded to his every question with a series of burps in a fashion so gross it would have made Griffiths and Denton proud. He won himself an audiobook and much kudos from the mini humans present. (Unfortunately — or fortunately — I was not there to witness it.)

But I digress. For authors it’s worth knowing that while audiobooks are currently a small market, they are showing the biggest growth of any format. In 2014, the value of the global audiobook industry rose to $1.47 billion, up 13.5% from 2013. In 2015, the value rose further to $2.8 billion, and then again in 2016 to $3.5 billion dollars. Commensurate growth is predicted for 2017. Overall, audiobook growth is nearly five times the increase of the overall book trade industry’ according to the American Publishers Association. (For further stats see this article.) The most popular genres for audiobooks (and, incidentally, also for ebooks) are mystery, thriller, romance and fantasy/science fiction.

As Philip Pullman says, ‘Long before writing, people were telling each other stories and the audiobook goes all the way back to that tradition.’ While a print book is still my own personal preference, I’m an advocate of maximising opportunities for both children and adults to access stories. Ebooks, audiobooks, print books — whatever the format, it’s the story itself that counts. And if an audiobook means that I can convert all those mundane hours of driving every week into time spent with a story, I’m all for it.

Do you listen to audiobooks? Does it feel like cheating? And do you have a favourite narrator? I’d love to hear your thoughts.