Twenty years ago, audiobooks were little more than a novel idea. Today, big-money deals and A-list narrators make them a sound investment for listeners and story-tellers alike.
I want to tell you a story. It's a story about a man called Don Katz, who spent 20 years as an award-winning journalist (for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated) and the author of a few bestselling books. And Katz was in love. Not just with his wife, Leslie, but with the spoken word. For a man who had made his living putting pen to paper, Katz's true passion was for the vernacular - the oral experience of listening to language, of enjoying the beautifully simple act of verbalised storytelling. But when it came to indulging his obsession, Katz had a problem: his fanny pack wasn't big enough. You see, back in the early Nineties, the only format on which you could listen to spoken-word recordings was cassette. And a typical abridged book would fill a dozen audio tapes easily. So before going for a jog (that was a thing back then, too), Katz would stuff his bumbag full of cassettes, next to his trusty Walkman, and head off around New York's Central Park listening to Ten Days That Shook The World - John Reed's famous book on the Russian Revolution - accompanied by the rattle of the spooled plastic castanets tethered around his waist.
"There has to be a better way," thought Katz. And there was, eventually. Which is why, just over 20 years later, audiobooks are the new Netflix.
"By 2016, audiobooks had become the fastest-growing format in publishing."
What, you mean you are still watching tired TV shows and trying to convince yourself that The Night Of/Game Of Thrones/American Gods are worth your time? Surely you've twigged by now that 13 Reasons Why isn't just unlucky for some, that House Of Cards has long since collapsed and that Orange Really Isn't The New Black? Or maybe you are still a self-confessed and surely depressed cinephile, queuing up to see yet another Marvel movie (probably Spider-Man, most of them are), The Fast And The Furious 438 or Carry On... Pirates Of The Caribbean?
Then again, maybe you are so hyper-modern that you only experience your chosen entertainment ironically, through the prism of social media, celebrating your disdain for whatever you are watching or the album you are listening to with a suitably unimpressed Snapchat filter or a particularly arch Instagram story complete with critical emoticon. But why use your smartphone for evil, when it could be put to such better use? The world has turned, my friends, literally and literarily. It's time to open up a new chapter.
A few of us have got the message already. By 2016, audiobooks had become the fastest-growing format in publishing. According to Nielsen Book Research, the only really accurate scanning system for book sales and consumer behaviour, 59 per cent of audiobook consumers in the UK started purchasing and listening to the medium in the last two years. In the last 12 months alone, 42 per cent of the UK market joined the audiobook club. And as every one of them knows, the first rule of audiobook club is you do talk about audiobooks.
Especially, it seems, if you are a young member. In the 18-34 age range, 72 per cent of audiobook consumers started listening in the last two years and 49 per cent already consider themselves heavy buyers (purchasing more than 16 audiobooks in a year). According to Richard Lennon, editorial director at Penguin Random House Audio, the audience for audiobooks is largely distinct from buyers of print books. And publishers are helping to drive the popularity of audiobooks, not just responding to it.
"As well as investing heavily in our productions, voice talent and studio space, we are increasingly creating unique recordings," he says. "The audiobook of John Cleese's So, Anyway... is a great example because it features archive Monty Python material that's never been heard before, as well as lots of ad-libbed material from John that didn't appear in the book. Plus, there is a cameo from Michael Palin. That audiobook has just won gold in the Non-Fiction category at the New York Festivals Radio Program Awards."
The better way Katz came up with as he listened to the story of Lenin and Trotsky was suitably revolutionary. "It was 1994," Katz remembered, "and I began telling people that in the future we would have solid-state electronic devices in our pockets that would be packed with culture." With their mocking laughter ringing in his ears, Katz founded his company, Audible, a year later and in 1997 they created the world's first commercially available portable digital audio player. To put that into perspective, Apple's iPod wouldn't be launched for another four years.
Katz's creation now has a place in the Smithsonian Institution, but the fact that you probably haven't heard of it speaks volumes for its technological viability back then. The Audible concept was a good one - it was just ahead of its time. When they signed Robin Williams to record a series of interviews in 2000 - a precursor to podcasting - his appearance on The Jay Leno Show baffled the audience as the madcap comedian tried to explain the Audible concept to slack-jawed Americans. They didn't get it... much to Williams' amusement. "It would just be me inside their brains!" he shouted. Can you imagine?
"You can listen when your eyes are busy but your mind is free."
But if the public were slow to respond, Silicon Valley wasn't. Microsoft was a big early investor, Apple signed the company up as the exclusive audiobook provider on iTunes and then, in 2008, came the big one, when Amazon made Audible its subsidiary in a deal worth $300 million. Then people started to get it... in their millions. And as the popularity of audiobooks grows, so does the number of books available. Currently, Audible has more than 250,000 titles available for download - a tiny amount compared to the number of books and e-books, but hugely significant to the industry as a whole. Thanks to the increase in digital technology, there are now more ways than ever to listen to audiobooks. From smartphone and tablet, to laptop and Kindle, wherever you are and whatever you are doing you can listen. As one of Audible's early catchphrases predicted: "You can listen when your eyes are busy but your mind is free."
Laurence Howell, the UK's director of content at Audible, agrees that technology has played a huge part in the growth of the audiobook market, but believes that there is something else going on. "Increasingly, people are making the choice to listen to audiobooks because they are getting better and better. When they are in their car, on the bus, walking to work, or even when they are at home doing jobs, or sitting in the garden, they are investing in a book rather than music or anything else. We understand that audiobooks are competing with all forms of entertainment for people's limited time, but at the moment we think we are winning that battle."
"Listening to someone tell you a story is such a hypnotic, incredibly intimate experience."
In 2016, Audible customers downloaded over two billion hours of programming... double the amount from 2014. A startling figure, especially when you factor in that most Audible customers are subscribed members who part with a minimum of £7.99 per month to get a single book credit. The full price for a standard unabridged audiobook is around £20, for several hours of material. And yet the word Howell uses to describe Audible members' demand for content is "insatiable".
"The thing with audiobooks is that they celebrate the art of storytelling better than any other medium," says Howell. "Everyone says the book is better than the film. Well, they're right. And the audiobook is better than the book because people fall in love with the narrator's voice, oftentimes regardless of the book they are reading. Listening to someone tell you a story is such a hypnotic, incredibly intimate experience that the only surprise is not that so many people are listening to audiobooks... it's that there are still people that aren't."
The role of the narrator in audiobooks is a key element of Audible's towering success. As well as recruiting and training narrators, more and more A-list actors are signing up to read books that they are passionate about and, more importantly, fit their delivery style. From Colin Firth reading The End Of The Affair and Dustin Hoffman reciting Being There, through to Nicole Kidman's version of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse and Scarlett Johansson reading Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, it is now possible for audiobook publishers to attract the biggest names into the studio, attracting even more listeners.
For hard-core audiobook fans, however, the celebrity reader is mere window-dressing. The voice is everything. Clare Corbett is among Audible's most popular and critically acclaimed narrators - and probably best known for her brilliant portrayal of the hard-drinking and low-esteemed Rachel Watson, aka The Girl On The Train. As a jobbing actress for the past 12 years, Corbett has done her fair share of radio plays, stage shows and TV appearances (she even voices one of the puppets on the Dolmio sauce adverts), but as a narrator she has discovered her natural talent. Over the phone, she tells me - in soothingly familiar and friendly tones, naturally - what it takes to be a narrator.
"People think you just turn up and read a book, but it's much harder than you think," she explains. "You have to have the stamina to keep up the energy levels all day. If there are lots of characters you have to keep all those voices in your head and reproduce them perfectly every time, be it men, women, children or aliens! You have to keep the pace consistent, the diction perfect and clear, and you mustn't ever give away any plot clues. It's certainly not a skill that comes easily. And for every two hours in the studio, you might get an hour's recorded dialogue... if you are lucky."
Bestselling author Tony Parsons, himself a huge audiobook fan, agrees with Corbett. "I read one of the Max Wolfe digital short stories for a podcast and it was more exhausting than running a marathon," he admits.
For Parsons, the process of selling the audiobook has become a vital part of the promotion campaign. In the UK, the audio rights to a book are negotiated separately, making them very lucrative to an author. And if money talks, so do writers... even those you might expect would favour the traditional printed word.
Perhaps in the future, "audiobook and chill" might just become a thing"Increasingly, there is a feeling from writers that audiobooks deliver a different experience to the e-book or the p-book [digital and physical books]," Parsons explains. "For instance, John Le Carré reads the audiobook of A Perfect Spy, his brilliant and most autobiographical book, and he does a remarkable job, even though he is in his mid-eighties. In audiobooks, as in every other part of his career, Le Carré is an inspiration to us all."
To make a slightly less highbrow confession, I blame my own personal obsession with audiobooks on Stephen Fry. A few years ago, when he usurped my role and started reading the Harry Potter books to my children at bedtime, initially I felt quite put out. But then I started listening with them and couldn't get enough.
"Audiobooks are just a great way of getting more books in your daily life."
Now I am a fully-fledged addict and have developed a full-on jones for Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, listening for a couple of hours every day on my commute to work, plus sneaky little hits when I'm on my own in the car. Audiobooks haven't stopped me reading real books, but as Howell points out, "Audiobooks are just a great way of getting more books in your daily life." And who wouldn't want that?
I still watch a bit of TV in the evening from time to time, of course. But more and more that old saying springs to mind: drama works so much better in audio because the picture is better. And who knows? Perhaps in the future, "audiobook and chill" might just become a thing.