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Are Vinyl Audiobooks Publishing’s Next Big Physical Media Hope?

Would you buy your favorite book as a vinyl record? You might soon have the option, thanks to new product announcements from major publishers like HarperCollins and Hachette.

Earlier this year, the HarperAudio division announced plans to add several vinyl releases to its product calendar. Harper has tried vinyl in the past, albeit not as a regular part of its product line. In 2015, the company released a vinyl edition of the audiobook for Yes Please, the autobiography from actress and comedian Amy Poehler. Harper isn’t the only major publisher dipping a toe into the vinyl market, either. Hachette Audio is also launching a vinyl audiobook series in 2018.

Questions abound here, both about the reasoning behind these releases and their market viability. Could vinyl become the next big avenue for physical media in publishing? Or will products like these occupy a fringe market of collector’s items and high-profile titles, rather than representing something for all publishers to worry about?

The latter possibility seems far more likely right now, though it’s difficult to guess what kind of adoption vinyl audiobooks could see among readers and listeners. The first thing worth noting is that vinyl audiobooks right now seem to be trending toward big names. That point isn’t the least bit surprising, but it does indicate a long and unlikely path toward a future where vinyl audiobooks are commonplace—especially for smaller independent publishing enterprises.

For instance, the Amy Poehler autobiography made a certain amount of sense as a vinyl release, if only because the audio version of the book had been so roundly praised. The audiobook, narrated by Poehler herself—with on-tape assists from the likes of Seth Meyers, Patrick Stewart, Michael Schur, Carol Burnette, and Kathleen Turner—was funny and unexpected. It’s the kind of audiobook that might stand up to repeat playthroughs or group listening sessions—both things that vinyl collectors are typically looking for.

Most of the big names and titles lined up for vinyl audiobook releases in 2018 offer similar levels of novelty or collectability. One of HarperAudio’s planned releases, for instance, is a “full-cast” vinyl version of Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning, the first novel in the beloved Series of Unfortunate Events. As that series approaches the second season of its Netflix adaptation, a collectible re-release makes sense. Why not vinyl? Hachete, meanwhile, is mostly going for big names in the music industry—celebrities whose fans are probably already vinyl collectors. Planned titles include Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Jerry on Jerry, by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia; and The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer, frontwoman for the band the Dresden Dolls.

HarperAudio is spicing up its offerings by making them “vinyl-first.” The first Harper vinyl release for 2018 is Wild Horses, a new short story by bestselling fantasy-horror author Joe Hill. Wild Horses has never been released in any format and will actually make its debut on wax. The story will follow four teenagers through a 1994 summer night—presumably onto a creepy, haunted boardwalk carousel. It will be narrated by a famous actor (Nate Corddry, from the sitcom Mom) and will have a cover of the Rolling Stones song “Wild Horses,” recorded by folk-rock artist Matthew Ryan, tacked on the end. The first-of-its-kind release will arrive on April 20—the day before Record Store Day in the United States.

Certainly, these projects are intriguing. The Joe Hill release, especially, is a groundbreaking idea for the publishing industry. Between the vinyl-exclusive status of the new short story and Matthew Ryan’s Stones cover—recorded specifically for the Dark Carousel vinyl—the release is certain to garner a fair amount of attention. Vinyl is also surging right now, which doesn’t hurt. In 2017, Nielsen Music reported 14.32 million vinyl album sales, up nine percent from the year before. Since Nielsen began tracking music sales data in 1991, vinyl record sales have never been higher. If there was ever a time for the publishing industry to jump aboard the vinyl train, it’s now—especially considering how much audiobooks have been booming in recent years.

Inevitably, there will be some head-scratching at the vinyl audiobook movement. After all, audiobooks are probably most valuable these days for people who are on-the-go—whether exercising, commuting to work, or trying to make a long road trip more bearable. As for the vinyl production process, it’s time-consuming and expensive, and there are only a limited number of vinyl pressing plants out there anyway. If publishers decide to go the vinyl route, it could backlog the production schedules at those plants even further.

However, the fact is that in the early days, before the rise of the Beatles and the rock ‘n’ roll era defined what an album could be, vinyl was a medium for more than just music. In a recent book called Designed for Hi-Fi Living (published by MIT Press), writers Janet Borgenson and Jonathan Schroeder looked at the old days of vinyl, when it was less about artists and more about selling lifestyles, promoting airlines, or even providing step-by-step tutorials for different tasks. These days, we tend to think of vinyl as a vehicle for music—specifically full-length albums—but maybe it’s a more versatile medium than we assume. Perhaps the publishing industry will answer that question.


Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953@gmail.com.


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