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From the Tech Desk
The Art of the Audiobook: Looking at the Future of the Publishing Industry
A few months ago, this column took a look at the growing popularity of audiobooks. That article examined how eBooks had hit a lull and how audiobooks were picking up the slack as perhaps the most important digital format in book publishing. Based on recently released statistics from the first quarter of 2016, those trends aren't changing. According to the New York Times, publishing industry revenues for the first three months of 2016 were down 2.7% compared to the same period in 2015. That dip included drops in sales for both adult books (10.3%) and children's books (2.1%), with eBooks taking by far the hardest hit of any format (21.8%). Once again, the silver lining was provided by audiobooks, where sales rose by 35.3% compared to the same time last year.
That level of growth is staggering, and it shows that publishers—both majors and indies—are going to have to start paying more attention to audiobooks. We already covered that fertile ground in August's column, and these recent Q1 statistics only further underline the point. However, what we didn't focus on in that column was how audiobooks are fundamentally changing the artform of the book. Specifically, we didn't talk about voice actors.
Salon recently published an article shining a light on the voice actors who bring audiobooks to life. The article painted these audiobook narrators as some of the last true believers in the power of the arts, the value of stories, and the lifeblood of characters. To be fair, there might be more than a bit of hyperbole in that presentation. You can bet authors still care about stories and characters, and indie publishers have long remained a stronghold of interesting and unique work. However, if the prophecy we laid forth in last month's "From the Tech Desk" holds true—that of an algorithm becoming a key part of the publishing process—then there is no doubt that the publishing industry as a whole is all too willing to sacrifice art in favor of commerce. Even authors and publishers can only fight that trend for so long if they want to have any hopes for success.
In that case, then Salon might be right about audiobook narrators. Obviously, voice actors have no actual input on what gets published or how the work gets edited and revised on its long road to the printer. However, audiobook narrators do have a unique role into today's industry where they can bring an author's words, characters, and dramatic arcs to life. It's a big job and has unsurprisingly started to attract big names. The Salon piece ran through some examples of celebrities who have taken on audiobook projects—from Jeremy Irons to Samuel L. Jackson. Others include Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hiddleston. Indeed, audiobooks have become such big business that readers will actually speculate about who might narrate a new title. When Bruce Springsteen announced the release of his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, fans were immediately clambering for an audiobook version read by The Boss himself. As of yet, with the December 16th audiobook release date looming (the book itself is already out), the narrator for Born to Run has yet to be announced. A Bruce-read version could still be in the cards.
One result of all of this audiobook obsession is that book publishing has become arguably a more lucrative field for actors than it is for authors. The Salon article mentioned a growing trend of Broadway actors making money on the side through audiobook voice acting. Today's playbill programs often list as much audiobook experience for actors as they do dramatic experience. To be fair, though, audiobooks are becoming a more dramatic field. Perhaps inspired by the popularity of the Harry Potter audiobook versions—where British thespian Jim Dale has been acclaimed for how he adopts different voices for different characters—other audiobooks are following the character-driven trend. Accents, different voices, and variations in vocal volume, intensity, and speed have all become commonplace in audiobooks. As the medium has become popular, it has also become more expressive. In some cases, where a story is told from multiple character perspectives, there might even be multiple actors on the payroll, trading off chapters throughout the book.
What does the evolution of the audiobook mean for independent publishers? We already know that indies are going to have to increase their audiobook budgets in the next few years, simply to produce more audiobook titles. Because "straight reads" are no longer the popular type of audiobook narration, though, that budget might also need to include some allowance for experienced and skilled voice actors. On the one hand, this demand means spending more money to produce audiobooks, which could hurt a small independent publishing company's bottom line. On the other hand, hiring a skilled actor to narrate an audiobook creates opportunities that have previously been rare for indies: the opportunity to bring an author's work to life in an exciting way, the opportunity to work with different types of artists, and the opportunity to get extra exposure with a marquee narrator hire. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see how different publishers in the independent space use these opportunities to their advantage.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.