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An Audible Enhancement to Storytelling


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Sound-Wave-Jonathan-Gross-860.jpg?resizeMy wife and I recently had dinner with another married couple—old friends whom we hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. We went through the usual greeting rituals and settled into our seats, me directly across from Burke, who seemed particularly ebullient. “What’s up?” I asked, sensing there was something.

“What do you think of the audiobooks thing?” he all but burst in reply.

It took me aback. “It’s huge,” I said. “And growing fast, by all accounts.”

I’m sure all of you realize how true it is. In fact, according to a recent Publishing Perspectives piece by our own Porter Anderson, audiobooks have just completed their seventh straight year of double-digit growth, with worldwide sales of over $3 billion in 2020—on their way to a projected $15 billion by 2027. (The phenomenal performance of the category is likely not news to you, and learning more is only a google search away, so I won’t spend a lot of space on industry news.)

Burke’s ebullience, and the fact that he broached the topic right out of the gate, indicated his genuine enthusiasm for the medium. Burke is a doctor who is beginning to shepherd his practice toward his own retirement. His zeal at our dinner was born of my being a fiction writer. But that was paired with the fact that, for decades, he read zero fiction. For years he read nonfiction almost exclusively. Due to his increasing free time, including more car trips to their summer cottage, Burke has discovered Audible. He went on to tell me that he’s read over 50 audiobooks in the last year, and he just can’t get enough. He’s been catching up on the classics, and on bestsellers and notable authors he’d missed out on over the years. It’s evident that he’s having a ball, which makes me glad.

But I also found our conversation heartening. Mainly due to the fact that Burke pressed me about when my books would be available on Audible. The question sent the conversation on a tangent, about cost, voice talent, etc. Still, here’s a guy who I thought would never experience my story. Now he’s anxious to do so. That’s quite a reversal. All due to this particular medium.

You might have noticed that my response to Burke’s initial query was a bit deflective. He asked how I feel about “the audiobooks thing,” and I wasn’t exactly forthcoming. That’s partly because I’m still figuring it out. How do you feel about it? Shall we explore this publishing phenomenon together?

Heard Any Good Books Lately?

Well, have you? I have! This particular instance provides the perfect example of how my audiobook journey is proceeding. The good book I’ve heard lately is Darling Girl, by WU’s own Liz Michalski (if you haven’t experienced this book yet, in whatever form, I highly recommend it).

I actually started Darling Girl by reading the hardcover. An upcoming road trip had me adding a digital edition to my Kindle, for easy packing. But then it dawned on me that on this trip I would be driving alone. Since I was already so invested in the story, the solution was simple: download the audiobook as well, for the drive. It worked out wonderfully, and I ended up experiencing about half of the story via the audiobook and I loved every minute of it.

This has been the pattern for me—downloading the audio version of my current read for extended car trips. Of course, with each experience I get more accustomed to switching back and forth. But it’s more than that. I’m also growing less resistant to the medium. What do I mean by resistant? It goes back to my automatic deflection when my friend asked me about audiobooks. I’ve got to admit to a bit of snobbishness when it comes to “listening” to a book rather than “actually reading.” My attitude is swiftly changing, and the realization has me feeling a little silly. I suppose I used to consider audiobooks as a bit of a cheat—like they weren’t rigorous enough to make them worthy of a “literary experience.” Keep in mind, this was before I actually tried them. But I didn’t think audiobooks could provide immersion or retention as well as reading a printed book.

Those of you who’ve been reading my posts here for any length of time (if you have, thank you!) have likely gleaned my pique over the snobbishness that’s often aimed at the SFF genre by the literary world, so my own snobbish about audiobooks is slightly embarrassing to me now.

Besides becoming more accustomed and less resistant to the medium, I’ve continued to grow more impressed. I’m beginning to see audiobooks not just as a viable part of my reading life, but one that has it’s own unique set of advantages. Things beyond the fact that sonic storytelling frees one from the requirement of paying attention visually. Advantages which I believe that we, as writers, ought to be aware of as we consider our publishing paths and options.

Allow me to attempt to explain some of the additional pluses I’ve discovered.

Sound Advantages

*Audiobooks can provide relevant accents. Starting small here, but this is a plus I noticed during Darling Girl. The story primarily takes place in London, with a prominent secondary character having been raised in New York, and narrator Elizabeth Knowelden adeptly utilizes accents for the various characters in voicing their dialog.

*Audiobooks can provide prosody. Speaking of accents, do you know the term? I didn’t. Prosody refers to the rhythmic and intonational aspect of language. Do you know how some people seem like natural-born storytellers, or are excellent at delivering a joke? Much of that has to do with prosody—using the right tone, inflection, and emphasis at the right time. A good audiobook narrator can provide this enhancement to storytelling. Action scenes can become more gripping, emotional scenes more tender, and so on.

*Audiobooks remind me of the magic of being read to. We’ve all had someone read to us, if only when we were children, and it can be a magical thing. I remember my fourth grade teacher, Miss Paul, used to read to the class as a reward for good behavior. She was an excellent narrator. I fondly recall feeling all the feels during her renditions of The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte’s Web, to name a few. We would become so engrossed in whatever story Miss Paul was reading, if we were restless or acting up, she had but to remind us of the story she might withhold to get us to snap to. That’s a fifty-year-old memory, and you know what? Having a skilled narrator read to you is still pretty darn magical.

*The voice talent for audiobooks is fantastic and getting better all of the time. Speaking of the magic of being read to by a skilled narrator, there are some extremely talented folks narrating audiobooks these days. I’ve often heard of audiobook fans seeking new titles via their favorite narrators. My goddaughter swears that a big part of her adoration of the character Jamie Fraser in the Outlander series is due to his portrayal by celebrated narrator Davina Porter.

*Even famous actors are getting in on the audiobook trend. I’ve heard wonderful things about the ensemble cast of the audiobook of Daisy Jones and the Six, including Sara Arrington, Jennifer Beals, and Benjamin Bratt, among others. Some of today’s finest actors are using their talent to bring great books to life. You can have Claire Danes read you The Handmaid’s Tale, Tim Curry read Lemony Snicket, or Meryl Streep read Heartburn. Oh, and how could I leave out that you can have Andy Serkis read The Lord of the Rings to you? Talk about magic! I’d say that’s a pretty special advantage.

The Ongoing Death of Literature

I recently saw that a popular fantasy book reviewer was lamenting the corrosive effect on storytelling of BookTok, a popular segment of TikTok. He fretted that the books that skyrocket to popularity there are required to be faster, shorter, pithier, grabbier, and he senses that it’s only growing worse—that high concept and ever increasing pace will seize the publishing world, eventually banishing all other, slower, deeper, and more character-driven fantasy books from the marketplace.

I clearly recall, during the explosion of YA fantasy titles a decade ago, that it seemed adult epic fantasy would be relegated to the bookish outskirts. Funny how trends come and go, isn’t it? I’m sure there is plenty of fret out there about audiobooks replacing actual books, too. Remember when e-readers where going to replace bound books? Or when TV would be the death of literature? No doubt it was radio before that. Heck, I’m sure there were those who thought that writing in bound books rather than on scrolls would be the death of the quality reading experience.

Anyone who fears for the death of bound books has only to look at the flourishing specialty book market in the SFF communities. Younger epic fantasy fans and collectors in particular are paying top dollar for artfully bound, illustrated, and signed editions of popular series. Physical books are all the rage, and it seems there’s no end in sight to that very old trend. Seriously, I think they’re a more durable bet than vinyl LPs.

Aspiring To Embrace Opportunity

I’m currently an aspiring self-publisher. The audiobook trend is one that deserves my attention and consideration. Yes, it can be expensive to produce your books as audiobooks. But I have to consider the potential of gaining readers like Burke, who, in spite of our long friendship, would likely have never purchased or read a bound version of my book, but who’s anxious to give it a try via Audible. I also have to consider hiring a sought-after narrator when I factor in the number of audiobook readers I know who seek new titles via their favorite voice talent.

I may not have an audiobook version available on the day I release my debut this coming fall, but that doesn’t mean I’m not pursuing having them in the future. I sense an opportunity here. Besides, since I’ve abandoned my snobbishness, and have experienced the flexibility and additional advantages audiobooks can provide to readers, why wouldn’t I want to offer those things to my own readers?

Let me hear you, WU! Are you willing to sound off about “the audiobook thing”? Ever been an audiobook snob, like me? Are you interested in embracing the opportunity? Or have you already had your own audiobook? How’d it go? Please, voice your opinion!

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About Vaughn Roycroft

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

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