Busy lives have opened the market for audiobooks. The spoken word has its own aesthetic and it is time the critics paid more attentionby Christina Hardyment / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The trend is linked to technology. The invention of transistors and cassette players meant that sound, once chained inside walnut-clad wirelesses and Dansette record-players, has become portable and personal. When the first Sony Walkman generation came of age, with our children and mortgages, we wanted something to feed our minds rather than numb them. Many of us are self-improvers but have no time to settle down with a book. The solution is “multi-tasking.” We listen to the latest bestsellers as we jog round the block, weed the garden, redecorate the kitchen or take the dog for a walk. Thirty-seven per cent of audiobook listening occurs at home. Most of the rest happens in cars.
“The value of spoken word’s turnover is now about half as much as that of recorded classical music,” says Nicolas Soames, founder of Naxos Audiobooks. “Retail sales in 1999 were around ?65m-a 30 per cent increase on 1998. But Britain is still underachieving compared with the US, where sales have now topped $2 billion. That’s 20 times British sales.”
The biggest British sales of spoken word tapes come from the BBC Radio Collection. Its publisher, Jan Paterson, recently gave a party to celebrate sales of more than half a million for This Sceptred Isle, its 15-volume British history. Other successes have included Spoonface Steinberg and anything by Alan Bennett. At present, 1.4m people buy at least one spoken word tape each year, but that figure could be ten times higher. In Britain the average commuter journey is 25 minutes-55 minutes in London-and more than 70 per cent of the population makes that journey each day.
But it isn’t just technology or commuting by car which is making talking books so popular. There has been a sharp improvement in their range and quality. Five years ago, the industry was divided between puritans who produced unabridged books at prices only libraries could afford, and cavaliers specialising in cheap and cheerful abridgements which did scant justice to the originals. Today, spoken word can claim to be a medium in its own right. Nicholas Jones, who produces the audio titles for Orion, is interested in the value which can be added by audio production: the use of an especially appropriate reader, for example. “And I’m working on the idea of separating the narrative into chapter-like chunks, so that there are ‘natural breaks’ in it.” (One of Orion’s most startling…