Interest in audiobooks and digital storytelling grows
Ethan Wattley loaded up his car at home in Burlington, Vt., last weekend before heading off to a beach near Rye, N.H. He packed towels, fruit, seltzer, a chair, and an audiobook downloaded on his iPhone — Peter Clines’s “The Fold,” a techno-thriller about an investigation into a secret government teleportation project.
“I was really engrossed,” Wattley said. “I listened on the drive there and kept listening when I got to the beach.”
Audiobooks are booming, the result of easier accessibility, lower pricing, aggressive marketing, and a wider embrace of digital audio storytelling that also shows up in the increasing number of podcast listeners.
The numbers tell the story: Audiobook titles climbed nearly 400 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to data from the Audio Publishers Association. Sales increased 20.7 percent in 2015 alone, to about $1.8 billion.
“I always kind of scorned audiobooks until I had to drive across country from California to Boston,” Logan Boehler of Jamaica Plain said. He listened to “The Name of the Wind,” a fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss, and fell in love with the format. Now, Boehler, a full-time student, estimates that he spends 25 to 30 hours a week listening, during commutes and walks and at home.
The industry is looking for ways to capitalize on the growth. In July, Audible, the world’s largest seller and producer of audiobooks, launched a new service called Channels that allows users unlimited access to readings of newspaper articles, short fiction and nonfiction, lectures, and comedy shorts for $4.95 a month. It is free for subscribers to its regular $14.95 monthly service, which gives listeners access to one free audiobook and discounts on other purchases from its library of over 300,000 titles.
Also last month, online subscription service eMusic relaunched an audiobook service under the name eStories, which features 80,000 titles, clearly looking to compete.
Donald Katz, CEO and founder of Audible, owned by Amazon.com, says his company is launching Channels in a moment of high demand. While Audible declined to disclose its number of listeners, representatives say the total is in the millions, and membership has grown 40 percent a year for the past two years.
“Our audience is really, really large now,” Katz said, explaining that creating more offerings just made sense given the high interest in digital products.
Digital listening — like reading — is now a mobile experience, and that means users can hear their favorite books where ever they want to. “I used to exclusively listen while I was going to sleep because that was where I had a cassette player,” Somerville-based programmer Alex Willisson said. “Now I don’t have to do that.”
Amanda D’Acierno, publisher at Penguin Random House Audio, said that only 10 to 15 percent of their current audiobook sales occur in CD form. The remainder are digital.
Audiobooks are still expensive compared with print, but digital subscription services like Audible can help reduce costs. Buying all the Harry Potter books on a CD on Amazon would cost about $224, or $389 for the boxed set. Someone with a standard Audible membership could get them all for $188, or less if members use their monthly credits toward the books. (It should be noted, though, that a complete paperback set goes for around $50 and that the state’s public libraries offer free access to a variety of audiobooks, both in CD and through download.)
Beyond practical enticements, audiobook producers in recent years have also recruited more celebrity narrators. In the past year, Emma Thompson narrated Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” Scarlett Johansson read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and James Franco recorded “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. In July, a version of “Anna Karenina” narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal debuted on Audible’s bestseller list at No. 6.
All of this dovetails with a renewed interest in what Katz calls the “unbridled power of the spoken word,” which is also reflected in the popularity of podcasts. Podcasts have become more and more mainstream, on the heels of wildly successful programs like “Serial,’’ a project that investigated the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student.
According to numbers from Edison Research, collected in January and February 2016, the percentage of Americans who said they’d listened to a podcast in the past month grew 4 percent from last year to 21 percent — more than double the figure in 2008. This was also the first year that more than half of all Americans surveyed were aware of podcasting.
One thing is clear: People like to listen to stories.
Many are drawn to audiobooks and podcasts to make better use of their time, according to Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association.
“We are a culture of multitasking,” Cobb said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s podcasts, radio, or audiobooks, but listening allows you to do something else.”
Seward Rutkove of Brookline listens whenever he has downtime. “I listen when I walk to work, when I exercise, when I’m gardening or mowing the lawn, when I’m shoveling snow,” he said. He estimates that when he was reading books on the page, he used to read three or four a year. Now, he listens to about 20.
Despite the forces fostering the audio-storytelling boom, Susan Shipley of Dorchester, who often listens while she knits, sees the rise more as a return than a digital-age innovation.
“Storytelling was originally an oral tradition,” Shipley said. “When the scribes came along, I imagine the bards thought that was really new.”
D’Acierno of Penguin Random House Audio said she thinks the boom is pretty easy to explain. She believes that there is something natural in the attraction.
“All of us love to hear stories,” she said. “This is a way to get in touch with that again.”
Editor’s note: A prior version of this story incorrectly stated the number of audiobook titles in the Audible library. It has more than 300,000 titles. It also neglected to note that libraries across Massachusetts offer free access to audiobooks.