Audio gives new voice to books in the digital age

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

Everybody thought the ebook was going to be the thing, and it turns out the audiobook is the thing,” says Maria Pallante, president of the Association of American Publishers.

Her members’ audiobook revenue shot up from $200m in 2010 to more than $500m in 2018, or 6.6 per cent of industry sales. Including Amazon’s imprints and self-published titles on its Audible and ACX platforms, US sales are approaching $1bn. Audiobooks are growing even faster in the UK, jumping by 43 per cent between 2017 and 2018 to reach £69m, according to Nielsen. Global sales, according to forecasts by Deloitte, could hit $3.5bn in 2020.

“At the beginning there was a feeling that it was a fad and it wouldn’t stick,” recalls Patch McQuaid, who started his London studio business with unwanted equipment after the CD-Rom fad faded. “Digital changed everything.”

The story of the audiobook boom is not just a financial one, though: it is one of the unexpected effects that techno­logy has had on us — and of our need to escape technology. Whether our genre is self-improvement or frothy romance, it also speaks volumes about how we have responded to a decade of dislocation and distraction.