Books, Fiction, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction


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Audiobooks, you could say, are the quiet achievers of the publishing industry. Last century an audiobook consisted of a big box of expensive cassette tapes, or perhaps a slightly smaller box of equally pricey CDs. Audiobook readers once were mainly people with print disabilities or jobs that saw them driving long distances. But a revolution is underway.

While most of the public discussion of the impact of new technology in publishing has concerned print versus digital text, the audiobook market has grown at a rapid rate to become without fanfare the biggest thing since ebooks.

In Australia, the sales of locally founded multinational audiobook company Bolinda quadrupled between 2011 and 2016. The Australian branch of audio giant Audible (owned by Amazon) has reported triple digit growth since launching in 2014.

By 2013, Audible claimed to be the biggest employer of actors in New York City. In 2015, its customers downloaded 1.6 billion hours of content worldwide.

‘The change in format is part of that,’ says Brisbane-based author Nick Earls, who is taking a leading role among Australian authors in embracing the new audiobook format in his fiction.

“Audiobook release needs to be simultaneous with print and ebook release”.

“War and Peace used to be 50 CDs or 45 cassette tapes, now it’s a weightless downloadable file that plays on a device almost all of us carry in our pockets or bags. It’s a better fit with our lives, and our lives have changed too. We’re time poor, and audiobooks are great if you’re commuting, or cleaning the house.”

While Earls had a number of his novels turned into audiobooks back in the cassette tape days, he’s been much more hands on with the audio version of his new novella series, Wisdom Tree, which in print is published in five separate attractively designed volumes by the small Melbourne outfit Inkerman & Blunt.

“Audio needs to be treated seriously,’ he says. “It’s becoming a more significant part of the market, and I see that only increasing. Audiobook release needs to be simultaneous with print and ebook release – and that’s happening more often – and we need to be taking advantage of everything else the format offers.”

In the case of Wisdom Tree, Earls signed the audiobook contract while still working on the novellas. The effect of this deal on Earls’ creative process lends new meaning to the phrase talking a good book.

“Audio was an embedded part of the project, rather than an add-on,” he says. “That allowed me to talk to Audible about narrators while the work was still in progress. I suggested we make the most of the work being a series of novellas and, rather than having a series narrator, choose one for each novella and match the age and voice of the narrator to the characters. Then I took it a step further by saying, “How about we cast it like an Australian TV drama series?” As I clicked “send” on that email, I wondered if I’d pushed my luck a bit far.”

According to Earls, Audible embraced the idea. Earls’ wishlist featured actors such as William McInnes, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley, all of whom agreed to be involved. Once they were established as within reach, Earls was able to put them – or at least his knowledge of their voices – to work on his final drafts.

“Voice is a big thing for me in my writing,” he says. “My narrator’s voice is really important, since I usually write in first person. And these characters have quite a few things in common, so I needed to hear a distinct voice in each case. Knowing we were aiming for, say, William McInnes with Juneau, I’d find myself testing my lines in the voice I thought he’d bring to it. It helped me bed down each voice and make it its own thing. Not that that took over the writing process, but it was a tool that was there for me whenever it might be useful.”

Earls sees digital audio as a chance to capture new readers who never opted in back in the days of cassette tape.

Earls predicts that, with the audiobook market growing as it is, writers will take audio into account more and more. Earl’s Wisdom Tree novellas have made an impressive audiobook debut, with the first story Gotham attracting more than 100 ratings on Audible with a 4.4/5 average.

“We’ll see works written primarily for audio that will also have a life in print,”says Earls. “And we’ll see production innovations taking audiobooks further – individual books with casts of a number of actors, sound effects and atmosphere. In some cases, I could see audio verging on a radio play, while I’m sure we’ll also still have the single-narrator straight-read audiobooks we have now.”

Earls also sees digital audio as a chance to capture new readers who never opted in back in the days of cassette tape.

“There are millions of people who are big podcast fans who haven’t yet thought about audiobooks,” he says. ‘All we need to do is convince them to flip the switch to fiction and they’ll be listening to audio novellas. And that’s another advantage of the platform – you’re not binding pages up to make a book, so a digital audio book can be as big as it needs to be. Novellas are a day’s commuting or a domestic plane flight, an entire movie-length story that fits in around other things.”

[box]Photo of Nick Earls by Candid Lane[/box]

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