Is audio the future for books?

Some readers love them. Others don’t think they count as ‘real reading’. But it seems the British public are falling in love with the idea of listening to words rather than reading them. According to the Publishers Association, sales of audio books in the UK have doubled in the last five years. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when publishers were fearing the days of the audio recording were numbered. From sales of £4M then, last year saw the figure jump to £10M.

Remember the days of these?
Remember the days of these?

The boom has been attributed to two factors: one is the ease with which users can now get hold of a recording. Gone are the days when you had to find a shop selling cassettes and later CDs, and then carry a dedicated player around with you whose battery life was sure to fail just at the exciting point in the book. .Now, just like music, they are easily downloaded  onto phones and tablets, and carried everywhere from trains to planes, from the park to the beach. Well just about anywhere really.

The second factor the publishers claimed to be responsible for the upswing is that  famous names from stage and screen are now regularly turning their skills to narration.  In recent years we’ve had Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse, Kate Winslet narrating Therese Raquin and Colin Firth relating Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Then, just last month Reese Witherspoon was named as the voice for the audio version of Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman. 

I’ve been an audio book fan for decades. It started when a change of job meant I had a 45 minute commute to work and desperately wanted something as relief from political and world news. Fortunately during the times when Parliament wasn’t in session, the BBC would offer a book of the week.  Otherwise my options were limited because it was expensive buying the cassette recordings myself and if I tried borrowing them from other people, the tape had a tendency to get snarled up in the machine. The advent of the CD was a great relief especially when public libraries began offering them for loan at a very low price. Even more joy came when I bought my first iPod and learned how to record from the CD so I could listen when pounding the treadmill in the gym.

I’ve learned a few things over the years.

One is that the choice of narrator is critical. I don’t care if they are famous – what matters most is whether by their voice they can hook me into the story and make me believe in the character they are inhabiting. Martin Jarvis is one of the best I’ve come across but I also love Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Some recordings I have abandoned simply because the narrator’s voice has grated on me so much I simply couldn’t bear to continue.

Secondly, It’s hard to define the perfect recipe but some books work better than others in certain circumstances. If I’m driving and listening then I need a book with a good story but one that is not too complicated because I need to also pay attention to the road. If it has too many characters or involves a lot of introspective thinking by the main character, then it will demand more attention that I can safely give.

Crime fiction works well which is a surprise because that’s not a genre I read widely in printed format. I’ve exhausted the library collections of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie and the Crowner John series featuring a coroner in fourteenth century England written by a former Home Office pathologist Bernard Knight. I’m now working my way through Peter James.

Some classics also work well. I enjoyed Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop in audio version (i alternated reading the book with listening which seemed to work really well) but couldn’t get into Barnaby Rudge and failed, again with a Tale of Two Cities.

I’m going to run out of options soon so if you have some recommendations do let me know. The Daily Telegraph published a list of their top 20 audio books yesterday – I’ve not read any of these. Have you listened to any of them?


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “Is audio the future for books?

  • I could never live without print or ebooks. Every time I listen to an audio book I always notice I feel I missed things. Or even didn’t quite get the gist of it all. If I go back and read the book with my own eyes, somehow I absorb more and often feel much different about the story as whole.

    • Audio will never replace print for me. I view them more as an adjunct experience. sometimes I miss things in the audio version but then i just rewind.

  • I’ve been loving audiobooks for my commute so I’m excited to hear that they’re doing so well! I recently listened to The Martian, which had a fantastic story and a great narrator. There were some science-y bits that you might find yourself struggling to follow on the audio. I know I did! It was almost like the experience of skimming something when reading a paperback. These bits were few and far between though and overall the story was a funny adventure that I thought was great for driving.

    • good to hear you enjoyed the book. sci fi is something I haven’t been able to get into personally but plan to try again one day

  • from this list of 20, I have only listened to The Curious…
    I also experience that some genres work better than others in audio, mysteries are great, but also some classics and nonfiction.
    Oh YES the narrator IS critical. Now I no longer check out an audio from my library without listening to an excerpt (free on audible even for non members).
    I haven even listened to some books BECAUSE they were narrated by a fabulous narrator I had heard in another book. Orlagh Cassidy, Barbara Rosenblat (I SO love her series on Mrs Pollifax and on Amelia Peabody – watch out, they exist with other less good narrators), and Simon Vance are stunning.
    My favorite of all times would be Ready Player One by Wil Wheaton.
    I’m right now enjoying so much the series by Louise Penny with Crosham as the narrator. Perfect voice and tone of voice for Penny’s characters.
    In nonfiction, I enjoyed immensely Atlantic, a story on the ocean by Simon Winchester, who happens to be narrating his own books. Sometimes it’s not a good idea, but it here it’s just wonderful!
    Every year i choose my best audios of the year, 4 categories: fiction, nonfiction, mystery, and historical fiction, see what they were in 2014. I highly recommend them if you have not listened to them yet:

    • i’ve tried audio for two non fiction – one was the bio of Steve Jobs and the other a bio of Elizabeth of York. I couldn’t finish the second because the writing style irritated me. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it so much in written format but in audio I notice when phrases are repeated often which was the case here. Thanks for all those recommendations!

  • i will have to find out about whisper sync – that will save me lots of effort in trying to find my place. Hooray, I found someone else who loves Banville …..

  • I also started listening to audios when I changed jobs and had to start commuting 2 hours a day. The narrator makes all the difference in books that can keep my attention.

    I made in through Ulysses in no small part thanks to the wonderful narrator (I used whispersync to go back and forth between print and audio). I also found that the wonderful writing of Banville was made more beautiful by an excellent narrator (John Lee) in The Sea. I also love listening to Neil Gaiman read his books.

    In contrast, I thought Debra Monk’s Snow Child narration was weak and Mark Bramhall’s narration of the first two of Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy almost made me stop “reading.”

    While print is always my preferred medium, some books can be made more special by the wonderful narration. A good narrator is able to keep your mind from wandering (if it’s a good book).

  • My husband loves audiobooks. He loves them so much he listens to them on his 10-minute commute to work. Me, I’m not a fan. My mind wanders and I lose the thread.

    • I think ten minutes would leave me feeling frustrated – I could imagine just getting to the interesting part and find my train has arrived at the station

  • Travels with Charley was an outstanding audio! Several of the others are my “to listen” list.

    • that was the one that caught my husband’s attention so guess what’s gone on my list of ideas for his birthday 🙂

  • I wish I could enjoy audio books, but my attention tends to wander so badly that when a book is done, many times, I’ve no idea what has happened. I’ve been told I’m a bad listener in general >.< , so I guess it's no surprise that audio books don't work well for me.

    • Sometimes I prefer paper books for the simple reason that if you can’t remember who a character is, it is so much easier to rifle back to find out who they are! Even with ebooks I’m find myself making multiple bookmarks just in case a character turns out to be important later!

  • I’ve tried audiobooks but print is still my favorite format. With audio, you’re right, narrator matters. If the narrator’s voice is annoying, I can’t concentrate on the story. With audio, also, I need to really concentrate to understand what’s going on.

  • I have all three volumes of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” on audiobook. The same guy narrates for all 4 and does an amazing job. I’d highly recommend them!

    • Maybe that could get me to enjoy Tolkein. I’ve failed a few times with the books.

  • Check out Ngaio Marsh’s books, especially those read by the (sadly, late) James Saxon. These are the Inspector Alleyn books, which were also made into a TV series, that is now being repeated on one of the minor channels (“Drama” I think).

    BBC do a decent line in their Dramas, so I would listen to the dramatisations of the Paul Temple (Durbridge) stories. Tony Head has also taken a turn doing the abridged versions of some that never made it to air – or where recordings didnt survive.

    I know what you mean about the narrator. I picked up a version of Shogun from audible, and didnt survive a matter of hours (of a 45 hour book!) before I had to give it up. The version of Marco Polo was read by someone who was literally phoning it in, the sound quality being so poor.

    Try and find a Brenda Dayne’s version of The Age of Innocence. Her voice is perfect for this story and she reads so well

    • Thanks for those suggestions Nordie. I’ve had a few of the Simon temple episodes but not inspector alleyn. These should keep me occupied for a while.


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