Audiobook Boost: How out-loud books are changing our reading experiences and making great stories more accessible
While audio books have a long history, having first emerged in 1932 when the American Institute for the Blind opened a studio and recorded on vinyl, Atlantic publishers are embracing them now more than ever.
Shuvanjan Karmaker, digital marketing coordinator at Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press, finds audio books the perfect companion during a hike or an evening on the couch. Karmaker says listening to audio books is the “closest thing to having someone read to you.
“It’s also an accessible format that allows anyone with print disability to immerse themselves in a curated listening experience created by the respective publisher of the book. According to the American-based Audio Publishers Association, 67 percent of audiobook listeners chose the format as a way to reduce their screen time.”
Similar to when ebooks first surfaced, publishers feared audio books would harm sales of their hardcover or paperback books, but that hasn’t been the case. In 2020, sales and subscriptions of print books, eBooks and audio books has risen. With collaboration between publishers and organizations like CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind), the number of accessible audiobooks is also increasing.
“For the most part, listeners are using their smartphones to listen to audio books.” A practice that has been significantly increasing over the years—from only 17 percent in 2014 to 45 percent in 2016, going all the way up to 67 percent in 2020, says Karmaker.
“Other popular methods of listening to audiobooks include using a computer—45 percent of listeners, or a tablet, which is 41 percent.”
Nimbus has started publishing audiobooks in-house and recently finished Mercy, Mercy by Marlene Stanton, an Acorn Press title.
Goose Lane Editions has also re-launched its BTC Audiobooks brand as a digital audiobook imprint. BTC originally launched in 1997 in collaboration with CBC Radio as a publisher of physical audiobooks. They are now celebrating seven new audio titles, including Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights and Measures, Riel Nason’s The Town that Drowned, Amy Spurway’s Crow and Catherine Bush’s Blaze Island.
Some other hot new audiobooks include Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, and Raithean airson Sireadh / Seasons for Seeking by Louis MacKinnon, a bilingual Gaelic-English poetry collection published by Bradan Press, which offers a free sample chapter on Bandcamp. The poetry audiobook combines spoken word and instrumental music, is read aloud by the author and features Persian, Irish and Gaelic.
Bradan also released a children’s audiobook, Biorachan Beag agus Biorachan Mor/ Little Bodkin and Big Bokin, a well-known Gaelic folktale, this past spring.
“We’ve made this audiobook available for free with the support of the grant from the Gaidheil air Adhart program on Bandcamp, as a gift to the youngest learners in Nova Scotia’s Gaelic community,” says Emily McEwan, president of Bradan. “There is a strong interest in Gaelic books because it’s a language with a strong oral tradition, and Gaels are always just as eager to listen to Gaelic as they are to read it.
“The Birochan story was a folktale told around the fire in the ceilidh. So really, the audiobook is like the centuries-old original tale, and the children’s picture book is the modern version.”
Audiobooks are increasingly popular with children and are a way for schools and libraries to offer literature in a new format for many children and adults to familiarize themselves with publications they wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.
According to a recent report from Booknet Canada, 34 percent of listeners bought audiobooks from an online store. Thirty-one percent used a subscription service or public library, a six percent increase in subscriptions from 2018. With more audiobooks being produced, especially accessible audiobooks, schools and libraries will see an increase in overall engagement/subscriptions.
For avid reader Laurie Burns, who is an English as an Additional Language teacher in Halifax (and has her own book-based Instagram account: Laurie’s Books in her Bag), she believes audiobooks are more accessible to many people, who may not have the time to sit down and read a book for hours. “Everybody has to clean their toilets or mow their lawns, and I think a lot of people are listening to audio books while they do these things,” says Burns.
“I know for some of my former literacy learners, it is also nice to be read to and help with words you may not be able to sound out. It can increase literacy and listening skills for EAL learners.”
While Burns prefers reading printed books, always carrying a book in her purse, she listens to audiobooks on long drives.
Greenwood-based writer Kelly Thompson, author of Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces, whose book was released in audiobook format, was devastated when she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. One of the first signals was that she could no longer hold a book.
Audiobooks solved this problem. She listens to them compulsively, fusing her day with stories.
“Having my book as an audiobook was a dream, mostly because I value their ability to reach all new audiences by making reading accessible to those who struggle with literacy,” says Thompson.
Pamela Hart, director of TenderAudio Productions, recently decided to launch her own audiobook production company. She wanted to see radical production coming out of Canada rather than the United States. Currently based in West Dublin, Nova Scotia, Hart has spent the past 15 years working in audio, and the last few years in accessible publishing.
“I saw huge gaps in production services that understand how to produce ethical and accessible audio,” says Hart. “Whether that be formatting, audio-quality, first-voice narration, appropriate pronunciation and accents or the accessibilizing of imagery. These are all things that TenderAudio brings to production and believes are integral to audiobook production.”
Internationally, the World Wide Web Consortium set new guidelines for audiobooks this year, which publishers are expected to implement in the near future. In the meanwhile, TenderAudio is working on sonic illustration, an approach to making children’s picture books accessible in a fun and educational way, integrating text, image and audio.