How many times have you heard someone say they don’t have time to read? And most of us have bemoaned our own lack of reading time at some point. But lack of time need not be a hindrance with audio books.
We spoke to Rebecca Herrmann [pictured, left], founder of Melbourne company, Bolinda audio, about the rise and rise of audio books.
“I put it down to that people are time-poor and the advantage of audio books is that you can listen while you do other things,” says Hermann.
While audio books were developed for blind people and often used in schools, now audio books are gaining in popularity with adults from all walks of life; thanks to this advantage of being able to do many things while listening – driving, washing-up, vacuuming with your headphones on – making them an absolutely fabulous invention, up there with say, television and spreadable butter.
Not that they’re new – they’ve been around for decades, but audio books are currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity in Australia and in many parts of the world.
Herrmann’s phenomenally successful business is now one of the largest independent producers of audio books in the world but Herrmann says she still meets people who don’t know about audio books or may have listened to them at school but haven’t rediscovered them as adults.
“You can read with your eyes closed that’s the joy of it.”
While their popularity is now on the increase among adults, there is still an idea among many people that listening to audio books is somehow cheating. That’s not the case at all, according to Herrmann.
“I always joke that audio books are one of the most democratic literacy formats because you can be illiterate and you can still read and be exposed to ideas,” she says.
“The point of audio books is about consuming the book audibly; it’s not about reading, it’s got nothing to do with reading but the upside is that you get to enjoy it with someone reading to you out aloud. A lot of ancient cultures started from stories and story telling and the spoken word.”
With audio, families and friends can listen together so that it’s a shared experienced. “It can be so much fun,” says Herrmann.
“We have reviews that it makes you laugh but also makes you cry. It’s a real sensory experience,” says Herrmann.
“I often say to people the right audio book will give you goose bumps and it is like that. When Jack Thompson did one of our books, The Water Diviner, I put it on and got goose bumps immediately; I just knew it was going to be a really good story.”
Reading an audio book can be a journey for the narrator too, according to Herrmann, as it was for Szubanski: “Often as a writer you’re typing and writing but you’re never actually reading it aloud to yourself. It’s quite emotional.”
Some audio books are more like dramatisations where there is more than one actor taking part. “Like BBC radio dramas,” says Herrmann, but most of those produced by Bolinda are single voice recordings at this stage.
“You’d be amazed at how skilled and talented the readers are,” she says. “You would think that there are two or three people actually reading the story, that’s how good they are with accents. It’s a real art.”
So much of an art that many of those now reading audio books are the world’s biggest entertainers. We asked Herrmann if this is driving sales.
“It helps the category more so than anything. The fact that when you’ve got a massive star like Reese Witherspoon or Kate Winslet or Jack Thompson, or more recently we’ve got Rupert Grint from Harry Potter reading books for us.
“It’s like audio books have arrived. Now all these big stars are putting their voice to the book. And it is a whole part of the creative and acting scene these days to have read an audio book.”
For Neradine Tisaj, a busy television executive who has embraced audio books, the narrator strongly influences her choice of book:
“I love listening to non-fiction audio books I and always check who is reading as that really influences the quality of the experience,” she says.
“For instance, listening to Bill Clinton read his autobiography, Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat Pray Love, or Alain de Botton talk about philosophy is really cool, it’s the art of literally telling stories and in many ways is more of a performance.”
“I also listen to books that I feel I need to read for work,” says Tisaj. “But don’t want to use my free time to read, like the Steve Jobs bio by Walter Isaacson, and management and business books. I’m still engaged with the books, but it’s definitely a different experience to reading.”
We asked Herrmann if some types of books work better than others: “I think action and thrillers and murder mysteries and crime and things like that do,” she says.
“So we’ve experimented with a lot of different things and there’s no doubt fiction is always the easiest. Comedy is fantastic and really easy to do and historical fiction and sagas and Australian outback stories, they all lend themselves to being read out aloud just because of the stories.”
The increase is of course driven by the ease of downloading digitally too – with smartphones and digital devices you can listen to audio books anywhere and they’re particularly popular for anyone going on long journeys – they’ve been reported to be loved by truckies on long distance routes across Australia, for example.
But the market is so much deeper than that now, says Herrmann, because people are even listening on shorter commutes to work. “It’s a huge lifestyle product because it really does add so much value to your day so even if you’re just waiting in line you can be listening to an audio book,” she says. “You can read with your eyes closed that’s the joy of it.”
For Bolinda, the digital and physical market is divided about 50-50, with children in particular liking the tactile nature of being given an audio book on CD as a gift.
“A lot of our books are bought on CD for gifts,” she says. “When people get them as a gift, they just go, ‘Oh god you’ve changed my life’.”
“They’re highly accessible wherever you are; can even access digitally from your local library on your phone or any audible device.”
Herrmann herself, as a busy working mother, loves listening to audio books:
“Your life’s better when you’ve got an audio book in it,” she says. “If I’ve listened to my audio book for half an hour when I’ve been in the car I really feel like I’ve had some me time whereas I never have the opportunity to sit down and read.
“We’re here to make sure that anybody from anywhere with any background, literate, illiterate, can actually experience a story. And that is really the power of audio books.”
For more information and the latest special offers, visit Bolinda audio’s website