To say that I was surprised when I first heard the audio book market was exploding would be an understatement. Who would listen to a book when you can read it? And where are all these people listening to these books?
Turns out everyone, everywhere. Whether CD or audiofile, more and more people are choosing to listen to their stories. According to BookStats, numbers compiled by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, which “includes data from about 1,500 publishers, including the six major trade houses,” audiobook sales keep going up and up. “‘You’re seeing an evolution in terms of the way that people are accessing content,’ said Dominique Raccah, a former chairwoman of the Book Industry Study Group and the publisher of Sourcebooks, a midsize publishing company in Naperville, Ill., outside Chicago. ‘Audio downloads are up, e-books are up. There’s a migration in format clearly occurring. Customers can now access books in a lot of different ways.’”
You would think it’d be six of one, half dozen of another between carrying a book in your bag and carrying a mobile device. So what’s pushing sales of the audio book, this strange hybrid between print and technology? “Publishers attributed the increase partly to the widespread use of mobile devices.”
I read that line and immediately felt it missed something bigger. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with what a friend of mine said during our discussion of this very topic—we want to be told stories. But what really goes on when we hear, as opposed to read, a story?
My dad read books to my sister and me when we were children, and when I focused in on what it was about those times that felt different from just reading the book myself, I remembered how he read with different voices for different characters, how he used inflection and accents and brought the emotion of stories alive with his voice. I remember when I started reading stories to my own child, how important I felt it was to do the same. I thought about how we, both my father and sister and me and my son, would act out pieces of story to each other after, laughing until we cried. Why? It’s clear we were adding something to the story by the way we read it aloud, but what?
And then I thought about all the stories we tell each other at parties and just hanging out, to our friends and families and, sometimes, even complete strangers; stories that make us scream with laughter, or clutch our chests while we try to breathe normally, or press tissues to our eyes.
I realized what’s happening during all those separate events is people are creating relationship. We’re getting close to one another in ways that can only be done through the medium of voice. Listening to someone speak is an intimately human experience—we open ourselves up through hearing a human voice. We drink in the nuance, allow the tone and resonance to evoke emotions, literally let another person live with us in our heads. It can create an incredibly intimate space in a world more and more stripped of intimacy.
All this explains why reading aloud to someone has such power, and revealed why my own first experience into audiobooks was so strong. My son and I listened to a book narrated by Brendan Fraser. Our only CD player was in the car (curse you, digital music! And yes, I know I could have downloaded it to my computer, but honestly, this was much more fun), and we were so hooked we would invent any excuse—“We’ve only got three-quarters of a loaf of bread left!”—to jump in the car and drive 50mph on the freeway to the furthest-away store we could find so we could listen to as much as possible. (Because, of course, you can’t just sit in the car in front of the house. That would be weird.) The story was great, but really it was Fraser’s voice, his inflection, his accents (just his accents alone cracked us up!), the way he brought the characters to life—the book was bursting forth from my speakers, alive in the air around us. It was Fraser’s voice that drew us, again and again, to my car.
When we listen to a story, we are entering into a relationship with the person we’re listening to. There is such power in the human voice and whether conscious or unconscious, audiobooks are tapping into this longing for connection. As far as I’m concerned, that is a bigger factor in audiobook sales than what device we have in our pocket. So presenting our stories in spoken formats might be a good marketing strategy, but it’s much more than that; it’s a deeper way to connect to readers, a way to create an intimacy that can never be reached through words on paper. We are storytellers, after all—let our stories be told.