On audiobooks and literature in the post-digital age

An audio version of this essay is available here.

 Audible Australia’s 2019 advertising campaign combined political satire with a quintessentially Australian brand of self-mocking. It used this lens to poke fun at Australian speakers and Australian slang – public figures like Magda Szubanski, and popular (and popularly derided) vernaculars. Think ‘yeah, nah, nah, yeah’. In broad terms, Audible’s ad promotes how audiobooks fit neatly around the edges of a busy life, while still upholding the intellectual superiority of books over other forms of cultural leisure.

Coming from Audible, the English-speaking world’s biggest and most powerful producer of audiobooks, this ad brings together claims based on media affordances, various strains of cultural elitism, and popular assumptions about audiobooks’ popularity. (I can listen while also being a productive parent/citizen/capitalist! It’s great!) As a result, it provides the perfect launchpad for thinking about how audiobooks fit within today’s cross-media literary landscape.

Audiobooks are going through a period of massive and unprecedented growth across the English-speaking world. Until ten years ago, audio publishing was a stable but side-lined market sector. Historically, audiobooks were largely used as accessibility devices and seldom marketed to a mainstream audience. But as ‘books on tape’ were ported into the era of digital streaming and portable devices, their popularity ballooned. The UK audiobook market has more than doubled in value since 2012 and the US market has also seen double-digit growth every year over the same period.

In Australia, the story is similar. Audible has reported revenue growth in triple digits every year since it entered the market in 2014, and Australian company Bolinda reported sales quadrupling over the period 2011–2016. Beyond the figures publicly released by these big content creators and aggregators, however, the extent of audiobooks’ popularity in Australia is obscure, with reliable data scarce or non-existent. Neither Nielsen BookScan, who track books sales, nor AustLit, who keep a record of books published, systematically include Australian audiobooks.

Audible’s ad, featuring Rebel Wilson, hits on key ingredients of audiobooks’ popularity, both intentionally and accidentally. Firstly, it highlights how audio media offer direct access to a range of voices, a process which invokes mechanisms of belonging and identification. By sending up cringe-inducing parts of Australian culture, Audible knowingly uses these elitist mechanisms in its own campaign. But this also evokes an important, intrinsic quality of spoken word: voice is crucial to conceptions of self and identity.

At a time when the decline of book sales and reading has become a media trope, audiobooks’ growing audience is noteworthy. It has obvious connections to the booming popularity of other audio media, in particular podcasts. Research into Chinese audio publishing – major components of which include ‘paid knowledge’, a form of educational audio, and retellings of traditional stories – has tracked similarly unprecedented recent growth. Increasingly time-poor populations have obvious attractions to the multi-tasking potential of digital audio’s hands-free portability. This is the second feature that Audible tells us will ‘make words great again’: like podcasts, audiobooks fit seamlessly into the busy work-a-day world of the good neoliberal subject.

Thinking about books, reading, and publishing as post-digital helps to contextualise this growing popularity, while avoiding narratives that emphasise the ‘death’ of the book at the hands of digital growth. A post-digital interpretation of literary culture recognises that digital technology has not and will not supplant older media forms. Instead, the many components of books’ production, circulation, and reception are dispersed across analogue, digital and live spaces and practices. Think MRA trolls attacking bookstores on Facebook (and inadvertently bolstering the popularity of the store and the events they’re attacking). That’s post-digital. Online streams of panel discussions about books? Post-digital. Twitter going bananas over plums? Also post-digital.

Audiobooks are digital, portable products, but they’re also tied up in ideas of the book as something tangible print objects – making them, at least by this formulation, inherently post-digital cultural products. This is a relationship that plays out in a lot of different ways. The most obvious is print-to-audio adaptation, but we’re also starting to see audio- and podcast-to-print routes, like Rachael Brown’s Trace; or concurrent book, ebook and audiobook publications, like Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree novellas. Leaning heavily on how audiobooks combine with being-in-the-world – riding the bus, exercising, walking down the street – Audible’s ad likewise gives us a very post-digital rendering of what reading looks like.

Conglomeration and disintermediation both characterise the post-digital literary field. On one hand, it’s a space dominated by massive multinationals, with Amazon the biggest of these big fish. On the other, it’s increasingly shaped by direct relationships between creators and consumers that bypass traditional gatekeepers such as publishers. So perhaps it’s no surprise to see Amazon-owned Audible’s prominence as a publisher and direct-to-market distributor of audiobooks. And we also see a growth in amateur audiobook production. This is most visible in the case of Librivox, an online community where volunteers upload homemade audiobooks of out-of-copyright literature. At the time of writing Librivox comprised 13,127 titles – only a fraction of Audible Australia’s ‘over 300,000’ titles.

If large amounts of popular cultural content are produced through volunteer sites like Librivox, what might this mean for the publishing industry? Librivox’s positive community of amateur enthusiasm cultivates talent and readerships. Along with sites like Project Gutenberg, its distribution of public domain cultural content is unprecedented. Like other forms of digital, user-led content creation, the low barriers to entry and absence of economic motivators also mean that the collection’s development is driven by individuals’ often eccentric tastes rather than market concerns. If you’re looking for recordings of a specialty publication for the 1900 solar eclipse, the entire run of ‘birds and nature’ magazine, or fifteen different renditions of Henry Lawson’s ‘When Your Pants Begin To Go’, Librivox will deliver.

There is, however, a flipside to these amateur passion projects: the work done by Librivox volunteers is, essentially, archival and publishing labour. This labour is often invisible and performed overwhelmingly by women, in the context of industries under threat from growing precarity, casualisation and other forms of expected voluntary work – such as unpaid internships.

Post-digital cultural production is a space of contradictions, ambivalences, and unexpected interdependencies. It’s within this context that we see the emergence of projects like Librivox that, on the one hand, idealistically resist the commodification and restriction of knowledge by creating and freely distributing public domain material, and on the other, eerily parallel some of the cultural sector’s exploitative tendencies.

The Audible ad ends with a cheery group of Australians, newly converted to the joys of audiobooks, marching behind Wilson and excitedly comparing their finds. These books, we’re told, help people ‘keep connected’, and feature ‘inspiring’, ‘informative’, and ‘sexy’ voices (Richard Armitage reading ‘classic love poems’, just in case you’re wondering). An audiobook adaptation of Big Little Lies gets a look-in in the ad, but otherwise the preference is largely for international titles (Kick Ass with Mel Robbins; Harry Potter). And for the Debbie Downer who kills the mood because she ‘learnt about 17th century agricultural practices’, don’t worry, Librivox has got you covered.


Millicent Weber

Millicent Weber is a Lecturer in English at the Australian National University and the author of Literary Festivals and Contemporary Book Culture, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

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