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Are Audiobooks Poised to Weather the Pandemic?

By Dawn Ius

Leigh Rosedale had been thinking about giving audiobooks a try for months, but up until recently had dismissed the idea—she admits she found them inferior to print books, favoring the weight of paper in her hands, the smell of ink lingering under her nose. An avid reader, she maintains an impressive home library.

But a trifecta of factors made her rethink her audiobook aversion. The first was that the waitlist at her local library for Steve Berry’s latest thriller, The Warsaw Protocol, was impossibly long. Then, the world went into lockdown, she was quarantined, and getting the book delivered would take a few days—time she would rather be reading. Rosedale had, however, received a new pair of headphones for Christmas and thought, “If it’s the only way I can get my Cotton Malone fix right now, I should probably give it a try.”

Rosedale is glad she did.

While it took a few beats to get used to the rhythm of listening to her favorite stories rather than eagerly flipping pages by candlelight, Rosedale says she has a new appreciation for the format—and even when the world finds some kind of normal, she might not be so quick to take out those earbuds.

“It’s a great way to multi-task,” she says, noting that The Warsaw Protocol kept her busy while she was finding long abandoned dust-bunnies in the less-visible parts of her home. The book—which is partially narrated by Steve Berry himself—also kept her occupied in a long grocery line, and made the grueling task of a home workout that much more bearable. “There’s only so much binge-watching of Tiger King you can take—and much as I’d love to lounge around all day and read, that’s not the most productive use of my time.”

With some physical distancing protocols beginning to ease off in her home state of Florida, and the prospect of returning to work nearing reality, Rosedale says she just might consider audiobooks for her 30-minute daily commute, and will continue to take advantage of the platform’s multi-tasking opportunities.

“Silence may be golden, but it’s not necessarily the most exciting thing to listen to while doing chores,” she says. “And it’s better than listening to the news these days.”

Rosedale is only now discovering what many industry experts have known for some time—audiobooks have enjoyed several years of steady growth, even outpacing e-books. Long before the new coronavirus turned the world upside down, experts had predicted healthy audiobooks sales for 2020.

In fact, a 2018 Deloitte survey predicted that US sales of audiobooks would top $1.5 billion USD this year. That was, of course, before the pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt. In that same survey, 18 percent of American adults said they had listened to an audiobook in the last 12 months, 74 percent of them in their cars. Not quite the news the industry needs right now.

With country borders closed and fewer people commuting to work, it’s unlikely we’ll see the market surge in the same way, but that doesn’t mean the situation is completely dire. According to an April 3, 2020 survey by Statista, audiobook consumption is up 14 percent worldwide.

It’s too soon to discern how much of that translates to profit for publishers and authors—many companies, including Audible, have released hundreds of titles for free, particularly in the children’s market—but it has kept the spotlight on a segment of the publishing industry that was already closely under watch.

A simple scroll through search results will net hundreds of Most Anticipated Books for 2020 listicles, and at least half of those lists are made up of books to “help you get through the pandemic.” As with other forms of “quarantainment,” thrillers and dramas top the list of the most sought-after audiobooks, especially those that whisk us to foreign places we’re currently no longer able to visit, or put us at the heart of a danger that feels more pulse-pounding, and less realistic, than our current reality.

“There’s nothing quite like suspense when it’s coming through your surround-sound earbuds,” Rosedale says, admitting that she may have jumped a few times while listening to Riley Sager’s 2018 ITW Best Thriller Award winner, Final Girls. “It’s kind of a scary book. I’d already read it and loved it, and I wanted to read it again, but thought it might be fun to listen to it this time. That way I wouldn’t miss anything if I got distracted.”

Rosedale’s logic, unfortunately, hits on another potential obstacle to a thriving audiobook market. With our daily consumption of news—much of it grim—do we have the capacity to truly hear the story being narrated?

Depends on the narrator, Rosedale says.

But as with much to do with audiobooks even before coronavirus, that isn’t anything new—the voice can make or break it. And as is the case with the industry as a whole, only time will tell which segments are best poised to weather the storm. Many believe audiobooks will continue to thrive.

Pst! Interested in giving audiobooks a try but don’t want know where to start? Check out our partners at AudioFile, a publication devoted to providing reviews on the latest books to hit your earbuds—including an extensive library of thrillers and mysteries.


Dawn Ius
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