By Clive Young.
When we think of the recording industry, audiobooks aren't the first format that comes to mind. Nonetheless, plenty of audio pros make their living from them; the question now is, for how long? Audiobook sales are down 20 percent so far this year, and according to the Associated Press, their revenues have dropped 47 percent. Can audiobooks be saved?
Experts in the AP article had a laundry list of reasons for why things are so dire, and topping the bill were a few items that the music industry knows well--that physical sales have plummeted but legal downloads haven't made up difference, list prices are too high, and production costs are rising, occasionally reaching $50,000 per title. One interesting argument given was that since millions have been laid off, they're not commuting, which is when many people listen to audiobooks. Score one for the environment, I suppose, since they obviously weren't carpooling if they were listening to books.
However, missing from all the reasons given was the most obvious answer: No one has the sheer time to take in an audiobook anymore.
How fragmented is our attention already? There's work, family and the day-to-day aspects that often make life hectic. Then, for the scant moments of downtime that we get, most of us turn to entertainment to relax, and that's pretty chaotic, too.
Media wrestles with the senses all day long now; TV, websites, billboards, magazines, Blackberries, radio, blogs, cell phones, email, newspapers and a thousand other mediums all vie for our attention every waking moment. The ultimate, of course, is to walk down the block from Pro Sound News' New York offices into Times Square, where you can get caught up in a monsoon of video screens and media messages--a freakish collage that inundates, overwhelms and oddly pacifies, all at the same time. While The Crossroads of the World is clearly an atypical environment, it's only a cartoonish exaggeration of your local sports bar that brags about having every game on 22 screens.
With our attention being cut into ever thinner slices, audiobooks as they exist today don't stand a chance. Simply reading a book takes commitment in a time when most people reading this didn't even commit to reaching this paragraph (congratulations--you made it!). Listening to a book takes even longer--and you can't skim. One expert in AP's article suggested that audiobooks are seen as luxury items due to their high price points; forget that--they're luxury items because it's a luxury to focus on one thing for more than 5 minutes.
Everyone talks about how “old media” struggles to adapt to a “new media” society; I can’t think of a media older than listening to a story. We’ve done it ever since we were cavemen sitting around the fire--and yet, anything that’s lasted that long has an incredible worth; storytelling is an art, as any roadie killing time in the back of a tour bus will prove to you (at length, especially if there's another 200 miles to go). I think the key is, what we really value in these instances is the bonding that listening--and responding--promotes.
Bonding is all about interactivity and relationships--the very heart of what drives the current trend of Social Media. Perhaps to survive then, audiobook publishers need to take a page from the world of Facebook and Twitter, and move from the one-way model of pre-recorded oral recounting to a more interactive, reciprocal approach, like subscriptions to live-streamed audiobook clubs. You could dial in from your cell phone or computer, find a group starting on the half-hour that’s listening to, say, Chapter 12 of Josh Bazell’s Beat The Reaper (a great thriller, by the way), and jump in. The personnel and technologies needed to make this happen would keep audio pros, not to mention voice-over artists, working--no small consideration.
That’s just one idea, of course, but surely there’s plenty of others to be conceived. Listening and responding isn’t just an idea for a small portion of the audio publishing industry--it’s a gameplan for every media-centric business in this day and age.
What do you think? Share your thoughts below in the comments or in Pro Sound News' forums.