The 200th anniversary, this week, of Jane Austen’s birth saw the launch of a new audiobook version of “Northanger Abbey”, narrated by Emma Thompson. This might not seem that big a deal, given that there are already a dozen recordings by actresses ranging from Anna Massey to Juliet Stevenson. But Thompson leads a large, glitzy cast including Lily Cole, a model-turned-actress; Douglas Booth, who starred in “The Riot Club”; Elinor Tomlinson from “Poldark” (above); and Jeremy Irvine, who made his name in “War Horse”. Several decades younger than your average audiobook narrator, the photogenic actors have been tweeting excitedly about “Northanger Abbey” to their huge social-media audiences.
Audiobooks have come a long way in the last decade. What was once the dustiest corner of the publishing industry’s shelf is now growing faster than any other, with sales in the UK worth an estimated £99m a year. “For years the industry was focussed on ebooks,” says Philip Jones, the editor “The Bookseller”, a magazine for the book industry. “But in a sense audiobooks are the true revolution, thanks to the availability of downloads on smartphones.” Once upon a time, listening to an audiobook on the go meant meant lugging around multiple cassettes and a Sony Walkman; these days all you need is a phone and headphones.
At the vanguard of this revolution is Audible, an Amazon subsidiary with a whopping 92% market share. It sells other publishers’ audiobooks – as one-off purchases and through a subscription model – and is increasingly pouring money into its own productions, of which “Northanger Abbey” is the most ambitious example. Has it been well spent in this instance? Listening to the adaptation, I was far from convinced. Emma Purnell makes a sprightly Catherine Morland and Douglas Booth a fine Henry Tilney, but Emma Thompson’s narration is too rushed and nasal, and Lily Cole gives a flat performance as Isabella Thorpe. The producers have made the fundamental mistake of allowing background sound effects – from birdsong to the chatter of theatregoers – to distract from what is being said. It’s a much less satisfying experience than listening to a master of the traditional audiobook (Anton Lesser reading Dickens, for example, or Martin Jarvis reading P.G. Wodehouse ) who can single-handedly conjure up a whole imaginative world and impersonate a score of different characters.
That said, as an experienced audiobook listener, I’m not really in Audible’s target audience. Laurence Howell, a senior director at Audible UK, explains the company’s approach: “More than half the people who join us have never listened to an audiobook before, so they’re not wedded to the traditional format. They’re used to dramas with big casts, and they’re attracted to the idea of readings by actors they know from films. They might hear Emma Thompson in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and then move on to her reading ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and from there to another book by Henry James.”
Audible is not confining itself to established titles. It has already published a series of spin-offs from the movie “Alien” – launched at the London Planetarium – starring Rutger Hauer and Anna Friel. This week also sees the release of “X-Files: Cold Cases”, based on Joe Harris and Chris Carter’s graphic novels, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising the roles of Mulder and Scully.
“It’s understandable that Audible want famous readers to bring in new listeners,” says Nicholas Jones, the managing director of Strathmore Publishing, a company that produces audiobooks. “But on the whole it’s best to use someone with proper experience. The skill of reading aloud is different from acting on stage or TV: you need to scale back.” Certainly, one of the worst recordings I have ever heard was of Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor’s motorcycle travelogue “Long Way Round”, read by McGregor himself with all the panache of a slow puncture. Celebrities may also struggle to find the time necessary for preparation: Jones remembers one who turned up and said, “What are we reading today?”, and another who kept getting English place names hopelessly wrong.
The choice of reader is all the more important because, freed from the constraints of cassettes and CDs, the vast majority of audiobooks are now unabridged. Purists may welcome this, but even some of the greatest novels have their longueurs – “Anna Karenina”, for instance, with its disquisitions on agricultural reform – and after 20 hours’ listening you sometimes wish the director would cut to the chase. With print, your eyes can skim across the page; with an audiobook, you’re a prisoner.
Whether the audiobook industry will continue to grow, and publishers continue to invest in elaborate productions, remains to be seen. “Much depends on whether new players come into the market,” says Philip Jones, citing Apple, Google, Kobo and Storytel, a Scandinavian company, as potential challengers to Audible. Some genres, however, are unlikely ever to flourish in the format. “It doesn’t really work for cookery or diet books,” says Rebecca Lloyd, head of audio at Pan Macmillan, a publisher. “Or colouring books for that matter.”
Northanger Abbey available now from Audible