The Resurgence of Audiobooks

by Hannah Dennison

The saying ‘ask a busy person’ never held truer for me than these past few weeks. I was on a deadline – the kind where you cannot be late because the publisher works to a tight schedule – I visit my mum almost daily in a nursing home, I have a demanding job to pay the bills, and I have energetic dogs to walk – but despite all that, I happily agreed to feed my daughter’s cats adding another 1 ½ hours of commitments to my day. It’s only a 25-mile round trip but those are country miles along narrow twisty roads and if you get stuck behind a tractor …

Miraculously, it all turned out to be a wonderful gift. The weather has been fabulous (ask Jackie – she knows!) so each morning I would take my coffee and breakfast and sit in Sarah’s beautiful garden with Taz and Tilly and listen to the birds and remember to breathe – to literally ‘stop and smell the roses.’

I also rediscovered audiobooks.

When I’m in serious writing mode – I can’t read any fiction. I just don’t have the bandwidth. Not only that, when I do pick up a book, I find it hard to switch off my writer or editing hat, unintentionally critiquing instead of just going on the journey. There are exceptions of course.  I just finished Lucy Worsley’s excellent biography Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman and I can’t say enough good things about it. But I digress.

I’d checked out a CD of ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon  from my local library initially for my mother who – at 93 – is a great audio fan. I’d always loved Diana’s time travel series. I’d heard her talk many times, especially at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ where she is their local author.

On a whim, I thought I’d listen to Outlander en route to kitty duty. Usually, I listen to podcasts but I’d forgotten all about audiobooks despite having devoured them on my daily freeway commute when I worked in Los Angeles another lifetime ago.  I’d even got stopped by Highway Patrol once for speeding. When I explained that I’d been listening to ‘Shutter Island’ by Dennis Lehane and just hadn’t been paying attention, they still gave me a ticket – clearly not amused.

An article in Wordsrated (January 2023) stated that globally, audiobook revenue for 2022 is projected to be worth over $5.38 billion. Over the last five years, audiobook revenue in the USA has increased by 113.3% making it the fastest-growing book format in the USA. Nielsen reported that in 2022, 27 million audiobooks were sold in the UK alone, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2018 – and the median just keeps on growing. Revenue from audiobooks is expected to grow 26.4% every year from 2022 to 2030 and reach $35.05 billion in 2030. It’s mindboggling stuff so if you haven’t explored this option for your work, now is the time!

Happily, my books are available on audio but full disclosure, I don’t think I can bear to listen to them. I’d hear all the discrepancies or things that in hindsight, I may have written differently. It would be too cringeworthy.

The narrator is critical.  Davina Porter has narrated the entire series of Outlander. Deemed a Golden Voice narrator with AudioFile, it’s easy to see why. AudioFile’s founder, Robin Whitten said ‘Golden Voice narrators have superb performance skills, are keenly attuned to their authors, and are practiced in many genres and styles.’

Voice acting is a unique skill that includes accurate articulation, the ability to control emotions, instinctive pausing, being aware of when to use an accent (Davina Porter’s Scottish accent in Outlander is flawless) but most of all, the narrator must be able to differentiate each character to enable listeners to audibly ‘see’ that character and bring it to life. 

I know some folks record their own books – and I say good for you! An author friend of mine uses his car as a sound booth – seriously. He stuffs the interior with pillows and duvets and does everything on his phone. It works for him but I wouldn’t have the patience to fiddle with all the editing software.

Audio books are not for everyone. In ‘The Author’ – the UK’s quarterly publication from the Society of Authors, Laura Hackette, Deputy Literary Editor at The Sunday Times, says she ‘doesn’t have the attention span for the format’ and either she drifts off or gets distracted by other things or gets ‘frustrated by the slow-paced narration.’ She even tried listening on 1.5x speed but it just sounded weird.

My cat feeding duty is over now and, to my surprise, I turned the manuscript in three days early – the first time in years. Perhaps it was just taking that enforced time out that made a difference. Who knows? But what I do know is that I have another 8 volumes of Outlander to listen to. I think I’ll just spend more time in my car – even if it is just parked outside my house.

So Many Books! So Little Time!

I don’t know about you, but I have too many books on my TBR stack but instead of reading them, I just keep adding more. I can’t help it. Often I buy books because I’ve read a tantalizing review or it’s a recommendation from a bookseller or I just want to support a fellow writer. One reader confessed to having over 4,000 books waiting to be read on her Kindle. I found that unnerving. Have we always been so cavalier?

When I was growing up, my reading source was always the library. I would pick my four books which, in those days, was the maximum you could check out at one time. This was a cherished Saturday morning trip with my Dad who was a great reader (and, years later, suffered from Alzheimer’s which broke my heart). We would spend at least an hour or two drifting among the bookshelves carefully making our selections. For me, it started with an eye-catching cover, a flick to the back to read the blurb and then a glance in the middle. It was serious stuff. When I got home and started to read one of my selections and hated it, I would still persevere and finish it. I don’t do that now.

Just speaking for myself – and apologies to those who may disagree – but having access to books at the click of a button, or arriving by Amazon Prime within twenty-four hours, has taken away some of my joyful anticipation. There was a sort of reverence to starting a new book when we all had more time and less distractions. Now, there is no commitment – at least, not from me. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first fifty pages, it’s out. Not exactly disposable, but close.

I don’t know about everyone else but I am increasingly overwhelmed by the choice and sheer number of books out there. How do we choose?

I posed that question on my Facebook page showing three different book covers of my first mystery with the original 2008 American cover, the 2012 British cover, and the 2023 French cover. Each cover appealed to a different reader but a few said if they hated a cover, they wouldn’t even bother to read it. Back cover blurbs don’t always present a true picture of the content either. Case in point – the blurb written by M.C. Beaton appears on every one of my books even though it was originally earmarked for the first.

So how do we sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff?

Enter the infamous P.69 test. This is not a new concept. It’s been around for years and was a test created by Marshall McLuhan, (The Gutenberg Galaxy, written in 1962), who suggested that book browsers turn to page 69 and read it. If that page drew them in, then read that book. The idea being that by that point in the story, the inciting incident has happened, the characters are settling in and the plot is trundling along with plenty of conflict and consequences.

Without pointing out the obvious flaws to this idea i.e. a large print edition would have a different P.69, I decided to put it to the test with three different novels.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The narrator has just arrived at Manderley and on P.69 we realize she is narrating in flashback, imagining how her life with Maxim could have been,  “growing old together” and fantasizing about their “boys. ” She reminisces on meeting the formidable Mrs. Danvers who will show the newly married pair their suite in the East Wing … not the master wing which – as those who know the story – was Rebecca’s suite of rooms that were never touched following her death.

There is a menacing foreshadowing about P. 69. I don’t know about you, but I must know what happened!

Anne Frank’s Diary by Anne Frank

I was fortunate to visit the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam a few years ago. It’s almost incomprehensible in today’s world to be able to imagine the fear and horror of those dreadful times.

P.69 falls in the middle of a diary entry for Wednesday 10th March 1943 when Anne writes of her terror of hearing the night-time anti-aircraft gunfire, of listening to the rats in the attic and of not being able to light a candle. Anne speaks of a character who lived there “before we went into hiding.” Her courage shines through the page which makes the ultimate outcome more devastating. Anne’s diary is utterly compelling because she takes us into her present and it’s impossible not to stay on her journey.

Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell

Full disclosure! I have not read ANY Ruth Rendell books and selected this one when I went to the library to put P.69 to the test. And it worked! On P.69 the protagonist – Stuart – is fascinated by a beautiful Asian woman who has an overbearing father. Stuart has followed them to a greeting card shop. When Stuart buys cigarettes and turns away just for a moment, she has gone. “To lose her now was the most appalling thing he could think of. He rushed out of the shop, staring wildly about …” The girl doesn’t know she is being watched which is chilling. The page finishes with “He couldn’t let her go. He must follow her.”

I took that book out and it’s on the top of my TBR stack!

So here are my questions: do you choose a book because you like the cover or the blurb? The first line? Do you read the first three pages before buying? Have you tried the P.69 test and what did you think?

Oh … and there is another test called the P.99 test, but that’s for another time.


P.S. For more examples of the P.69 test, visit Marshal Zeringue’s fabulous blog: The Page 69 Test

My New Year Resolution: The Elusive “Big Book.”

As January comes around again and, for the fourth year running, I’ve made the same resolution to finish writing my “big book.”

My agent always talks about “when you write the big book Hannah” – but it’s a struggle to get to it. I juggle a full-time job on the West Coast (working remotely from the UK), an elderly mother (not juggling her physically I must add), plus exercise two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas at least a couple of hours a day.

Trying a different genre is always a challenge. For those who don’t know me (yet), I write three mystery series – cozies. I love writing puzzles and of course, the joy of writing a “traditional” mystery is that justice is always served, good conquers evil and if you can make people smile along the way, that’s even better.

Readers expect to solve the mystery. They get caught up in the whodunnit and the page-turning climax but with a different genre and a different kind of reader, it’s a new experience for me.

Rather than rely on my friends to read the current draft of my “big book” (who would be kind), I hired a respected book/script doctor, Lisa Cron.

Well, to say I was utterly crushed is putting it mildly. “I’m sorry but it just doesn’t resonate. I don’t feel anything.” What? How can it not resonate? The story was solid and, although I say it myself, it was quite clever, especially with the final twist. But Lisa was not interested in the nuts and bolts of story. Of course, character development, setting, dialogue etc. are critical since they’re the foundation and cornerstones of the ‘story house,’ but it’s the essence, the soul of the story that is the key to drawing a reader in.

It’s not enough to tell your reader that your character is happy, sad, or angry. That’s too general. As Lisa says, “these descriptions are the what – we need to dig to the why.” If you pluck a scene out of any novel, are you able to immediately tell what your protagonist is going through emotionally?

Just like us, whatever we are worried about or mentally going through, is always at the back of our minds. My mother has been deemed end-of-life at least three times this past year and her health dominates my every waking moment. We don’t live in a vacuum so nor should our characters. And just like us, how would your character’s state of mind impact everything he/she says and does?

Another thing to ponder – who really remembers the twists, turns and intricacies of a good plot be it a thriller or a love story? Yes, we’re caught up in the story especially if it’s a good one, but don’t we just remember how a scene makes us feel? I think back to my childhood and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) – I wasn’t that bothered about the lion and the White Witch, I just wanted to find a wardrobe and wade through some fur coats to meet the Faun under the lamppost.

When I began to develop feelings for the opposite sex, I devoured sweeping romantic sagas like Penmarric and The Rich Are Different (Susan Howatch) and The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy). I don’t remember the plot in the Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) but I do remember that scene on the beach where the priest and Meggie consummate their illicit love. Toe tingling stuff.

In a “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1991, researchers found that To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) ranked second only to the Bible as “making a difference in people’s lives.” Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel,” and former first lady Laura Bush said, “it changed how people think.” But maybe it changed how people felt as they lived vicariously through Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch? The story resonated with readers and, as Lisa believes, “the only way to change how someone thinks about something is to first change how they felt.”

As for my “big book” I’m busily rewriting it. I’m digging into the why of my protagonist and it feels so different to the what. I’ve learned that it takes a lot of courage to excavate emotions of my own that I would prefer to keep buried but I’m doing it anyway.

What books still resonate with you years later and why? Don’t think too hard. I’ve already added a dozen or so books to my original list of favorites! I’d also love to hear tips and suggestions on how you make your writing resonate with readers.

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