People are social creatures and through evolution we have learned from each other by listening, our brain is hardwired for stories. Before we learn how to read, all information is transmitted to us and understood by listening, therefore the audio channel has a crucial importance in human development. Even later in life, when we are perfectly able to read on our own, if presented with the possibility to listen to something as opposed to reading it, most likely we won’t say no, because it just feels more natural and more relaxing, even if in a passive way.
Audible is a company founded by Donald (Don) Katz, a writer and publisher who bet exactly on these natural determinants of human learning. After a bumpy start, the company grew by standing in the shadow of giants like Apple and Amazon and has even started a new trend in acting careers.
In the book “We are all born entrepreneurs”, there is the touching story behind Audible’s beginnings in 1997:
“While working closely with his daughter to help her deal with dyslexia, Don noticed the powerful synchronization between audio and visual learning. His daughter’s ability to listen to books as she was reading them was one of the key components that encouraged her to persevere. As a result, Don began to investigate a small segment of the publishing world that produced books on tape. ”
The only drawback was the fact that the technology available at the moment could not support the idea in a cost effective way, due to low internet transfer rates and high cost per bit and the company went bankrupt in 2001. They were too ahead of time. The first break-through came from an exclusive deal with Apple and continued with the introduction of the iPod, which brought audio content in the pocket of the masses.
The second boost came from Apple iTunes’ rival, Amazon MP3 digital music store, in 2008 when the retail giant bought Audible for $300 million. As an article from Reuters states:
"Audible was already the exclusive partner for Amazon's digital audio offering on Amazon.com. Audible will benefit from an immediate branding event and become integral to the very bright future of Amazon Kindle"
With the marketing power and client base of Amazon the sky was the limit for Audible and they started opening up to more ideas and genres. In the good tradition of Amazon being a marketplace, they extended Audible by creating ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange), a platform for book right owners, narrating actors and other parties that could create new audio books. This is an approach similar to YouTube’s user generated content, but in a more professional manner, suitable for being monetized immediately.
The last piece of the puzzle in the growing industry of the audio books is the human element. As the demand for this kind of content rises, so does the number of people ready to provide their services to the industry. Actors, both well known and obscure, are lending their voices to characters of audiobooks for good money. The impact can even be seen even in drama universities. Leading schools like Julliard and Yale have already introduced classes and workshops to prepare future graduates for this kind of unique work:
“Courtney Blackwell Burton, director of career services at Juilliard, said: <<It is very exciting because it is a new source of income and work that really uses their training. We are really pushing this idea of entrepreneurship, and with narration you can even have your own studio in your home. Since the workshops started in 2008, eight Juilliard actors have recorded 62 books for Audible>>, she said.”
As we have less time and we need to multi-task, we can expect an increase of the demand for audiobooks, since they offer a pleasant distraction, even during work, a trend that started in the 1930’s when factories started employing professional readers to keep workers entertained and productive. The difference is that now we have each a saying in the choice of what we hear.