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Why the medium isn't the message

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

UK sales of audiobooks are expected to reach a whopping £115 million in 2020, and will surpass sales of e-books in the US by around 2023. It’s no surprise. Earphones are part of the uniform these days, be it for music, podcasts, audiobooks or even quaint phone conversations.

The figures come from the knowledgeable bods at Deloitte’s technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) practice, which in December 2019 forecast 25% growth in the global audiobook market. It is expected to nudge almost £4 billion in 2020.

It makes interesting reading. I published my debut novel, A Degree of Uncertainty in November 2019. I made the decision to begin by printing paperbacks, and there is nothing more satisfying than holding that perfectly bound paperback in your hand for the first time — even when a rather alarming 250 more copies are piled in boxes in your spare room.

I was thrilled to sell over 200 copies in just six weeks, via my web site, Waterstones and my local bookshop, the Falmouth Bookseller. Many people wanted signed copies and dedicated copies, and I am still receiving orders via my web site requesting books inscribed with personal Christmas messages.

(‘Have a holly jolly Christmas darling’. Or 'Some cool yule Cornish reading for you'. Things like that.)

I have now made the title available on Amazon KDP, in response to the numerous people who say they only read on Kindle now, or who are subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, which means they can access an obscene number of titles for a monthly fee. A sort of Netflix for readers, I suppose. Or for the pre-Generation Y purists among us, it is the digital equivalent (albeit with a fee) of an old-school library. But without that strangely alluring mustiness.

Indeed, the digital book market (which as well as audiobooks includes ebook sales and subscriptions) rose 4.6% to £653m in 2018, according to the Publishers Association. Sales of physical books, with their inimitable waft of freshly printed paper and their melodic unfurling of pages, fell 5.4% in 2018. The decline ended a period of growth stretching back to 2014.

Worrying? Perhaps not.

Readers’ media of choice is continually shifting and evolving, like the ebb and flow of the tide. A perfect storm of smart speakers and wireless headphones, greater accessibility to audio book subscription services, and a wave of high profile narrators (think Reece Witherspoon giving voice to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and the lovely Colin Firth narrating one of my all time favourites, The End of the Affair…surely a match made in heaven?) has fuelled the surge in popularity.

And long may it continue. Any medium that encourages people to read must be a good thing. It will always be horses for courses (hence my personal desire for that living, breathing paperback), and there will always be early adopters who embrace the latest technology only to jettison it when the next shiny new thing appears. Others will mix and match physical books, ebooks and audiobooks depending on where they are and what they are doing.

The thing is, whatever changes life brings, people will always have a need to consume stories, to escape into a make-believe world peopled with fictional characters and imaginary plot twists, whether that’s via discreet wireless headphones, the frantic swiping of a well-fingered screen or the urgent flick of paper pages.

My 2020 project is to bring A Degree of Uncertainty’s protagonists, Harry Manchester and Dawn Goldberg, to life in audiobook form. (I’m thinking maybe John Nettles and Sarah Lancaster? But I’m happy for Colin to audition.)

That said, I will simply be pleased to see people reading my book, however they choose to engage with it.


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