The audiobook renaissance: in conversation with Gretel Killeen

Narrated fiction and non-fiction is nothing new, with spoken-word stories in forms ranging from radio to cassette tapes to digital existing for readers for decades. With the increase and ease of downloading digitally directly to smartphones or other digital devices, audiobooks are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

According to a survey of 1034 Australians over 18 year old by Longeran Research, for audiobook provider Audible, around 5.6 million Australians are listening to audiobooks.

Research by the audiobook provider shows that Australians are listening to audiobooks more then ever, with spokesperson Tracey Markham saying that Australians have embraced audiobooks even more rapidly than in the UK.

Australian producer of audiobooks Bolinda have seen a similar boost in sales. Figures having quadrupled since 2011.

Like traditional libraries, these providers allow access to many of the greatest literary works ever written, bringing an old-fashioned storytelling experience to our everyday lives through technological advances. The study also found that Australians admitted to wasting one entire working day (8.2 hours) each week on unproductive tasks, which is the equivalent of around four audiobooks per month.

We spoke with author, TV host and voice-artist Gretel Killeen about her experiences recording and listening to audiobooks.

“I love having stories read to me. I love the company and I love that I can do two things at the same time. Statistically they have found that people are more likely to do an activity they don’t want to do, if they have the company of an audiobook, which is interesting,” said Killeen. “I understand that because they have all that time wasted – apparently 8 and a half hours a week – these are the ways for them to constructively use that time.”

The study also found that 85 per cent of Australians admitted to procrastinating in general, and that four in five audiobook users said they are more likely to start a task they would otherwise procrastinate over, if they could do it while listening to an audiobook.

Killeen said that she was more drawn to audiobooks to maximise her time on busy days.

“For me, it’s more around the other way. There are books that I really want to read that I don’t get time to read, so this way I can still absorb them while doing something I have to do anyway- like walking. I have to walk into the city for work all the time. So that gives me half an hour to listen to an audiobook, on the way in and on the way out,” said Killeen.

“It’s classic ‘female doing two or three things at once’, and trying to optimize every moment.”

The research revealed that many Aussies listen to audiobooks to multi-task, with 49 per cent listening while commuting, 44 percent on a road trip, 38 percent while doing the housework, 30 percent while exercising and 17 percent of people listening while on the toilet.

According to an 2015 IBISWorld Book Stores in Australia study, they found that the proliferation of e-readers, tablets and smartphones and the increased adoption of technology is fuelling demand for e-books and digital audiobooks. This tied with the podcast boom, largely catapulted by the popularity of series such as Serial, has seen a younger demographic embrace this kind of content more than ever before.

“I feel like it’s a really  old-fashioned experience, that technology has all of a sudden brought back into our lives. Serial really caught on with a much younger generation, that would have been familiar with audiobooks,” said Killeen.

Serial because of its incredible popularity [gained listeners] with a whole new generation, many of whom thought they had discovered something new, but what they had discovered is something that had been around for a really long time. I think for something as old and tried as telling a story it needs something to break through, and Serial did that beautifully.”

As an author, Killeen said that the ability to read her own story in her own voice, provided her with a deeper connection between the writer and the reader.

“I think having a writer actually read in his or her voice is beautiful and incredibly intimate. For me, anything that makes a story accessible as a writer I love, and the fact that this opens up a new world, that someone can be listening to a story told by me in my voice.

“One of the things I realised when I first published my book was that I felt like I wasn’t using all my senses, because I can perform and read. I did voice-overs for 17 years and I felt like I was just sending it off out into the wilderness — this little book by itself. Now I feel that it has more of a stamp on it because it’s my voice. With my timing. In my interpretation. I think that’s really nice for an audience to have.”

The celebrity factor has become big business in audiobooks. Stephen Fry has brought the Harry Potter series alive with his latest narration of the books and actresses such as Scarlett Johannson and Kate Winslet are breathing new life into much-loved classics too.

“Some writers are not good readers or have appalling voices but the idea of having someone famous with a beautiful voice; I think that is an extra gift,” said Killeen.

“Voices are seductive and I don’t mean that in a sexual way. They are seductive to your heart and to your mind and to your ear. They help us travel along the journey. As you know, Scarlett Johansson has just narrated Alice in Wonderland, I mean that woman was able to play a part in Her and we never even saw her, the voice is just so extraordinary.”

The ability for famous authors being able to narrate their own story, has given readers a much more personal reading experience. From Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and Australia’s own Magda Szubanski’s autobiography Reckoning, these personal accounts being read by the entertainer themselves gives further authenticity to these audiobooks.

Killeen herself is planning on listening to Russell Brand’s audiobooks.

“I like his voice. I don’t want to date him, because I don’t think he’d be a great partner, but intellectually he’s really interesting. But he has trouble written all over him but I love all of his energy. That’s the interesting thing, it’s no longer just a word but it’s a whole lot of energy coming into your life.”

From a health-based standpoint, the study found 33 per cent claimed listening makes them feel calmer and less stressed, while 91 per cent of audiobook users said listening helps bring the story to life in their mind more effectively.

“I was just reading a study about loneliness being as bad for people’s health as smoking, drinking and excess sugar. If you watch movies that’s one thing, but if you have the company of a book and you can take it anywhere, you actually don’t feel lonely,” said Killeen.

“I can remember I was travelling once with a boyfriend and reading a book. Once I finished the book, I broke up with the boyfriend, as I was actually having a relationship with the book. I thought it was him but it was the book.

“I just love the fact that this is just a whole another level of thinking and being. There is a great deal of social media stuff, that I recognize and participate in, but there are people that have invested in quality and thoughts and real depth and uniqueness and I love the accessibility to that.”

Killeen said that she is fairly new to audiobooks – previously visiting non-virtual traditional libararies – and she plans on starting small and working her way up to longer volumes.

“I thought, I’ll start with something really short, maybe a four-hour one, as you need to be realistic and some books are 50 hours of listening. So I got a whole bundle of them. I got This is Why You’re Single because I thought that’s hilarious, I can tell everyone the reason why, and the obvious answer is: you’re just too fabulous.”

With Audible, Australians can pay a monthly subscription fee of $14.95 entitling them to download one book per month, while other local audiobook providers such as Bolinda and Booktopia sell audiobooks on a per-book basis.

Killeen said that the continual rise of audiobooks will allow people to utilise our time more meaningfully.

“Life can become so chore-driven. I was reading recently about how people have the FOMO, that if only people really knew that most people are doing incredibly mundane stuff all the time and by listening to books from some of the greatest writers in Western history, it makes life richer and I love that fact that technology allows us to do that, to walk around and take it with us.”