Spoken Word, Revisited


I was pretty wrong the first time. I admit it.

Audio has become a growth category for publishing and a growth category for the overall media world. Audible has said publicly that 2015 growth was 40% year over year. Association of American Publishers is quoting similar numbers for audiobook downloads.

My friends at Berrett-Koehler told me at their Author Marketing Retreat that everything they are publishing as a book is also being produced as an audiobook.  That is an amazing shift because traditionally only a small slice of books got converted.

The general rule of thumb is that audiobooks will sell about 10% of what the print book does. Given the fixed cost of narration and production, the dollars didn’t work.  What has changed is audiobooks can be produced more inexpensively and there are many more outlets, in particular on the digital side, for audio to be distributed.

With that kind of growth, authors in the world of business and non-fiction are using audio in many different ways to experiment with new projects and expand their audience.

Many authors, like Tim Ferris, Gretchen Rubin, Dave Ramsey and the Freakonomics guys have picked up audio as another broadcast medium as a way to extend the coverage of their previous works. These authors have adopted audio like they did blogging, Twitter, and Instagram before it. Podcasting works as an effective form of marketing as shows they host alongside a co-host or interviewee.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History and Steven Johnson’s Wonderland are also authors using limited edition podcasts to extend the stories with a more narrative driven format. Their episodes are produced as native for audio and sound like they could be on NPR. Gladwell did original reporting for his 10 part series. With three episodes released, Johnson tells stories from his upcoming book.

This latter approach to how authors are using audio is getting close to what I have been hoping for.  I even may have been a little right.

The original form of the art is usually the best. This American Life and RadioLab are conceived to be listened to; reading the manuscript is not the same. Movies derived from books always lack the depth of the prose. I wonder if an audiobook original would be more successful? Has there been any audiobook originals?

Maybe someone has been listening.

My first exhibit of the original audiobook #AskGaryVee by the loquacious and enuthastic Gary Vaynerchuk. Following on the his popular 500 episode run of WineLibrary.tv, his new video show is built with the same spontaneity but this time, for the realm of business folks working the hustle. He pulls questions from twitter and answer them in a live stream of consciousness on the show. The video format that allowed him to easily transfer the content from the show to a bestselling book to an audiobook. The last is most interesting to me.

The audiobook version doesn’t begin right. Gary reads the introduction with a slow, forced cadence. It feels off because it’s not how we hear Gary anywhere else. The magic starts when they turn to the questions from the show and he answers them in the improv style delivery  where Gary best operates.  I wish the whole audiobook was delivered that way. This is what I wanted on the Crush It! audiobook when it promised additional material not found in the book. While I also have other problems with how the answers are broken up across tracks and the lack of track labels, this audiobook starts to feel like its own stand-alone product produced for audio consumption.

Seth Godin’s Leap First and Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability are even better examples that capture the energy of a live moment recorded.  Both of these recordings were done in front of a live audience and you can sense that. Something happens in that space. Their publisher SoundsTrue has a long history of recording the talks of spiritual leaders speaking to groups.  With these talks, you feel like you are sitting there listening. The talks are conceived with the intention of being delivered as spoken word, not written word or a presentation with slides. Sadly, they are the only business self-help titles on the site.

There is more opportunity here.  I can feel it in my bones.


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