Richard Charkin: On the Long Walk to Audiobooks

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Logging more than 12 miles per day on London’s walkways, Richard Charkin’s pavement-pounding peripatetics have him exploring ‘the importance of audio and audiobooks.’

On London’s Oxford Street, February 25. Image – iStockphoto: VV Shots

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘I Started by Listening to Music’
I suffer from a pre-COVID-19 form of mild obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. Actually, it’s even more acute during  the pandemic.  It’s called walking. I walk roughly 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) every day.

Richard Charkin

I walk for health, physical and mental. But 20 kilometers a day, which takes approximately four hours, can be boring, particularly when one is obliged not to venture too far from home because of lockdown restrictions. To counter the ennui I purchased at some expensive earbuds.

I started by listening to music, and I still do. Before this writing, I listened to some Anne Sylvestre, the first act of the Met’s classic production of The Barber of Seville, and some nostalgic Phil Spector numbers triggered by his obituaries. But I also listen to words. BBC Radio serves up an extraordinarily rich menu of current and classic spoken-word programs : an ancient Hercule Poirot; John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy; some PG Wodehouse; and, of course,  and, of course Test Match Special [a British sports radio program focused on professional cricket]. I try to mix the familiar with the new, or at least new to me.

Richard Chakin’s 2020 Fitbit record

Listening has become my new obsession and it has made me realize the importance of audio and audiobooks.

In the days of tape cassettes and later CDs, I couldn’t get overly excited by the opportunities for book publishers. The whole logistics and complexity of the value chain—and the sheer clunkiness of multiple CDs for a single book—restricted the audiobook to a niche part of the overall market.

The digital download has changed all that, and audio sales are increasing rapidly as is the available catalogue. Just about every general book publisher is boasting record audiobook sales. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the existing trends. This revolution is not only good for listeners like me, but also life-changing for many. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 2.2 billion people live with a vision impairment worldwide. Imagine the power to unlock the pleasure and knowledge from books for this vast underprivileged cohort.

High Enthusiasm, and Cost

Publishers have entered the audio business with alacrity and verve. Of course they focus on the most profitable and bestselling books to convert into audiobooks. This is natural and proper and particularly important for audiobooks, in which the costs of production and distribution are very high. In addition to the normal costs of publishing—editing, marketing, author advances, and so on—there are the costs of narration, studio time, and audio editing. In addition, audiobook distributors are not renowned for their generosity to audio publishers and authors.

This means that the vast majority of books will never be able to justify an audio version on any sort of commercial basis. So while the top novels will be readily and affordably available to the visually challenged and to walkers like me, an enormous and valuable resource will be blocked by the economics. For example, there may be no audio recordings of undergraduate textbooks, scholarly dissertations, deep backlist titles, training manuals for professionals.

When I launched Mensch Publishing, I wanted to try out new ways of distributing authors’ works. We launched the first couple of titles with audiobooks in partnership with Creative Content and licensed a third book to the excellent Bolinda in Australia.

Most recently and economically, we’ve launched three titles as auto-narrated audiobooks under our own imprint on Google Play, as part of an early beta trial. So far this is making my audiobook listening even more affordable and enjoyable through text-to-speech. The technology has surpassed my expectations and has made my 20-kilometer walking habit pass in the blink of an eye, or nearly. You can sample these, free of charge: Churchill’s Few, Why Sex Doesn’t Matter, Getting Old: Deal With It.

Being technologically only semiliterate and the sole employee of Mensch Publishing, I struggled to cope with the audio editing. For instance, Churchill’s Few, a book about Battle of Britain pilots, unsurprisingly had many references to the Royal Air Force, or RAF—which the narration software pronounced as “raff,” rather than “R-A-F.” That took me time to sort out.

Also the technology cannot yet cope with multiple voices nor with ironic intonation. Humor is a problem, as is inflection.

On the other hand, anyone, preferably less technologically incapable than me, could convert typesetting files to an audio file with a choice of speaker—male, female, American dialect, British dialect, posh, not so posh. This can be done in an hour at minimal expense and as quickly to market as publishing will ever allow. And the technology is evolving all the time. While I really can’t imagine the Harry Potter Stephen Fry or Jim Dale audio versions being superseded by auto-narration, I can see a major role in making available those books whose value is in the information contained.

These audiobooks are not perfect yet, but publishing has always been about aiming for perfection but accepting the best available. I think all nonfiction and academic publishers should investigate auto-narration as a service to their authors and to the listeners worldwide, most importantly students and the visually challenged.

Experimentation is at the heart of adapting to new circumstances and this seems to me an experiment well worth testing. The more publishers test the faster the technology will improve.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. More from us on audio is here and more on accessibility in publishing is here

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’