Summary: During the recent BookExpo 2018, industry experts talked about the growing popularity of audiobooks. Does this shift towards audio pave the way for voice first fiction? In this post we discuss the rise in audiobook consumption; and look at what the trend might mean for fiction designed to support natural language interactions.
BookExpo, an annual conference bringing together book retailers, publishers, agents, authors and librarians, was held last week in New York. The rise of the audiobook was a trending topic during this year’s show.
For those who haven’t been paying attention: audiobooks have gone mainstream. D. A. Stern, of Publishing Weekly, covered a BookExpo 2018 panel discussion on the current state of audiobooks. Robin Whitten, founder and editor of Audiofile magazine, and Michelle Cobb, executive director of the APA, both expressed enthusiasm for the growing popularity of audio.
According to Whitten, it’s no longer necessary to explain what an audiobook is, or apologize for listening to a book instead of reading it. Especially adults under the age of 35 are consuming more books in audio formats.
With the growing popularity of audio, publishers and authors are experimenting with new formats. APA’s Cobb calls some of these new offerings “high-production-value titles.” A prominent example is George Sanders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which leverages a whole array of well-known actors to play the parts of different characters in the story.
Another BookExpo 2018 panel covered “The Audiobook Heard ‘Round the World.” The discussion centered on how the rest of the world is starting to catch up to the explosive growth in audiobook sales experienced in North America.
There’s a debate about whether streaming services or pay-as-you-go offerings better serve the reader / listener. But the the trend towards audio consumption of fiction and non-fiction is undeniable.
Does the growing popularity of audiobooks signal a promising future for voice first fiction? Or… is it too soon to answer that question?
We need to consider that voice first fiction is still in its infancy. Perhaps it’s fair to say that such a thing—fiction designed specifically for natural language interaction—hasn’t yet been invented.
It seems fair to assume that people who enjoy listening to an audiobook will be open to hearing narrated stories streamed from a smart speaker or voice assistant. Podcasts are an example of streaming media that lives happily in the smart speaker ecosystem. But streaming, narrated stories don’t really fit my definition of “voice first fiction.”
We’re still waiting for the shift from fiction that is passively consumed (read or heard), to fictional experiences that are intrinsically interactive. I believe that the growing popularity of audiobooks does, in fact, pave the way for this shift. But there remains much work to be done in inventing voice interaction models that engage audiences, while matching the satisfaction received from simply reading a good book.