As Rod Hannifey hauls his 26 metre-long, Kenworth B-double back to Dubbo, his mind begins to wander — so he flicks on the sound system.
At the moment, he’s listening to Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield — a novel based on the real-life exploits of a British special forces unit in World War II.
But yesterday it was To the Moon and Back, by Jill Mansell.
“It’s pretty much a chick lit,” he says, sheepishly. “But I quite enjoyed it.”
Truckdriver Rod Hannifey listens to audiobooks as he drives between states. (Supplied: Rod Hannifey)
Audiobooks keep his mind active on the road, Mr Hannifey says.
“It’s not about keeping you awake. Sometimes the book gets that interesting you want to pull up and listen to it. I’ve pulled up one night just to hear a part of a story,” he says.
Then there was that trip to Darwin a few years ago.
“It was two-up — so one driver driving and one sleeping — and I said to the other driver, ‘do you mind if I listen to an audiobook?'” he said.
His colleague begrudgingly replied: “I don’t give a f*** what you do as long as I can get to sleep and you don’t keep me awake.”
But some hours later, the tables had turned.
“We’re coming into to Darwin and he’s saying: ‘Slow down, slow down — I want to hear the end of the story!'” Mr Hannifey says.
“I got a phone call from his HR manager about three weeks later and she said: ‘You and your bloody audiobooks … the drivers are all into it — they’ve started their own library now!'”
Mr Hannifey has been listening to audiobooks in his truck for about 25 years — his first was a 27-cassette collection for Lord of the Rings.
(Books and Arts)
Now growing numbers of Australians are embracing the format.
In recent years, established Australian audiobook publisher Bolinda has reportedly recorded a triple jump in revenue — and since it entered the market in 2014, Amazon-owned audiobook retailer Audible has also seen outstanding sales growth.
Who’s listening … and why?
Matthew Gain, head of Audible Australia, says Mr Hannifey is a very typical audiobook user.
“He’s out there on the road all day … he looks for something that keeps his mind active and that’s what we find from all of our users,” Mr Gain says.
Audible’s research found Australians commute about 90 minutes a day on average. (Getty Images: Alvarez)
Audible records its own content and also sells audiobooks from other publishers, using a subscription model. For a fee, users can access one audiobook per month via the Audible app, with extra books incurring an extra fee — usually lower than the price of a new release paperback.
Recent research commissioned by the company found that the average Australian commute to work was a whopping 93 minutes.
Narrating an audiobook
Stig Wemyss (right) is the narrator for the Treehouse series of illustrated chapter books for seven to 10-year-olds, written by Andy Griffiths (left) and illustrated by Terry Denton.
“I already have a bit of a feel for where Andy is at, his style of humour, the way that each book unfolds. But in any given reading what I would do is read the book … I’d make notes in the margin about character voices, what I think the key points are, and the feel of the book,” Wemyss says.
“Terry Denton’s drawings in those books are a huge part of it — when we first looked at how we were going to create the audiobook version I remember saying … ‘It’s really important that we somehow try to mirror what Terry does in the written version. We need to sonically scribble in the margins.’
“So we went back to Andy and we said: ‘Do you mind if you give us the creative license to just go in there and do whatever we can to recreate that?’ And he was like: ‘Go for it.'”
“And that’s a great example of when people are turning commuting time, or dead time, into reading time,” Mr Gain says.
“Any time that your eyes are busy but your mind is free, at the gym … doing housework … that’s the perfect time.”
According to Mr Gain, Australians have a penchant for audiobooks with a local flavour — a big hit for Audible this year has been David Hunt’s Girt — but we also like the big blockbusters, and old favourites.
“Dale Carnegie is a perennial seller. How to Win Friends and Influence People, it’s about 80 years old and it is always in our top 20 list,” he says.
“What we also find around Oscars time that audiobooks that correspond with the movies will see a spike in their sales at the same time.”
With the notable recent exception of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which employed more than 160 different narrators, most audiobooks available in the Australia are read by a single narrator.
The industry-accepted rule of thumb is that if an audiobook takes two hours to read, it will take twice that to get the recording done. So it’s a process that’s time and money intensive.
But Mr Gain says there’s an appetite for more elaborate audio productions — not unlike the radio plays of yesteryear, many of which were made by the ABC.
“We’ve actually just launched something in the United States, where we are going to be funding playwrights … to create content specifically for Audible,” he says.
“What we really want to bring is that rich, actor-led … experience.”
Why the resurgence?
Public libraries have long history of stocking audiobooks for loan on CDs and, in years gone by, tapes — providing an important service for people with reading difficulties and vision impairments, as well as the broader public.
And while CDs are still a popular option, many libraries now offer audiobook loans via online apps.
Rebecca Herrmann (right), with author Andy Griffiths, who won best audio book of the year at the 2017 ABIA Awards. (Supplied: ABIA Awards/Dan O’Neil)
Rebecca Hermann’s audiobook publishing company Bolinda provides libraries with a way to loan audiobooks online.
“We’ve created Borrow Box … where you can borrow books via our app,” she says.
“We actually sell the solution to public libraries.”
She believes the current boom in audiobook use is set to continue.
“I just think that we’re going to see more people using them — and it won’t matter what form they’re in … they’ve truly come into their own now.”
With the growth in audiobook sales climbing around the world, you might think traditional, paper-based book publishers would be quaking in their boots — but that’s not necessarily the case.
Louise Sherwin-Stark from publishing house Hachette Australia says the rise of the audiobook is a positive development for the industry.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a print book publisher … we bring stories to life,” she says.
“And we are determined that our readers can enjoy those stories in any way they want.”
Ms Sherwin-Stark says Hachette has dabbled in audiobooks for years — but as society becomes more plugged in to smart devices like tablets and iPhones, audiobooks are a growing focus for the company.
“Audio has been really exciting recently, because technology has developed an allowed us to spread audiobooks much more widely,” she says.
Technological advances mean audiobooks are no longer only available on CDs. (Flickr.com: trenttsd CC-BY-2.0)
“A big box of CDs is sometimes off-putting, and booksellers didn’t have space for them … but by moving into the digital space there’s a much wider audience for audiobooks now.”
Hachette is “still at the beginning of the journey” when it comes to audiobooks, Ms Sherwin-Stark says.
“But it’s growing really rapidly. The expansion in technology, being able to listen on an app, is amazing,” she says.
“And I think there are more people coming to listen to audiobooks as a result.”
But what about the critics, who say listening to a book rather than reading it is cheating?
Mr Gains cites cognitive psychologist Professor Daniel Willingham in his reply:
“Comparing audiobooks to cheating is like meeting a friend at Disneyland and saying: ‘You took the bus here? I drove myself — you big cheater.’
“The point is getting to and enjoying the destination … how you get there is really irrelevant.”