BOOKS AT UNION
Star, author of The Handmaid’s Tale on hand for event announcing big splash in audiobooks of Canadian literature,
The big Canadian publishing story this fall is audiobooks. And Wednesday morning the story got bigger with the announcement that Audible is launching a dedicated Canadian service that will include original programs, lectures and comedy as well as more than100 new titles from Canadian authors in English and French.
“Audible has earmarked $12 million over the next three years to invest in Canadian writers and voices,” Audible founder and CEO Don Katz said. Much of that will go to producing audio books from Canadian titles, using Canadian actors.
Available titles will include Justin Trudeau’s Common Ground, in both English and French, with an introduction narrated by the prime minister, and a multi-voice production of Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird graphic novel adapted for audio by Atwood.
Atwood spoke at the launch, providing, perhaps, a salve of sorts to those worried the printed word is under threat. “You know when television came they said radio’s finished, and then when tapes hit the scene they said vinyl records are finished. These things come back in other forms. So . . . think of Audible as a return of radio or as possibly the return of the voice, which never really went away.”
The audiobooks industry has been mushrooming — double-digit sales growth has been the norm since about 2013. The Audio Publishers Association estimates audiobook sales for 2016 at $2.1 billion, an increase of 18 per cent over 2015. This year’s sales are expected to be about $2.6 billion worldwide.
A Canadian Audible subscription will cost $14.95 a month, which entitles the subscriber to one book, as well as whatever free books are available.
For example, a special edition of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale read by Claire Danes will be free for one month, as will an edition of Quebec author Catherine Leroux’s Le Mur Mitoyen. (Audible kicked off its Canadian subscription service on Wednesday with an event at Union Station featuring actress Elisabeth Moss, star of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, reading it at a podium.)
The service will be curated with a focus on Canadian content besides offering more than “300,000 local and global titles.”
Late last week, e-reader company Kobo announced that audiobooks would now also be available for download on its app, which had previously been geared only toward ebooks.
In a conversation with the Star, Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Rakuten Kobo, noted that people are reading ebooks more on their mobile devices — pulling them out while in lineups at the bank, for example. “So they’re trying to fit reading into different parts of their day.”
They’re also doing it not just on e-readers, but on their smartphones. Recent research conducted by BookNet Canada found that among adults who had read a book last year, 20 per cent read digital books on their smartphones, a 6 per cent increase. The research found this use has been at the expense of e-readers, use of which was down by 5 per cent since last year.
Kobo, Tamblyn said, did its own research with a focus group of Kobo users — those who already read ebooks — and found that 46 per cent listen to audiobooks as well.
Like Audible, Kobo offers a monthly subscription service — this one costing $12.99 — providing members one audiobook per month. But the latter company is relying on publishers and others to create the audiobooks.
By contrast, Audible will produce many Canadian titles itself. Or, as Atwood put it during the Wednesday launch, “Audible is going to be employing so many actors that you’re going to have trouble finding somebody to serve your cappuccino.”
This is good news for Canadian titles. Up until recently most audiobooks available weren’t Canadian. Creating a quality production is expensive in terms of hiring actors, and production facilities.
Last year, ECW Press, led by David Caron, was one of the first publishers to start producing Canadian-made audiobooks. It has also helped other small publishers produce books, including Coach House Books, which publishes the Giller Prize-winning Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis.
Caron said he welcomes Audible to the landscape.
“With Audible stepping up its game in Canada it just means we have to step up our game, really, and create a balance of lots of different players.”
That means more Canadian publishers creating Canadian-written and produced audio books.
“One of the great things about Audible is their primary interest is just having stuff available,” Caron said.
One drawback is that libraries won’t be able to purchase copies of the Audible-produced Canadian audiobooks for lending to clients, according to Katz, meaning these titles will only be available to Audible subscribers.
“I just think that we’re only going to have stuff that people pay for. And we’ll make it free — there’s plenty of free stuff once you’re a member,” he noted in a conversation. Penguin Random House Canada, which publishes some of Canada’s most beloved authors, including Atwood, has begun its own in-house audiobook production unit and it has started off big. It hired Ann Jansen — formerly of CBC Books and the senior producer of Canada Reads — to helm the program.
“The start of our producing books here is solely a reaction to having the opportunity to sell them,” says Marion Garner, deputy publisher of Penguin Random House Canada.
“If you have been a convert to audiobooks prior to this week, the availability of Canadian-written material was scarce.”
Jansen started in June and already the program has 20 books completed or underway. That includes new releases such as David Chariandy’s Brother, read by Trinidadian actor Joseph Pierre.
Random House anticipates having 30 audiobooks ready by year’s end.
“Prior to this week there really wasn’t a way for Canadian listeners/ readers to consume Canadian books or any audio books in the digital format except from Overdrive and the libraries and Audible.com and paying in U.S. dollars,” Garner said.
“So it’s terrific that Audible and Kobo have seen a potential market here.”
Media personality George Stroumboulopoulos takes a selfie with author Margaret Atwood, actress Elisabeth Moss and Don Katz, CEO of Audible, after a live reading of The Handmaid’s Tale at Union Station on Wednesday.