Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Joys of Listening: Why Audiobooks Are on the Rise


As e-books decline and print makes meager gains, audiobooks have become the literary format to beat. ♦ 
Just the other day, I spoke with a friend about an upcoming reading that Miami University’s incredibly resourceful Creative Writing program had set up. The department managed to convince Sherman Alexie, three-time PEN Award recipient, to visit Miami and read from his young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This friend of mine asked if I'd gotten a copy yet, because apparently the university bookstore was charging an arm and a leg for one (your soul if you paid with cash). I told her I had and said she could borrow it, since I’d also bought it on audio.
   Oh, the look on her face . . .
  “You can listen to those?” she asked, in obvious disgust. I told her I enjoyed them. She scoffed. According to her, no one uses audiobooks anymore. They’re just not viable.
   Now, there’s no argument that the literary world has experienced a few blows recently. Don’t believe me? Major bookstores like Borders and Waldenbooks have fallen to the wayside, the landscape is being flooded with self-publications, and the e-book format (what was supposed to be a saving grace) hit its peak in 2013. In a report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the U.S. publishing industry netted a revenue of $11.9 billion in the first three quarters of 2015, which is a 2 percent decrease from 2014, and while print sales have seemingly come bouncing back, the overall numbers don’t lie; there’s a problem in the publishing world.
    But audiobooks might just be part of the solution.

The Platform is in Your Pocket

Believe it or not, audiobooks have been around since the late 1800s. Early models, which were cylindrical in shape and fit into a phonograph, only held about four minutes of audio (imagine having to lug Infinite Jest around with you). Over time, as music evolved beyond the phonograph and adapted to technological advancements, spoken text followed suit. Audiobooks were sold in vinyl formats during the 1950s, cassette tapes in the 70s, and this eventually lead to compressed formats in the 90s. With the rise of the internet, digital downloads suddenly became possible, and portable media players transformed the audiobook format. In this new era, the interested reader can access their libraries with the speed and efficiency previously reserved for streaming cat videos and Beyoncé’s latest hit. Books now sit in our pockets, behind a lock that’s only opened with your fingerprint, in a little app on your home screen.
   While writing this, I was sitting in a busy coffeehouse. I had just pulled out my phone, swiped to My Library, and started a 71.4 MB download of Alexie’s novel. In the time I spent correctly arranging the words within this paragraph, my phone had already placed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on the third shelf of my digital bookshelf. That’s magic, no? Never before has the world of literature been so cheap and readily available. It only took me a few minutes to go from browsing to listening. The best part: I fit it in my pocket, plug it into my car, or play it through stereos while in the shower. Unlike traditional, printed text, the audiobook offers convenient listening anytime, anywhere.

Bundling and Subscriptions

Being a book aficionado can get expensive. Unless you’re buying classics, it’s hard to find a good book for cheap, regardless of whether you look in stores or online. Personally, I restrict myself to one new book a month, or suffer the consequences of financial mismanagement; typically, the punishment for overspending consists of ramen for a week. But with the growth of the audiobook markets, I’m no longer forced to choose between reading and eating. Some services, like Amazon’s Audible.com, offer cheap monthly subscriptions, show you top sellers and books specifically tailored to your interests, all while conveniently bundling titles for better deals. For a mere $14.95 a month, Audible offers a book credit, discounted prices, and free audio subscriptions to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
   Even I, lover of small presses and independent writers, can’t help but fall for the romantic deals Audible offers. Given that audiobook sales are sharply on the rise, it’s becoming evident that I’m not the only one.

The Voice Talent Just Keeps Getting Better

Unlike print, audiobooks are entirely dependent on the voice actor to represent a character’s speech faithfully. Listening to The Bluest Eye with Toni Morrison’s soft voice weaving through every word can make a grown man tear up. On the other hand, hearing the words of a girl (who in your imagination is a beautiful, raven-haired mystique) spoken with the voice of a British chap trying too hard to project from his chest will instantly remove you from the scene. Over the past few years, audio publishing companies have become more aware of this, which is why the voice actor is so important to the listening experience; the audience wants to escape into the story, and finding the right voice for the job can make all the difference.
   Nowadays, it’s relatively easy to produce your own audiobook. The release of simple recording applications and programs (like the Audiobook Creation Exchange) has given small writers the opportunity to create inexpensive, downloadable, and profitable versions of their written stories. This accessibility encourages groundbreaking and interesting movements in the field, like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which features 166 unique voices to bring the story to life.
  Audiobooks may not have netted as much revenue as other media forms in the last few decades, but their progress is astounding. In the beginning, complaints were made about the accessibility of the material; it wasn’t as refined, or as portable. But now, as innovation continues to push the limits of technology, Audiobooks are becoming increasingly practical; I fully believe that in 2017, audiobook use will continue to surge in the literary landscape. The publishing world is going through a change right now, a transformation. More people will rediscover the joys of listening, of having spoken words dance in their heads, just as humans have woven stories for centuries; I, for one, think audiobooks are as much our future as spoken language is our past.
  • About the Author
    Chaze Copeland is a recent graduate of Miami University, earning a major in Creative Writing. He will be working towards his Master's at The New School this fall. Chaze feels a little weird talking about himself in the third person, so learn more about the author at chazecopeland.com.

    From Grimm Ever-Afters to Censored Once-Upon-a-Times


    Our classic fairy tales have shockingly sinister origins. So what does their transformation to family-friendly entertainment tell us about ourselves? ♦ 
    “Once upon a time . . . ”
       No matter how old you are, these are powerful, magical words, possessing a strong narrative connotation as the start of the traditional fairy tale as well as a strong nostalgic association. In fact, I bet you’ve just flashed back to your childhood, tucked into bed as your parents read you a bedtime story of knights in shining armor, fair maidens locked in towers, mystical mermaids, fantasylands, and so much more. But our contemporary conception of fairy tales as family-friendly classics that almost invariably end in “happily ever after” is pretty far removed from the darker, more grisly tales that inspired them.
      Let’s go back to nineteenth-century Germany when two infamous brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, first put together a collection of traditional fairy tales. The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, far from the popular, lighthearted versions we’re more familiar with today, were often shocking and quite gruesome. I hate to burst your bubble, but the Disney version of Cinderella you know so well has been dramatically altered from its source material. The original tale wasn’t filled with cheery little mice, a delightful fairy godmother, and a simple shoe-fitting that leads to happiness and marriage; instead, in the Grimm fairy tale, the wicked stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in an attempt to fit into the golden slipper, and their eyes are plucked out by birds as punishment for their falseness.
       Or consider The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, another fairy tale writer from the Brothers Grimm’s era. Compare the original to the well-known animated version and you'll see that Disney made drastic changes throughout the story. In the original, the little mermaid sacrifices not only her voice but her entire tongue to the sea witch and agrees to endure the excruciating pain of feeling like she is walking on knives with every stride she takes on land. On top of everything, she doesn’t even win over the prince! These are only a couple of examples of classic fairy tales that are pretty different from Disney’s “happily ever after” versions, which have been so altered that it’s even led to a term—“Disneyfication"—to describe the process.
       But Disneyfication, in spite of the term's mostly negative connotation, isn’t really a cynical marketing move on the part of an entertainment empire looking to make a buck; the process of transforming these tales has its roots in the art of oral storytelling. Fairy tales originated as oral tales passed on by word of mouth, not written down, thus holding the ability to be modified by the storyteller to fit the needs of the audience. It's a common misconception that fairy tales were created for children; actually, they were originally meant to be a form of adult entertainment, which makes sense given that the tales often contained raunchy or gruesome content. Over time, though, the audience for these tales shifted toward children, and at least part of that shift is thanks, once again, to the Walt Disney Company, which took many of these original fairy tales and transformed them to be rousing entertainments geared toward children in both their stories and themes. Children admire fairy tales and especially hold on to the idea of a “happily ever after” when something unfortunate is going on in their lives. This even carries over into adulthood, as we continue holding on to fairy tales with a death grip in an effort to understand reality, or sometimes to escape its grasp.
       Jack Zipes is a retired professor of German at the University of Minnesota who specializes in the social and political role of fairy tales and has successfully translated the entire Grimm collection into English. In his essay “Spells of Enchantment,” Zipes writes, “Fairy tales provide hope that social and political conditions can be changed.” We tend to remember fairy tales, holding out hope that we can better our world. Come on, ladies, don’t tell me you’ve never daydreamed about meeting your Prince Charming—or, guys, about being the chivalrous knight to sweep a girl off her feet. This is what Disney does so well, and this doesn't only appeal to children but to all of us. After all, Walt Disney himself said, “Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.”
       Family-friendly entertainment is Disney’s goal, so teaching a gory lesson in foot-modification isn’t exactly their prime focus; rather, they concentrate on keeping magic alive and radiating positivity. And our culture has generally admired and appreciated the Disney versions of fairy tales, as parents guide their children toward these positive messages, encouraging them to follow their dreams. We enjoy telling stories that allow us to aspire to change in our lives, and fairy tales have evolved to do just that.
      Stories have been a part of all cultures throughout history, from legends and myths to folk tales and fairy tales; indeed, storytelling is an essential part of both reflecting and shaping society. Fairy tales are unique because they are timeless and geographically unspecific, which leaves room in the stories for broad interpretation. And it’s precisely because of fairy tales’ adaptability that they’ve become an everlasting, utopian, positive force that sustains the hope of the listener, which is what our culture wants: to have the hope that everything will work out.
  • About the Author
    Melissa Phillips is a freshman Professional Writing major and German minor from Mason, Ohio. Alongside her passion for writing, she enjoys traveling, performing arts, and anything Disney. When not busy supervising various locations for the Kings Island Admissions Department, Melissa can be found sitting in King Library—caramel macchiato in hand, of course—studying and writing the night away.