May 12, 2017
In March, a Publishers Weekly article announced that the most popular category for audiobooks is fiction. The rise of the audiobook may be surprising, but fiction’s rise to stardom in audiobook form is less so, and here is why.
In 2006, or thereabouts, the podcast was born. People couldn’t get enough politics, sports, comedy and documentary podcasts to listen to – the rough and ready, real-life subject matter suited the medium and for many, it was merely an extension of listening to a discussion on the radio in their cars or doing chores at home. By 2010 though, the novelty had worn off. There was a Great Podcast Renaissance in 2013 fueled by some spectacularly popular releases such as Serial but mostly, podcasts had become passé. People were looking for something more… well, escapist.
Then there came the audiobook. In fairness, the audiobook had been around for a long time but it was only seen as an option for the hearing impaired; that is until podcasts got people thinking. Where podcasts had covered non-fiction topics, audiobooks immersed people in a world of imagination and this goes some way to explaining their popularity.
Audio/oral storytelling has an emotional appeal like no other. It taps into a collective primal unconscious, hearing the tribe’s history and wisdom around the caveman campfire. It also has comforting echoes of childhood, being tucked-up in bed and read a story before sleep. Audio/oral storytelling, especially fiction, has a kind of magic.
So what is it about fiction particularly that is significant – didn’t the cavemen also just listen to each other chatting about the day’s hunt as though it was a football game? In a neurological study in The Annals of the New York Academy of Science, participants were shown a short video clip before being assessed. Those who reported feeling empathy for the characters in the clip were found to have 47% more oxytocin (the ‘feel-good’ hormone) in their body than those who didn’t. Oxytocin is released in response to a stressful situation, the sort that exists in a universal story structure where the main character faces a problem that is resolved through the course of the story – it’s a structure that most fiction follows, from Jack and the Beanstalk to Kafka’s The Trial. And there’s more. A different study by communications professor for Pompeu Fabra University in Spain shows that fiction in dramatized audio form (with actors voicing different characters and sound effects) created a more vivid and emotional response from listeners than straight-forward narration. “Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind,” said the study’s author.
In a nutshell, it is this combination of intimacy of the audio format, an engagement with the fictional main character (and their challenges) and the kind of magical escapism of the imagination that has made fiction is the most popular audiobook category. On the other hand, the reasons why fiction is perfect for the audiobook format would make a really good podcast.