What’s driving the audiobook renaissance? Smartphones have a lot to do with it, as do the rise of podcasts and the public’s insatiable desire for high-quality content. But when you boil it all down, audiobooks are booming because we love to hear stories, and we now have the tech and tools at our fingertips to do so anytime, anywhere.
Acclaimed English actor Ben Miles agrees. He’s the voice behind Hilary Mantel’s two-time Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall Trilogy, which charts Thomas Cromwell’s meteoric rise and fall. The audiobook for the final novel in the series, The Mirror & the Light, was released on March 10, and new audio productions of the first two books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, also read by Miles, are slated for release this summer.
“Audiobooks are doing so well for a number of reasons, but ultimately, people always love a story,” Miles says by phone from London. “Telling and listening to stories is a vital, unstoppable human instinct and desire.”
Miles has worked in nearly every medium possible for an actor—radio, film, theater, television—and is known for his roles as Patrick Maitland in the BBC comedy “Coupling” and, more recently, Peter Townsend in the acclaimed Netflix drama “The Crown.” He also spent years playing Cromwell in Tony Award-nominated stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. This is Miles’ first audiobook project, and he says he’s loved getting back into Cromwell’s head and revisiting 16th-century England.
“Telling and listening to stories is a vital, unstoppable human instinct and desire.”
It’s no wonder that Mantel personally selected Miles to narrate her books. He knows these stories inside and out, and he and Mantel have worked closely during the audiobook productions, exchanging lengthy emails about Cromwell’s motivations and desires. Miles’ familiarity with Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell pervades his performance of The Mirror & the Light, which traces Cromwell’s fall from greatness, beginning with the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s beheading and ending with his own. Miles’ voice carries the power-hungry statesman’s monumental final act with ease and a delicate nuance, as only someone with a deep understanding of the story could.
“With such great writing like this, you can’t put your thing on it too much,” Miles says. “You have to be a kind of neutral filter. There is no need to embellish it with any kind of tricks you may want to do. You just have to tell it, to be a kind of invisible medium that connects a reader to the writer’s imagination. You ultimately want the listener to forget about you. That’s your job done.”
The Mirror & the Light has been one of this year’s biggest print releases, selling more than 95,000 copies in its first three days. The audiobook was also hotly anticipated, which isn’t surprising given the surge in popularity of the format, both among those who consider themselves avid readers and those who don’t.
According to the Audio Publishers Association (APA), audiobooks are by far the fastest growing format in the publishing industry and have driven double-digit revenue growth for the past seven years. To give you a clearer sense of the demand: When Amazon acquired Audible in 2008, it had 88,000 titles; now it has more than 470,000.
Audiobooks are the fastest growing format in the publishing industry, driving double-digit revenue growth for the past seven years.
Then came 2020, which has brought the publishing industry to its knees. As coronavirus shutdowns swept across the nation in March and April, masses of people turned to audiobooks. Libro.fm, the Seattle-based audiobook company that launched the #ShopBookstoresNow campaign to benefit independent bookstores during this period of layoffs and closures, grew its membership by 300% from February to March, raising its total audiobook listening by 70%.
“Years ago, you’d gather in a room, you’d sit in the same spot and focus your attention on your radio, and you’d listen to music or radio dramas or something like that,” Miles muses. “Now, we have access to incredible stories all the time. I love that you can be driving or doing the washing up, but also be in Tudor England in 1536 at the same time. It’s absolutely magical.”
There are, of course, downsides, namely that audiobooks and similar on-demand forms of entertainment enable us to isolate ourselves. “But I think that’s one of the reasons why theater is still so alive,” Miles says. “There is still something so powerful about being in a group of people who go to that one place at that one time and witness something together that will never actually happen again. There is still a place for that in the world.”
It’s clear that audiobooks are becoming an art form in their own right. More titles and easier access are certainly growing audiobook listenership, but publishing houses are also pouring resources into more ambitious productions to enhance the listening experience—think immersive soundscapes, surround sound 3D audio and, best of all, improved narrations, often by A-list television, film and theater talent. Want Elisabeth Moss to read The Handmaid’s Tale to you as you sit in traffic? Or to listen to Michelle Obama read her hit memoir, Becoming, while you weed your garden? Wish granted. When readers need to get lost in a story, their favorite actors and actresses can now facilitate that with voices alone.
The real challenge of this unique kind of performance is creating a world and characters without a visual element. As Miles explains, when an actor is performing onstage or on-screen, he or she can say a line of dialogue one way but express it differently with the face or body. “That tension between what you say and what is expressed physically is often what’s exciting about drama,” Miles says. “With audiobooks, you have to put all that information into your voice and create a world and characters with just that. It’s a really interesting process. I like how it strips me of the tools I have in acting and leaves me with just one thing.”
Narrating an audiobook can also be a rigorous endeavor. On top of acting instincts, narrators need physical and vocal stamina. The Mirror & the Light is 784 pages long, and the audiobook clocks in at over 38 hours. But Miles has done a lot of voice-over work as well as some radio plays, so the process was familiar. “It’s just the length and scale that’s new for me,” he says. “And although I did quite a bit of research for the audiobooks, goodness knows how much work I would have had to do if I hadn’t been in the shows and came into these books cold. I was very lucky in that I was able to tap into what I’ve experienced already. When voicing the characters in the book, and there are many, I recalled how the other actors in the shows played them or remembered where Cromwell was in the story and what his trajectory looked like at that point. I could kind of slide right back into it.”
Mantel’s writing also made things easier, Miles adds. “Often we’d be in the studio, and I’d see a great big pile of A4 paper and think, ‘Oh my, OK, here we go.’ But I’d lose track of time and almost forget where I was. The stories are so compelling and the characters are so vivid that it carries you along, if you let it. We’d go back and review, maybe edit a couple of words. But that was about it, because it’s so beautifully written.”