America’s unhealthy obsession with productivity is driving its biggest new reading trend

“I probably started reading ultra hardcore about seven or eight years ago,” says Tom Bilyeu, an entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. “Ultra hardcore” means that Bilyeu reads everywhere: While he brushes his teeth, while he gets dressed, in the 30 seconds it takes to cross rooms in his house, he’s reading.

“My big secret is,” says Bilyeu, “I read in all those little transitional moments.” Plus, for the last eight years, he’s optimized his intellectual consumption by listening to audiobooks at three times the normal speed.

Audiobooks are the latest trend in book publishing. They’re part of the podcast boom, and they’re helping US publishers keep losses down as ebook sales from big-name companies continue to slump. What’s been around since the 1980s has a sleek new face, and today who’s listening, where, and why, offers a glimpse into a new reading trend sweeping the US.

Audiobook listening is growing rapidly specifically with 25- to 34-year-olds, thanks to a pernicious “sleep when you’re dead” mindset reflective of the young, aspirational, educated American: We are fearful of mono-tasking, find downtime distasteful, and feel anxious around idleness. Even when picking socks from a drawer, young workers feel better if information’s somehow flowing into their brains. And this is exactly the restless market that book publishers need.

A fast growing format

Audiobooks are booming audibly in the mobile age. In the US, growth of audio is stronger than any other format, according to the Association of American Publishers, which tracks revenue from 1,200 book publishers. And while audiobook unit sales numbers are still small (from January to September 2016, US traditional publishers sold $240 million in audiobooks, compared to $1.8 billion in hardcover books), the format’s growth has meant more and more publishers are putting their money in people’s ears.

“I am very bullish on audio,” Kristen McClean, executive director of business development for market trends company NPD Book. “This is on the top of my list in terms of things I’m watching.”

“What we’re seeing is something that goes beyond the simple ease of downloading,” she says. “I think there is a shift in consumption going on.”

Audiobooks are a way for people who were once big readers to keep up with their youthful curiosity. As they find themselves with less leisure time than they had in college, the gym and the car become opportunities to be stimulated. “I used to read a lot, and probably stopped when I went to law school,” says Jamie Brooks, a lawyer based in New York City. Now she listens to an audiobook a week, on average three hours a day, on the train to work and before bed.

Audiobook listeners tend to be slightly above average in terms of income and education compared to the rest of the US population, according to 2006 data (pdf), the most recent available from the Audio Publishers Association (APA). “We find that our users are well educated, well paid, and successful,” says Beth Anderson, the executive vice president and publisher of Amazon’s Audible, the world’s largest retailer and publisher of digital audiobooks. “A huge number have masters and PhDs. They’re book lovers.”

Restless minds

Audiobooks mean we never have to be idle. They’re a cure to widespread restless mind syndrome, with its daily self-imposed nagging to make progress: Be more effective, says your productivity tracker. Do and learn more, says your to-do list. Optimize your to-do list, says your faddish new notebook.

Mobile technology helps. David Gross, a doctor and longtime audiobook listener based in Washington DC, recalls the trying process of procuring them 20 years ago: “There’d be a paper catalog, you’d call a phone number, they’d mail you the CDs, you’d keep it for a month, you’d mail it back,” he says. Today, downloads take two minutes, and apps make accelerated listening easy.

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America’s unhealthy obsession with productivity is driving its biggest new reading trend

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