iPad, can you read me a bedtime story?

While they’re great for the commute, audiobooks also encourage listeners to multitask.

Do you recall when you first heard the words “and they a lived happily ever after”? For many, it was a time when storytelling was a daily ritual and a window to a world where everything was possible. Now it’s even easier to rediscover that sensation.

For Generation Y, tapping into nostalgia is as simple as tapping a finger on an LCD screen. Smart devices offer them unlimited access to the cultural references that shaped their lives. A survey by comScore in April revealed 18-34 year-olds represent nearly half of all iPad owners. Not surprisingly, then, this tech-savvy age group is the driving force behind increasing audiobook sales — up 40% so far this year according to Megan Fitzpatrick, Senior Manager of Hachette publishing’s audio division.

No longer just convenient for a long road trip or commute, audiobooks fill a void. Sure, these mp3s feed a hunger for instant gratification, but they also satisfy the innately human tradition of oral storytelling. It’s an old idea resurrected for new media. And in an era of more options but less leisure time, audiobooks encourage listeners to multitask. Plugged in Millenials economize pleasure, education and work simultaneously.

Although they’re often accused of having short attention spans, Fitzpatrick argues that young audiobook listeners actually tend to be avid readers, adding that they prefer unabridged titles. “Audiobooks take active engagement, compelling listeners to pay attention to every word and to the cadence of the language,” she says. Moreover, the “cinematic totality” of a narration with high production values can turn otherwise apathetic readers into literary connoisseurs.  

While they’re portable and palatable, audiobooks aren’t cheap to make, so be wary of the 99 cent variety. “Efficient isn’t a word easily applied to the profit margin on audiobooks,” says Fitzpatrick, noting that purchasing rights, editorial and marketing overhead and quality control of the recording itself hike up a publisher’s costs and therefore the end cost for consumers. But it’s an investment both are willing to make if the finished product stands up to its hardcover counterpart.  

One way publishers close the quality-value gap is by casting celebrity narrators. Though they don’t drive down the bottom line, they do boost the cred — and sales — of audiobooks. “When a performer is paired with the perfect material, the words sparkle in ways that the printed word can’t always compete with,” Fitzpatrick says, citing David Sedaris and Tina Fey as prime examples.  

Oddly enough, in their respective best-selling audio works both authors kvetch on a subject that pulls at the heart and purse strings of a nostalgic Generation Y: memories of a not-too-distant youth.


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