Robin Moore, Program Coordinator, Writing and Oral Traditions Program

A Road Warrior Asks: Is Spoken Word the New Publishing Medium?

Listen to this:

Since I live in Pennsylvania and teach at TGI’s campus in Connecticut, I am, by definition, a Road Warrior.

Crazy as it may sound, I have been commuting to this gig for more than 17 years. Let the record show that I have made the 300-mile round-trip journey approximately 250 times. That’s 75,000 miles (the distance required to drive around the equator of the Earth three times).

Think of the vast stretch of time: An astonishing 2,000 hours of White Line Fever. Said another way, that amounts to 166 back-to-back days of 12-hour driving. Where have they all gone, those precious ticking moments of my rapidly-shortening lifespan?

Some of those moments were spent daydreaming, some were spent cursing the traffic on the Merritt Parkway. But most were spent with my constant traveling companions—recorded books. Like many long-distance drivers, I learned long ago that nothing makes the miles roll by faster than a really good audio book.

Once I am entranced by a good reader and a gripping story, I can push through exhaustion, road rage and sheer boredom--finding my way to my destination with a smile on my face and the knowledge that I have learned something. And, I should mention: These audio books are free! My local library has an extensive collection of recorded books on CD. Full Disclosure: I tried Audible—too expensive.

In no particular order, here are the recorded books lying on the floor of my van right now:

The Whistler/ John Grisham
The Future of The Mind/Michio Kaku
Holy Blood, Holy Grail/Michael Baigent
Writing Creative Nonfiction/Tilar Mazzeo
The Professor in the Cage/Jonathan Gottschall
The Death of Ivan Ilyich/Leo Tolstoy
A Plague of Doves/Louise Erdrich
Spoonbenders/Daryl Gergory
Murder is Forever/James Patterson

Why do I carry so many? Some will be duds: After listening for a few moments, I will be annoyed by the reader or will discover that I don’t care about the premise. But a few will be gems and will wrap me in an aural blanket of listening bliss as the landscape zips past my windshield at 75 miles an hour.

A Fast-Growing Medium

Turns out, I am not alone in discovering the benefits of listening to books, often read by the author, while I do something else.

Consider the headline of a recent article in the June 3, 2018 edition of The New York Times: “Listen Carefully, Book Lovers: Top Authors Are Skipping Print”. Journalist Alexander Alter notes the impressive rise in audio sales as publishers respond to consumers’ desire for books that can be enjoyed by the ear rather than the eye.

“Audiobooks are no longer an appendage of print, but a creative medium in their own right,” Alter writes. “The rise of stand-alone audio has also made some traditional publishers nervous, as Audible (owned by Amazon) makes deals directly with writers. While e-book sales have fallen and print remains anemic, publishers’ revenues for downloaded audio has nearly tripled in the last five years.

"The battle over who will dominate the industry’s fastest-growing format is re-shaping the publishing landscape, much as e-books did a decade ago, driving up advances for audio rights and leading some authors to sign straight-to-audio deals.”

“We are scripting to a new aesthetic,” said Donald Katz, Audible’s founder and chief executive. “This wasn’t a full-fledged media category before, it was a tiny little Siberia stuck in book publishing, and it shouldn’t have been.”

Audible executive Davis Blum says that this change will require that book lovers expand their ideas of how they perceive literature. “We’re trying to break down the boundaries of what people think content ought to look like,” Blum says.

Listening to your favorite book is easier than ever. Advances in digital technology now allow cellphones to function as audiobook players. Consumers bought 90 million audiobooks in 2016, totaling sales of $2.1 billion. According to Alter, more writers and publishers are warming to the concept of delivering stories through the spoken word. Audible is now approaching writers directly to buy the audio rights for their latest works even before their book proposals are submitted to mainstream publishers.

A New Frontier

Once again, TGI finds itself on the cutting edge of contemporary culture. TGI’s Writing and Oral Traditions program is different from every other writing program in the nation because it focuses on the marriage of the spoken and written word in the creative process.

Since the launch of the program in 2000, we have understood that orality informs the writer and provides us with access to a neural pathway which carries messages into the storehouse of memory, imagination and insight in a way that mere ink on the page can never do. By combining the ancient art of storytelling with the latest trends in literary experimentation, TGI’s emerging writers have the opportunity to explore an alternative medium for delivering story.

The Graduate Institute Publishing Center is currently offering TGI writers the opportunity to publish in both print and digital form before a world-wide audience on the platform. Are audio books, with easily downloadable content, far behind? Keep posted as TGI's first-time authors learn how to distribute their work to story-lovers connected by the rapidly-growing matrix that is modern-day publishing.

Some researchers think we are entering an era when technology will allow the spoken word to open our ears in a new way. Among them is Psychologist Carol Gilligan, who reminds us,

“To have a voice is to be human. To have something to say is to be a person. But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act. Voice is natural and also cultural, a powerful psychological instrument connecting inner and outer worlds. Speaking and listening are a form of psychic breathing. This ongoing relational exchange is mediated through language and culture, diversity and plurality. For these reasons, voice is a new key for understanding the psychological, social and cultural order.”

As intelligent and empathetic listening becomes a skill necessary for meaningful participation in our steadily-growing understanding of what it means to be human, perhaps this new interest in the pleasures of both orality and aurality will help to lead the way.

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