Hi folks. This last week has seen a challenging adjustment for me, as it probably has for a lot of you. However, I know from my own experience that one of the best ways to deal with uncertainty is keeping to a routine. So, despite the fact my next scheduled writer’s lunch won’t now be happening as planned, I’m going to keep the regular posts going by looking back on some guest lectures I sat in on in the latter half of 2019. The first of these took place on the 24th October, when my class was joined by Helena Sheffield
Helena works at Penguin Random House as an audiobook marketer. Though this mainly involves the business of getting the right books to the right listeners, early on in her presentation she took the time to go through the many other roles that go into making an audiobook. In some respects, these were similar to roles you’d find in production of physical books. Producers, for example, make sure that the people telling the stories are the right fit for them, advising on things like intonation. However, there are other roles that are specific to audiobooks.
A role that often goes unappreciated is that of the audio engineer. The atmosphere and technology in a recording studio are paramount to how an audiobook is received, and this is what they help tweak to the right levels.
Audiobooks were initially a very niche market, but in the last year their sales have gone up by 43%, making them the fastest growing area of publishing. Helena’s consumer research divided the people that buy these audiobooks into two main categories: advocates and entertainment seekers.
Advocates are heavy book-buyers and readers. They engage with publishers directly on social media platforms to support this pastime, but are also looking to build stories into their lives – hence why audiobooks are a good fit for them.
These are a newer audience, in comparison to advocates. They don’t buy books nearly as regularly, or engage with publishers as actively. They may not even see themselves as readers – but importantly, they are likely to be involved with digital entertainment (such as Netflix, Spotify and podcasts). It’s this that drives their engagement with audiobooks: they see them not as a book, but as another form of entertainment, akin to the things they’re already listening to and watching.
So, you have these two quite different types of consumers – but how would a publishing company like Penguin market an audiobook release in a way that would interest them both?
Case study: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
To answer this question, Helena took us through the marketing campaign that Penguin Random House utilised for The Testaments, sequel to Margaret Atwood 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. Engaging the advocate audience involved pivoting around their previous knowledge of the property; for this reason, a year and a half before the audiobook was released they contacted Elisabeth Moss, who portrayed Offred in the television series. In between filming the third series – and often in costume – she recorded the narration for the book, and alongside publications on social media and in print channels, this really drove the sales from the advocate audience.
For the entertainment seekers, though, the approach was slightly different. These were people that were more likely to have watched the Handmaid TV series without reading the book, and they wanted to do something that would promote audiobooks as something different, that would fit into their lives without being too heavily associated with the books/publishing sphere. Their idea was to set up a series of listening benches in city centres and bookshops:
The white hoods you see jutting out from the benches at head height played extracts from the audiobook, making listeners look a bit like Handmaids in the process. Furthermore, people dressed as Handmaids (like the woman centre-left in the above picture) directed members of the public towards the benches.
As a whole, the book’s marketing campaign ran from April to June 2019, with the book itself published in September. The audiobook was the fastest selling that Penguin Random House had ever produced, and the multi-faceted, disruptive and recognisable marketing campaign was certainly a factor behind that.
If I’m honest, I don’t really listen to audiobooks that often. In fact, I only started my first one about a week ago (Jennifer Malone Wright’s Keeper vs Reaper, if you were wondering). Regardless of this, Helena’s talk really broadened my view of audiobooks and their place in the publishing industry as a whole.
Oh, and another thing: if you want Helena’s own recommendation for an audiobook, try out The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, as read by Stephen Hogan. Having listened to the five minute sample, I know you won’t be disappointed.
Helena Sheffield is the Marketing & Communications Manager at Penguin Random House Audio. She also runs the Penguin Podcast, and has published a nonfiction book, The Art of Hats. You can find her on Twitter @HelenaSheffield.