Hearing books

If I had been a rich Victorian lady I would have had a paid companion, preferably a good mimic, to read to me. I do love audio books. I am a skimmer and skipper of non-fiction – history, politics, ecology – and find that listening makes me concentrate better. Also, you can do housework or gardening while you listen, or play endless games of Spider Solitaire.

A housebound friend guided me to LibriVox for books out of copyright. It is really quite astonishing the number of volunteers willing to read out Middlemarch or the lesser known works of E M Delafield. Astonishing too in their quality – many read excellently, can do a good range of different voices, and if most are American, so you get English regional dialects transposed into what I guess is Appalachian or Southern States American instead of George Eliot’s Midlander yokels and horse dealers, that has a charm as well.

I have read a lot of nineteenth century English novels, some favourite authors (George Eliot, Jane Austen) many times. I like to dip into favourite scenes, favourite characters. Having them read aloud amplifies the wit, irony, view of humanity, and occasional lumpish moralising or absurd plots. For such a realistic and intellectual novelist, Eliot did rely a lot on the novelistic conventions of her day – discovered documents, unlikely co-incidences, revealed identities, and sudden fortunes.

You can find books in copyright on OverDrive, which is run by the libraries, so you borrow books on your library card. However their stock is small, and mostly not to my taste. If you are wanting to listen to a well-reviewed popular work of non fiction eg Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A Life (raised to the main stage by Hilary Mantel’s headline act trilogy on Thomas Cromwell) you have to go to Audible, i.e. Amazon. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography is a detailed and well-told account of Cromwell and the English Reformation but a book I would normally borrow rather than own. If I wanted a book to refer to later I would look for something I can hold in my hands with an index.

However Audible has a monopoly on audio books, forcing ownership. We poor consumers have to make our way through the compromise and devil-dealing of Amazonworld when we are looking for a connector, charger or some other gadget. I do try not to buy those monopolistic mistreaters of their workforce, but it is too damned easy when the item you are searching for turns up on their site. Thus I have my subscription with Amazon’s Audible.

Amazon holds 90% of the audio book market and will not licence to libraries, which means authors cannot collect their Public Lending Rights and listening readers cannot borrow. Listening readers take out a subscription rather than purchase the books at £15-£30 – which, given that there is no actual physical book or distribution, seems very steep. Meanwhile Amazon can gouge the authors and publishers and the books are not available on any other platform except their own.

Someone taking on Amazon is Cory Doctorow, a popular author who has refused to have his publishers sell his books to Audible. He’s a big enough author to call the shots in that way and is now working on producing his own audio books and distributing them on an independent platform. That does take some organisation on his part, and not many authors would have the energy or knowledge. A writer with a medium audience must find it a fillip to be on Audible and leave the rest to their publishers. But Doctorow may start a new platform to rival Amazon’s monopoly or possibly create some other form of distribution and licensing of audio books, with lending rights sold to libraries.

He compares Amazon’s control of audio books to the poultry industry in the USA – supposedly independent chicken farmers are in fact serfs for a large corporation who control every aspect of their chicken raising. Amazon can’t actually control its writers to that degree, forcing everyone to write like J K Rowling or whoever their big sellers are. However it will be interesting to see if writers did shape their books for the Amazon market, as they did for the great lending libraries of the past, which had particular standards of propriety for their authors, whose fortunes they controlled.