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Naxos AudioBooks Celebrates 30 Years

By Anthony Anderson

10 July 2024

Although we are not accustomed to wallowing in the past, our 30th anniversary is a natural point for us to reflect not only on what we have achieved, but on the development of the audiobook industry over the past three decades.

Naxos AudioBooks, set up by Klaus Heymann and Nicolas Soames, came out of the Naxos Music Group. Building on its ever-growing catalogue of classical music recordings, Naxos’s foray into spoken word was a sideways, though not completely unnatural, move. The audiobook market looked very different to what we know now: cassette was the prevailing format (although, from the outset, Naxos AudioBooks also released all its recordings on CD) and most audiobooks were of abridgements of the text, with a large part of the market consisting of radio programmes that had been issued for home listening.

Our focus was unashamedly on the classics – and this still forms the core of our recording activity today. In this we mirrored the strategy of the Naxos music label, which had begun with recordings of music by ‘core’ composers – such as Bach and Mozart. We began with the likes of Dickens and Austen. Most recordings also featured carefully chosen excerpts of music from the Naxos catalogue, which served to heighten the listening experience. It wasn’t long, however, before Naxos AudioBooks moved, albeit on occasion, into less obvious territory. At that stage, spoken word recordings of books were seen by much of the industry as niche, which meant that audiobooks were often available (subject to negotiation with the rightsholders). This resulted in acclaimed recordings of works by a diverse range of authors, including Haruki Murakami and Georgette Heyer.

Casting was always done with great care. Reading an audiobook is a skill and is not for every actor. Most of all it was imperative to find a voice that is sympathetic to the text – but also a voice with which a listener will want to remain for the duration of the book, which can be 20 or 30 hours – or even longer! We boast a wide array of superb voices, from actors who are as enthused by the books as we are, and this shines through their performances.

Not all our recordings were for single voice. Most obviously, our range of drama, and Shakespeare in particular, features superlative casts, in top-notch productions. Throughout our history we have also produced multi-voice versions of many books – often where the book demands it, or at least suggests it – such as Dickens’s Bleak House, Wilkie Collins’s No Name or Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler.

The advent of the mp3, with the launch of Audible, was a turning point for the audiobook market, opening it up to a more general consumer. No longer were audiobooks a niche product, for just long-distance salespeople and the visually impaired. The resulting growth in consumption and sales brought an increased interest in the format from the wider publishing industry so that today most books, in fiction at least, are released in e-book and audiobook formats in synchronisation with their hardback counterpart. This means that there is an unparalleled range of choice for the listener and a large number of audiobooks being released each month.

Alongside this development is the growth in different platforms and models through which consumers can listen. The explosion of podcasts in recent years means that an increasing number of people are accustomed to listening to spoken word content on demand. This is matched by a much wider availability, and subscription models for audiobooks have grown in more recent times, with platforms such as Storytel and Bookbeat, and the more recent entry of Spotify into the audiobook space.

More choice and more ways in which to access audiobooks can only be a good thing for consumers. We continue as we did from the beginning of the label in 1994, creating fine recordings of great books with superb performers. To single out anyone means omitting others, which I have deliberately avoided here. However, if you have a spare 30 minutes, please sit back and enjoy our 30th anniversary video – on reflection, a measure of occasional wallowing is excusable.

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