I’m often asked by new buyers of audiobooks for recommendations. Their most common concern? That their Internet-addled minds will wander at the slightest provocation. So that gorgeous 34-hour recording of Anna Karenina? Not for them. Those who are just getting started in the world of audiobooks need a nonintimidating entry point.
“Gateway audiobooks” are an important category for the audiobook industry to consider. They’re the books that help a company like eMusic expand our consumer base and reach new users who are still unsure whether listening to books is for them. Once new users get hooked, they’ll be ready for that 57-hour recording of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in no time.
If you’re trying to reach new customers, here are five categories that I often suggest to smooth the audiobook transition.
1. Humorous books written and performed by their authors
Tina Fey’s Bossypants was eMusic’s #1 bestselling audiobook of 2011 for a simple reason: it’s a book that’s meant to be heard, not read. On the page, Fey is plenty witty, but in audio she’s able to showcase her knack for impersonations and impeccable comic timing. The same goes for many of the perennial big names in comedic audiobooks, from Sedaris (David and Amy), Rakoff and Vowell, to Stewart and Colbert. This isn’t to say that audiobook publishers require big name comedians on their rosters—just that the value of hearing an author interpret his or her own work shouldn’t be underestimated as a key selling point.
2. Books with celebrity (or otherwise famous) narrators
There are hundreds of audiobook professionals who’ve made narration a vibrant art form, but one of the snazzier ways to pull in new listeners is with marquee names. Paul Newman reading Tom Sawyer, Jeremy Irons doing his creepiest Humbert Humbert while narrating Lolita—their interpretations bring new perspectives to beloved classics. At eMusic, Keith Richards’s memoir hit two sweet spots: Life was a major book for any rock fan, and it happened to be narrated, in part, by Johnny Depp. Even better, nearly a year after its hardcover publication, Patti Smith narrated her own delectable memoir, Just Kids, to brilliant effect. Rock critic Rob Sheffield, meanwhile, may not be a traditional A-lister, but in the eMusic universe he’s a star—his reading of his memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape, is a go-to when I’m looking to convert music fans into audiobook buffs.
3. Books that have been adapted to film
A film tie-in is a nice middle ground for customers who like the performative aspect of listening to a book, but still want the freedom to envision characters in their own heads before seeing them on the big screen. My recent go-tos? Kaui Hart Hemming’s bittersweet The Descendants and Michael Lewis’s modern baseball classic, Moneyball.
4. Books with a transcendent narrator
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great example. It’s been eMusic’s overall bestseller since the audiobook line launched in September 2007, and while the book is a perennial crowd pleaser, I’m pretty sure that Stephen Fry’s narration gives it a special edge; expert narration can change the entire way you experience a book. I like to encourage potential buyers to listen to a bunch of samples first—to find a voice that’s appealing and engaging, and then run with it. I’m a diehard Lorrie Moore fan, but her novel A Gate at the Stairs wasn’t a particular favorite of mine until I heard Mia Barron bring it to life. Ever since, listening to a Barron-narrated audiobook feels like catching up with an old friend.
5. Essays and short story collections
For listeners concerned that they won’t be able to follow intricate plots, I advise them to skip the le Carré (for now). Short stories and essays are terrific because they’re easy to break down into manageable chunks—suitable for subway commutes as well as road trips. David Foster Wallace’s essays are a great place to start, and Dreamscape had a great one-two punch this winter with story collections by Dan Chaon and Emma Straub.
Keep in mind that these tips do not apply to everyone. Other categories that would make for great intros to the audiobook world range from full cast recordings (Harper Audio’s new production of American Gods is a killer) to books with special bonus features (the music alone on Augusten Burroughs’s A Wolf at the Table is worth the price). But whichever gateway audiobook hook you choose to use, here’s hoping new users continue to keep discovering the joys of listening to a great book.
Maris Kreizman is audiobooks editor at eMusic, a music and audiobooks digital retailer.