Back in the early 1990s, avid audiobook listener Robin Whitten couldn’t have known that her passion for that medium would lead her to a whole new career publishing a magazine devoted to it, but that’s exactly what happened. The publication she founded, AudioFile, marks its 30th birthday this summer and she reflected on how the venture initially got off the ground, how it has evolved and where it’s headed next.
Pre-AudioFile, Whitten would visit her public library in Portland, Me. (where she was a board member) to check out new titles and talk audiobooks with the library’s director. “He and I would chat about the great voices we were listening to,” she recalled. “We realized that when there was any conversation about audiobooks, it was all about the content, the story, and no one ever mentioned the narration; and it’s really a performance art.” The two also agreed that it would be helpful for librarians to have reviews of those audiobook performances so they could purchase and recommend good ones. And, as it was the era of desktop publishing, Whitten soon realized that was something she should do—even though she had another job and didn’t know the first thing about producing a newsletter on her computer.
But by 1992 Whitten had researched and experimented with the process, solicited support from some audio publishers, recruited a few fellow listeners, and in June of that year she launched AudioFile with a 12-page issue containing 25 reviews. Fast forward to 2022 and the print edition of AudioFile publishes six times per year with more than 100 reviews in each issue and also contains narrator profiles and feature articles.
Like most print publications today, AudioFile has expanded beyond paper and offers a free digital newsletter as well as two podcasts— “Behind the Mic,” showcasing recommendations from editors and reviewers and bonus material from narrator interviews; and “Audiobook Break” which allows listening to a book serialized chapter by chapter. In addition, each week, the AudioFile team posts 50 new reviews online via its newsletter and social media accounts. (The best/most interesting/most relevant of these then comprise the print issue.)
As a niche publication, AudioFile has weathered storms that have wiped out lots of other print media. “We never depended on newsstand distribution,” Whitten explained. “We still have quite a good group of publishers who support us with print advertising and also support us with some of the other digital initiatives that we do, whether it’s sponsoring the podcasts, or webinars, or just the straight up web advertising." An important advertising base remains indie publishers who get exposure in AudioFile that they wouldn’t otherwise get, she says.
And she’s happy that there’s room for various iterations to coexist in the AudioFile ecosystem. “My philosophy about the website and other platforms as well, is that it’s more important to me to have people use and access our recommendations and our reviews, than to try to extract what is really a small amount of money from them in order to do that. So our reviews are open to people, because we want them to see them and read them and use that information to find a good audiobook.”
Whitten’s 30 years at the AudioFile helm have run parallel to a period of enormous change in the audiobook industry. “One of the interesting things to me is the flow of publishers, in and out the audiobook space,” she says. “In 1992, there were a couple of big, independent players, and the Big Five were kind of, ‘maybe we’re interested, but it’s sort of a stepsister here and maybe we’re going to invest but not too much.’ But that has changed so that the big publishers have invested massively and changed what’s available and put all their marketing and business power behind it.” As the larger companies got bigger many independent publishers either were acquired or sold, but Whitten says she is seeing a resurgence of smaller publishers and innovators in the audio space. "I think immediately of Pushkin, because they are doing such interesting sorts of work with sound design and programming of all kinds," she says.
Another notable industry change in Whitten’s view has been the availability of audiobook self-publishing for indies, authors, and small publishers. She notes since its inception, AudioFile has published 55,000 reviews, representing titles released by 1,700 publishers.
Apart from the coming and going of audio publishers, “the other seismic shift in the industry is format,” she said. “I really thank the Audible engineers who figured out how to make the digital files that we now have on our phones, and anywhere, because it was totally revolutionary. That shift broadened the base of who could listen, where you could listen, all of those things.”
Whitten sees more innovation coming. “The great interest in podcasts—how that exactly plays out for the audiobook industry, and plays with it, essentially, is still evolving for us,” she says. Whitten is also encouraged by the recent APA statistics that showed much of the industry growth is coming from younger listeners. “That’s so important for any industry, to not let your audience age out.”
Whitten is also looking forward to change closer to home. “We’re very excited about the August launch of a new technology for a digital edition of AudioFile from eMags,” she said. “It’s very mobile friendly, readable, and scrollable.” Also on the agenda is the official AudioFile anniversary celebration this weekend, which includes an special version of the magazine’s annual July lobster bake, held in Maine where the company continues to be headquartered. The party comes on the heels of today’s release of a 30th anniversary sizzle reel video featuring congratulations from narrators around the globe and the unveiling of a unique blueberry pie created by Stephanie Hockersmith, aka Pie Lady Books, known for her book-cover pie pictures on Instagram and inspired by the cover of AudioFile’s June/July anniversary double issue.