In January 2016 ECW Press, Coach House Books, the Ontario Media Development Corp., and the Canada Council for the Arts partnered to launch a project to inspire Canadian publishers to produce their own audiobooks. Librarians had been sounding the alarm that there were not enough books by Canadian authors available as audiobooks. We set out to be producers and had set the goal of producing at least 100 audiobooks from as wide an array of publishers as possible.
First, a little history: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had been producing great audio content for decades, including a series of our best books, narrated by top actors and played on the radio, and Toronto-based Newmarket’s Podium Publishing produced one of the biggest audiobook hits of all time, Andy Weir’s The Martian. Still, with the boom in American audiobook production (largely led and supported by Amazon’s Audible), audiobooks were becoming more popular, and Canadians were wondering why they too couldn’t enjoy books by their authors in the audiobook format.
So here we are, two years and 100 Canadian audiobooks later, having produced titles from 21 different publishers. In 2017, 43% of Canadian publishers produced their own audiobooks, compared to only 16% in 2015. Today, publishers including House of Anansi Press, Nimbus Publishing, and Orca Books Publishers—like ECW and Coach House—are regularly producing audiobooks each season, and lots of other publishers are jumping in with one or two titles a year of their own; eBound, a national collective for digital engagement, distributes audiobooks for publishers, as does ECW. We are now launching a new audiobook series: it is called Bespeak and is devoted to producing 50 new audiobooks that will showcase a range of diverse, inclusive and marginalized Canadian authors.
The boom in Canadian audiobooks has not been limited to independent publishers. Last year, Penguin Random House Canada launched its audiobook-production program, led by Ann Jansen, who was previously a producer at the CBC; as of today, PRH Canada has produced more than 100 of its own audiobooks titles.
Large retailers too have supported our progress. Kobo launched an audiobook-subscription program, and Audible has since announced a C$12 million investment in producing Canadian audiobooks, going so far as to showcase author Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth Moss, star of the television adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, at the announcement at Toronto’s Union Station.
One benefit of all this activity in audiobooks that goes beyond mere sales is that it has meant more work for the great voice talent, sound engineers, and studio directors that we have in Canada, many of whom had not had the chance to work on audiobook narration. ACTRA Toronto reports that the number of productions involving its union actors has increased from zero in 2015 to 53 for the first six months of 2018. That’s a heartening number, and hopefully just the beginning of a stronger trend. Canadian narrators are developing fan bases among listeners, and a number of narrators have gone so far as to invest in home studios.
There are also signs of ambition in Canadian audiobook production. Among the highlights has been David Ferry’s direction of the audiobook of Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird for Audible, one that included 14 different voice actors. Several publishers have gone on to produce multi-voice audiobooks. Increasingly, this becomes easier, as the number of professional studios with audiobook experience has grown to over a dozen.
But has this activity resulted in an increase in listeners? Indeed it has. The Toronto Public Library saw 40% growth in digital audiobook loans in 2017 over the previous year and is projecting more than a million loans this year.
Though we’re delighted with the results so far, this is just the beginning. Canadian publishers are still intent on seeing all the most important, beloved, and influential Canadian books available as audiobooks, and the sooner the better. The audiobook train has just left the station, and there’s a long journey ahead.
David Caron is copublisher of ECW Press.