Listen and Learn: Nonfiction Audiobooks | Audio Spotlight

ljx150502webAudio6Truth may be stranger than fiction, but when it comes to audiobooks, it can be just as compelling. Enjoyable nonfiction audiobooks generally have “the same basic elements as any good fiction audiobook,” explains LJ reviewer Denis Frias (Mississauga Lib. Syst., Ont.). “I want to hear a good story, not simply a statement of facts.”

Reviewer Jason Puckett (Univ. of Georgia Lib., Atlanta) agrees. “I tend to [be attracted to] audio nonfiction that has a strong personal narrative to it—something journalistic or biographical works well for me in the audio format.”

But many listeners enjoy the educational aspect of non­fiction. “I take great pleasure in learning new things,” says LJ 2014 Audiobook Reviewer of the Year Forrest Link (Coll. of New Jersey Lib.), “so nonfiction—especially history or popular science—is what I tend to gravitate toward.” Frias concurs. “Good nonfiction tickles the intellect with its perspective on facts, values, and ideas. I ‘feel’ like I have to concentrate more when listening to fiction audiobooks,” Frias continues. “In fiction it is easier to miss the details. In nonfiction, there is more of a path of information that can be followed along logically.”


Just the facts

The Audio Publishers Association’s (APA) annual sales surveys indicate that as the overall number of audiobooks being released has increased—from 7,237 in 2011 to 16,309 in 2012 and 35,713 in 2013—the proportion of nonfiction has remained steady at roughly 20 percent of the total.

Naturally, that varies from publisher to publisher, though the best-selling categories tend to be similar. “I’d say our nonfiction percentage is around 35 to 40 percent,” says Ron Formica, director of acquisitions at Tantor, who explains that self-help and true crime are growing categories.

S. & S. Audio has a backlist that’s roughly half and half and a frontlist with about 35 percent nonfiction. President and publisher Chris Lynch states that “certain nonfiction categories such as business or personal development have always been very strong.”

Business titles are also reliable sellers at Penguin Random House Audio, where nonfiction as a whole makes up 30 percent of the list. Amanda D’Acierno, SVP and publisher, explains that “audio appeals to the business reader particularly because they’re all about efficiency—they are multitaskers who want to fit in reading wherever they can, during their commute or a flight to a meeting.” Regarding other categories, D’Acierno notes that “politics, history, and science titles perform especially well on audio.”

Outside forces often have a strong influence on circulation. “With any of the nonfiction book categories, titles that received media attention perform the best,” explains Baker & Taylor’s David K. Cully, president, retail markets. “The biggest categories in 2014 were history and biography, primarily driven by best sellers [Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard’s] Killing Patton (Macmillan Audio) and [Hillary Rodham Clinton’s] Hard Choices (S. & S. Audio)…. History is driving sales so far in 2015, but biography is still doing well.”

Growth categories for audiobooks accessed via Midwest Tapes’ hoopla streaming service include self-help and comedy, according to hoopla’s chief brand manager Michael Manon. Self-improvement titles and humor were also among the top circulating nonfiction audiobooks accessed through OverDrive, says David Burleigh, director of marketing and communication, along with biography and autobiography, history, and travel.

“We are aware of growing interest in nonfiction titles for education purposes and are working with our e-audiobook partner, Findaway, to make sure we are prepared to meet that demand,” says Tom Mercer, 3M Library Systems digital business development leader. 3M began distributing audiobooks five months ago and, Mercer says, has seen strong growth across all categories, including nonfiction.

Celebrity memoirs that are read by their authors are the best-selling category at Harper Audio, says senior marketing manager Beth Ives. Nonfiction makes up a quarter of the company’s audio titles. Catherine Zappa, director of licensing and audio sales for HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP), explains that nonfiction is a strong segment of the religious publishing realm. “HCCP trade nonfiction audiobook sales are nearly double the APA’s survey of 20 percent,” says Zappa, and adds that “inspiring biographies and Christian life/spirituality” are particularly solid sellers.


Inspirational, faith-based, and Christian living titles are also growth categories at Hachette Audio, says VP and publisher Anthony Goff, along with health and wellness works. Non­fiction comprises 34 percent of Hachette’s audio offerings.

“We have experienced growth in a number of categories of nonfiction titles—biography, self-help, science, history, and humor, to name a few,” according to Anne Fonteneau, Blackstone’s head of sales. Nonfiction comprises about 20 percent of Blackstone’s offerings, she says. “Titles on astronomy, cosmology, and physiology are especially well received. It’s…possible that subjects often seen as somewhat dense or dry in print are given new perspective and a more accessible means of absorption through audio,” adds Fonteneau.

Troy Juliar, SVP of content for Recorded Books, says that while his company’s selections include “a lot of quality history, memoir, biography—­narrative nonfiction that is really storytelling as much as fiction is—it is not quite 20 percent of our catalog.” Juliar explains that “the core nonfiction ‘storytelling’ narrative nonfiction areas have always been strong—history, memoir, biography. But business/personal development is an area of growth for us and our Tantor imprint. Our HighBridge imprint has a nice humor catalog that does well, and sports is an area we’re dabbling in, too.”

Recorded Books also makes available to libraries two lines of academic series: Modern Scholar and Great Courses by the Teaching Company. In these, Juliar says, “the most popular courses are [on] ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, British history—all the great continuing education ideas that people were inspired by perhaps in college and never got around to studying as deeply as they wished.”

Importance of narration

Not surprisingly for an arena in which many people cite a strong narrative as the difference between success and failure, excellent narration is essential for a satisfying nonfiction audio experience. However, listeners don’t always agree on who should be doing the reading. “I think, on the whole, authors make poor narrators,” says Link. “Experienced actors seem to do a better job, understanding where to pause and how to pace their narration.”

“A professional reader is great for fiction, but when possible I like hearing nonfiction books, especially those with an auto­biographical angle to them, read by their authors,” counters Puckett. “I prefer an author’s own take on the work even if it is a little less smooth than a professional narrator’s might be. Typically in nonfiction there’s less of a need to provide distinctive character voices. I like knowing that [what] I’m hearing is exactly the way the author wants to express it, and hearing some of the author’s own emotion coming through in his or her own voice is great.”


For professional narrators, in most cases reading nonfiction is not usually substantially different from reading fiction. “So much is said these days about ‘genre’ and ‘style,’ but when it comes down to it we need to read the book and understand what the author is trying to get across,” says actor/narrator Simon Vance. “If you understand what the author is saying or doing,” he continues, “then you will naturally fall into the necessary rhythm of the book.”

Choosing a narrator is an important decision for a publisher. “When you have a nonfiction author who is passionate about their work, and their energy translates into a conversational, educational tone that will entrance a listener…book them!” says Anthony Goff, VP and publisher, Hachette Audio. “It’s not always quick, easy, or convenient based on their location, but I do believe that it is a very tangible factor in sales.”

The publisher will also take aspects of the book into consideration. “We try to pair strength in subgenre of nonfiction to the book at hand. For example, if it’s a book on a portion of French history, we try to pair a voice actor with experience, facility with research and the French language, and comfort level with the book,” says Hilary Eurich, Tantor’s production manager.

Bryan Barney, studio director at Blackstone, says, “Stellar nonfiction narrators are almost invisible. If you’re aware of the narrator when listening to nonfiction, they’re probably not doing a great job.”

“The key is to find someone who not only understands what they are reading but doesn’t overwhelm the information with too much performance,” explains Dan Zitt, VP, content production at Penguin Random House Audio. “The listener will hear it in the performance if the actor does not understand the concepts, and they will be distracted if the actor is dressing up the information by overperforming. There are times when authors just bring their work to life better than any actor can. They understand it better, they have a platform that expects them to communicate the concepts in their writing, and they are an authority.”

Recorded Books’ Juliar says that authors don’t always appreciate at the outset that narration requires a unique skill set. “We audition them and acquaint them with the commitment it takes to do it well, and many are often surprised at how difficult it is to do well and will yield to the idea of hiring an actor. But some are fantastic at reading their own work.”

Many nonfiction authors’ voices are already known to their listeners from speaking engagements or radio or television programs and hearing someone else read the book would be jarring for fans. “In business and self-help, we try to get the authors to read if their audience is used to hearing them speak and will want to hear the author’s words in his or her own voice,” says S. & S.’s Lynch.

Sometimes a professional narrator will be cast to read the work of a familiar public figure, as with Tavia Gilbert and The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (HighBridge). Rather than try to imitate Roosevelt’s distinctive tones and cadences, ­Gilbert says, “It’s not about the sound of her voice, it’s about Her Voice. I had to trust that without layering on any artifice, my voice would convey the respect I have for Roosevelt’s ­humility and curiosity, her desire to be of service to the world, her humor, intelligence, grace, and perseverance.”


Extra, extra!

Nonfiction tends to have a lot of ancillary material such as footnotes, maps, or photographs, and opinions vary on the best way to make those extras available to listeners.

“It’s tricky having the reader break out of the text to describe visual material or otherwise comment on the text in a way they couldn’t in print; sometimes it takes me out of the book a little bit,” says Puckett. “On the other hand, sometimes it’s fun to hear the author use this as a way to add a little extra flavor to the narrative. I’m currently listening to a Jon Ronson book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Brilliance), in which he describes a photo of himself disguised as a woman, and he sounds surprised and a bit pleased to mention that he actually looks more attractive than he had expected.”

For the most part, though, listeners are opposed to intrusions to the main text. “I don’t want the narrator to say ‘see map on page…’ or ‘see the pdf for a picture of…’. If I wanted maps or pictures I would read the book,” says Frias. “Having said that, I do like pdf documents with the visual aids that I can access once I’m done listening to the audiobook.”

“I prefer listening to ‘lighter’ nonfiction and thought-­provoking titles that don’t refer to worksheets or cheat sheets or involve columns of numbers or lists,” says LJ reviewer Laurie Selwyn (formerly with Grayson Cty. Law Lib., Sherman, TX). “[For example], animal stories, health, biographies/memoirs, political science, current events, history…. I find interrupting the flow of the reading by…referring to visual materials distracting—sometimes even changing my train of thought.”

Listening to the listeners

It’s this sort of listener feedback that likely contributed to the sort of industrywide changes narrator Vance has seen. “For the first books I did 20-plus years ago I was told to include all footnotes—usually at the end of the sentence or where it made sense logically to break the flow. I’d begin by saying ‘footnote’ and end by saying ‘end of footnote.’ Mostly these days footnotes are ignored in my experience unless there is a good argument to disrupt the flow to include them,” he says.

ljx150502webAudio4Selwyn sums up the challenge publishers face. “I’m not sure a practical working solution could be devised because some readers may prefer to stop and read the footnote in mid-text, while others want to keep the flow moving and read the notes either before beginning the chapter or at the end of the chapter,” she says.

For audiobooks on compact disc, most publishers put extra material in a PDF on an additional CD. But as the majority of audiobooks on the market now are digital downloads, publishers are having to be more creative for those fans.

“For downloads, we put the bonus material on a password-protected portion of our website,” says Tantor’s McNeil. According to Penguin Random House’s Zitt, “Our digital vendors are able to hide supplemental materials like photos, maps, and charts in a PDF (which would appear as an extra file on a CD edition) on a page behind the purchase window so that the consumer can download the content after they purchase it.”

“Bonus materials are included with digital editions as well as physical products. Once a title is purchased, the bonus material is offered in a separate file for download, concurrently with the audio,” says Blackstone’s Fonteneau.

Library patrons borrowing digital audiobooks can either access any additional or extended download with the bonus material via the app they used, or receive a notification after borrowing letting them know there is bonus material available for download as well.

However listeners choose to access supplemental material and whatever titles they select, nonfiction audiobooks fill a special niche in the information age. Says Frias, “These days everyone can get facts online. Smartphones and access to the Internet are everywhere. Stories are harder to come by. Good nonfiction means a good story.”

Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.