Last month, in the week after her death, extracts from the life and works of the writer Joan Didion re-surfaced, and circulated among fans. Passages and quotes from her books, interviews she gave and a Netflix documentary about her life, The Centre Will Not Hold, were revived on social media.
This in itself is not particularly noteworthy; it happens when any literary great dies. The trouble of reading their longer pieces is circumvented and more aphoristic snippets are repackaged and shared. Screenshots are taken and saved to camera rolls.
Of course, these kinds of virtual tributes do help publishers and booksellers in small ways. If the quotes are any good, or if they find resonance, a curious person, buoyed by the online flurry, might pick up a book written by the author or download a title or two. This could nudge sales in the right direction and add marginally to the author's league of fans.
A wider phenomenon, though, of how book sales work, can tell us something about the times we live in. It is not the death of writers, however eminent, that will most likely help sales. It takes an event like the pandemic to reverse what was just a couple of years ago bemoaned as the end of the reading habit. An undeniably good outcome of the past two years – and one of the few positive things that can be said for the pandemic – is that book sales have gone up. The reasons are simple enough. People had more time and fewer places to go, and with fewer distractions in the outside world, reading got a lift. Fiction sales ( both e-books and paperbacks), as well as audiobook sales in the first half of 2021, soared, according to the UK's Publishers Association.
But it wasn't just the paper books and their pixelated counterparts. Audio formats have seen a boom as well. Why this format caught on is open to debate – perhaps it makes chores easier to endure. Having something read out is a relief, and not just for strained eyes. A story told can evoke the early childhood pleasure of being read aloud to. When the narrator is particularly spellbinding, the listener is left richer for hearing the words emoted with just the right restraint and modulation. If it weren't for Hisham Matar narrating his books The Return and A Month in Sienna, a listener might remember it differently, with perhaps a dimmer intensity.
There is also a debate, if you get into it, about whether an author is best to read his or her work, or whether it should be left to professionals. The actor Colin Firth, for instance, has his share of audiophile groupies. But a lesser actor might overly dramatise a reading, which could put people off audiobooks and make them retreat to the quiet of a paperback – or less consoling, to the noise of a social feed.
Commenting on the reading habits of people altered by the pandemic, Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said: “It’s fantastic to see that books have offered people entertainment and comfort in this difficult period. UK publishers have continued to release books that engage readers across the UK and around the world." He added, “The steep rise of audiobooks is a truly interesting development as it may suggest that new demographics are embracing this format."
If someone in Mr Lotinga's position says that things are changing, then that is a good sign. The Swedish streaming platform Spotify, which used to be primarily a music hub, has branched into podcasts and live audio, and in November it bought a big digital audiobooks publisher, Findaway. There's clearly space for more players, enough for big commercial deals to be struck and the risks taken.
Still, there are plenty of holdouts refusing to "embrace the format", for a number of reasons: wariness of new technology, the refrain "where's the time?", a reluctance to download yet another app, a conviction that they won't be able to focus on the story or will fall asleep mid-way and then have to rewind, not knowing at which point they tuned out, etc. Despite all the data in the direction of audiobooks (the market for them in Europe is expected to grow by $1.23 billion in the next four years), the case for them must still be made. More than convenience, the greatest payoff is the value in being engaged in a vocal narrative.
A little over a year ago, in November 2020, The Economist reported that that year set to be one of the best since 2004 for print books in the US. Sales of e-books and audiobooks had double-digit growth in the preceding 12 months.
We'll have to wait for the 2021 figures, but pandemic-era reading habits are not evaporating anytime soon. Paperbooks, ebooks, audio books – whatever the format – the enjoyment of books is unlikely to be affected by any emerging Covid-19 variant. As for the old debate, from an era before we all wore masks, whether e-books are better than holding a hardcopy or whether podcasts are "better" than audiobooks, there's no need to exclude any one pleasure. For many of us, now working from home or delaying at least some of our travel for the foreseeable future, we will have more time to ourselves and fewer places to go for a while to come. One may as well try it all.