Nicolas SoamesThe advent of the audiobook, and in particular the more recent development of digital download, has transformed the lives of many people. For many years the medium was widely regarded (often rather patronisingly) as a convenience for the visually impaired, forgetting that EVERYBODY listened to (and loved) the radio! Even now, occasionally, I come across this ill-educated view – and I normally respond by saying that ‘Yes – in the same way that printed books are for the hard of hearing.’

What they seem to have forgotten is that for centuries, for millions, the spoken word was the principal medium for ‘books’ of all kinds – from the Buddhist Pali Canon and the Bible to Jane Austen and Dickens. People sat around on those long winter evenings while one person read to them. It is actually a very pleasant experience to be read to, especially when the reader is accomplished.

Technology, the 20th century and recording changed that. First of all, it was music that dominated the new world of recording. But in the second half of the 20th century a few spoken world publishing pioneers began to champion the medium.

The foundation stone of spoken word recordings was laid in the US by two remarkable women, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney, who, mesmerised by the writing and performance of the Welsh poet and broadcaster Dylan Thomas, persuaded him to record A Child’s Christmas in Wales and a collection of his poems. It was issued on LP in 1952 on the Caedmon label. Many other leading poets of the time followed him into the studio: Robert Frost, W H Auden, T. S Eliot, and actors too, including Siobhán McKenna, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Albert Finney and Laurence Olivier.

In the UK, the legendary figure of Harley Usill, whom I once had the pleasure to meet, was one such person. He believed unwaveringly in the spoken word: he started Argo Records in the 1950s and ran it, despite many financial difficulties, into the 1970s. It is because of his commitment that we have classic recordings by Richard Burton, Ted Hughes, Patrick Wymark, Carleton Hobbs ands and many others. He also recorded all the plays of Shakespeare, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English – a remarkable achievement in terms of performance, scholarship and integrity).

If LPs were the first principal carriers of spoken word, the introduction of the ‘compact cassette’ or ‘musicassette’ in the early 1960s prompted an expansion of the spoken word – especially with the inclusion of the cassette player, in addition to the radio, in cars. With the listener able to pick up where s/he stopped on a previous journey, the range of spoken word recordings expanded, especially in abridged forms. However annoying cassettes could be, with tapes breaking or running wild in machines, the format retained a loyalty which continued deep into the CD era. This was not least because, however perfect for music, the limitations of bookmarking on a CD (restricted to track points) made often for a clumsy spoken word experience.

During the last couple of decades of the 20th century, there were two important developments. The first was the gradual adoption, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the word ‘audiobook’ to replace ‘spoken word’ which began to sound increasingly old-fashioned. And then there was the appearance of digital downloads – and the coming of Audible.

Audible’s first appeared in 1998. Its recordings had a primitive sound quality (a low bitrate was necessary to allow for slow download speeds!), and this was before the appearance of the iPod. But the perspicacious founder, Don Katz, steered his company past many problems into the safe haven of the iPod era (which was first launched  in 2001) and under the umbrella of Amazon (who bought Audible in 2008 for a reputed $300 million). In the intervening years, the audiobook catalogue offered by Audible has risen to some 150,000 titles, with the bulk of sales coming from unabridged titles.

The technical leaps played an enormous part in the growth of the audiobook. But what is equally astonishing has been the breadth of the catalogue. Spoken word recordings were made, for many years, by people who were rooted in the classics, or certainly in the more ‘educated’ area of literature. Shakespeare, Chaucer, poetry, the literary classics – these were subjects that Harley Usill, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney presumed people would want to buy and listen to repeatedly at home. They saw their customers sitting around the radiogram, listening to the great works of literature performed by classical actors.

But the world-wide digital age has greatly expanded that audience. Now, generally, people expect to listen to a title just once – the classic path of pulp fiction – and only a few favoured titles will find their way back into PLAY mode again. VERY popular fiction, How To texts, comedy, re-cycled radio shows (some of them classics in their own right) celebrity biographies and popular histories now dominate.

However, there is still room – and need – for the important works of the past, the grat classics – texts which have stood the test of time and which grow with repeated listening by people who themselves grow with further understanding and appreciation. There are recordings of Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens in abundance; there are hugely stimulating non-fiction titles, both recent publications and classics such as The Decline of Fall of the Roman Empire.

Yet there are still thousands of major classics – fiction and non-fiction – which remain to be recorded and made available.

And it is to this area of the audiobook catalogue that Ukemi Audiobooks is purposed to contribute. I hope the recordings will be clear, stimulating, lively – and entertaining too, for the great classics should never be dull! You may remember that delightful series of illustrated magazines for children, Listen and Learn. Well, Ukemi Audiobooks is happy, and unashamed, to adopt that exhortation, only adding, ‘and Enjoy’ as well!

I have a clear programme of works for the coming year– but I welcome ideas of texts that you would like to listen to, that are not available, or available only in poor recordings for reason of performance or other. The titles can be long, short, popular, obscure – just quality works which sustain repeated listening. Just email me here!


Nicolas Soames

March 2016