You may not recognise his name, but you’ve most certainly heard his dulcet tones. Joe Haddow is the 'voice' of one of the best-known literary podcasts, the Man Booker Prize, and he’s set to draw even more downloads as his new show Book Off! goes live this week.
It’s a testament, claims Joe Haddow, to the ascent of audio in publishing and its huge potential as a tool for the industry. "Audio is the perfect medium for books," he says. "Nowadays we don’t always have the time to read, even the most voracious reader would admit that. Consequently, we are consuming books in different forms, which makes sense in an age where traditional media is rapidly changing."
Haddow’s vision of a growing crowd who refuse to leave the house without their earphones plugged in is borne out by the stats. At Byte the Book’s recent "Prick Up Your Ears" event, it was revealed that the US audiobook market turned over $1.7 billion last year, while the UK is estimated to be somewhere around £100 million; and approximately two billion hours of audio were downloaded worldwide in 2016, a 100% increase on 2014. Podcasting, more specifically, is a format that’s at the heart of the audiobook boom - and Haddow is one of its most prominent advocates.
The new 'audio natives'
Book Off! is not alone on the literary airwaves. A quick scroll through the iTunes chart reveals there to be a healthy appetite for bookish chat: Literary Friction is a monthly show from NTS Live featuring a new theme every episode; Mostly Lit is a conversation about literature, pop culture and intersectionality; and Backlisted, hosted by John Mitchinson (Unbound) and author Andy Miller (A Year of Reading Dangerously), invites friends round a table to bring old books back to life. Publishers themselves are sounding off, such as Vintage and Penguin; while bookshops such as the London Review of Books record their in-store events for download.
And listeners are lapping up the content. So much so, it’s given rise to an emerging group, transforming "digital natives" to "audio natives", whose attention is on sounds not screens. Untethered by the constraints of cost, skilled training or location, podcasts revel in their rawness, authenticity and intimacy. "Podcasts are opening up to wider and younger audiences as a result," Haddow says. The unregulated nature of podcasting and the lack of traditional gatekeepers have shifted the average listenership.
Typically perceived as roughly 40 years old, middle-class and male, the audience is fast changing to a more youthful demographic who’ve been fed a diet of digital entertainment from birth. The familiarity of friendly voices is another plus. "The regularity of podcasting - weekly, monthly - means people tune in to hear presenters they consider friends," Haddow says. And let’s not forget the commuter market. "People want something that fills their 30-minute train journey or walk to work. Listeners can see how long a show is and be able to factor it into their day. This short form content is bite-sized entertainment that can be planned into people’s schedules."
Music to publishers’ ears?
If it were down to Haddow, publishers would fully exploit the gains that can be made in audio. Cutbacks in literary print reviews have allowed live radio shows and podcasts to fill the void as coverage generators, while also serving as alternative storytelling outlets for publishers. "First off, many books are sold better from the author’s mouth," Haddow says. "There’s nothing quite like that personal recommendation." It’s on this premise that Haddow conceived Book Off!, a fortnightly show that he is keen to stress is not "just another literary podcast".
"Book Off! is edgier," he insists. "I suppose, it’s more about culture in general - what books mean, what they say and how they’ve influenced people." The structure of the show takes the shape of a contest, in which Haddow plays judge as two guests plug their chosen books. First up to slog it out are Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train and Into the Water) and John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas); while future guests include Lionel Shriver and Tracy Chevalier. "I’m also going to be talking to Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame - someone I can loosely call a mate; and author David Mitchell, who’s a genius." Book Off! is clearly not short of big names. "I’m a bit overwhelmed, to be honest. I think the appeal has something to do with talking about someone else’s book; that’s a big draw."
Bringing literary prizes to life
Haddow is being modest, of course. His ability to attract some of literature’s biggest names is credit to his solid background in audio. He is producer on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club and the Shaun Keaveny Breakfast Show on BBC 6 Music. This experience led to his appointment as host of the Man Booker podcast three years ago.
"I honestly thought they’d got the wrong person!" he smiles. The podcast "helps to change the way people think about the prize - that it’s not just an old stuffy literary event. I know people in their 30s who ask for the shortlist for Christmas. It helps that I have access to the nominated authors for interviews, allowing me to bring in more personal stories and connect with listeners of all age groups."
Aside from broadening the Man Booker’s appeal, the podcast keeps the prize on people’s lips. "This is why the Man Booker wanted a podcast," Haddow confirms. "Not everyone can attend the prize ceremony or talk to the authors directly. The podcast opens up so many areas; we can explore the books in more detail, talk to the judges or celebrities who love to read. Last year I snooped around David Baddiel’s bookshelves for an episode - the podcast format allows us to be flexible and creative. But essentially, it’s there to keep the conversation going. And the podcast is always available, waiting for when people are ready."
Do downloads equal direct sales?
Unlike other forms of digital media such as YouTube and blogs, audio lacks real analytics, and that advertising potential. "I think everyone in podcasting is learning and trying to get hold of data on consumer behaviour, like who is downloading and what they like listening to," Haddow says. "There are platforms like Acast, which I use, that are moving towards this. After running a podcast for a few months you can start going deeper into the stats: if anyone’s talking about it on social media, how many people are downloading and coming back."
Haddow welcomed Apple’s recent announcement of the rollout of rudimentary podcast analytics, which will allow creators to see which parts of a programme listeners skip over and when they hit the exit button. "Basic adverts help podcasts to exist, but monetising them is another matter," he admits. "I would like to think podcasts will be big business eventually and that Book Off! can draw enough of an audience to create a reaction in the market."
But the future is bright, and Haddow asks publishers to get involved and think long term. "Right now, it’s difficult to pinpoint on how to monetise podcasting but I think we need to be positive. It helps, the more we talk about it and get involved." He concludes: "Podcasting is a brilliant medium and creative - and it’s the same with books. The two go hand in hand."
The first episode of Book Off! is available now on iTunes and SoundCloud.
Photo: Lauren Psyk