The ability to enter new worlds through literature and the joy of a good book has proven to be a source of solace and comfort nationwide throughout the pandemic. We've seen the evidence of this through booming book sales in the first lockdown, with data from the BBC showing a rise in fiction sales by a third, and children's education literature up 234%. For those faced with physical and emotional isolation due to Covid-19, reading has provided not just entertainment but a vital lifeline and means of connection. And the much-lauded “rise of audio” has given readers more choices than ever in how they connect with books.
But in all the understandable excitement about lockdown reading and the popularity of audio, it’s important not to forget that the most vulnerable in our society are still, and have always been, dependent on the availability of accessible audio to reap all those benefits that great books can bring.
The demand for accessible audio content has been on the rise for a while. Our 2019 impact report revealed some of the factors that are contributing to this demand. Sight loss is expected to increase from 2 to 4 million by 2050, Dementia expected to rise to over 1 million by 2025 and it’s estimated that 6 million people in the UK are dyslexic. For young people, limited access has serious implications for their feeling of self-esteem, isolation and ability to learn and develop, and for the elderly, socially isolated, or disadvantaged coming to terms with the loss of their sight, health and mobility, losing a lifelong love of the written word can be devastating.
The pandemic has now, more than ever highlighted the importance of ensuring that this huge audience is not left behind and is able to engage and access a broad range of content across every genre of writing. There is a vital role for the publishing industry in supporting an inclusive vision for the future whereby accessible audio content is as available as the printed word.
So what can the industry do to respond to this challenge?
When Calibre Audio was first founded in 1974, we filled a gap in the market for people with print reading disabilities, providing free books on audio cassettes - a material accessible to the widest proportion of the population. Nowadays, our charity provides an accessible free audiobook service for anyone with a reading disability, offering a growing collection of over 12,000 titles for all ages across many mediums including, of course, digital.
But I also believe that the publishing industry as a whole can now do more to assist opening up literature to under-serviced audiences.
Yes, the trade is making promising steps. In recent years the boom in audiobook sales and listening has meant publishers are investing in audio and starting to create titles in accessible formats. There is also an acknowledgement that more needs to be done to include underrepresented voices in publishing, as well as for more books to be written with a focus on characters with disabilities.
But it is time that inclusivity for people with conditions that make reading print difficult took a place at the heart of publishers’ businesses and audience strategies. This should not be seen as a nice extra, or a charitable endeavour, but a crucial part of publishers’ responsibility to represent and cater for the true diversity of people who read. I hope to see publishers find meaningful ways to ‘donate’ titles to these audiences, helping to alleviate some of the costs involved with self-recording books for audio and providing access to some of the world’s greatest voice actors.
To achieve real inclusivity, publishers and booksellers should consider how to reach audiences who cannot just pick up a book from the shelf or their e-reader, too. As we drive towards a more digital world it is important to shake the impression that mainstream audiobooks are accessible to everyone, and consider that people with physical, cognitive or VI disabilities need other formats in order to experience books.
Our Christmas fundraising initiative, For the Love of Books, in collaboration with the Big Give, aims to add 48 new audiobooks to the Calibre Audio collection. The target is to add an adult and a children's book to the collection for every day of the advent calendar, helping to enrich the lives of children and adults who rely on our service to access books.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s to be more open, to connect with our loved ones and protect society’s most vulnerable. Let’s take steps to make sure that this growing nationwide engagement with books reaches everyone.
Anthony Kemp is c.e.o. of Calibre Audio. For more information about the charity and to donate to the For the Love of Books campaign visit https://www.calibreaudio.org.uk.