A different Calibre: audiobook charity shares how it is meeting growing demand

A different Calibre: audiobook charity shares how it is meeting growing demand

While the industry’s audio boom has been at full volume for the past few years, the Buckinghamshire-based charity Calibre Audio can be called very early adopters.

The organisation launched in 1974 as Calibre Cassette Library—Calibre is a portmanteau of “cassette library”— by friends Susan Beazley, Monica McMullan and Ros Thornton as “an idea to create an audiobook library so that the visually impaired son of one of the friends could enjoy books more easily”, says Calibre director of editorial and production, Emma Scott.

Scott adds: “When Calibre was established the principles were that it should be a free service that would create audiobooks for anyone with a print disability. That could be a visual impairment, or complete sight loss, learning disability or mental health condition preventing them from accessing print books.”

According to Scott, what makes Calibre Audio distinct from other audiobook organisation is that its audiobooks service can be adapted to every individual’s needs. She says: “We can offer unlimited borrowing to over 12,000 audiobooks, we add more than 700 books a year, and we have 3,000 books specially for children and young people in our collection. We can also record audiobooks that aren’t commercially available.”

Scott, worked as a library assistant for her local public library for 14 years, where she qualified as a librarian, before joining Calibre. “I did huge amounts of different jobs whilst working at the library, I really learnt my trade there. I always had a passion for books, and that’s where I really cut my teeth. I ran book groups and took on author events, my skills transferred really well once I joined Calibre four years ago.”

She describes her role at Calibre as “essentially acquiring books for our collection and ensuring that they’re made available in all the formats we offer”. She explains: “We can purchase audiobooks commercially where we have agreements with those publishers or if a print book isn’t available on audio, then we can operate under a section of copyright law and record it ourselves using our fantastic team of volunteer narrators. Another part of my role is to build on our existing relationship with publishers and nurture new ones—which will help us offer a diverse range of books and in turn will benefit our members who may not access these titles elsewhere.”

In 2019, Calibre sent out over 460,000 audiobooks and added 771 new audiobooks for its 14,000 members. The service, which added 2,200 new members in 2019, has a team of over 83 volunteer narrators. Ninety-five percent of members are adults, and 88% have a visual impairment.

In order to meet a growing demand, a few challenges are involved: “Approaching publishers for agreements is the biggest challenge and it is one that causes the most frustration. With very little relationship with publishers, we’re not able to offer the books they have to our members, and it’s actually creating an inequality because our members can’t access those books in any other way, so they’re at a real disadvantage.” Only 7% of print books are converted to audio, Scott explains, and without the established partnerships with crucial publishers, it is considerably difficult for Calibre to deliver a wide range of titles.

What is actually helping with this hurdle is the increasing popularity of the audio sector as a whole: “I think more publishers are seeing the value of investing into audio. This still leaves a large number of books that people can’t access, and we want to reverse that trend by being able to record more ourselves and looking to work with publishers to gain more content.”

Calibre current has partnerships with trade publishers Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Faber; the audio specialists Naxos and W F Howes; plus, the large-print house Ulverscroft.

The charity also aims to raise awareness about related issues that affect its members. “One of the ways we do this is being involved with organisations such as Share the Vision. Share the Vision is a coalition of UK organisations that work together to improve the quality, availability and accessibility of library services for visually impaired and print disable people,” says Scott.

In terms of popular trends among Calibre members, Scott says: “Crime thrillers are massive, adventure and family sagas…Non-fiction is also rising up in popularity too.”

As well as the broad range of titles Calibre offers, accessibility is just as important. “We’re always looking at what else is coming up on the market. Technology is moving forward, [in the beginning] we were using cassettes and we’re more into the digital world now. We’re offering as many formats as we can such as CDs, memory sticks, and we recently launched our new streaming and download service.

“We’re always looking at the next thing coming up and adapting for our members, for the next thing they can access their books on.”