As a child of the ’90s, my love of audiobooks started with dramatized classics on cassette, like Little Women and A Christmas Carol. But as technology advanced, I could check out unabridged audiobooks from my library or burn my Audible audiobooks onto CDs. When my library first got Overdrive, a program I could download on my family’s desktop and check out and listen to libraries from home, I thought the future had arrived — it was like magic!
Now that audiobooks lovers can easily download titles to smartphones via a number of apps, audiobook innovation is more about the production of the audiobook’s content as opposed to how we listen to audio content. Early on, we saw companies like Full Cast Audio changing the way we thought stories could be told. As graphic novels and comics have become more popular, producers began tackling how to adapt a primarily visual medium to audio. And, most recently, audio production companies are combining the best of audiobooks and podcasts to create a whole new style of listening experience.
So with this list of ten incredible titles, let’s take a look at the innovations in audiobooks over the last few decades and see what these audiobooks have to offer.
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman | Performed by Phillip Pullman and a Full Cast
One of the first production companies to push the envelope with children’s audiobooks was Full Cast Audio (FCA). Founded by Bruce Coville, FCA’s mission is “to produce unabridged recordings of fine children’s novels using a full cast rather than a single reader.” But FCA doesn’t just have different perspectives voiced by different narrators. The audiobooks have a single narrator and actors voice just the dialogue of the different characters. This unique approach gives their audiobooks the feel of an old-time radio drama. In The Golden Compass, the author Phillip Pullman acts as the primary narrator, giving the audiobook such a special feel.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman | Performed by Neil Gaiman and a Full Cast
Neil Gaiman has always championed the audio editions of his books. In addition to producing dramatized versions of his stories for radio, Gaiman has some of his novels re-recorded with a full cast, building on the style of Full Cast Audio’s productions. The Graveyard Book is one of my favorites. The novel features Bod, a young boy raised by ghosts. While Bod longs to explore the world outside the graveyard, a sinister figure lurks outside waiting for Bod to leave the safety of his ghost-filled home.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob | Performed by Mira Jacob and a Full Cast
Producing a quality audiobook edition of a graphic novel is no easy task. But Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir is all about conversations between Mira and the people around her. So the audiobook edition features Jacob and a full cast performing the conversations that Mira writes about in her graphic memoir. I love the podcast feel of Good Talk, and the narrators’ performances add another layer of meaning to the text, making me think about Jacob’s ideas in new ways.
Once More upon a Time by Roshani Chokshi | Performed by Rebecca Gibel, Shiromi Arserio, and Vikas Adam
Now that audiobooks are more popular than ever before, authors are writing stories intended just for audio. Roshani Chokshi’s Once More Upon a Time features a couple who can’t remember why they fell in love. But they need to save their kingdom, so can they figure things out before it’s too late? Writing for audio presents different challenges than writing for print. But there are also new storytelling possibilities, and Chokshi uses these to her advantage, making Once More Upon a Time a delight to listen to.
No One Goes Alone by Erik Larson | Performed by Julian Rhind-Tutt and Erik Larson
Nonfiction writer Erik Larson shocked us all by making his fiction debut with his ghost story No One Goes Alone. Larson wanted to tell his ghost story in a way that fit well with oral storytelling, so the book was released with no print edition. I love how No One Goes Alone is an audio original, and as we follow this group of early 20th century researchers, you can’t help but be creeped out by all the sinister things happening to them on this mysterious island.
Seeds from Scratch by Alice Vincent | Performed by Alice Vincent
During the first year of the pandemic, more people were listening to audiobooks than ever before as they planted gardens, started new craft projects, and learned how to bake sourdough. But how do you learn these new hobbies if you’ve never done them before? To help with that, at least with the gardening part, Alice Vincent uses Seeds from Scratch to walk listeners through planting a garden of your own. This interactive audiobook was produced intending for you to actually follow the steps as Vincent describes them.
Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey by Florence Williams | Performed by Florence Williams
At 50, Florence Williams finds herself single for the first time since she was 18. Her husband asked for a divorce and now they have to figure out co-parenting. Williams begins navigating the dating world for the first time. But as she talks to her therapist, her friends, and her new love interests, she’s recording every moment. This audiobook feels like a podcast, with full conversations coming through your headphones as they are happening. I loved what Williams did with this audiobook and hope more authors will create more like it!
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell | Performed by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell is a big believer in audiobook innovation, having stated, “There’s so much more — if you’re going to do audio, why not produce it as elaborately as you produce a podcast, or a narrative podcast?” In his book Talking to Strangers, Gladwell illustrates the creative lengths he will go for his elaborate audiobooks, making them one-of-a-kind experiences. It includes conversations, audio from videos mentioned, and so much more.
Beginner’s Mind by Yo-Yo Ma | Narrated and Performed by Yo-Yo Ma
Audible Originals has been experimenting with its Words + Music series, which features different musical artists creating an audiobook that includes pieces of narration combined with musical performances. In Beginner’s Mind, Yo-Yo Ma describes his childhood when he and his family immigrated to the U.S. and tells us of when he fell in love with music. In between chapters of his life, he plays pieces for us, creating a seamless integration of narration and music.
Bluebird Memories: A Journey Through Lyrics & Life by Common, Awoye Timpo, and NSangou Njikam | Narrated and Performed by Common
Another title in the Words + Music series, Bluebird Memories combines stories from Common’s life and his music. Originally recorded live, Bluebird Memories is an early experiment in the series, giving it a less polished feel than the later installments. But you can see where they wanted to go with the series, making this audiobook an important stepping stone.
I’ve loved seeing the innovations in audiobooks over the last several decades, and I can’t wait to see what audiobook producers do next! For more audiobook content, check out Book Riot’s latest audiobook coverage and our audiobooks newsletter.