Episodic Listening: Analyzing the Content and Usage of Born-Audio Serial Narratives
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to use this work in a way not covered by the license. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
Following a ‘boom’ in audiobook consumption, recent years have seen the emergence of born-audio literature: narratives written specifically for the audiobook format. The article focuses on the content and usage of born-audio serial narratives produced by the Swedish audiobook subscription service, Storytel. As these so-called Storytel Originals are produced specifically for the audiobook format, they make a good case for studying how the format influences the narrative content as well as the usage of literary texts. The serial publishing format becomes especially relevant within the subscription-based context because it, ideally, encourages users’ long-term commitment to the story - and to the service. Accordingly, it becomes relevant to investigate how Storytel uses the serial narrative format to attract and maintain the users’ attention. By combining literary analyses of selected Originals stories with quantitative analyses of statistical data on listening behaviour in relation to these series, we examine the connection between the narrative content of series in different genres and the users’ loyalty towards the series. Thus, we focus on the following research questions: How does the born-audio serial format shape the narrative content and usage of the Originals series, and to what extent does it promote user loyalty?
Keyworks: digital audiobooks, seriality, listening patterns, new forms of reading, born-audio fiction.
Audiobooks have become increasingly popular in the 2010s. This current ‘boom’ in audiobook consumption may to a large extent be explained by digitalization. As has been demonstrated by audiobook researchers such as Matthew Rubery (2011, 2016), Iben Have and Birgitte Stougaard Pedersen (2016), digital media and technologies have significantly changed the conditions for the production, distribution and consumption of audiobooks: making more audiobooks available to more people, at any time and (almost) at any place. Thus, audiobooks are no longer primarily conceived as a tool for the visually impaired or people with reading disabilities but have become a popular medium for integrating literary consumption into the activities of modern everyday life. Following this development, subscription-based streaming services for audiobooks have recently emerged, competing with traditional publishers and with the established model of purchasing one item, book or file, at the time. One of the largest distributors of audiobooks and e-books in Sweden, Storytel, exemplifies this development. Storytel started as a small start-up company in 2006 and has in recent years developed into a transnational actor with a subscription-based model where users pay a monthly cost to get access to a number of e-books and audiobooks available for streaming as well as download in various languages.
One of the main challenges for the subscription-based services is to maintain the users’ loyalty. Since users do not pay per book, but per month, it is important to keep them listening beyond page 1 or 13. Accordingly, the service does not only have to make people buy the books but also make sure that they actually read (listen to) these books and thus stay on the service for another month. Storytel navigates within a media landscape that is marked by constant competition about the users’ time and attention - competition, not only from other national and transnational producers and distributors of audiobooks, but from producers of all forms of cultural content. In order to secure the users’ loyalty on these conditions, the service not only distributes books, but also produces their own material, which is only available on Storytel, and only in audio format. In this way, they adopt a strategy used by several of their primary competitors: distributors such as the American Amazon-owned audiobook publisher Audible, or the streaming service Netflix; that is, the strategy of producing original content in order to make their service the preferable choice. The result, the so-called Storytel Originals, are born-audio serial narratives produced by Storytel’s production company Storyside.
The present article focuses on the content and usage of these serials which exemplify the emergent genre of born-audio fiction. As they are produced specifically for the audiobook format, Storytel Originals make a good case for studying how the digital audiobook format influences the content as well as the usage of literary texts. The serial publishing format becomes especially relevant within the subscription-based context because it, ideally, encourages users’ long-term commitment to the story - and, thus, to the service. From an analytical perspective, focusing on serial narratives makes it possible to study how the listeners’ commitment is affected by the development of the story, over episodes and seasons. Thus, we investigate how Storytel uses the serial format to attract and maintain the users’ attention. We combine literary analysis of selected Storytel Originals with quantitative analysis of pseudonymized data on listening behaviour, provided by Storytel. This mixed methods approach allows us to examine the connection between the serial form and content of three series in different genres and the users’ loyalty towards these series. Accordingly, we focus on the research question: How does the serial born-audio format shape the content and usage of the Originals series, and to which extent does it promote user loyalty?
The question of loyalty and users’ commitment becomes specifically relevant within the context of recent years’ debate on audiobook consumption and its influence on modes of reading. As the digital audiobook makes it possible to listen on demand and on the move, listening to audiobooks has been framed as an activity that the user does while doing other things, such as commuting, exercising or cooking (Have & Stougaard Pedersen 2016). Audiobook consumption has accordingly become widely associated with a distracted form of reading (Birkets 1994). This discourse can and has been questioned (Koepnick 2013, 2019, Have & Stougaard Pedersen 2016); however, this article is not the place to go further into this discussion. Instead, we will examine how the born-audio material is designed to, and whether they succeed in attracting and maintaining the attention of a (presumed-to-be) easily distracted user.
Thus, by focusing on the emergent genre of born-audio fiction, and on its ability to attract users’ loyalty, the article will contribute with new insights into the field of audiobook studies, while it will also, more broadly, shed new light on developing tendencies in digital publishing and cultural consumption. Below, we introduce our methodological and theoretical approach before moving on to present our case material and analyses.
In order to investigate the connection between the narrative content and the usage of selected born-audio serials, we use methods based in the growing interdisciplinary field of Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities (DH) have presented new methodological tools for scholars to collect, chart and investigate patterns in literary texts (c.f. Moretti, 2013. Jockers, 2013). In that sense, it promotes a quantitative approach to literary studies and textual analysis, especially in research dealing with a vast text material, such as, in our case, serial narratives. As a consequence of the development of new computer-assisted tools and programs and of so-called “distant reading” methods, coined by Franco Moretti (Moretti, 2010), a renewed theoretical interest in the activity and practices of reading is visible in the academic debate (Hayles 2014).
Within DH, it is often stated that the contemporary media landscape, as well as the ongoing digitisation of literary texts, will affect the conditions for literary scholars in the 21th century. In Macroanalysis - digital methods and literary history (2013), Matthew Jockers points out that the ongoing digitisation of literary texts influences research design as well as research processes. Jockers states, “(...) we have reached a tipping point, an event horizon where enough text and literature have been encoded to both allow and, indeed, force us to ask an entirely new sets of questions about literature and the literary record” (Jockers, Macroanalysis, 2013, 4.). Applied on digital audiobooks, the “literary record” that Jockers pinpoints consists of literary texts (genre, linguistic traits, author, style, narration etc.) but also includes the digital traces that readers leave behind while consuming literary works in audio- or e-book format. Digital methods allow us to study these traces, and in this way, we explore how the digital distribution of literary texts imply new possibilities for studying readers’ behaviour and reactions to specific texts. Accordingly, by combining literary analysis of selected Storytel Originals series with quantitative studies of textual content as well as listener behaviour in relation to these series, we contribute to the ongoing development of a mixed methods approach that may avoid the common pitfalls that is stressed by most criticism of distant reading and quantitative text analysis (cf. Ascari 2014).
Empirical readers’ behaviour and responses to literary texts have traditionally been part of an invisible practice, since reading print usually does not leave any traces in the text. Literary reception has, accordingly, primarily been studied from a theoretical and text-oriented perspective, as exemplified by the field of reader response theory (Iser 1991). Scholars such as Janice Radway, and Stanley Fish did already focus on empirical readers and reading communities; however, as the digital media landscape is changing modes of reading and the readers’ possibilities for interacting with the texts and each other (Hayles 2014; Baron 2015; Emerson 2014.), it also changes the conditions for studying empirical readers. Digital distribution of literary works significantly changes the literary record since digital streaming services such as Storytel chart and collect data about the users’ behaviour and modes of reading or listening. As demonstrated by the present study, this data may be used as a source to reveal important insights into 21st century reading practices. A subsidiary aim with this article is therefore to demonstrate how computer assisted tools, descriptive statistics and quantitative analysis may be used to uncover and describe the listening patterns surrounding digital audiobooks.
Through a cooperation agreement with Storytel, we have access to data on listening patterns in relation to our three selected Storytel Originals series. Specifically, the material indicates the number of listeners per minute, episode (50 minutes) and season (10 episodes): when people start and when they stop listening. The data was processed in Excel, which makes it possible to make visualisations of the listening patterns. as exemplified in our graphs below. Notably, to avoid violating users’ privacy, we rely on statistical and pseudonymized data. Since the data are pseudonymized, the numbers do not, in effect, reflect the number of listeners, but rather, the number of listenings: how many times a given episode has been played and for how many minutes. In theory, high numbers may thus merely reflect that some listeners listen twice or more. However, since it is rare that people listen to this type of material twice, we find it safe to assume that the number of listenings do, in fact, provide a rather precise image of how many listeners listen to the series.
We combine the quantitative data analyses of the listening patterns with qualitative and quantitative content analysis of the selected series. The three series are among the most popular Storytel Originals series in Sweden and represent two different genres: Byvalla is a feel-good romance drama and Virus is an apocalyptic action series. We furthermore include the Virus spin-off series Smittad, which, in effect is a continuation of Virus. The three series each span over 3-4 seasons, and each season typically consists of 10 episodes of each one hour of storytelling. Together, Virus and Smittad thus make up 70 hours of storytelling, while Byvalla is a little more than 30 hours: around 100 hours of storytelling in total. In order to create an overview over narrative and linguistic traits in this vast born-audio text corpus, we use the in-browser tool Voyant Tools. Voyant Tools is a “web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts,”which allows us to create visualizations of selected aspects of the texts. Our analyses are based on text-files which we have received from Storytel and uploaded to Voyant Tools. Notably, as noted by Simone Murray (2018) quantitative literary analyses tend to focus on older out-of-copyright texts, since contemporary works are protected by copyright and not available for this kind of analysis. However, since Storytel owns all rights to the Originals, they can give us access to text files which can be submitted to quantitative analyses. In this way, we contribute to the overall field of quantitative literary analysis by presenting a quantitative approach to contemporary literature.
In this way, by combining a study of data on listening patterns with quantitative and qualitative analyses of the selected Originals series, we investigate how the born-audio format shapes the content and serial organization of the works, which arguably, in turn, reflect and affect the intended and actual usage of the texts.
Storytel Originals and Contemporary Audiobook Consumption
Before moving on to the analyses, we will describe the concept of the Original series and relate it to existing theories on audiobooks, oral culture and serial narratives. Notably, the genre of born-audio fiction is not exclusively Storytel’s invention, but is an emerging genre on other platforms; for instance, the American publisher Audible produces their own so-called Audible Originals, and traditional publishers also, increasingly, begin to produce original audio productions. However, Storytel’s Originals are specifically characterized by their serial narrative format. Evoking the serial logics of television series, they are organized in episodes and seasons: each episode consists of 50-60 minutes of narration, and each season consists of 10 episodes. This structure reflects Storytel’s general orientation towards a broad contemporary media market. Thus, recalling the concept of Netflix Originals, the Storytel Originals concept reflects the fact that Storytel compares themselves to, and competes with other producers and distributors of cultural content. In a report on Storytel’s entering in the Spanish market in 2018, Storytel’s own analysts write that,
in a highly competitive environment – fighting to occupy users’ free time – producers and distributors of content depend more than ever on the engagement of the services they offer. The sustained, consistent and recurring consumption of narrative series has demonstrated its effectiveness above any other format (such as short videos or movies) in building up that engagement. (Storytel)
The serial format is presented as a way to attract and maintain users ‘attention – in competition, not only with other literary producers, but with all “producers and distributors of content.” However, while the serial format of the Originals series may reflect the audiobook industry’s orientation towards other media products such as television series and podcasts, the narratives are also specifically adjusted to the affordances of the digital audiobook: that is, to the limitations and possibilities implied by producing, distributing and consuming literature in audio format, rather than in print. Below, we briefly outline these affordances and discuss how the born-audio serial format functions within this context.
Audiobooks are, of course, first and foremost characterized by the aspect of orality and aurality: they draw attention to these aspects of literary performance and experience. According to Lucy Bednar, the current rise of audiobooks represents a return of orality in literary culture, or what Walter Ong calls secondary orality: “a new orality... sustained by... electronic devices that depend for their existence on writing and print” (Ong 11). Ong develops the concept of secondary orality in relation to e.g. television and film, however, as demonstrated by Bednar, it also applies to audiobooks, which are similarly mediated and also depends on writing. Pointing to this dependence, Birgitte Stougaard Pedersen and Iben Have have defined the audiobook as “a remediation of the printed books” (2016). Storytel’s born-audio series make it possible to question this definition: contrary to ordinary audiobook, they are not based on printed books, however, they are still based on written manuscripts (as opposed to e.g. podcasts) and are thus characterized by a scripted - ‘literary’ - quality. Even more than traditional audiobooks, they draw attention to the aspect of aurality by including music in the introductions and endings of every episode, and by generally focusing on the sound and the vocal performance of the text. The series are typically read by professional actors who tend to use a dramatic performing style - as opposed to the narrative performers of traditional audiobooks, which, in many cases, focus on rendering the text as neutrally as possible, in order to convey the original experience of reading the printed text. Recently, there has been an increasing number of multi-voice recordings, where different actors perform different characters in the story, although the European market has generally been less marked by this type of recordings than, for instance, the North American market. The inclusion of sound and the emphasis on the dramatic performance by actors who are often known from television and film contributes to the series’ transmedial dimension; making them resemble television series rather than literary texts.
Apart from aurality, the digital audiobook is furthermore is often associated with mobility, as digitalization paves the way for mobile listening (Have and Stougaard, 2016). This aspect is remarkable, because it suggests how the conditions for audiobook consumption differs from the conditions of consumption associated with other media products, including printed books and television. That is, contrary to these media, digital audiobooks may be consumed on the move, thus paving the way for the integration of literary consumption into the activities of modern everyday life. This mode of consumption invites comparisons with podcasts: another form of audio storytelling, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. Storytel’s Originals series in many ways resemble podcasts: both formats may be considered as a part of a contemporary oral culture, where cultural content is consumed, first and foremost, via mobile aural media. Similar to podcasts, Storytel’s Originals are organized serially in episodes and seasons, making it easier to navigate within the digital audio file. According to Storytel’s report, this serial format fits well into the rhythm of modern everyday life, and specifically, to mobile audio consumption. Thus, the length of each episode (40-50 minutes for the Originals series) is adjusted to fit into common everyday activities, such as exercising and commuting. However, while podcast episodes are usually released over time, e.g. weekly, most of the Originals series are released in whole seasons of 10 episodes, making it possible to consume the series all at once. In this way, the Originals seems to navigate between imitating the serial logics of podcasting and the more continuous experience of listening to the average 9-hour long audiobook.
According to Storytel’s report, the serial organization makes it easier to navigate in the vast amount of material available on the service, as most consumers would be inclined to continue listening to the next episode in an ongoing series, rather than have to choose something new. Furthermore, the episodic format is adjusted to the presumably shortening attention spans of modern consumers. Storytel writes in their report that, “[f]iction needs to be concentrated to adapt to an attention span, which, although voluntary, is becoming more and more reduced. Most original productions of streaming platforms last less than one hour.” (report quoted by Anderson). In this way, Storytel adjusts their literary production to a widespread association of digital media - and, not least, audiobooks - with shortening attention spans and a distracted or ‘laid-back’ approach to literature. As they are framed as an activity that users do while doing other things, audiobook consumption has been generally associated with distracted mode of reading, as opposed to concentrated reading of print books (Birkets 1994). Within a theoretical framework, audiobooks and other types of literary consumption via digital devices have furthermore been related to ideas of hyper-attention (Hayles 2014). These ideas may obviously be questioned, since, as discussed by Lutz Koepnick, it is possible to ‘close-listen’ to audiobooks (Koepnick 2013). Without going further into this discussion, we want to stress the fact that it is not necessarily the medium itself, the audiobook, that shapes the Originals-series; rather, the series appear as the result of Storytel’s ambition to produce content that is able to compete with other media products, such as television series and podcasts, accommodating an easy listening experience, and thus, promoting consistent and sustained consumption.
This aim obviously affects the narrative content of the series. Looking at Storytel’s author guidelines for the Originals series provides insight into the ways in which the company generally seeks to adjust the literary content of the series to the mainstream audiobook user. They ask the authors to avoid writing texts that are “heavy with metaphors” and stories that “have too many vague characters or a disrupted timeline that stands in the way of the listening experience” (Storytel); instead emphasizing that the Originals series are characterized by a “more straightforward timeline, where you follow distinct characters with a clear goal in mind, without compromising the quality of the content” (Storytel 2017). Following these guidelines, most of the Originals series are straightforward stories, representing popular genres such as romance, crime fiction, true crime and science fiction. Our selected examples for analysis, Byvalla, Virus and Smittad, also illustrate this tendency. Below, we discuss how they reflect Storytel’s overall approach to the born-audio format, while also exemplifying different genres and types of serial narratives.
Byvalla and Virus: Introduction to the material
Virus (2016-2018), was one of the first Storytel Originals to be produced in Sweden, and it is one of the most popular Originals series to date. It was written by the Swedish author Daniel Åberg, and read by the Swedish actress Disa Östrand. It is a post-apocalyptic story about a deadly virus which breaks out in Stockholm in July 2016 (on the date when the first season of the series was published). The virus causes almost the extinction of humanity, and the story depicts a small group of survivors in the days following the outbreak. The series is characterized by narrative drive and appears to be specifically adjusted to the serial format as it has cliff-hangers at the end of almost every section, episode and season. Even the fourth and final season ends on a major cliff-hanger, naturally leading to the continuation of the story in the spin-off series Smittad (2018-2019). Following upon the success of Virus, Smittad is scheduled for three seasons, making the story span over seven seasons in total. It is also written by Åberg, but read by a different narrator, Philoméne Grandin. Taking place a few months after the virus outbreak, Smittad focuses on the same groups of survivors as Virus, and is, in this way, a continuation, yet with new protagonists and different plotlines.
Virus and Smittad thus represent an effective use of the serial format to maximize narrative drive and keep listeners listening across several seasons, months and years. Karin Jansson’s Byvalla (2016-2018), on the other hand, represents a more slowly-moving feel-good story. It depicts life in the small Swedish village Byvalla outside of Stockholm and initially focuses on the developing love story between the farmer Micke and the hairdresser Hanna. As it progresses, the series depicts the village environment, in confrontation with, respectively, a television team from the big city, in season one, and arriving Syrian refugees in season two. After their happy ending in season one, Hanna and Micke more or less disappear from season two, making space for new protagonists, only to return in season three with new problems and a baby. The series’ emphasis on the local Swedish environment is stressed by the performance by Cecilia Forss, who focuses on character depiction, e.g. through dramatization and local dialects, rather than presenting the story with the fast narrative pace that characterises Östram’s reading of the Virus-series.
The three series thus represent different genres, allowing us to study how the listening patterns are influenced not only by the medium and serial format, but also by textual content: the genre and style of the text. Since they were some of the first Originals to be presented by Storytel, they are some of the few series which have already been developed in several seasons. They are successful to the extent that they have been allowed to continue, and they have been translated to other Storytel-markets, e.g. Denmark and Finland. Notably, our analyses will be focusing on the content and usage of the original Swedish versions.
Analysis 1. Listening patterns surrounding Virus and Byvalla
The data that we have received from Storytel indicate the number of listenings per minute, per episode and per season, in relation to each of the series, Virus, Smittad and Byvalla. Visualizing these data in Excel, we are able to examine how many users have listened to the series in total, when they begin listening and, not least, when they stop listening to the series. These analyses will pave the way for further investigation into the connection between the listening statistics and the serial structure and narrative content of the series.
The figures below (fig. 1-2) thus show how many users begin listening to the first seasons of Virus and Byvalla (in blue) and how many users listened through to the end of each episode (in red).
The graphs demonstrate the same pattern in relation to both series: there is a big drop in the number of listenings after the first episode. A similar pattern appears when focusing on just one episode, looking at user behaviour minute by minute: the users either stop listening after the first one or two minutes, or they continue listening to the end of the episode. This is hardly surprising since the first minutes in the first episodes will be when users decide whether or not they want to listen to the series; if they keep listening past the first episode, most users continue to listen throughout the season. Similar patterns will most likely appear when studying the consumption of any book or series in any medium. However, after the first big drop in listenings during the first episodes, the number stabilizes, with only slightly declining numbers of listenings during each episode. In the case of Byvalla season one, the number of listenings stabilized around 14-15,000 listeners per episode, and for Virus, it is 16-18,000 listenings per episode.
At first glance, we may note the resemblance between the listening patterns related to the two series. Once the user has decided to listen to the series, most of them remain - at least during the first season. It should be noted in this context that, contrary to the readers of Victorian newspaper feuilletons or viewers of television series, Storytel’s users do not have to wait for a new episode every week: all episodes in a season are made available at once. This means that the Original series, at the season level, resemble traditional novels organized in chapters, and they may, accordingly, be read in this way. There are no temporal gaps between the release of the different episodes, and when the user has listened to one episode, the audiobook player automatically moves on to the next episode, lest you stop it. Thus, users do not have to actively decide to continue to listen to the series.
However, listeners do have to wait in-between seasons, that is, for the continuation of the story in season two, three or four. In most cases with the Storytel Originals series, the new season is released 6-12 months after the first season: thus, users return to the story after quite a long time. Studying the effects of the serial format as a strategy for securing consistent and recurring consumption, these temporal gaps between seasons become interesting: thus, we investigate whether the users remain loyal to the series across seasons.
Figure 3, 4 and 5 demonstrate the number of listenings in relation to the first episodes in, respectively, Byvalla, Smittad and Virus, and how many completed listening to each season. What we can see in relation to all three series is, again, a significantly declining number of users during season one – corresponding to the drop in listenings within the first episode. However, comparing the statistics relating to the different series, we can also see some central differences between the extent of user loyalty.
First and foremost, it appears that Virus maintains the users’ attention more effectively than both Byvalla and Smittad. Figure 5 demonstrates that while the first episode in season one had 31.343 listening, a little more than 30 percent of these listeners continued to the end in season four, where episode 10 had 9850 listenings, meaning that approximately 70 percent of the initial listeners disappeared along the way. However, on the Swedish audiobook market, 9850 listeners are still a lot. Notably, most of the ’loss’ of listeners happened during the first episode in season one. Looking at those readers who do decide to continue listening after the first minutes in episode one, season one, the loyalty of the Virus-listeners is consistent across seasons, as compared to other series, including Byvalla and Smittad. This may be explained by the fact that Virus is, as mentioned, adjusted directly to the serial format, building up a lot of suspense and cliff-hangers between episodes and seasons, and thus securing that readers remain hooked, or “infected” by the Storytel virus. The series thus stays true to Storytel’s guidelines as outlined above, focusing on straightforward storytelling and a “few strong protagonists with a clear goal in mind” - in the case of Virus, this goal is to survive: a story that has been popular since Robinson Crusoe.
This users’ loyalty become less consistent, however, when the narrative continuity of the series is disrupted: This becomes apparent when comparing the Virus statistics to the listening patterns surrounding Smittad (fig. 4). Although Smittad is presented as a direct continuation of Virus, it appears to have had a difficult time maintaining the commitment of the Virus-listeners. As it appeared in figure 4, Smittad episode one, season one had 10754 listenings. This was, in fact slightly more listeners than the 9850 users who finished listening to Virus: unless some listeners listened to the episode twice, the series must have attracted some newcomers, or at least users who had not finished all four seasons of Virus. However, a lot of listeners were lost during the first two seasons of Smittad: 5689 listened to the end of season one. 4489 began listening to season two and 1754 have listening throughout to the second season. Thus, a lot of Smittad listeners disappeared along the way to season two: only 16 percent listened through the whole series.
Figure 6 visualizes the comparison between the listening patterns relating to Smittad and Virus. The comparatively big decline in the number of listeners may be explained by a combination of different factors: Some loss of listeners should be expected with any form of series this long (seven seasons in total). The narrative structure of the series makes it difficult to consume in bits and pieces, it is, as mentioned, driven forward by narrative suspense, and in order to be able to follow the story, you have to have listened to the whole series. While this aspect may contribute to secure sustained consumption in the case of the original Virus-series, driving listeners forward to consume the next episode, and the next, it may also contribute to bring it down with Smittad: while some users, due to the new title, new performer and protagonists etc, will expect it to be a new story and thus expect that they will be able to listen to it without the Virus-context, others will expect it to be a direct continuation - and both groups may be disappointed, since the series hardly can stand alone, yet presents new protagonists, a new setting as well as new paratexts: the new title and performing narrator. Most notably, the change of narrator can be a significant reason for the declining user numbers: several studies have shown that audiobook users focus a lot on the performing voice, and to some degree even pick books to listen to based on the performer and the voice, rather than the author, genre etc. (Stougaard & Have 2016). A new performing narrator may thus be experienced as a radical change, and a reason to quit listening to the story, that is, not necessarily because the performance is ‘bad’ but because the story is associated with the other narrator.
The Virus/Smittad case demonstrates the importance of establishing continuity in a series in this genre: protagonists and paratexts have to be consistent throughout the series, and users have to be able to recognize a continuation when they see it. These characteristics fit quite well with the guidelines by Storytel encouraging authors to stick to “straightforward” storytelling. However, the efficiency of this strategy may also depend on the genre. In order to demonstrate the significance of the genre of the story in question, we compare the Virus-Smittad-case to the case of Byvalla, season one and two, which represent a similar, yet different use of the serial format within the genre of ‘feel-good’ fiction.
Analysis 2. Byvalla: listening patterns and distant reading
The relation between Virus and Smittad may be compared to the relation between Byvalla season one and two since, between the two seasons, there is also a significant rupture in narrative continuity, as a new set of characters are introduced, as well as a central new plotline: season one focused on the developing romance between Micke and Hanna, and the relation between the villagers in Byvalla and the television team from Stockholm. However, in season two, the television team has left the village, which is instead confronted with the world outside of Byvalla, as represented by the arrival of Syrian refugees. The season focuses on the pregnant single Henny and her evolving friendship with a Syrian boy, Khalil.
Comparing Byvalla with the Virus/Smittad-case, one might expect that the lack of narrative continuity would result in a declining number of listenings. 27,813 users began listening to Byvalla, season one, episode one. As with the other series, a lot of these listeners disappeared already during the first episode: 18,787 finished listening to the first episode, while only 4,746 listeners, that is, 17% of the original 27,813, continued to listen through to season three, episode 10. These numbers may indicate that Byvalla struggles more than Virus to maintain readers across seasons. There is some decline in the number of listenings after the first episode of season two: while 13,292 listened through season one, only 9,273 began listening to the second season, and during the season, a third of these listeners disappeared. Most likely, these listeners react to the changes in narrative, while others may have lost interest merely due to the time gap between the publication of season one and two. 
Thus, similarly to Virus/Smittad, Byvalla 2 does lose listeners concurrently with the narrative rupture and shift in characters. However, compared to the listening patterns relating to Smittad, the decline in the numbers of listenings is less steep, and listening patterns relating to season two and three stabilize around 5000 listenings. Thus, Byvalla is still regarded as a successful series. In order to explain how Byvalla functions as a series, and how it maintains (some) users’ loyalty despite its narrative ruptures, we compare the data on listening patterns with a computer-assisted reading techniques of Byvalla season 1, 2, and 3, focusing on the characters and their shifting occurrence in the story. This approach serves to illustrate 1) how the story functions as a serial narrative across seasons, and thus, it hopefully contributes to demonstrate 2) how the series builds user loyalty despite the shifting focus and narrative ruptures.
Using Voyant tools, we have created so-called word cloud models, based on the most frequent words used in Byvalla season one, two and three, respectively. These models emphasize the names of the most central characters, suggesting their shifting significance in the series, in the different seasons.
Thus, the model presenting word frequencies in season one (fig. 7) unsurprisingly place the biggest emphasis on the name Hanna, the female protagonist, with her partner-to-be, the farmer Micke as the second most frequent name. Other characters whose names occur in the model include Isa, who belongs to television team, and Lennart, an old farmer in the village. However, Lennart and the others remain minor characters in season one, which focuses on the love story between Hanna and Micke. As the model reveals, the season thus functions as a traditional romance story, with an emphasis on the perspective and thoughts of the woman, likely in order to secure identification since romances are often consumed by women.
As a romance, season one is quite successful, as suggested by the number of listenings through to episode 10 (not counting episode 11, which was a Christmas special). However, romances are challenging within the context of serial narratives, because the genre is, to a great extent, defined by the ending: the “happy ever after.” It is difficult to continue the story beyond this point without breaking with the conventions of the genre (Goris 2013).
The development of Byvalla in season two may be considered as a response to this situation, as it leaves Hanna and Micke behind in order to focus on a new protagonist: Henny, as is also reflected by the word cloud documenting word frequencies in season two (fig. 8). Secondary characters are the Syrian boy Khalil, the television producer Sam, and old Lennart who remains more or less in the same position as in season one. Moving on to season three, figure 9 visualizes the fact that the series returns to Hanna and Micke, who now become more equally significant. Similarly, it appears that the secondary characters become almost as significant as the romance couple, including Lennart.
Apart from the emphasis on the names, all three word clouds suggest the dominance of active and dialogue-focused verbs in the series: “svarade” (answered), ”frågade” (asked) and “sa” (said) are among the most frequent words in all three seasons, suggesting a dialogue-driven narrative style, which fit well with the audio format, where the performing narrator performs the different voices of the characters.
The word clouds furthermore illustrate how Byvalla functions as a serial narrative in a different way than Virus and Smittad. Within seriality theory, a classic distinction is made between ‘serials’ and series; or feuilletons and episodic series (Oltean 1993): while serials are feuilletons in the sense of continuing narratives, episodic series are characterized by a more cyclical structure and each episode may be consumed independently. Examples of traditional episodic series would be detective novels and romances, where each volume in - e.g. the Sherlock Holmes-series - will present an independent story, with some consistent elements occurring throughout the series. While both Byvalla and Virus are to be categorized as continuing serials, Byvalla, at the seasons level, seems less so than Virus, since each season appear to represent a more or less concluded story: the romance in season one, the story about Henny and Khalil in season two etc. Accordingly, it may encourage a more episodic or, in this case, seasons-oriented form of listening, where users listen to the individual seasons separately. This would explain the high listening numbers in season one.
However, again, some listeners do continue to listen to Byvalla throughout the series, suggesting that, despite the ruptures, something remains that keeps the listeners listening. Our hypothesis is that this something, given the genre, is the feel-good atmosphere associated with the Swedish village; the setting in Byvalla and the consistent minor characters, that serves to secure continuity in the story. As suggested by the title, the village, Byvalla is at the center of the story.. This idea may be supported by the consistent significance of the character Lennart, who, if any character in the story, personify a classic stereotype of village-people: ever curious, out for gossip, and sceptical against anything from out of town: whether it be the Stockholmian television producers or the Syrian refugees. Lennart’s appearance is consistent throughout the series, as demonstrated in our word clouds and specifically in figure 10, which compares the appearance of Lennart (purple) with that of Micke (orange).
Thus, Byvalla makes use of the serial format in a significantly different way than Virus and Smittad. This difference may explain why listeners tend to react to the ruptures in narrative continuity between Byvalla season one and two, in different ways than they do to the ruptures between Virus and Smittad. Users may keep listening to Byvalla because it is a different kind of story, a different genre, which rely less on narrative continuity in terms of plot and straightforward storytelling, instead focusing on building continuity across seasons through an emphasis on the feel-good atmosphere and the village-meets-the world-theme, which is provided through the village-setting and through the consistent appearance of minor characters such as Lennart.
Below, following up on this observation, we conclude with a discussion of the continuing significance of genre and content analysis when studying the influence of new media and formats on cultural consumption.
The emerging genre of born-audio fiction offers a unique possibility for studying how the content and usage of literature is affected by the conditions for producing, distributing and consuming digital audiobooks. The Storytel Originals series may be considered a response to a situation where the main competition is about the users’ time and attention in a potentially distractive media landscape. Our study has, accordingly, focused on the ability of the selected Originals-stories to attract and maintain users’ attention. Focusing on serial narratives made it possible to study the series’ ability to maintain long-term commitment, something which becomes increasingly important for the subscription-based services.
Our analyses demonstrate that the born-audio series generally succeed in maintaining users’ loyalty, resulting in stories with a relatively high number of listenings. The first episodes in the first seasons are important: this is when listeners decide whether to listen to the story. Hereafter, the number of listenings tend to stabilize; however, we do observe drops in the number of listenings when there is a gap or rupture in the story e.g. when a new season is introduced (implying a temporal gap between the release of the previous and the new season), and, especially, when there is a new performer, or ruptures in narrative continuity, for instance, when new plotlines or new protagonists are introduced.
Thus, it appears that the most successful series, or most successful parts of the series, are those that submit to Storytel’s guidelines for authors writing directly to the audio format, encouraging “straightforward” storytelling. However, we have also demonstrated that the efficiency of this strategy depends on the different genres: while Virus and Smittad are characterized by narrative drive, Byvalla rather focuses on portraying the different characters and their relations, as suggested by the fact that the series is characterized by a dialogue-driven style. These differences suggest the need to investigate how the strategies of adjusting literary content to the audio format may depend on the different genres. In this context, further use of digital methods may be helpful. Figure 11 visualizes the relations between the Swedish words of “saying/ says” and “thinking/thought” in a text corpus that includes all three seasons of Byvalla, thus illustrating the dialogue-driven style that characterizes the series. Future investigations of literary or genre-specific stylistics in audiobooks may compare this kind of linguistic traits with traits in other born-audio works, as well as with printed works.
While it is thus possible to further investigate how the audio format shapes the literary content, our analyses have focused on demonstrating the significance of the serial format, which shapes the listening patterns relating to the series. By comparing listening patterns surrounding Byvalla and Virus/Smittad, we have pointed to the significance of genre in this context, as well as the medium and format: suggesting that Virus, as an action-driven feuilleton series maintains, or loses, listeners on different conditions than the feel-good series Byvalla. This result is interesting, given that most research in audiobooks and audiobook consumption focuses on the medium: how the audiobook shapes the literary experience, in comparison with printed books. However, the content and genres still matter, suggesting the need for mixed methods approaches in literary studies and studies of audiobooks. That is, by combining statistics on user behaviour with close or distant text analysis, future studies in audiobooks should take this into account, focusing on the interplay between the literary content, the genre as well as the usage and affordances of the medium.
We are thankful to Storytel for their cooperation, sharing their data on listening statistics and text files of the selected series with us. The article was produced as a part of the research project “Serialization in Contemporary Literary Culture,” which is funded by the Independent Research Council Denmark.
- Anderson, Porter: “Storytel in Spain: When Entering the Audiobook Market means making New Serials.” Publishing Perspectives, June 6, 2018: https://publishingperspectives.com/2018/06/storytel-spain-audiobook-market-original-serials
- Ascari, Maurizio. “Dangers of distant reading: Reassessing Moretti’s Approach to literary genres” Genre, 2014. Volume 47, Issue 1.
- Baron, Naomi S. Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world. Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Bednar, Lucy. “Audiobooks and the Reassertion of Orality. Walter J. Ong and others revisited.” CEA Critic, Vol. 73, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 74-85.
- Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
- Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
- Goris, An. “Happily Ever After - and After. Serialization and the Popular Romance Novel.” Americana - The Journal of American Popular Culture. 12.1 (2013).
- Have, Iben and Birgitte Stougaard Pedersen: Digital Audiobooks. New Media, Users and Experiences. Routledge, 2016.
- Hayles, N. Katherine: How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. University of Chicago Press, 2012.
- Jockers, Matthew: Macroanalysis - Digital Methods and Literary History. University of Illinois Press, 2013.
- Koepnick, Lutz. “Figures of Resonance”. SoundEffects 8.1, 2019.
- Koepnick, Lutz. “Reading on the move”, PMLA128.1 2013
- Moretti, Franco. Distant reading, Verso, 2013.
- Murray, Simone. The Digital Literary Sphere. Reading, Writing and Selling Books in the Internet Era. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
- Oltean, Tudor: “Series and Seriality in Media Culture”. European Journal of Communication, vol. 8:5 (1993): 5-31.
- Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Rubery, Matthew (ed.). Audiobooks, Literature and Sound Culture. Routledge, 2012.
- Wallin, Tattersall, Elisa and Jan Nolin: “Time to Read: Exploring the Timespaces of Subscription-based Audiobooks”. New Media and Society 2019: 1-19.
- Storytel Originals, writing guidelines: https://support.storytel.in/hc/en-us/articles/115001670910-What-is-Storytel-Original
It should furthermore be noted that the numbers reflect the number of listenings as per June 2019, when we received the data. Since the series are still available on the service, the numbers will, most likely, slightly increase, although most listenings occur in the weeks after the series were released.
Notably, Storytel owns all rights to the Originals series, suggesting how the new media and modes of literary production become connected to a general transformation of the power relations between author and publisher: the author does not own the work, which is completely controlled by the company. This construction invites comparisons with the power dynamics and hierarchies within other media cultures: e.g. television production.
This aim for neutrality may be explained by the audiobook’s previous status as an aid for those who could not read, and who thus would want to get as close as possible to the original reading experience. Today, audiobooks are increasingly considered as a medium, which may add something to the literary experience, and many producers make it possible for users to shift between listening and reading an e-book version of the text.
On Storytel, it is often young adult fiction that is performed in this way - for instance, the Originals Pionér and Fønixguilden are both multi-voice productions, which are targeted toward a young audience.
However, while podcasts are often produced by individual actors and are associated with a more spontaneous spoken style, as opposed to the above-mentioned scripted quality of the Originals: they are (still) read aloud rather than spoken.
Of course, the declining number of listenings to Smittad, in comparison with Virus, may be explained by other, external factors as well: Smittad was released two years later than Virus season one, thus at a time where much more Originals series have been released and it would then be in competition with more series.
The arrival of the Syrian refugees in the series second season suggest the ability of serial narratives include references to topical events: because it is produced continuously, the series may comment on the 2016 refugee crisis in Europe more or less at the same time as the crisis occurred (season two was produced in 2016)
Of course, given that the data are pseudonymized, we cannot be certain that it is the same listeners, that have listened to season one, that listen to season two. We do believe, however, that it is safe to assume that the majority of those listening to season two also listening to season one.
The significance of the place and the familiar local setting in Byvalla is indicated by the fact that when the story was translated into Danish, the setting also changed to the small Danish village of Bykøbing.