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Audio book


Audio book

An audiobook is a recording of a text being read. A reading of the complete text is noted as "unabridged," while readings of a reduced version, or abridgement of the text are labeled as "abridged."

Spoken audio has been available in schools and public libraries and to a lesser extent in music shops since the 1930s. Many spoken word albums were made prior to the age of videocassettes, DVDs, compact discs, and downloadable audio, however often of poetry and plays rather than books. It was not until the 1980s that the medium began to attract book retailers, and then book retailers started displaying audiobooks on bookshelves rather than in separate displays.


The term "talking book" came into being in the 1930s with government programs designed for blind readers, while the term "audiobook" came into use during the 1970s when audiocassettes began to replace records.[1] In 1994, the Audio Publishers Association established the term "audiobook" as the industry standard.[1]


Spoken word recordings first became possible with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877.[1] "Phonographic books" were one of the original applications envisioned by Edison which would "speak to blind people without effort on their part."[1] The initial words spoken into the phonograph were Edison's recital of "Mary Had a Little Lamb", the first instance of recorded verse.[1] In 1878, a demonstration at the Royal Institution in Britain included "Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle" and a line of Tennyson's poetry thus establishing from the very beginning of the technology its association with spoken literature.[1]

United States

Many short, spoken word recordings were sold on cylinder in the late 1800s and early 1900s,[2] however the round cylinders were limited to about 4 minutes each making books impractical;[1] flat platters increased to 12 minutes but this too was impractical for longer works.[1] "One early listener complained that he would need a wheelbarrow to carry around talking books recorded on discs with such limited storage capacity."[1] By the 1930s close-grooved records increased to 20 minutes making possible longer narrative.[1]

In 1931, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project established the "Talking Books Program", which was intended to provide reading material for veterans injured during WWI and other visually impaired adults.[1] The first test recordings in 1932 including a chapter from Helen Keller's Midstream and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven".[1] The organization received congressional approval for exemption from copyright and free postal distribution of talking books.[1] The first recordings made for the Talking Books Program in 1934 included sections of the Bible; the Declaration of Independence and other patriotic documents; plays and sonnets by Shakespeare; and fiction by Gladys Hasty Carroll, E. M. Delafield, Cora Jarrett, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, and P. G. Wodehouse.[1]

In 1933 anthropologist J.P. Harrington drove the length of North America to record oral histories of Native American tribes on aluminum discs using a car battery-powered turntable. Audiobooks preserve the oral tradition of storytelling that J.P. Harrington pursued many years ago.[3] By 1935, after Congress approved free mailings of audio books to blind citizens, Books for the Adult Blind Project was in full operation. In 1992 the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Challenged (NLS) network circulated millions of recorded books to more than 700,000 Physically challenged listeners. All NLS recordings were created by professionals.

The first recording of a "book" was of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Michael Rye in 1969.[4] It included excerpts from the autobiography, Poor Richard's Almanack, The Dogood Papers, and other shorter works.[5]

Though spoken recordings were popular in 33-1/3 vinyl record format for schools and libraries into the early 1970s, the beginning of the trade acceptance of this medium can be traced to the introduction of the audio cassette and, most importantly, to the prevalence of these cassette players as standard equipment (rather than as options which older drivers did not choose) in imported (Japanese) automobiles, which became very popular during the 1979 energy crisis. Thereafter, consumers and authors slowly accepted the medium. Into the early 1980s there were still many authors who refused to have their books created as audiobooks, so a good many of the audiobooks were original productions not based upon printed books.

With the development of portable cassette recorders, audiotapes had become very popular and by the late 1960s libraries became a source of free audiobooks, primarily on vinyl records but also on cassettes. Instructional and educational recordings came first, followed by self-help tapes and then by literature. In 1975, Olympic gold medalist, Duvall Hecht founded Books on Tape, Inc. as a direct to consumer mail order rental service for unabridged audiobooks and expanded their services selling their products to libraries and audiobooks gaining popularity with commuters and travelers. By the middle of 1980s the audio publishing business grew to several billion dollars a year in retail value.

Caedmon was the first to work with integrated production teams and professional actors, while Nightingale Conant featured business and self-help authors reading their own works first on vinyl records and then on cassettes.[6]

The Audio Publishers Association was established in 1986 by six competitive companies who joined together to promote the consumer awareness of spoken word audio. In 1996 the Audio Publishers Association established the Audie Awards for audio books, which is equivalent to the Oscar for the talking books industry. The nominees are announced each year in January. The winners are announced at a gala banquet in the spring, usually in conjunction with BookExpo America.[7]

While most music fans rapidly accepted CDs, audiobook listeners were slower. One reason may have been that a cassette tape by nature retains its position when the player is turned off, but many early CD players did not retain the playing position of CDs when turned off. Also, it was not until cassette players were replaced by CD players in most automobiles that this format eventually took hold.

With the advent of the Internet, broadband technologies, new compressed audio formats and portable media players, the popularity of audiobooks has increased significantly. This growth was reflected with the advent of audiobook download subscription services.


The evolution and use of audiobooks in Germany closely parallels that of the US. A special example of its use is the West German Audio Book Library for the Blind, founded in 1955. Actors from the municipal theater in Münster recorded the first audio books for the visually impaired in an improvised studio lined with egg cartons. Because trams rattled past, these first productions took place at night. Later, texts were recorded by trained speakers in professional studios and distributed to users by mail. Until the 1970s recordings were on tape reels, then later cassettes. Since 2004, the offerings have been recorded in the DAISY Digital Talking Book MP3 standard, which provides additional features for visually impaired users to both listen and navigate written material aurally.[8]


Audiobooks in India started to take shape a little later as compared to the rest of the world. Only by 2010 did Audiobooks gain popularity in the Indian market, despite the fact that India has the second largest English speaking population and publishes the third highest number of English books in the world. This is primarily due to lack of previous organised efforts on the part of publishers and authors. The marketing efforts and availability of Audiobooks has made India as one of the fastest growing Audiobooks markets in the world .

The lifestyle of urban Indian population and one of the highest daily commute time in world has also helped in making Audiobooks popular in the region. Business and Self Help books have widespread appeal and have been more popular than fiction/non-fiction. This is because Audiobooks are primarily seen as an avenue for self-improvement and education, rather than entertainment.


Producing an audiobook consists of a narrator sitting in a recording booth reading the text, while a studio engineer and a director record and direct the performance.[9] If a mistake is made the recording is stopped and the narrator reads it again.[9]

Narrators are usually paid on a finished recorded hour basis, meaning if it took 20 hours to produce a 5 hour book, the narrator is paid for 5 hours, thus providing an incentive not to make mistakes.[9] Depending on the narrator they are paid US$150 per finished hour to US$400 (as of 2011).[9] The overall cost to produce an audiobook is US$5,000 at the minimum to many tens of thousands, depending on the length of the book and the narrator (as of 2011).[9]


Audiobooks are distributed on cassette tapes, CDs, MP3 CDs, downloadable digital formats (e.g., MP3 (.mp3), Windows Media Audio (.wma), Advanced Audio Coding (.aac)), and solid state preloaded digital devices in which the audio content is preloaded and sold together with a hardware device.

In 1955 a German inventor introduced the Sound Book cassette system based on the Tefifon format where instead of a magnetic tape the words and sounds were recorded on a continuous loop of grooved vinylite ribbon similar to the old 8-track tape. Even though the original Tefifon upon which it was based ran at 19 CPS and could hold a maximum of 4 hours, one Sound Book could hold eight hours of recordings as it ran at half the speed or 9.5 CPS. However, just like the Tefifon, the format never became widespread in use.[10]

In 2005, cassette tape sales were 16% of the audiobook market,[11] with CD sales accounting for 74% of the market and downloadable audio books accounting for approximately 9%. In the United States, a sales survey (performed by the Audio Publishers' Association in the summer of 2006 for the year 2005) estimated the industry to be worth 871 million US dollars.

A small number of books are recorded for radio broadcast, usually in abridged form and sometimes serialized, notably by the BBC. The advent of the Internet has introduced powerful means of delivery for audiobooks; many titles are now available on-line (for download on to computers, tablets, and phones, or one may listen to website audio streams without having to download anything).

Audiobooks may come as fully dramatized versions of the printed book, sometimes calling upon a complete cast, music, and sound effects. A dramatized audio adaptation of a book is effectively an audio drama.

Sometimes audiobook format is available simultaneously with book publication.

Distribution and popularity

Recent technology has encouraged the proliferation of free audiobooks that take works from the public domain and enlist volunteers to read them. Audiobooks also can be created with text to speech computer software, although the quality of synthesized speech may suffer by comparison to recordings by a human voice. On the other hand, computer-voiced reading enables the proliferation of more works faster through automation, than if read by humans.

Audiobooks in the private domain are also distributed online by for-profit companies. Until recently, major audiobook publishers required that their works be protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM), when sold as downloads, but this is no longer the case. Companies such as Apple Inc. have licensed their proprietary FairPlay DRM system (for DRM protection of iPod files in the .aa file format) to only one company.[12] Because of the long-standing major publishers' insistence on DRM, this effectively created a monopoly in the sale of the works of major publishers to iPod users, who make up the majority of the portable audio market.[13]

Audiobooks on cassette or CD are typically more expensive than hardcovers because of the added expense of recording and the lack of the economy of scale in high "print" runs that are available in the publishing of printed books. Downloadable audiobooks tend to cost slightly less than hardcovers but more than their paperback equivalents. Market penetration of audiobooks is substantially lower than for their printed counterparts despite the high market penetration of the hardware (MP3 and WMA players) and despite the massive market penetration achieved by audio music products.

However, there are certain economies of scale that favor downloadable audiobooks. Downloadable audiobooks do not carry mass production costs, do not require storage of a large inventory, do not require physical packaging or transportation and even if "returned" do not require a cost of physical return or destruction/disposal. If such economies were passed on to customers, unit profit margins would be reduced but sales volumes would increase. It is not known what effect this would have on book sales in other formats.


Audiobooks have been used to teach children to read and to increase reading comprehension. They are also useful for the blind. The National Library of Congress in the U.S. and the CNIB Library in Canada provide free audiobook library services to the visually impaired; requested books are mailed out (at no cost) to clients. Founded in 1996, Assistive Media of Ann Arbor, Michigan was the first organization to produce and deliver spoken-word recordings of written journalistic and literary works via the Internet to serve people with visual impairments.

About forty percent of all audiobook consumption occurs through public libraries, with the remainder served primarily through retail book stores. Library download programs are currently experiencing rapid growth (more than 5,000 public libraries offer free downloadable audio books). Libraries are also popular places to check out audio books in the CD format.[14] According to the National Endowment for the Arts' recent study, "Reading at Risk", audio book listening is one of very few "types" of reading that is increasing general literacy.

Listening practices

Audiobooks are considered a valuable learning tool because of their format. Unlike traditional books or a video program, one can learn from an audiobook while doing other tasks, although it should be noted that this can detract from the primary task, assuming the learning is not the main activity. Such multitasking is feasible when doing mechanical tasks that do not require much thought and have only little or no chance of an emergency arising. Such tasks include doing the laundry and exercising indoors, among others. The most popular general use of audiobooks by adults is when driving an automobile or traveling with public transport, as an alternative to radio. Many people listen as well just to relax or as they drift off into sleep.

Common practices include:

  • Replaying: Depending upon one's degree of attention and interest, it is often necessary to listen to segments of an audio book more than once to allow the material to be understood and retained satisfactorily. Replaying may be done immediately or after extended periods of time.
  • Learning: People may listen to an audio book (usually an unabridged one) while following along in an actual book. This helps them to learn words that they may not learn correctly if they were only to read the book. This can also be a very effective way to learn a new language.

Audiobook charities in the UK

Listening Books is an audiobook charity in the UK providing an internet streaming and postal service to anyone who has a disability or illness which makes it difficult to hold a book, turn its pages, or read in the usual way. They have audiobooks for both leisure and learning and a library of over 4,000 titles which are recorded in their own digital studios or commercially sourced.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is a UK charity which offers a Talking Books library service. The audio books are provided in DAISY format and delivered to the reader's house by post. There are over 18,000 audio books available to borrow, paid for by annual subscription. RNIB subsidises the Talking Books service by around £4 million a year.[15]

Calibre Audio Library is a UK charity providing a subscription-free service of unabridged audiobooks for people with sight problems, dyslexia or other disabilities, who cannot read print. They have a library of over 8,550 fiction and non-fiction titles which can be borrowed by post on MP3 CDs and memory sticks or via streaming.[16]

In popular culture

In the Mad Men (season 6) episode, "The Man With a Plan", Bob Benson was shown listening to the audio version of Frank Bettger's book How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, on a phonograph in his office. The citation includes a link to a screenshot of him with the book in his lap.[17]

See also


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