Audio books fit life in fast lane

NOVEL SOUNDS

June 02, 1993|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Staff Writer

There are mornings when Cindy Gibson will pull into the parking lot of her job at the Skydiving Center near Leonardtown and get out of the car with tears streaming down her cheeks.

At first, everybody at work was concerned -- although now that they understand, they're quite relieved: just another sad novel Cindy read while driving to work.

"Dog books are the toughest," she explains with chagrin. "Especially when something sad or tragic happens near the end. Boy, it's really embarrassing to go into the office weeping."

But not quite as embarrassing as her husband, Kevin, who commutes every day from their home in Lusby, Calvert County, to Alexandria, Va. "Numerous times," Ms. Gibson says, "he's gotten home late and he's just driven right past the neighborhood because he's gotten so engrossed in the novel he's reading that he's forgotten where he is."

Of course, she doesn't really mean that she and her husband are actually reading while driving. Besides being offensively pretentious, that would be extremely dangerous (and there would always be that lingering doubt about whether, while balancing their books on top of the steering wheel and downshifting to avoid the dump truck that just cut them off, they could really appreciate all seven levels of meaning the author subtly intended.)

No, what Cindy Gibson, husband Kevin and thousands of others like them are doing more and more these days is listening to recorded versions of novels and works of non-fiction -- while doing the dishes or puttering in the workshop at home, but mostly while driving those mindless miles to and from the job site.

Only a decade ago, the books-on-cassettes business wasn't far removed from the mom and pop end of things, dominated largely by a handful of specialty publishers -- including Prince Frederick's Recorded Books Inc. -- offering rentals of multi-cassette, unabridged books by mail.

Almost overnight, though, talking books have become the hottest segment of the booming $1 billion audio publishing industry. Slickly packaged, two-cassette abridged versions of best sellers are popping up for sale not only in bookstores but in non-traditional venues like truck stops, video outlets and discount department stores. In fact, the first shop devoted exclusively to audio books opened in New York this month, offering 2,500 titles.

Most observers trace the huge growth to the tactic three years ago by mainstream publishers of releasing an audio version of their blockbuster best sellers side by side with their hardcover versions. "All of a sudden everything changed," says Linda Sheldon, vice president of Random House's audio books division. "It was the element that broke audio books out of a cottage industry."

Text when time's lacking

And, says Jim Brannigan, president of the Audio Publishers Association, the move "coincided well with the decade of greed and people not having enough time to do everything, but knowing they gotta stay on top. People asked, 'How can I have any enjoyment when I don't have time to think?' The beauty of audio is its one of the few things you can enjoy while doing something else."

It's also something you can enjoy for free. While retail sales of audio books were up 36 percent last year, public libraries say they too have had a hard time keeping them on their shelves.

"Talking books are extremely popular," says Sharon Hewitt, a Baltimore County librarian. "By the time a hardback book is a year or two old, it may circulate only every other month. But books on cassette don't seem to get unpopular. They circulate so much at least half or two-thirds of our collection is always out."

Jay Phillippe, a personnel specialist who lives in Columbia and works in Reston, Va., can attest to that. He regularly scarfs up audio books from the Howard County Library, preferring mysteries. "I get into a good mystery and forget about traffic," he says. "I commute 100 miles, 2 1/2 hours a day. I've done it for nine years, the same scenery and everything. It's a killer. If I didn't have books to listen to, I'd probably go out of my mind."

Taking a page on tapes

Henry Trentman of Prince Frederick knows that feeling well. For years, as a traveling salesman, he sought ways to relieve the tedium of his hours behind the wheel. About 15 years ago, he found out about Books on Tape, a California-based firm that offered rentals of unabridged versions of novels and non-fiction favorites. Not only did those tapes relieve Mr. Trentman's tedium, they inspired him to quit his traveling and start his own company, Recorded Books Inc.

"I thought it would be a piece of cake to start up," he smiles now. "Just get a tape deck, put an ad in the paper for an actor. Then put an ad in the book section of the Washington Post and, bam, there I'd be."

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