Book 'em, Dan-o! MP3 finds a niche

Convenience: With the medium's compressed files, users don't have to battle with multiple CDs or tapes - especially handy for motorists.

April 18, 2002|By Thai Jones | Thai Jones,COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE

You're driving from Shire Oaks, Pa., to Misty Mountain, Ark. You have two screaming hobbits in the back seat to appease and the road goes on and on. How do you survive the epic journey?

In these dark times, there are but three main options for a keeper of hobbits: purchase J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in paperback for $21 and read the 1,630 pages aloud; buy the unabridged audio edition on about 50 compact discs or cassettes ($105 for CDs, $75 for tapes), or stay home.

Relief may be on the way, however. In the next few years, the MP3 format is expected to become standard in automobile sound systems, a trend that could really rev up the entire audio book industry. MP3/CD technology can store 10 times as much data as standard CDs. For the first time, audio books will be as compact and affordable as paperbacks.

"I think it's going to be earth-shattering," said Eileen Hutton, president of the Audio Publishers Association, a not-for-profit trade group. The thing that gave the audio book its jump start, Hutton said, was the installation of cassette players in virtually every car in the 1980s. In 1999, audio books retailing was a $2 billion industry.

The next big leap will be when cars are equipped with MP3/CD players. The MP3 technology is another in a long, long line of high-tech developments that pack more data into a smaller space for less money. An average unabridged book takes 12 to 15 hours to read and occupies 8 to 10 audio cassettes or 10 to 12 CDs. With MP3 technology, up to 20 hours of reading can be stored on a single disc. "It's going to be a huge new breakthrough," said Hutton. "We'll find new listeners, sell twice as much as we do now, make it more affordable."

Paul Coughlin, marketing director at Blackstone Audiobooks in Oregon, said price was a major issue with consumers: "When it comes to unabridged titles, the biggest complaint people have is it's too expensive to purchase - well not anymore." Moby Dick, one of Blackstone's most popular titles, costs $30 on MP3/CD, but listening to Ahab track his whale on traditional CDs would cost $160.00. Other MP3 books average around $20, Coughlin said.

Compressing or "ripping" the audio into MP3 format, requires a PC, but once the information is compressed, it can be burned onto a normal compact disc that costs $1 or less. But, a standard CD player can't read MP3 data. That requires an MP3/CD player which, these days, can cost less than $100.

"The big advantage of MP3 is file size," said Matthew Swanston, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. "Instead of buying a 6-disc changer, you can put the history of the Beatles on one disc."

In one scenario, Swanston says, book publishers or record labels may charge customers to download the new P. Diddy album or Stephen Ambrose history to a computer as in MP3 format. The customer can burn it onto a CD himself.

But Paul Rush, chief executive of Earful of Books, an audio bookseller based in Austin, Texas, said most of his customers don't have that much technical know-how and would prefer more traditional distribution.

For an audio book format to be a success, people need to be able to listen in their cars. Currently, 85 percent of cars have tape decks, while 41 percent have CD players, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

The 2002 Mazda MP3 is one of the first cars equipped with an MP3/CD sound system. The technology will be introduced in several high-end models in the next model year and, by 2005, should become widespread, according to the association.

Until MP3/CDplayers are standard equipment in cars, retailers will have to foot the cost of selling the same title in three different formats. Already, Earful of Books sells 125 titles in MP3 format out of its stores' selection of 7,000.

"I have seen several companies that thought their moment was here, and it was not," Rush said. "Do I expect it to happen in the next couple years? Frankly no, we will continue to evolve."

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