The spoken word grows louder year by year

More Americans turn to audiobooks to hear a good story

Publishing

January 04, 2004|By Robert K. Elder and Patrick T. Reardon | Robert K. Elder and Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

I'm sorry, Scott, we did hear a little more stomach. ... Can we try that again?" says audiobook director Paula Parker to author Scott Turow, sitting a few feet away in a soundproof booth that does not soundproof his growling midriff.

"No problem," he says and, after a short pause, continues reading Ultimate Punishment (Audio Renaissance), his nonfiction treatise on the death penalty. Before breaking for a much-needed lunch in Studio 300, a small recording studio on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, Turow is already halfway through reading the book's 164 pages.

"He's never done this before, and he's doing wonderfully," says Parker, veteran director of audiobooks such as The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and She Is Me by Cathleen Schine.

A few minutes later, Turow emerges from the booth.

"People say listening to an audiobook is a whole different experience than reading the book," Turow says. "But what it's doing is returning you to the way you first experienced stories -- having them read aloud to you."

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the highest selling audio series of all time are the Harry Potter books, read by Jim Dale, a winner of the Tony and Grammy awards. The Random House Listening Library's audio edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix sold more than 665,000 copies this year, the fastest-selling audiobook to date.

"Certainly, I think that the Harry Potter audiobooks have brought a vast number of new people to the audiobooks experience, old and young alike," says Mary Beth Roche, president of the Audio Publishers Association and publisher of Audio Renaissance. "From what we've heard, anecdotally, is that people love this, and ... they'll choose new audiobooks to listen to after Harry Potter."

According to the Association of American Publishers, the audiobook market has grown an average of 11.5 percent annually since 1997, while consumer book sales grew 2.7 percent annually in the same time.

"The really exciting thing is we went over the tipping point three or four years ago," says Maja Thomas, vice president and publisher of Time Warner AudioBooks. "It went from, 'Oh, yeah, my blind grandmother listens to them' to 'I got hooked when I heard David Sedaris on This American Life and went on to get all his books on tape.' "

In other words, these aren't your grandmother's audiobooks. Publishing companies have become increasingly sophisticated about how they choose performers, market titles and select formats for audiobooks. As books on tape become books on CD, the MP3 format has also risen in popularity, Roche says.

Unabridged popular

Audiobook enthusiasts want unabridged works, and they tend to follow not only authors but the reader / performers, too. Blair Brown, Lynn Redgrave and Edward Herrmann have their fans among not only consumers but authors as well, Thomas says.

"More authors are fans of the format themselves, so I think more authors are interested in reading their own audiobooks," Roche says. "The question is always: Who is going to do the best job?"

Authors often weigh in on who will voice their book -- and, often, whether they themselves will read their works.

"Some [authors] read their own books well, and some don't add much," says Robin F. Whitten, founder and publisher of AudioFile, an audiobook magazine. "They are oftentimes smart enough to know the work might be better in the hands of an actor trained in narration."

Other writers stay out of it entirely.

Mystery novelist P.D. James said she has heard only snippets of the audio versions of her books. There was no such thing as an audiobook in 1962, when James' first novel, Cover Her Face, was published. But the 83-year-old James says she's glad for the audience the format brings to her books.

Nonetheless, she said, "The book, to me -- the book on the shelf -- is still the most important."

That's why she has little truck with e-books. "I hate the idea of reading printing off the screen," she said. "It's very repugnant to me. I don't know why. I think it's because I love a book. I love to hold it and look back at what happened. But audio is good."

In a sense, audio is built into James' stories, she said.

"Reading a book aloud is part of my creative process," she said. "I write by hand. When my secretary comes in, I dictate to her what I've done. So I am listening to the book myself. That's very valuable for the dialogue. I can feel the subtle flow of the English. I can change it if it isn't flowing."

Aid for writer

Historian David Herbert Donald also reads his books aloud as part of his writing process.

He noted that recently he and his wife were making some improvements to their home in Lincoln, Mass., and, during one break in the work, he overhead a conversation between two of the workers.

"Do you think he's all right?" one of them asked, referring to Donald. "He just sits there at that desk all day. And he talks to himself!"

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