The Birth and Rise of the Audiobook

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There’s something central to the human experience about listening to a story being told. Whether in a Neolithic cave or at summer camp, there’s a special intimacy to hearing a tale unfold. In fact, one of your earliest (and probably most pleasant) memories may be having been read a bedtime story. As you listened, you got to drift away into worlds of imagination and make-believe. Even though you might have struggled to stay awake, you held on to every single word as if it were a magic spell. And, indeed it was.

Surprisingly, technology didn’t play a part in such listening experience until the advent of the phonograph in 1877. Thomas Edison thought that his new innovation might “speak to blind people without effort on their part.” The very first recorded verse was the inventor reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” However, the early recording cylinders were limited to a mere four minutes, making a longer narrative impractical. The first flat records extended the listening time to 12 minutes—enough time for a poem or a short speech. It wasn’t until the 1930s that records extended to 20 minutes. In 1934, the Books for the Adult Blind Project launched a “talking book” including excerpts from sources as diverse as O. Henry and the Bible. In those early days, a book was on gramophone records of approximately 20 minute each. Sometimes a single title might require 20 records—not too convenient, to say the least. As you can imagine, it was a logistical nightmare to produce, manufacture, and distribute such a bulky collection.

By 1960 it was possible to distribute spoken-word books on tape. However, threading and unthreading the tape onto the reel-to-reel player was complicated and error prone—as anyone who remembers those clunky old machines can testify. This was an additional awkward hurdle for the blind people who were one of its main consumers. However, talking books took a great leap forward in 1969 with the introduction of the audiocassette tape, and things would never be the same. These compact wonders were straightforward to store and transport, and best of all—easy to use. The audiobook as we know it had arrived.

Public libraries all across the US started stocking an extensive variety of talking books, as publishers began releasing the spoken word versions of their books alongside the hardback edition. The diminutive size of this palm-sized format meant that even a lengthy volume could be mailed for an affordable cost. A cornucopia of listening delights opened up, even to those in the remotest of areas.

By the start of the 70s, it was how-to audiobooks that led the field, with such notable titles as Managing and Selling Companies and Executive Seminar in Sound, quite obviously aimed at the business traveler who sought to climb the corporate ladder. It was during the era of bell-bottoms and the smiley face that cassette players became widely popular among the car-buying public. By the middle of the decade, the cassette player was no longer an optional extra but an essential automotive feature. What’s more, you could practically store an entire catalog in your glove compartment—or for the more untidy, under your seat. Now, average Americans could not only hum along to their favorite tunes but listen to the latest page-turner or revisit a much-loved classic. All this “reading” occurred while zooming along the highways, or more importantly, provided much needed distraction when stuck in a never-ending traffic jam. To this day, industry experts The Audio Publishers Association state that audiobooks are most often enjoyed during commuting time—whether on mass transit or while behind the wheel. Edison and Henry Ford would have chuckled to think of Americans enjoying “talking books” in their “horseless carriages.” What a wonderful coming together of two great American inventions!

Today, the steadily increasing audiobook audience doesn’t just enjoy listening while driving, they also savor this medium in combination with a host of other activities. Right at this very minute, there are many thousands of Americans listening to books while they exercise, cook, or pull those stubborn weeds from between the petunias. It’s this versatility and flexible convenience that audiobook aficionados appreciate. For example, if you get distracted or can’t follow the plot, you can easily review until you get caught up. Additionally, barriers to reading such as location, learning challenges, and physical disabilities have been greatly reduced. You could listen to all of Shakespeare at the top of Mount Everest, if you chose to do so. What’s to stop you from listening to Tom Clancy as you fill in your taxes? It might even make that most unsavory of chores almost pleasurable.

Lest you think that the audiobook phenomenon has peaked, you’d be dead wrong. On the contrary, we’re probably entering its golden age. With sound files and the Internet, it’s become easier than ever to find audio titles on topics as wide-ranging as preparing for medical school exams to savoring the romance of an 18th century novel. Furthermore, the barriers to entering the industry are constantly falling. It’s no longer necessary to have the monetary resources of a corporation behind you. Today, a professional standard product can be produced for as little as $2,000—a dramatic drop from the approximately $20,000 such an endeavor required as recently as the late 1990s.

It would have been incredible for our ancestors to imagine a world where reading would no longer require adequate light, good eyesight, and a hefty budget to assemble and stock a substantial library. Nowadays, no matter what your interests might be, there are millions of audiobooks waiting to be discovered. This booming business has certainly come a long way since that eventful day when Thomas Edison recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his primitive microphone.

Seamus Mullarkey is a writer based in New York City and a big fan of audiobooks, especially while on long-haul flights and sitting in his dentist’s waiting room.