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April 08, 2004

Book Sales/Audiobook Sales

Dear Friedrich --

Audiobooks, whose virtues and pleasures I've been touting on this blog for a while, continue to gain. Although sales of adult hardcover books dropped 2.4% in 2003 -- and I've been told that the figure would be close to 4% if you left out the "Harry Potter" books -- audiobook sales rose 12.4% in the same period, a rate of growth that has held steady since 1997.

I got these figures from the excellent inside-publishing newsletter Publishing Trends, whose website is here. Some more interesting facts and passages from the piece:

  • "The average audiobook listener remains middle-aged to older, well educated, and relatively affluent. According to APA stats, audiobook listeners are 76% female, with an average age of 45 (the average male is 47). And, more telling than any other trait, the average listener does so while driving."

  • "Publishers report that the sale of [books on] CDs has shifted into overdrive, and many say it's only a matter of time before cassettes go the way of the Edsel."

  • Digital downloading of audiobooks is now possible -- more than 5000 audiobooks can now be downloaded via Apple's Itunes site, for instance.

  • Digitification means that audiobooks will soon be popping up in all kinds of venues. "Daniel Waters, chair of the Public Library Association's Tech in Libraries Committee ... said it's only a matter of time -- say, 18-24 months -- before most libraries offer digital downloads of books."

  • It's expected that audiobooks will soon be offered on airplanes, as one of the audio channels. Already, a digital-radio channel offers audiobooks 24/7.

Although I'll miss books-on-cassettes, I can't see any other downsides to these developments, can you? IMHO, audiobooks are a bandwagon well worth jumping on. Thanks to 'em, commuting time, exercise time, even time spent on housework can all go from being tedium-time to book-reading time.



UPDATE: Here's a link to Telltale Weekly, an interesting attempt to create a public-domain audiobook library.

posted by Michael at April 8, 2004


Is it possible to websurf audially? I'd like to be able to do so while out walking every day.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 8, 2004 12:57 PM

I buy audiobooks all the time through iTunes. Apple just resells content, by the way, but iTunes is way easier to deal with than Audible. Some have complained that books on CD don't remember your place. iTunes audiobooks do. In fact, you can have an audiobook on your computer, and also on your iPod; and after you sync the two, your place will be the same.

For reasons of cost, though, audiobooks from the library remain unbeatable.

Posted by: John Bergmayer on April 8, 2004 1:35 PM

Audiobooks also enable passive, unreflecting cultural consumption. Hooray! Now reading can be just as disengaged an experience as TV and radio. The world of The Prisoner, with its 15-second courses of implanted knowledge, is only a shopping trip away.

How ironic that we're commanding children to read on their own at younger and younger ages, while insisting on being read to at older and older ages. But that must also be a good thing, right?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 8, 2004 1:39 PM

"Thanks to 'em, commuting time, exercise time, even time spent on housework can all go from being tedium-time to book-reading time."

I read all the time when I work out, it's the only thing that keeps me sane during the extreme boredom. (Big advantage of exercise bikes, real books.)

Posted by: . on April 8, 2004 1:45 PM

I think the reason that I don't much listen to audio books is that they are both too fast and too slow.

When I need to concentrate (on driving, for instance), I don't process language well. I often notice myself (retrospectively) stopping in the middle of a sentence when distracted.

On the other hand, when I am concentrating on the book, the reader seems to take forever to get anywhere. (I also notice this about myself when reading to my son, which I find a bit distressing.)

Books on PDAs, however, I find quite convenient, in spite of the execrable graphics on mine.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 8, 2004 3:05 PM

I'm an audio"book" scrooge and proud of it! It's depressing. The world is headed toward universal illiteracy.

Posted by: Lynn S on April 8, 2004 3:49 PM

FvB -- Audio websurfing? What a great concept. Now let's' go find some venture capital and then cash out.

John -- Thanks for the info. And glad to hear that digital downloads have solved the "where did I stop" problem of books on CD, which I run into all the time -- it's why I prefer books on cassette.

Tim -- Congrats: You're sounding like me on one of my more skeptical-of-this-new-world days! "Reading" a book on audio is a different experience than reading an on-the-page book, and it's an interesting subject, how they differ. But I'd also suggest that plenty of people demonstrate every day that it's possible to read on-the-page books without its having much of an impact on the brain. And I'd point out that I'm currently going through a Timothy Taylor audio series on econ, and recently finished "Reflections on the Revolution in France" on audio. So it's certainly possible to mentally engage while using audiobooks.

Doug -- I admire you for being able to read on PDA. I've tried and didn't like it, but my Palm is about five years old and has the world's lousiest screen. Do you find the screensize a problem? I found myself thinking, Hmm, this'll be fine for poetry, but a novel? Or a biography?

Lynn -- I was an audiobook skeptic for a long while too. But I was also walking an hour to work every morning and had grown tired of my music collection. It took a while for me to figure out how best to use audiobooks -- which books to listen to abridged (biographies, history), which books to insist on listening to unabridged (lit, most classics). But I've come to be a huge fan. For one middle-aged thing, it spares the eyes. Very enjoyable to "read" a big hunk of book and not finish with exhausted eyes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2004 4:39 PM


Well, the screen is pixellated and small, but the book reader I use (Mobipocket) allows me to change the text size and bold it when I want to, which mitigates the problems a bit.

The big advantages for me are twofold:

1) I nearly always have my PDA, so I nearly always have a book with me. If I show up to a meeting on time, that usually gives me a few minutes to read before anyone else shows up, and the program bookmarks where I left off.

2) I can turn on backlighting on my PDA's screen, so I can read in the dark without disturbing anyone else (in bed after my wife goes to sleep or when I'm riding in the car at night, for instance.)

Regarding audio websurfing, you might take a look at some of the browsers for the visually handicapped. They will already read web pages aloud. If you were to combine this with cellphone web access and a voice recognition package, the capability might already exist.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 8, 2004 6:46 PM

My dyslexic daughter loves audio books. She listens to the book on tape while doing something to keep her hands busy and then goes back and reads the text for herself. It's allowed her to enjoy technically difficult books like LOTR which otherwise may have been to difficult for her to decode and process her way thru.

They've been around for years--I think their popularity has more to do with the technology that allows folks to walk to work and listen at the same time, for example, than the appeal of the book on tape.

Posted by: Deb on April 8, 2004 8:17 PM

One other thing about the problem of remembering your place with CDs. My Mac remembers where I had left off watching a DVD, even if I've taken it out and watched another in the meantime. It asks if I'd like to watch the movie from the beginning, or from where I've left off. Many CD players pick up where you've left off, also, though they generally forget your place if you've taken the CD out.

There are programs and little scripts out there which will convert text to speech, but they're all horrible.

In defense of audiobooks: They're better than talk radio for when you're driving long distances and tired of music. And, of course, you're afraid of the thinking and self-reflection that silent driving engenders, as I am.

Posted by: John Bergmayer on April 8, 2004 8:44 PM

I must moderately agree with the audiobook scrooges. Although I can certainly see the numerous benefits of audiobooks, they are no replacement for actual reading, which I'm sure everyone is aware of. However, I would think poetry would be particularly suited to audiobooks given its focus on sound and images and the shorter length of most works. You could listen to a poem several times in a few minutes, pause to reflect, then move on.

Posted by: mallarme on April 9, 2004 12:50 PM

Mallarme - I would think poetry would be particularly suited to audiobooks given its focus on sound and images and the shorter length of most works.

Check out "The Edgar Allan Poe Audio Collection", from Caedmon. Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price are the readers. Good stuff.

Posted by: Brian on April 9, 2004 9:59 PM

"Audiobooks also enable passive, unreflecting cultural consumption. "

Is the user of an audiobook a reader? Presently there are three avenues for consuming a text: visual, aural, and tactile. If you use a braille book, you are reading. If you use adaptive software, a synthetic voice, to read your web browser text, are you reading? Or are you being read to? A person who lost her vision in adulthood might have some insight here. When a toddler hears a story read aloud by his father, is the child reading too?

Maybe the scrooges wish to preserve the rigor and commitment that goes with using a printed book. The quiet and the sitting still.

I submit that audiobooks can be just as rigorous as printed books. It depends on how you use them. Do you pay attention and take in every phrase? Do you skip back and "re-read" what you didn't understand? Do you look up unfamiliar words?

But an audiobook can enable passive unreflecting consumption. So can a printed text. Ever read People magazine?

My peeve is abridged audiobooks. They require less commitment by the user. Lots of stores stock only abridged titles. I suppose that's because they're cheaper and less bulky. Do the CD-ROM audiobooks usually include the full text?

Posted by: valine craig on April 9, 2004 10:10 PM

Hi. I'm going to be opening a downloadable audiobook website and audiobook publishing house (in June/August 2004 - or as soon as I get 100 books to offer) with completely FREE and inexpensive audiobooks. The first segment of every audiobook is free, and in some cases that can be over an hour each.

I'll have comedy albums (they'll be coming in soon), children's stories, business audiobooks, scriptures, inspirational stories, and classics.

I'm trying out an expensive computerized voice on some of the public domain books, and would really love some feedback on whether or not they would be worth offering. It's the only way I can offer 15 hour audiobooks for $6.50. Someone told me that it's the best computerized voice they'd ever heard, but I need a wider audience to judge.

So, although the site isn't open yet, would anyone mind going through the site, trying it out and downloading some of the free audiobooks and giving me your opinion of the computer-narrated audiobooks and the site in general?

I desperately need input from audiobook lovers, so if anyone has anything to say, negative or positive, please let me know. I want it to be a hangout for cheap audiobook fanatics like myself, so tell me what you'd like the site to offer, and what would make it better.

I hope to hear from you guys. THANKS!

Posted by: Penny Haynes on June 11, 2004 2:31 PM

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