From New World Encyclopedia
Cassette recording of Patrick O'Brian's The Mauritius Command done by Patrick Tull.

An audiobook is an audio recording of a book, speech, or any form of content that is not music. In the U.S., the Library of Congress initiated a "Books for the Adult Blind Project," which laid the foundations for the development of the audiobook, in 1931. When cassette players became popular and standard in cars, audiobooks became popular among drivers; today, CDs and downloadable MP3 files have become popular. Audiobooks cover all genres, from self-help to literature and relaxation. Some have music and sound effects narrated by multiple voices. These audiobooks are either commercially produced or recorded by volunteers and made available in the free public domain.


Audiobooks are usually distributed on CDs, cassette tapes, downloadable digital formats (e.g., MP3 and Windows Media Audio) and, more recently, some preloaded digital formats (e.g., Playaway).

The term "books on tape" was frequently and erroneously used as a synonym for audiobooks when the majority of audiobooks (then called "spoken word audio") were available on cassette, but BOT was a company that actively attempted (often failing) to protect its company name from generic use. With cassette tapes no longer the dominant medium for audiobooks, this has become a non-issue.

In 2005 cassette-tape sales made up roughly 16 percent of the audiobook market,[1] with CD sales accounting for 74 percent of the market and downloadable audio books accounting for approximately nine percent. In the United States, the most recent sales survey (performed by the Audio Publishers' Association in the summer of 2006 for the year 2005) estimated the industry to be worth 871 million US dollars. Current industry estimates are around two billion US dollars at retail value per year.

Most new popular titles put out by the audiobook publishers are available in audiobook format simultaneously with publication of the hardcover edition. The first example of this simultaneous publication was when Caedmon published the spoken recording of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings. There are more than 50,000 current titles on cassette, CD or digital format.

Unabridged audiobooks are word for word readings of a book, while abridged audiobooks have text edited out by the abridger. Abridgements were initially necessary to keep down the running time, and therefore the cost and corresponding retail price, as the general consumer was getting introduced to audiobooks. With greater consumer acceptance, less consumer price resistance and higher per title sales for some pricing economy, more of the audiobook titles are now being released only as unabridged recordings. Audiobooks also come as fully dramatized versions of the printed book, sometimes calling upon a complete cast, music, and sound effects, though many consumers have indicated a preference for less music, multiple voices and sound effects. Each spring, the Audie Awards are given to the top nominees for performance and production in several genre categories.

There are quite a few radio programs serializing books, sometimes read by the author or sometimes by an actor, with most of them on the BBC.


Library of Congress "Books for the Adult Blind Project"

In 1931 the Congress established the talking-book program, which was intended to help blind adults who couldn’t read print. This program was called "Books for the Adult Blind Project." The American Foundation for the Blind developed the first talking books in 1932. One year later the first reproduction machine began the process of mass publishing. In 1933 anthropologist J.P. Harrington drove the length of North America to record oral histories of Native American tribes on aluminum discs using a car battery-powered turntable. Audiobooks preserve the oral tradition of storytelling that J.P. Harrington pursued many years ago.[1] By 1935, after Congress approved free mailings of audio books to blind citizens, the Books for the Adult Blind Project was in full operation. In 1992 the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) network circulated millions of recorded books to more than 700,000 handicapped listeners. All NLS recordings were created by professionals.

Audio cassette in a car

Though spoken recordings were already popular in 33-1/3 vinyl record format for schools and libraries into the early 1970's, the beginning of the trade acceptance of this medium can be traced to the introduction of the audio cassette and, most importantly, to the prevalence of these cassette players as standard equipment (rather than as options which older drivers did not choose) in imported (Japanese) automobiles, which became very popular during the oil crisis of 1979. Thereafter it was slow and steady going as consumers latched onto the experience and authors slowly accepted the medium. Into the early 1980's there were still many authors who refused to have their books created as audiobooks, so a good many of the audiobooks were original productions not based upon printed books.

With the development of portable cassette recorders, audiotapes had become very popular and by the late 1960s libraries became a source of free audiobooks, primarily on vinyl records but also on cassettes. Instructional and educational recordings came first, followed by self-help tapes and then by literature. In 1970 Books on Tape Corporation started rental plans for audio books distribution. The company expanded their services selling their products to libraries and audiobooks gained popularity. By the middle of 1980s the audio publishing business grew to several billion dollars a year in retail value. The new companies, Recorded Books and Chivers Audio Books, were not the first to develop integrated production teams and to work with professional actors. Caedmon was the first to have done this, while Nightingale Conant featured business and self-help authors reading their own works first on vinyl records and then on cassettes.[2]

The Audio Publishers Association

The Audio Publishers Association was established in 1986 by six competitive companies who joined together to promote the consumer awareness of spoken word audio. In 1996 the Audio Publishers Association established the Audie Awards for audio books, which is equivalent to the Oscar for the talking books industry. The nominees are announced each year in January. The winners are announced at a gala banquet in the spring, usually in conjunction with BookExpo America.[3]

CDs and downloadable audiobooks

The invention of CDs added to the convenience and flexibility of the listening experience. While music fans were quick to latch onto this new format, audiobook listeners were much slower, presumably caring less about technology and more about ease of use and bookmarking capability. Also, it was not until cassette players were replaced by CD players in most automobiles that this format eventually took hold.

With the advent of the Internet, broadband technologies, new compressed audio formats and portable MP3 players, the popularity of audio books has increased significantly. This growth was reflected with the advent of Audio book download subscription services. Meanwhile, the introduction of easy-to-use preloaded digital audio formats have kept audiobooks accessible to technophobes and the visually impaired, although the majority of consumers are neither: rather, they tend to be regular readers who desire to emulate reading when driving or otherwise occupied.

Use, distribution and popularity

Commercial audiobooks and free public domain audiobooks

The popularity of portable music players such as the iPod has made audiobooks more accessible to people for portable listening. This has led to an availability in the creation of free audiobooks from Librivox and similar projects such as FreeAudioBooks1 that take works from the public domain and enlist volunteers to read them. Audiobooks also can be created with text to speech software, although the quality of synthesized speech may suffer by comparison to voice talent recordings. Audiobooks in the private domain are also distributed online by for-profit companies such as Media Bay (which has since ceased operations), the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), Simply Audiobooks, Spoken Network, Naxos, Audioville, Bookstolistento, Lodingo and, which in 2006 generated $82.2 million USD in revenue through sales of downloadable audiobooks and other spoken-word content.[4] In addition to direct-to-consumer websites, OverDrive distributes digital audiobooks to libraries, schools, and online retailers. Very recently communities have launched which gather and distribute community-generated audiobooks in piecemeal, such as podiobooks (dedicated to serialized Sci-Fi) and (short for "dubbing literature") which accepts and distributes short stories, poetry and essays and acts as an archive for live literary readings.

Financial prospects

Audiobooks on cassette or CD are typically more expensive than their hardback equivalents due to the added expense of recording and the lack of the economy of scale in high "print" runs that are available in the publishing of printed books. Preloaded digital formats are similar in price to their CD counterparts. The audio content is preloaded on a small and simple player, which removes the need for a separate piece of technology such as a CD player or an MP3 player. Additionally, the content is static-state so it is protected from damage.

Downloadable audiobooks tend to cost slightly less than hardbacks but more than their paperback equivalents. For this reason, market penetration of audiobooks is substantially lower than for their printed counterparts despite the high market penetration of the hardware (MP3 and WMA players) and despite the massive market penetration achieved by audio music products. Given the elasticity of demand for audiobooks and the availability of cheaper alternatives, slow and steady growth in sales seems more likely than a mass market explosion. However, economics are on the side of downloadable audiobooks in the long run. They do not carry mass production costs, do not require storage of a large inventory, do not require physical packaging or transportation and do not face the problem of returns that add to the cost of printed books. Received wisdom of market forces suggests that significant price reductions to customers, while cutting into per unit profit margins, will be offset by increased volumes of sales. This will increase absolute profits to the industry while bringing audiobooks to a wider public.

One of the factors holding back price competition is the fear that low-price audiobooks might simply take business away from more traditional forms of publishing. This is especially significant in the case of publishers who have interests in both print and audiobook publishing. However, most major book publishers now actively participate in audiobook publishing and see it as a complement to their publishing operations.

Resellers of audiobooks, such as Audible, Simply Audiobooks, and Audio Editions Books on Cassette and CD, who acquire much of their content from major publishers, must price their content at such a level as to take account of their cost of goods as well as operating costs. On the other hand, audiobook sellers who sell their own content (like the BBC), those who publish solely in audiobook format (such as Blackstone Audio, Highbridge Audio, Brilliance Audio, etc) and "Long Tail" type audiobook publishers who publish lesser known authors (such as bookstolistento or dublit) have lower operating costs and can therefore sell at lower prices using a "lower-margin-higher-sales" business model. However, they still have to meet the costs of writer's royalties, performers fees and production facility costs. The shift from CDs and cassettes to downloadable audiobooks, while doing nothing to reduce initial recording and editing costs, creates further downward pressure on price, by removing some of the other costs, such as mass production, packaging and physical distribution.

Audiobooks and libraries

Audiobooks have been used to teach children to read and to increase reading comprehension. They are also useful for the blind. The National Library of Congress in the U.S. and the CNIB Library in Canada provide free audiobook library services to the visually impaired; requested books are mailed out (at no cost) to clients.

About forty percent of all audiobook consumption occurs through public libraries, with the remainder served primarily through retail book stores. Library download programs are currently experiencing rapid growth (more than 5,000 public libraries offer free downloadable audio books). According to the National Endowment for the Arts' recent study, "Reading at Risk," audio book listening is one of very few "types" of reading that is increasing general literacy.

Self-help audiobooks

Audio books are also used for education. Self-help audio books range from public speaking to learning meditation. Their general goal, however, is always to develop one's skills to be happier and/or more successful in life. While some focus on a particular skill, others aim to change the listener's life entirely. Many of these self-help audio books can be also purchased online.

Listening practices

Audio books are considered a valuable learning tool because of their format. Unlike with traditional books, one can learn from an audiobook while doing other tasks, although it should be noted that this can detract from the primary task. Such multitasking is feasible when doing mechanical tasks that do not require much thought and have only little or no chance of an emergency arising. Such tasks include doing the laundry and exercising indoors, among others. The most popular general use of audiobooks by adults is when driving an automobile or as an alternative to radio. Many people listen as well just to relax or as they drift off into sleep.

Common practices include:

  • Replaying: Depending upon one's degree of attention and interest, it is often necessary to listen to segments of an audio book more than once to allow the material to be understood and retained satisfactorily. Replaying may be done immediately or after extended periods of time.
  • Learning: People may listen to an audio book (usually an unabridged one) while following along in an actual book. This helps them to learn words that they may not learn correctly if they were only to read the book.
  • Notetaking: Some take notes as if they were listening to lectures in a classroom.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Audio Publishers Association Fact Sheet Audio Publishers Association (Oct. 18 2005). Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  2. Evolution of Audio Books and Media Players, A Brief History of Audio Books. Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  3. Audio Award, Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  4. Audible Announces 4th Quarter 2006 & Full Year Financial Results, Retrieved June 17, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Books and journals
  • Erard, M. 2007. "The Wealth of LibriVox: Classic Texts, Amateur Audiobooks, and the Grand Future of Online Peer Production." Reason. 39, no. 1: 46-50.
  • Mann, Sargy. 2007. "BOOKS - Audio Books." The Spectator. 50.
  • Public Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, Young Adult Library Services Association, and American Library Association. Listen Up! The Present and Future of Audiobooks from Experts. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2001.
Online sources

External links

All links retrieved August 21, 2023.


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