• Audiobooks: The Past, Present, and Future of Another Way to Read

    James Tate Hill Offers a Brief History of Recorded Matter

    The Past

    In the early 1990s, the books on tape section of our public library comprised a spinning rack much smaller than the one 7-Eleven used for comic books. Titles like Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale and Awaken the Giant Within found their way onto the floorboard of my mom’s Civic. She worked in sales, and the audience for books on tape was primarily people who spent a lot of time in cars and 18-wheelers. The library’s audiobook shelves also held some recent bestsellers and a smattering of classics like those assigned by my English teachers, few of which I ever finished. When doctors my junior year of high school characterized my recent vision loss as untreatable, the poor selection of books on tape didn’t foreshadow my future as a book lover.

    Rather than the public library, doctors directed us to the West Virginia Library Commission, a regional office of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The librarian on duty handed me a heavy cassette player I’d need for their half-speed, four-track tapes along with a green carton containing East of Eden, which we’d be reading in senior English. She asked if I wanted to check out any additional books, and I named a couple of novels, expecting her to apologize for not having them. Instead, she left her desk to retrieve both books.

    Founded in 1931 after an act of Congress, the National Library Service’s talking book program initially recorded a limited number of general-interest books on vinyl for the blind. An even smaller number of selections was, and continues to be, available in Braille. In the 1960s, the Library of Congress extended the service to patrons with any physical disability preventing them from reading print. As users increased, so did the number and variety of books in the collection. The NLS motto, “That all may read,” appears today at the top of their home page.

    The commercial market for audiobooks, once little more than LP records of poetry and short plays, grew exponentially with the advent of cassette tapes. Revenue for books on tape reached $200 million in 1987 and $1.5 billion in 1995, according to Publishers Weekly. The National Library Service, however, had one thing commercial publishers did not: permission to record any books it wished as long as those books were never available outside the library.

    Until J.D. Salinger’s death in 2010, I had no idea that the NLS version of Catcher in the Rye I had read was the only audiobook of that novel in existence. Nearly a decade after his death, this remains the case, protective as he and his estate have always been of rights to his work. First recorded in the 1970s by prolific NLS narrator Ray Hagen, the beloved novel was rerecorded by Hagen in the late 1990s due to deterioration of the aging tapes. How cool, I thought momentarily, learning that I had access to a version of a book the general public did not. Much more often, I lamented the great many books that would never be recorded by my specialized library.

    A few weeks into my new life as a book lover, I discovered how limited my options were. An introduction to a collection of Jack London short stories I checked out said he published more than 70 books. My library had fewer than a dozen. If I had access to only a fraction of the books by an author as famous as Jack London, someone we had read in school, how many other books would I never get to read?

    Unlike a traditional library, whose main limitations are a book’s cost and the space to shelve it, the NLS must pay professional narrators and any production costs associated with recording the book. In 1997, according to the NLS’s website, the FBI seized $200,000 worth of state-of-the-art duplicating equipment from music pirates and donated it to the library, but such windfalls, one assumes, are the exception rather than the rule.

    I spoke via email with Kurt Elftmann, a Washington, D.C.-based actor who also works as an audiobook narrator. He’s credited as the narrator on 108 titles in the NLS catalog. The amount of time required to record a book varies, he said, with length of the book being only one factor.

    Many years would pass before I would connect these insecurities to shame about my disability rather than any shortcomings of the audiobook.

    “Nonfiction can require extensive research,” Elftmann explained. “If it’s a work about science, references several foreign languages, or is historical, to give a few examples, then the process is longer and slower. This is due not only to research but also mistakes in pronunciation or inflection that necessitate recording a sentence or paragraph over, maybe several times.”

    Fiction can be more straightforward, Elftmann said, taking as little as twice the final playback time to record. On the other hand, a book of nonfiction that runs ten hours when completed could mean 25 or even 50 hours in the studio. This doesn’t include the time he spends with a book outside the studio, reading and rereading for familiarity and continuity.

    Due to these time and budgetary constraints, the NLS has always had to be selective when adding books to its collection. Patrons can request that a title be recorded, but there are no guarantees. Even titles that are approved can still take a year or longer to arrive in the catalog. For this reason, requesting books wasn’t practical for reading all the contemporary or out-of-print books I needed as an English major.

    For every Jack Kerouac and Bharati Mukherjee novel the NLS had, there were a dozen titles for Appalachian Literature and Special Topics in Contemporary Fiction they did not. Some textbooks were available from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, a volunteer organization in New Jersey, but only those previously requested by another patron. More often, my small college paid a work-study student to narrate these books for me, along with handouts and student submissions to my creative writing classes.

    By sophomore year, I had started dreaming of becoming a writer, a profession fraught with its own strain of impostor syndrome, and every time I wanted to read a book I couldn’t get on tape, I felt like even more of a fraud. Adding to this were enduring doubts that reading with my ears wasn’t the same book experience as print. Many years would pass before I would connect these insecurities to shame about my disability rather than any shortcomings of the audiobook.

    In the late 1990s, some commercial books on tape made the transition to compact disc, but the cost to consumers—about what I once paid for Nintendo games—didn’t broaden the audience for audiobooks. According to the Audio Publishers Association, the CD would supplant the cassette as the leading format of audiobooks for only five years, from 2003 to 2008.

    A few years into the new century, the majority of published books continued to be unavailable in audio, commercially or through the NLS. Novels and short story collections that didn’t win awards or make bestseller lists—nearly every book by writers who visited my graduate writing programs—I would scan into my computer, two pages at a time, to convert to digital speech. I couldn’t have been more grateful for the independence this new technology provided. I also found the robotic, error-riddled speech to resemble an audiobook slightly less than an MRE resembles a home-cooked meal.

    In a few more years, more advances in technology would change the way I listened to audiobooks. These developments would not only increase access to them, but broaden the audience for audiobooks far beyond the print-disabled.


    The Present

    In 2006, the NLS announced they would no longer record books on cassette. New titles would be added to the collection as digital downloads, also available as small cartridges, and the existing catalog would gradually be converted to that format. The same transition for music had almost finished digging a grave for the compact disc. The release of the first iPod in 2001 meant entire music libraries could fit in the palms of our hands. The first iPhone in 2007 would bring even more listening options to our pockets and car stereos.

    Lucy Carson, a literary agent with the Friedrich Agency and an avid reader of audiobooks, connects the recent rise of audiobooks to the popularity of podcasts. “There’s this entire segment of the audience that loves story in long form,” Carson told me in a phone interview. “Look at Serial, for one example. Longform storytelling, meticulously reported and delivered over audio—no different from an audiobook, you could argue.”

    “People who had to make time for books suddenly have time.”

    Carson believes many readers of audiobooks are people who have genuinely wanted to read but haven’t found the time. Another, more recent obstacle to reading print, she explained, is the particular eye strain caused by a full day of reading on screens.

    Another literary agent I spoke to, Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency, calls it a highly encouraging development that audiobooks are doing so well. “Some of my authors have recently seen their sales explode in audio,” Bent said.

    Valerie Merians, co-founder of Melville House, the New York-based independent publisher of around 50 titles per year, agrees with Carson and Bent that audiobook readers are not cannibalizing the audience for print, but an entirely new readership. Like the first audience for commercial audiobooks in the 1980s who popped cassettes into their vehicles’ tape decks, today’s audience for audiobooks is once again reading on their commutes. The ability to dive into a book while exercising, cleaning, cooking, or walking the dog means fewer excuses related to time.

    “People who had to make time for books,” Merians told me, “suddenly have time.”

    An early pioneer in digital audiobooks, Audible has become the biggest name in the industry. Founded in 1995, the company would not enter the consciousness of many until Amazon bought Audible for a reported $300 million in 2008. They were the first company to patent a digital book player, which held only two hours of recorded audio, and the first company to sell downloadable books on its website. Eventually, smartphones allowed readers to stream their Audible library without having to download files.

    If Audible is the largest purveyor of audiobooks, its size and ownership by Amazon are the source of consternation for some readers. The same criticism many have expressed about Amazon’s Kindle eBooks, that digital rights management (DRM) makes their eBooks incompatible with non-Amazon platforms, also applies to audiobooks purchased through Audible.

    “While I love audiobooks,” author and activist Cory Doctorow told me recently via email, “I think it’s incredibly alarming that 90 percent of the market is controlled by a digital monopolist and that this monopolist has an iron-clad rule that bans publishers or authors from opting out of its DRM.”

    Indeed, customers who purchase books from Audible can’t share them with customers outside the Audible platform, and sharing options are extremely limited even between Audible customers. Additionally, if Audible were ever to fold or cease supporting their player, a customer’s purchased books would potentially be forfeited. Doctorow calls this “a recipe for eternal market control by a company with a track record of abusing both its customers and its suppliers.”

    A growing number of audiobook readers are skirting the DRM issue and also supporting independent bookstores through Libro.FM. Like Audible, Libro.FM allows audio readers to stream books through an app. Unlike with Audible, Libro.FM’s audio files are not proprietary and can be shared with fellow readers as freely as one might share a paperback. But perhaps the biggest difference between Libro.FM, launched in 2013, is the company’s mission to partner with and help support independent bookstores. In 2016, Libro.FM had partnered with over 150 indie bookstores across the country. As of today, CEO Mark Pearson told me, they have partnered with 675.

    It should also be noted that most public libraries allow patrons to check out digital audiobooks the same way one can borrow eBooks. This is yet another way those institutions continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of communities. As with any library book, access spans a set borrowing period. On the other hand, no trip to the library is needed to return digital audiobooks, preventing any possibility of late fees.

    Since transitioning to digital talking books, the National Library Service has been able to add titles to its collection much faster than in the cassette era. Patrons, in turn, can download books in seconds to smartphones, laptops, or digital book players no larger than a deck of cards. Some publishers even provide their commercially produced audiobooks directly to the NLS, saving the talking-book program time as well as money.

    The only audiobook I have ever returned for a refund remains a staticky, self-recorded version of a small-press nonfiction book by an author whose name many would recognize.

    But as more and more audiobooks from big publishers become available, most of them on the same date they’re published in print, gaps remain in the market. In recent years, as the harsh economics of publishing has made larger houses more averse to taking chances, independent presses have stepped forward to publish books that haven’t fit neatly into a bankable category. The question now is when those indie titles will be offered in audio.


    The Future

    Kris Hartrum loved working for an audiobook production house. He also wondered why the books he liked to read, titles from indie publishers and innovative small presses, were so rarely adapted into audio. “I thought, someone should record all these badass books,” Hartrum told me in an email interview, and that’s precisely what he began doing.

    Located in Asheville, North Carolina, the mountain town Thomas Wolfe fictionalized as Altamont, Talking Book made Bud Smith’s F250 its first audio title. Ben Loory described Smith’s novel, published in print by Piscataway House, as “Nick Hornby if you strapped him to a Tesla coil and launched him into a Sun made of Poetry.” The production went well, and Talking Book recorded titles by Michael Bible, Clancy Martin, and Tiffany Scandal. Fast-forward a year and Talking Book is its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit audiobook publisher.

    “We try and record and publish books we think are amazing but are getting overlooked by larger publishing houses,” said Hartrum. He used to see a book that interested him and reach out to the author, publisher, or agent about recording it. Nowadays he’s more often pitched a project by those people.

    Valerie Merians confirms that Melville House has seen a rise in audiobooks for its print titles. Like other small and independent publishers, they don’t record audiobooks in-house, but negotiate contracts with audio publishers. Melville House’s first audiobook was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone in 2010. Nearly a decade later, Merians estimates around half of their 50 print titles each year have audio counterparts.

    Dzanc Books, a nonprofit, independent publisher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is eager to see its print titles become audiobooks. “We do our best to sell audio rights for all the books where we hold those rights,” Editor Michelle Dotter told me. “Sometimes our authors choose to make their own audiobooks, or we have outside help.”

    Wichita State University, Dotter explained, has been working on an audio version of Dzanc backlist title The Salt Palace by Darren DeFrain. It’s being produced by students who are learning about audio media.

    As for the process of making one’s own audiobook, authors can record themselves with their own equipment or use one of several services that allow the selection of a professional narrator. Barriers to selling the self-produced audio, as far as I could find, seem no more significant than an author of a self-published print book would encounter. Results, however, can be mixed. The only audiobook I have ever returned for a refund remains a staticky, self-recorded version of a small-press nonfiction book by an author whose name many would recognize.

    Putting the task of recording one’s work in another’s hands can also be risky. A small-press author who asked me not to use their name was approached by a small publisher of audiobooks. Grateful for the chance to share their book with a sight-impaired grandparent, they allowed their book to be recorded. The narrator’s interpretation of the novel, however, was wildly different from the genre the author intended.

    Kris Hartrum gives plenty of credit for Talking Book’s high-quality production to engineer Dave Burr. The skilled labor of Burr, Hartrum, and the rest of Talking Book’s staff, however, is a labor of love. None of the company’s employees is currently paid, and costs associated with recording a book can run from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the book.

    “So far, all our productions since becoming a 501(c)(3) have been paid for by generous donation money, by us, or some book sales. Anything we make at the end of the day,” said Hartrum, “goes back to authors and publishers or paying freelancers, narrators, operating costs, etc.”

    To those who are protective of the verb to read, I ask what is gained by insisting on the distinction?

    Talking Book has had authors record in their Asheville studio as well as remotely when the author has the proper equipment. When using a professional narrator, they audition several and work with the author to find the voice most suitable for the book. After that comes the recording, editing, proofing, more editing, and mastering. Thus far, Talking Book has offered its titles through Audible and iTunes, even as physical copies a few times, but Hartrum is open to Libro.FM and other venues.

    Hartrum said he wasn’t aware of similar-sized audio publishers focusing on indie and small-press titles. He adds, however, that since the early days of Talking Book he’s noticed audiobook publishers, large and small, taking more chances than they used to. Some of the presses with whom Talking Book is currently working include Soft Skull, New Directions, Tyrant Books, and Coffee House Press. The publisher of Coffee House, Chris Fishbach, told me they try actively to get audio versions of their titles out into the world whenever they have those rights.

    “Anecdotally, it does happen more often than it used to that we will hear from people who are wondering why there isn’t an audiobook yet for one of our titles,” said Fishbach. “Usually it’s just because that audiobook wasn’t out yet. But until I get a couple more years’ worth of royalty statements, I won’t be able to say for sure.”

    Not all indie and university press books are expected to make money. Like Talking Book, a number of these publishers are nonprofits. At the same time, those royalty statements will likely dictate how many print titles from these presses find their way into audio. Plenty of indie books do attract wide attention, Coffee House’s Stephen Florida being one of them in 2017. The audio of that acclaimed novel about an off-kilter college wrestler was produced by HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books, the original audiobook publisher and the largest such independent company in the world.


    According to the Association of American Publishers, audiobook sales in 2018 grew 37 percent from 2017. In that same period, print book sales grew slightly while eBook sales were down. As a reader who turned to the format out of necessity rather than choice, I’ve been most gratified that questions about the audiobook’s legitimacy have largely quieted. Nevertheless, studies and think pieces on the virtues and flaws of the form continue to pop up. An op-ed in The New York Times from late 2018 by a psychologist who studies reading, Daniel T. Willingham, concludes that print and audio each have their own advantages, but neither is superior to the other. In fact, he notes that they share many overlapping qualities.

    Nowhere in this piece have I used the word listening or consuming to describe what we do with audiobooks. Some will quibble with this—I have perused the comments sections of essays I’ve written about reading with my ears. To those who are protective of the verb to read, I ask what is gained by insisting on the distinction? If a quarterback can read a defense and a computer can read a file, it doesn’t seem like a leap to call 10 or 20 hours of processing words that happen to enter our brains through the ears reading.

    To put it another way, responding to the question of whether audiobooks count as reading, author and book critic for Slate Laura Miller replied via email, “What does ‘count’ mean? Who is counting? We’re not in school and completing assignments anymore. If the point of reading is to enjoy it and you’re enjoying it, why would anything be lacking?”

    For millennia, until Johannes Gutenberg’s marvelous invention, most stories were shared orally. No one I’ve spoken to believes print will ever be replaced, but a new, old-fashioned method is allowing written words to reach larger audiences. My mom, who never found the time or energy to read print books, is enjoying novels for the first time since high school, thanks to audiobooks. Many once asked if books on tape were cheating. Today, as a result of increased access, we are finally asking the most important question about audiobooks: What are you reading?

    James Tate Hill
    James Tate Hill
    James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff (W. W. Norton, 2021). His fiction debut, Academy Gothic, won the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. He serves as fiction editor for Monkeybicycle and a contributing editor for Lit Hub, where he writes a monthly audiobooks column.

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