Don't Just Sit There; Learn Something

Is talk radio driving you to distraction? Are you sick of hearing the same oldies over and over and over again? Have you listened to the last bit of hip-hop you ever want to hear? Are even your own CDs sounding a bit stale?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should consider tuning out the stuff you don't want to hear and tuning in to audio books. Instead of filling your ears with fluff or meaningless jabber, you can transport yourself to distant places, escape from the humdrum of the workaday world or, heaven forfend, even learn something. Hey, I'm a radio talk show host myself ("America on the Road" weekends on more than 300 stations nationwide), but I have to admit that I like to escape the airways now and then to indulge in the depth of audio books, and I'm not alone.

According to a 1999 survey sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), the audio book market continues to grow. A research study conducted by National Family Opinion found that 21 percent of American households had at least one audio book listener. And the trend to audio books is growing. A similar study in 1995 found that only 12 percent of households had an audio book listener, so the increase is a solid 75 percent in four years' time.

As a matter of fact, audio books are the fastest growing segment of the trade book industry; in the period from 1993-1997, growth of audio book sales was five times that of the consumer book sector. Traditional books did show some sales growth in 1998, but the Book Industry Study Group found that audio books continue to out-pace books in rate of growth. APA estimates that growth rate at about 10 percent per year.

"We have become a lifestyle industry," APA President Paul Rush told us. "As people get busier and busier, they want to make certain they are spending their time more wisely."

What are all these people listening to? The uninitiated might be amazed at the range of subject matter and types of materials that fall under the general heading "audio books." As the APA says, if you think audio books refer only to "books on cassette," then you are not grasping the whole picture. The reading of a book reproduced on cassette tape is an important part of the mix, but audio books are much more.

As the trade group defines it, audio books include any audio recording that is primarily spoken rather than music. Obviously, this covers an enormous range of material, although we're not sure the association means to include rap. In the mix are, of course, both abridged and unabridged recordings of books in all categories and for all ages. But equally important, it covers original productions in a wide variety of categories as well, including language instruction, self-help, storytelling, non-fiction, fiction - virtually any subject you can name.

It would take much more space than is available here to outline all subjects that are available to the audio book listener. Suffice it to say that pretty much any subject you can think of has spawned dozens of audio books. And the sources of audio books are nearly as varied. Perhaps the easiest way to get the audio book bug is to stop into a local library. Many public libraries offer a wide selection of audio books right next to their traditional "stacks." Beyond that the big chain booksellers, like Barnes & Noble and B Dalton, have jumped into the audio books business in a big way, and then there are audio-book only chains that include Earful of Books and Talking Book World. On the Internet, outlets that offer both sales and rental proliferate, led by the industry giant Books-on-Tape. Typing "audio books" into your favorite search engine will pull you up a wide variety of sources, some large, some very specialized. Finally, Amazon stocks and ships a wide variety of mostly abridged books-on-cassette.

Sales of audio books are now said to be about $2 billion a year, according to the APA. And according to the association's research, once you're hooked on audio books you seem to stay hooked. The average audio book household listens to 13.9 audio books per year, and within that household, the main user listens to 13.1 of those 13.9. Since the typical unabridged book on tape can fill 10 cassette tapes or 12 compact discs encompassing 15 hours of material, that's a whole lot of listening.

Lest you think that audio books listeners are concentrated among the old and infirm in our population, the 35-64 age group was the most loyal and avid listening group. The median income of listeners is $54,900. The average male listener is 41.9 years old, while the average female listener is 44.2 years old. Male listeners tend to listen to more titles per year, but there are more female listeners in total.

Also interesting are the facts that the highest amount of listening time comes from males aged 21-34 and females 50-64. While most observers would not peg young males as the most cerebral group in the nation, members of that group are obviously hearing something they like in audio books. Perhaps both of these demographic groups are currently under-served by broadcast radio.

As Jessica Kaye, a past president of the APA said, "The great news about this study is that, not only has the audio book industry shown growth, but there is room for even greater growth. This is significant because we have every reason to believe that the growth trajectory will continue its upward trend."

So what are people listening to? Everything from children's books to erotica (but hopefully not erotic children's books.) Parents (of which I'm one) have found recorded books a great way to help fill their children's time on long car trips. With cassette players so cheap and children's titles so plentiful, it makes sense to equip each of your children with an individual player so you can customize their listening. At the same time, you might want to plug in an unabridged novel or the latest self-help or business book for yourself.

The APA survey found that the single most popular audio book category was "book-based unabridged fiction," which accounted for 30 percent of the market. When one also includes the abridged versions of book-based fiction, the aggregate takes almost half (48 percent) of the total audio book market. Non-fiction (21 percent), children's books (14 percent), religious/inspirational books (eight percent), and language instruction programs (two percent) are also important parts of the overall mix.

There are differing opinions as to the relative worth of abridged (so-called Reader's Digest) versions or books versus their unabridged counterparts. One can legitimately ask, if you have listened to an abridged version of a book is that equivalent to reading the book itself? As an author myself (no, I'm not just some dumb radio host), I certainly lean toward the unabridged route as being much truer to the author's intent. But of course, listening to an abridged version is far better than not having sampled the author's work at all. According to APA's Rush, "The trend is definitely toward longer abridgements and unabridged," and he cites as one of the major reasons for this: "commute times are lengthening."

As to the future of audio books, it appears it couldn't be rosier. Not only are traditional books on tape on an upward trajectory, but new technology also promises to make the spoken word even more accessible. In this digital age, many audio book publishers are now putting out compact disc versions of their works. Further, the computer and a growing variety of portable players make obtaining and playing audio books simpler than ever. Web sites like Salon, Audible and the upcoming Loudbooks can offer downloads to these devices via MP3 and similar technology, and with the use of a digital player you can listen in your car or on a jog through the park. The Net also makes sampling audio books as easy as point-and-click via audio streaming.

If the Internet isn't enough, the audio book industry is also looking toward the heavens. Using satellite delivery, a company called Command Audio is offering wireless audio-on-demand. So-called satellite radio is also scheduled to go on line in the near future, enabling listeners who pay a subscription fee to listen to a wide variety of programming that could well include audio books. Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Radio are the two most prominent competitors in this soon to be launched industry.

So, oddly enough, the digital revolution might well be the biggest boon to oral storytelling since the advent of the campfire. In any case, there is no doubt that next time you have a hankering for a "good read," it might be wise to let someone else do the reading for you.

Nerad's two books, Fatal Photographs, the story of an infamous bathing-suit model murder, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying and Leasing a Car, are not yet available in audio book form.