Cory Wilbur, a 25-year-old software engineer in Boston, never used to read much. He barely cracked a book in college and would read one or two a year on vacation, at most.
But in the past year, he’s finished 10 books, including Dan Brown’s “Inferno,” Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire.” He listens to audio books in snippets throughout the day on his iPhone during his morning workout, on his 20-minute commute to work, and while he’s cooking dinner or cleaning up. Before he falls asleep, he switches to an e-book of the same story on his Kindle, and starts reading right where the narrator left off.
“I fly through a lot more books than I used to,” Mr. Wilbur said.
The digital revolution may have dealt a heavy blow to print, but it is boosting literacy in other unexpected ways by fueling the explosive growth of audio books.
Once a static niche for aficionados renting clunky cassettes or CDs for their commutes, audio books have gone mass-market. Sales have jumped by double digits in recent years. Shifts in digital technology have broadened the pool of potential listeners to include anyone with a smartphone.
At the same time, publishers are investing six-figure sums in splashy productions with dozens of narrators.
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Digital innovation isn’t just changing the way audio books are created, packaged and sold. It’s starting to reshape the way readers consume literature, creating a new breed of literary omnivores who see narrated books and text as interchangeable. Last year, the audio book producer and retailer Audible unveiled a long-awaited syncing feature that allows book lovers to switch seamlessly between an e-book and a digital audio book, picking up the story at precisely the same sentence.
So far, Audible, which is owned by Amazon, has paired some 26,000 ebooks with professional narrations. The company is adding more than 1,000 titles a month and aims to eventually bring the number to close to 100,000.
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“Everybody has an audio book player in their pocket at this point,” says Anthony Goff, vice president of Hachette Audio, where sales have jumped by 31% this spring over last. “It makes that much easier for the masses to try it.” Downloadable books made up some 60% of total audio unit sales in 2011, dwarfing CDs.
Audio book producers have been dramatically increasing their output. 13,255 titles came out in 2012, up from 4,602 in 2009, according to the Audio Publishers Association.
Audio books are no longer viewed as just an ancillary product to print. Some audio publishers are now attempting to rebrand narrated books as a distinct medium from print, labeling them as “audio entertainment.”