Audiobooks: Reading allowed – Commuter boredom turned billion-dollar industry

From Quartz:

Thomas Edison dreamed of audiobooks.

When Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, he tested his new device by reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” That wasn’t highbrow literature, but Edison felt that the recorded form would lend itself well to full-length books, too—and that some books, perhaps, were meant to be heard rather than seen. “The advantages of such books over those printed are too readily seen to need mention,” Edison wrote in the literary journal North American Review. “Such books would be listened to where now none are read.”

The phonograph, and later the record player, was instrumental in spurring the music industry, but the audiobook business didn’t sprout up until a full century after Edison’s invention.

Now, they’re a billion-dollar industry, a normalized way for readers to consume books, and an unavoidable facet of literary life. In 2022, audiobooks brought in $1.8 billion in the US on the heels of a decade of double-digit revenue growth and corporate investment (not only by major publishers but also tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify.)

So, what can stop audiobooks from becoming the future of reading? Nothing. Audiobooks are versatile, enriching, transformative and—at times—really fun. So leave any prejudice that it’s not real reading at home.

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A driving ambition

In 1975, Duvall Hecht was frustrated and bored by his long daily commutes between his home in Newport Beach, Calif., and his investment banking job in Los Angeles.

Hecht, a former Olympic gold medalist in rowing, found what we could call early audiobooks: recordings of books made for blind people. He popped the recordings into a reel-to-reel tape recorder placed on his passenger seat, but quickly exhausted his supply.

He figured he’d just record his own on cassette. He started with nonfiction—George Plimpton’s football tale Paper Lion, which became the first of a massive catalog produced by his new company, Books on Tape.

Books on Tape became a household name and a pioneer of the form. Hecht sold his company—and its catalog of 6,000 tapes—to publisher Random House for $20 million in 2001.

. . . .

One of the biggest annoyances for any audiobook reader is the constant insinuation—by, well, haters—that listening to audiobooks doesn’t “count” as reading.

In fact, we’ve been hardwired through the ages to read aloud—and to listen when others read aloud to us. In Saint Augustine’s Confessions (published around 400 CE), he remarked how strange it was that Saint Ambrose read silently to himself. So, what’s with the snobbishness around audiobooks? Is it something about the way we understand the words being conveyed? Unfortunately, there isn’t robust academic research into reader comprehension of audiobooks as compared to print books, though numerous studies show that audiobooks are a boon to new language learners, struggling visual readers, and younger readers.

. . . .

If you’re listening to an audiobook, there’s a decent chance it’s on Amazon’s platform Audible, which commands a 65% market share, according to one estimate. Apple and Google are players too, selling books as one-offs instead of Audible’s subscription model. But another subscription giant is getting into the arena—Spotify.

Spotify launched its audiobooks business in 2022, but clashed with Apple over the iPhone maker’s 30% fee for in-app purchases. For its next act, Spotify is going to let subscribers listen to 20 hours of audiobooks per month before rolling out any new subscriptions. (One fitting listen is musician Dave Grohl reading his memoir The Storyteller in just over 10 hours.) This will buy Spotify some time as it figures out the best way to get its subscribers hooked on audiobooks without losing a big bite of the proceeds to Apple.

If the business of audiobooks is a headache, or subscribing stresses your digital wallet, there’s a much cheaper way to listen: Check whether your local library uses Libby or another app—and get your audiobooks for free.

Link to the rest at Quartz