The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks

Diane Rehm show image

“The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks” was the topic of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR this week. The show featured an entertaining and wide-ranging discussion of the format from its origins as talking books for the blind in the 1930s to today’s synthetic voices used on ereaders such as the Kindle. Curiously, the program begins with a clip from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a talking book made in Britain rather than America (which began making talking books a year ahead of Britain). I presume this is because the clip is easily available on the RNIB’s website. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has always been reluctant to make its recordings available to the public because of copyright restrictions.

The program featured four contributors including Michele Cobb (President of the Audio Publishers Association and VP at AudioGO), Peter Osnos (founder and editor-at-large of Public Affairs Books and author of the Atlantic piece “The Coming Audiobooks Boom”), John Schwartz (national correspondent for the NYTimes, where he has written several features on audiobooks), and Katherine Kellgren (an award-winning audiobooks narrator). All four contributors admirably challenged conventional thinking about audiobooks. For example, several of the contributors disputed the claim that listening to a book is not the same as reading by citing their own audio encounters. Osnos pointed out that listening allows you to concentrate in a way that’s not as easy to do with the page or screen, both of which present the temptation to skim. The contributors also delved into the question of what makes a good—and bad—narrator.

A few other points that stood out: Robert Caro’s recent bio of Lyndon B. Johnson is nearly 33 hours long (!); publishers now ensure that audiobooks and print books are published at the same time; and audiobooks are great for people with disabilities and children learning to read. Osnos also mentioned that he’s trying to persuade university presses to publish more books in audio formats. This is a problem with which I’ve made little headway in my own conversations with editors.

There are superb clips on the show’s website, too, from Harry Potter (read by Jim Dale), The Great Gatsby (read by Frank Muller), and Angela’s Ashes (read by Frank McCourt himself). Worth a listen.

Here’s a link to the show’s website and broadcast: “The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks.”

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