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An audio cassette recording
An audiobook is a recording that is primarily spoken word. It is often based on a recording of commercial printed material. It is not necessarily an exact audio version of a book.

Spoken audio was available in school and public libraries and to a lesser extent in music shops. It was not until the 1980s that there began a concerted effort to attract book retailers. As publishers entered the field of spoken-word publishing, the transition to book retailers carrying audiobooks became commonplace on bookshelves rather than in separate displays.


Audiobooks are distributed on CDs, cassette tapes, downloadable digital formats (e.g., MP3 (.mp3), Windows Media Audio (.wma), and Advanced Audio Coding (.aac)).

In 2005 cassette-tape sales were 16% of the audiobook market, with CD sales accounting for 74% of the market and downloadable audio books accounting for approximately 9%. In the United Statesmarker, a sales survey (performed by the Audio Publishers' Association in the summer of 2006 for the year 2005) estimated the industry to be worth 871 million US dollars. Current industry estimates are around two billion US dollars at retail value per year. In recent years, the Internet has introduced another powerful means of delivery for audiobooks and many titles are now available on-line, as downloads and as audio streams.

Sometimes audiobook format is available simultaneously with book publication. There are 50,000 titles on cassette, CD or digital format.

Unabridged audiobooks are word for word readings of a book, while abridged audiobooks have text removed by the abridger. Abridgements may be wanted to reduce the cost. Audiobooks may come as fully dramatized versions of the printed book, sometimes calling upon a complete cast, music, and sound effects, though many consumers have indicated a preference for less music, multiple voices and sound effects. Each spring, the Audie Awards are given to the top nominees for performance and production in several genre categories.

Occasionally there are radio programs serializing books, sometimes read by the author or sometimes by an actor, with most of them on the BBC.


In 1931, Congress established the talking-book program, which was intended to help blind adults who couldn’t read print. This program was called "Books for the Adult Blind Project." The American Foundation for the Blind developed the first talking books in 1932. One year later the first reproduction machine began the process of mass publishing. In 1933 anthropologist J.P. Harrington drove the length of North America to record oral histories of Native American tribes on aluminum discs using a car battery-powered turntable. Audiobooks preserve the oral tradition of storytelling that J.P. Harrington pursued many years ago. By 1935, after Congress approved free mailings of audio books to blind citizens, the Books for the Adult Blind Project was in full operation. In 1992 the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) network circulated millions of recorded books to more than 700,000 handicapped listeners. All NLS recordings were created by professionals.

Though spoken recordings were popular in 33-1/3 vinyl record format for schools and libraries into the early 1970s, the beginning of the trade acceptance of this medium can be traced to the introduction of the audio cassette and, most importantly, to the prevalence of these cassette players as standard equipment (rather than as options which older drivers did not choose) in imported (Japanese) automobiles, which became very popular during the oil crisis of 1979. Thereafter, consumers and authors slowly accepted the medium. Into the early 1980s there were still many authors who refused to have their books created as audiobooks, so a good many of the audiobooks were original productions not based upon printed books.

With the development of portable cassette recorders, audiotapes had become very popular and by the late 1960s libraries became a source of free audiobooks, primarily on vinyl records but also on cassettes. Instructional and educational recordings came first, followed by self-help tapes and then by literature. In 1970 Books on Tape Corporation started rental plans for audio books distribution. The company expanded their services selling their products to libraries and audiobooks gained popularity. By the middle of 1980s the audio publishing business grew to several billion dollars a year in retail value.

Caedmon was the first to work with integrated production teams and professional actors, while Nightingale Conant featured business and self-help authors reading their own works first on vinyl records and then on cassettes.

The Audio Publishers Association was established in 1986 by six competitive companies who joined together to promote the consumer awareness of spoken word audio. In 1996 the Audio Publishers Association established the Audie Awards for audio books, which is equivalent to the Oscar for the talking books industry. The nominees are announced each year in January. The winners are announced at a gala banquet in the spring, usually in conjunction with BookExpo America.

While music fans rapidly accepted CDs, audiobook listeners were slower. Also, it was not until cassette players were replaced by CD players in most automobiles that this format eventually took hold.

With the advent of the Internet, broadband technologies, new compressed audio formats and portable MP3 players, the popularity of audio books has increased significantly. This growth was reflected with the advent of Audio book download subscription services.

Use, distribution and popularity

Recent technology has encouraged the proliferation of free audiobooks that take works from the public domain and enlist volunteers to read them. Audiobooks also can be created with text to speech software, although the quality of synthesised speech may suffer by comparison to recordings by trained voice artists.

Audiobooks in the private domain are also distributed online by for-profit companies. Most major audiobook publishers insist that their works, when sold as downloads, be protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM). Apple Inc.marker has licensed its proprietary FairPlay DRM system (for DRM protection of iPod files in the .aa file format) to only one company.. Because of the major publishers' insistence on DRM, this has effectively created a monopoly in the sale of the works of major publishers to iPod users, who make up the majority of the portable audio market.

Audiobooks on cassette or CD are typically more expensive than hardbacks because of the added expense of recording and the lack of the economy of scale in high "print" runs that are available in the publishing of printed books. Preloaded digital formats are similar in price to their CD counterparts. The audio content is preloaded on a small and simple player, which removes the need for a separate piece of technology such as a CD player or an MP3 player.

Downloadable audiobooks tend to cost slightly less than hardbacks but more than their paperback equivalents. For this reason , market penetration of audiobooks is substantially lower than for their printed counterparts despite the high market penetration of the hardware (MP3 and WMA players) and despite the massive market penetration achieved by audio music products. Given the elasticity of demand for audiobooks and the availability of cheaper alternatives, slow and steady growth in sales seems more likely than a mass market explosion.

However, economics are on the side of downloadable audiobooks in the long run. They do not carry mass production costs, do not require storage of a large inventory, do not require physical packaging or transportation and do not face the problem of returns that add to the cost of printed books. Received wisdom of market forces suggests that significant price reductions to customers, while cutting into per unit profit margins, will be offset by increased volumes of sales. This will increase absolute profits to the industry while bringing audiobooks to a wider public.

One of the factors holding back price competition is the fear that low-price audiobooks might simply take business away from more traditional forms of publishing. This is especially significant in the case of publishers who have interests in both print and audiobook publishing. However, most major book publishers now actively participate in audiobook publishing and see it as a complement to their publishing operations.

Resellers of audiobooks that acquire much of their content from major publishers, must price their content at such a level as to take account of their cost of goods as well as operating costs. On the other hand, audiobook sellers that sell their own content or publish lesser known authors have lower operating costs and can therefore sell at lower prices using a "lower-margin-higher-sales" business model. However, they still have to meet the costs of writer's royalties, performers fees and production facility costs. The shift from CDs and cassettes to downloadable audiobooks, whilst doing nothing to reduce initial recording and editing costs, creates further downward pressure on price, by removing some of the other costs, such as production, packaging and physical distribution.

Audiobooks have been used to teach children to read and to increase reading comprehension. They are also useful for the blind. The National Library of Congressmarker in the U.S. and the CNIB Library in Canadamarker provide free audiobook library services to the visually impaired; requested books are mailed out (at no cost) to clients.

About forty percent of all audiobook consumption occurs through public libraries, with the remainder served primarily through retail book stores. Library download programs are currently experiencing rapid growth (more than 5,000 public libraries offer free downloadable audio books). Libraries are also popular places to check out audio books in the CD format. According to the National Endowment for the Arts' recent study, "Reading at Risk", audio book listening is one of very few "types" of reading that is increasing general literacy.

Listening practices

Audio books are considered a valuable learning tool because of their format. Unlike with traditional books, one can learn from an audiobook while doing other tasks, although it should be noted that this can detract from the primary task, assuming the learning is not the main activity. Such multitasking is feasible when doing mechanical tasks that do not require much thought and have only little or no chance of an emergency arising. Such tasks include doing the laundry and exercising indoors, among others. The most popular general use of audiobooks by adults is when driving an automobile or as an alternative to radio, when traveling with public transport. Many people listen as well just to relax or as they drift off into sleep.

Common practices include:

  • Replaying: Depending upon one's degree of attention and interest, it is often necessary to listen to segments of an audio book more than once to allow the material to be understood and retained satisfactorily. Replaying may be done immediately or after extended periods of time.
  • Learning: People may listen to an audio book (usually an unabridged one) while following along in an actual book. This helps them to learn words that they may not learn correctly if they were only to read the book. This can also be a very effective way to learn a new language.

See also: Spoken word album

Audiobook Charities in the UK

Listening Books is the only audiobook charity in the UK providing an internet streaming and postal service to anyone who has a disability or illness which makes it difficult to hold a book, turn its pages, or read in the usual way. They have audiobooks for both leisure and learning and a library of over 4,000 titles which are recorded in their own digital studios or commercially sourced.

Example of an audio studio of professional readings


  1. statistics on audiobook sales
  2. Audio Publishers Association Fact Sheet (also includes some historical perspective in the 1950s by Marianne Roney)
  3. A Brief History of Audio Books
  4. Audie Award
  5. New Audio

See also

External links

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