The History of Audiobooks

The popularity of audiobooks is on the rise, with a growing number of people choosing to listen to books rather than reading them. In fact, audiobooks represent the fastest-growing sector in the digital publishing industry. According to the Audio Publishers Association, half of Americans aged 12 and above have experienced audiobooks, and 56% of audiobook listeners actively enjoy them. [1] Furthermore, the audiobook market is also thriving in India, as evidenced by the entry of services like Storytel and Audible within the past two years. [1] 

Hence, contrary to common belief, audiobooks are not a recent invention. To gain a deeper understanding of their origins and development, let’s explore the fascinating world of audiobooks.

What Is Audiobook?

Audiobooks are recorded narrations of the written text found in books, allowing listeners to hear the content rather than reading it themselves. These audiobooks come in two main types: unabridged versions – which maintain the complete content of the original book, and abridged versions – which condense or summarize the content. [2] 

The accessibility of audiobooks is quite extensive, as they can be enjoyed on various devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers, home speaker systems, and in-car entertainment systems. This adaptability makes it convenient for people to listen to audiobooks anytime and anywhere, even on the go. Acquiring audiobooks is similar to purchasing digital music or video content; they can be bought and downloaded from various online platforms, similar to e-books, providing a seamless experience for users. Additionally, some online bookstores offer audiobooks for sale. In contrast, others can be downloaded for free from public domain websites, making classic literature and other public works more accessible to the general public.

Moreover, many public library systems have embraced the digital age, offering audiobook downloads online for library cardholders. This enables individuals to borrow and listen to audiobooks without any additional cost. The democratization of audiobooks through library services allows a broader audience to access literary content conveniently.

How Did Audiobooks Get Started?

The association of the first audiobook with Dylan Thomas’s poetic masterpiece, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“, is well-known and cherished in both history and our memories. However, the concept of recording books for the visually challenged predates this by two decades. In 1932, The American Foundation of The Blind took the initiative to create book recordings on vinyl records; after the war, these recordings gained significant demand, as returning soldiers faced visual impairments. The “talking books“, as they were called, were vital for these individuals to receive and process information in an alternative format.

Each side of the vinyl records contained 15-minute speeches, utilizing Frank L. Dyer’s “talking machine record” technology. The demand for these talking books led to the allocation of $10,000 (equivalent to $175,000 today) to the Talking Books program in 1933. [3] Both The American Foundation for the Blind and the Royal National Institute of Blind People continue the tradition of recording talking books to this day. Unlike commercial audiobooks, talking books are not sold to the general public; instead, they are restricted to individuals with impaired vision to secure copyright exemptions from publishers.

The First Audiobook Recorded in the 1950s

In January 1952, Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney had a momentous encounter with Dylan Thomas at the Chelsea Hotel. In a time when spoken word records were a rarity, they convinced him to record some of his captivating poetry. Recognizing the shockingly moving and profound essence of Thomas’s verses, Cohen and Roney were determined to preserve the beauty of his spoken words for posterity. After much persuasion and the promise of $500, they successfully arranged a recording session.

The birth of Caedmon Records followed shortly after, aptly named after the first poet to write in the Old English language. On February 22, Peter Bartok – the son of composer Bela Bartok, set up his recording equipment in Steinway Hall to capture the magic of Thomas’s poetry. As the session began, Thomas chose “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“, as the opening piece. To Bartok’s surprise, he encountered not a quavering voice but the sonorous and commanding presence of Thomas’s voice. Adjustments were made to accommodate the symphonic quality of his delivery. With room for more content on the other side of the record, Thomas recorded a captivating story titled “A Child’s Christmas in Wales“, which he had previously sold to Harper’s Bazaar. This recording would go on to become a timeless classic, widely known as one of Dylan Thomas’s most celebrated works. Its exquisite prose serves as a testament to his brilliance as a poet and a bard, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to inspire audiences to this day.

The 1980s Witness a Turning Point for the Audio Format

During the 1980s, a significant turning point occurred with the rise of cassette tapes, offering a longer audio format, and the widespread popularity of the portable and affordable Sony Walkman. These advancements in recording technology made audiobooks more accessible and better suited for the industry’s needs. Consequently, by 1984, 11 audiobook publishing companies were already in operation. However, the real game-changer came with the innovation by Brilliance Audio, who found a way to double the recording capacity of cassettes. This breakthrough enabled audiobook publishers to produce affordable, unabridged versions of their most popular books. The impact was profound, as evidenced by the rapid expansion of the audiobook market. Within just one year, the number of audiobook publishers doubled, with even major book publishers like Harper and Row, Random House, and Warner Communications, jumping into the distribution of audiobooks. This move further solidified the audiobook industry’s position as a significant and influential part of the publishing world.

Foremost among these developments was the establishment of the Audio Publishers Association (APA) – a professional non-profit trade association founded by a group of publishers. The APA’s mission was to raise awareness of spoken word audio and provide industry statistics to the public and its members. This initiative played a crucial role in promoting and advancing the audiobook industry. Around the same time, prominent book clubs like Book-of-the-Month, Time-Life, and the Literary Guild recognized the potential of audiobooks and started offering them to their subscribers. Additionally, other book clubs emerged, such as the History Book Club, Get Rich Club, Nostalgia Book Club, and Scholastic – all embracing the trend and providing audiobooks to their members.

In 1987, Publishers Weekly began featuring a regular column dedicated to covering the audiobook industry, further highlighting its growing importance. By that time, audiobooks were available in 75 percent of regional and independent bookstores, indicating a widespread demand for this medium. As the year came to a close, the audiobook industry was estimated to be worth an impressive $200 million. This substantial figure attested to the industry’s rapid growth and confirmed audiobooks’ status as a profitable and influential sector within the publishing world. [4]

The Digital Audiobook and Podcast Era Begins in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the popularity of audiobooks saw a significant boost thanks to new compressed audio formats and portable media players. As the ’90s progressed, the audiobook industry experienced explosive growth, reaching an impressive annual retail value of 1.5 billion dollars. What had begun as an experimental curiosity became a major industry. The introduction of the Audie Awards by the Audio Publishers Association (APA) further elevated the status of audiobooks. These prestigious awards became known as the “Oscars of spoken word entertainment”, recognizing excellence in the field.

A game-changing moment arrived when Audible.com pioneered the world’s first mass-market digital media player, appropriately named ‘The Audible Player‘ in 1997. Compact and lightweight, it was advertised as being smaller and lighter than a Walkman, a popular portable music player at the time. As digital technology continued to advance, the concept of digital audiobooks gained traction, allowing consumers to access their favorite audiobooks instantly from an increasing number of online libraries. Audible.com took the lead in this movement by establishing a website in 1998, enabling customers to purchase and download digital audiobooks directly. These innovations marked a turning point for the audiobook industry, propelling it into the digital age and making audiobooks even more accessible and convenient for readers everywhere.

In 2005, Hugh McGuire – a writer based in Montreal, raised a thought-provoking question on his blog: Could the power of the internet unite volunteers to transform books in the public domain into lively audiobooks through podcasting? Inspired by this idea, McGuire founded LibriVox, a unique website where volunteers could choose royalty-free books from the public domain and narrate them individually or collaboratively as a group. As the years passed, LibriVox flourished, amassing an extensive collection of over 6,244 unabridged books by the time 2012 arrived. The platform remains active today, consistently producing dozens of new audiobook titles each month. [4] Remarkably, this platform continues to offer opportunities for aspiring narrators to volunteer and contribute to this open-source audiobook project. For newcomers, it serves as a valuable platform to hone their audiobook narration skills and explore whether a voice acting career in this niche might be a suitable path.

During the early 2000s, there was a significant shift in audiobook formats. Cassettes, which had been the dominant medium, were gradually phased out and replaced by CDs. However, the era of CDs in audiobook distribution lasted only a short time. As digital technology advanced and became more accessible, the popularity of audiobooks soared, leading to a steady decline in CD sales. The digital revolution not only made audiobooks more convenient to acquire but also opened up new avenues for growth and accessibility in the audiobook industry.

Audiobooks in the 2010’s

A notable player in this domain is Audible, a company that has been thriving in the audiobook market since 2003. With an impressive increase in subscriptions, reaching 237,000, and a substantial boost in annual revenues, estimated at $63 million, Audible has proven to be a major success, according to Business 2.0 magazine. [4] The influence of prominent figures in technology cannot be ignored. For instance, Steve Jobs of Apple Computers became a devoted fan of Audible after downloading “Lincoln at Gettysburg“. His enthusiastic endorsement of the service at a Macworld conference in 2003, along with the playback of E.B. White’s narration of “Charlotte’s Web“, sparked a trend among Mac fans. They quickly adopted the practice of downloading audiobooks to their iTunes and, more recently, their iPods.

The industry’s evolution is evident in the numbers from a report released by the Audio Publishers Association at the end of 2013. While CD revenue experienced a 7 percent decline, download units saw a remarkable 29 percent increase, representing approximately 61 percent of the market. Download revenue also rose significantly, going up by 24 percent and constituting about 41 percent of the market. The report highlighted that digital formats, such as downloads, hold the greatest potential for future growth. [4] Michele Cobb – President of the APA, expressed confidence in the industry’s ability to adapt and evolve. The key to the future lies in continuing to produce outstanding performances of excellent content. With a track record of embracing new formats and growing steadily, audiobook publishers are well-positioned to ride the wave of digital advancements, keeping audiobooks at the forefront of the entertainment market.

The Audiobook Publishing Industry Now

The world of literary consumption is undergoing a notable transformation, with audiobooks gaining mainstream popularity. From traditional books on tape to spoken word recordings inspired by the rich heritage of oral storytelling, the fusion of the spoken word with digital recording has blossomed into a thriving industry worth an impressive $900 million. According to Forbes, in 2019, U.S. audiobook sales nearly reached the remarkable $1 billion mark, witnessing a remarkable 25% year-over-year growth. The audiobook publishing industry is expected to have crossed the billion-dollar milestone in 2020. [4] 

The founder of Audible, Donald Katz, shared his insights in an interview with Business 2.0, revealing how the demand for audiobooks has surged, particularly with the popularity of iPods and the growing trend of carrying music and podcasts on the go. This ease of taking one’s favorite book in digital form via an MP3 player has contributed significantly to the rising popularity of audiobooks. This offers a unique experience akin to the theater of the mind, where the words of an exceptional orator transport listeners to a world of well-crafted narratives. This immersive experience requires minimal effort and allows consumers to savor and comprehend the material’s plot, themes, and objectives effortlessly. As voice actors, narrators, and storytellers, individuals can seize opportunities in this burgeoning industry. Audiobooks are built upon utilizing the human voice to breathe life into written words, providing an on-demand service that caters to diverse content, including books, magazines, newspapers, speeches, interviews, and how-to manuals. The market for voice-overs, especially in content localization, has emerged as the fastest-growing segment worldwide.

Today, technology has made audiobooks more accessible than ever. With smartphones like iPhones and Android devices, enthusiasts can take their favorite books with them anywhere. They now have the choice to read the printed word or indulge in the spoken word. With Audible leading the way and competitors rapidly entering the arena, the number of audiobook titles available online may soon surpass the volumes of printed books stocked in libraries. The horizon for audiobooks is bright, offering both consumers and voice professionals a vibrant world of literary exploration and storytelling.

Conclusion

The world of literary audiobooks has a memorable history, driven by a heartfelt purpose to cater to visually impaired soldiers. Over the years, technology has played a pivotal role in their growth and evolution, offering modern ways to enjoy books without reading. As technology continues to advance, the audiobook landscape promises even greater enjoyment of literature. With each passing day, the audiobook world expands, captivating the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life. Embracing this dynamic realm of literary delight, we celebrate the ever-evolving journey of audiobooks and the boundless opportunities that lie ahead.

References:

[1] https://www.thecuriousreader.in/infographic/audiobooks-history/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audiobook

[3] https://bookriot.com/what-was-the-first-audiobook/

[4] https://www.voices.com/blog/_evolution_of_audiobooks_continued/