The Rise of Audiobooks

Allyson Floridia ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

First there were print books, then e-books, then audiobooks. Right? In actuality, audiobooks have been around much longer than e-books. They first appeared in the 1930s, designed by the Talking Book project to give the blind access to important literature and other printed information. E-books showed up several years later in the 1970s with the formation of Project Gutenberg. The reason audiobooks didn’t become popular before e-books is, for one, price. In the early stages, CD audiobooks cost upwards of $50 to $100. Rather than buy an audiobook, someone could easily buy the paperback for much cheaper. Copies were usually available from local libraries for readers who wished to listen to audiobooks. With the advancement of technology, audiobooks have become more popular and accessible.

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Many e-readers come equipped with sound. So not only can someone read the digital copy of a book, but they can also listen to it from the same device. A majority of the population today also has an iPhone, iPod, MP3 player, or other music-playing apparatus. Audiobooks, in addition to physical CD copies, have digital downloads that can easily be shared and/or stored on any number of these. This eliminates the physical space CD audiobooks take up and consolidates someone’s collection on their computer.

Today’s society is also always on the move. Work, eat, sleep, and repeat. With a schedule like this, some feel as though they don’t have time to sit down and read. Listening to audiobooks is an activity that can be done at the same time as any number of other actions. Listen to an audiobook while driving or stuck in traffic. Listen to an audiobook while preparing dinner. Listen to an audiobook during a workout. Listening rather than reading is one way to keep up with a favorite author or series without exhausting several hours of a day that could otherwise be used for important tasks.

Returning to price, audiobooks are less expensive now, ranging from $2.99 to $20.  Additionally, a number of audiobooks are available for purchase in conjunction with the e-book for a discount. Through subscription services, including Audible, Simply Audiobooks, and iTunes, readers have access to a library of audiobooks for a small monthly fee. Audible, which is owned by Amazon, seems to rank highest with customers and offers the widest selection. Through this service, over 150,000 titles are offered for purchase or rental. The subscription is $15/month and gives subscribers discounted prices, one free book per month, and the ability to link the account with the mobile app. With select audiobooks bought from Amazon, readers can also hop from one device to another. Readers could read on their e-reader and then switch to an audiobook, picking up from the place they stopped.

The selection of audiobooks has increased as well. It covers an array of genres, from science fiction to fantasy to romance to mystery, in addition to classics and trending novels. A hesitation some readers have about switching to audiobooks is the voice. When people read, there is an individual voice in their head that reads aloud. This voice has a specific tone, volume, and intonation that match what the reader imagines the characters and narrator sound like. An audiobook has a designated speaker whose voice may or may not correspond to the one in an individual’s head. There are audiobooks where the speaker is perfectly suited to the novel and some where it doesn’t fit at all. Celebrities are increasingly being contracted to voice audiobooks. For example, Tina Fey voices her autobiography, Bossypants, Anne Hathaway is the woman behind an edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Colin Firth whispers into ears from The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.

With this increase in audiobook use, many wonder how audiobooks will impact learning and cognitive thought. Some believe that audiobooks don’t provide the same, in-depth experience as reading a physical book would. Scientific studies, however, suggest that there is no impact, beneficial or disadvantageous, on comprehension or recollection for some readers. Moreover, several scholars believe listening to audiobooks may improve understanding and interpretation of texts, especially for advanced literature.

All of this leads readers to the fact that audiobooks are here to stay. After a slow start, audiobooks are increasing in popularity and use. Improvements are always in work to provide listeners with the best reading experience possible and more and more previously published books will be available in both audiobook and e-book form. Time, technology, and personal preference will dictate how society reads, or in this case, listens.

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