Readers Are All Ears For Audiobooks

A way to appreciate an author who reads his own work

Although Debbie Cool doesn't stock shovels or antifreeze in her small urban store, motorists still make a beeline for her door when it snows.

Proprietor of the only audiobook shop in Boston, the cheerful Ms. Cool does a brisk business in the winter when storms hit and all the downtown commuters want the company of Tom Clancy or Toni Morrison for the long ride home.

But most audiobook listeners are not just foul-weather friends. Able to be "read" while you're driving, cooking, and exercising, audiobooks continue to make inroads with the public. In the last five years alone, the industry has grown by 70 percent.

Although spoken-word recordings date back to the 1930s, audiobooks didn't become a viable retail product until the early 1980s. In the mid-'80s the big publishers jumped into the business. The tapes were initially sold through independent bookstores, and eventually picked up by chains like Walden Books and B. Dalton. The advent of in-dash cassette decks in cars also helped the fledgling industry, estimated today to be worth $1.5 billion annually.

"The quality is the best it's ever been," says Paul Rush, the owner of five audio-only bookstores, called Earful of Books, in the South and Midwest.

The 1990s have brought the rise of the audio-only bookstore. Some 75 of these stores exist around the country, most of which have opened in the last five years. Libraries also carry audiobooks and some mail-order audiobook companies do a large rental business. Recently, big publishers that do both print and audio, like Random House and Simon & Schuster, have started releasing some audiobook and hardcover titles simultaneously. That beats the three to six months it used to take to get a bestseller on tape.

These publishers have also started to expand their abridged versions from three hours on two cassettes, to four to six hours on four cassettes. They are now offering a few unabridged titles as well. "People do want a longer product," says Anne-Lise Spitzer, spokeswoman for Random House's audio division. She says the marketplace has shown it can handle longer, higher-priced audiobooks. The new Tom Clancy book, "Executive Orders," for example, is a six-hour, four-cassette product and sells for $24.95.

A host of other audio-only publishers around the country also offer abridged and unabridged titles. Unabridged versions of classics and recent releases are available from companies like Recorded Books, in Prince Frederick, Md., and Books on Tape, in Costa Mesa, Calif. Between the two, they carry close to 6,000 titles.

Even though more people are reading with their ears, Cool says she feels there's still "not a lot of public understanding or knowledge of what audiobooks are." Once thought of as primarily for the visually impaired, audiobooks are now used by people who already read and are looking for ways to bring more books into their lives. Others use audiobooks to pass the time at work: postal and night shift workers, truckers, and traveling salespeople.

At Cool's store, Boston AudioBooks, customers mill in and out browsing and renting tapes. Julie Vaughan returns "Primary Colors" on her lunch hour.

"I wasn't going to have time to read it," explains Ms. Vaughan, who works for the state in a nearby building. She says she rented it to take away the "agony" of her two-hour daily commute. Vaughan says she plans to "get to the library on the weekends" to see what's there.

Many people prefer unabridged works. But abridgements, rather than being Readers Digest-like, are usually carefully cut versions of the author's own words, says Grady Hesters, president of the Audio Publishers Association and co-owner of Audio Partners Publishers in Auburn, Calif. People would miss good author-readers like David McCullough or John le Carr if they shunned abridgements, she says.

As for competition between print and audio books, observers say the recorded versions are a boon, not a bane to the printed word. Notes Earful's Rush: "Many of our customers discover authors for the first time and then go read their works."

*Reviews of audiobooks will appear in the Monitor's monthly book sections.

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