Which came first, the book or the audiobook?
Unlike the original causality dilemma, that's always been easy to answer – books are typically written first, then narrated for audiobooks. Until now.
In other words, it's skipping the traditional print book altogether and asking well-known writers to create works expressly for audio.
"While performances are being elevated and attuned to this advanced listening experience, why not write to the form in an original way?" Don Katz, CEO and founder of Audible, told NPR. "So it's not just book authors. TV writers, movie writers, others are flocking in to help us get to the next stage. Which is: What is the, from the ground up, creativity that is right for this emergent private listening aesthetic?"
It's a new chapter for the book industry and a new era for audiobooks.
Audible now has about 30 original audio works in the pipeline, according to NPR. One of them is "The Starling Project," starring Alfred Molina and written by bestselling thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, which reads more like a radio drama than a book.
And it turns out audiobooks, long overshadowed by e-books, have actually been doing quite well.
They are a $1 billion industry, with more than 35,000 titles published in 2013 alone.
"In recent years while e-books were plowing their way through the publishing industry like a big noisy steam engine, audiobooks were chugging along in the background like the Little Engine That Could," NPR's Lynn Neary reported.
Fueling that progress is an evolution of technology and the rise of the celebrity narrator.
"You suddenly have a complete recorded file from the first words of a book to the end," Robin Whitten, editor and founder of Audiofile magazine, told NPR. "And you're not fumbling around looking for disc four in the middle of some really important scene. And that made a big difference; it made audiobooks much more user-friendly."
And, as National Public Radio reported, narrators are key to the success of an audiobook and these days, producers are signing on more and more celebrities like Colin Firth, Anne Hathaway, and Nicole Kidman.
"There's this almost seductive intimacy of this private performance and the power of it," Mr. Katz said. "So many of the customers become aficionados of the narration itself. Many of them buy based on the narrator. They'll literally listen to anything a specific actor reads simply because they like their styles."
Which is why Audible – which is owned by Amazon – is taking the bold step of skipping print manuscripts altogether and commissioning original audio works.
There's a reason the company is betting its gamble will pay off: humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time.
As Philip Pullman, who will also participate in Audible's program, told NPR, "... We are taking part in a little ritual or habit that goes back thousands and thousands and thousands of years — before the first mark was ever made on a stone or tablet. Long before writing, people were telling each other stories and the audiobook goes all the way back to that tradition."
Because, as Peter Allen crooned in the '70s, everything old is new again.