The Evolution of Audiobooks: From the First Audiobook Recording to Digital Downloads
The creation of the audiobook medium has dramatically shaped the way that the world can access valuable information.
For instance, the invention of audiobooks has opened the door for more and more people to benefit from the written word – including those with visual impairment, and those who would otherwise not have the time or ability to read.
Whether the content is entertaining or educational, or anything in between, it’s not uncommon for many of us to capitalize on ‘downtime,’ such as a lengthy commute, or a few hours spent doing household chores, by putting on an audiobook.
For anyone wondering how the industry got started, this foray into auditory recording of written works is for you.
The Very First Audiobook Was Recorded in the 1950s
In January 1952, Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney, sat down with Dylan Thomas in the bar of the Chelsea Hotel and persuaded him to record some of his poetry. Spoken word records were almost unheard of at the time.
Cohen and Roney knew that Thomas’s poetry was shocking, moving and important, and that they wanted to record it to preserve the sounds. With the promise of $500, and much coaxing and cajoling, a recording session was arranged. Thomas selected the poems, writing the list in his tiny round letters in Miss Roney’s appointment book.
Caedmon Records was born the next week, named, appropriately enough, for the first poet to write in the native language of Old England. Then, on February 22, Peter Bartok, son of the composer Bela Bartok, had set up his equipment in Steinway Hall to do the recording.
Thomas began the session with Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
Bartok had perhaps expected a quavery poet’s voice, but instead he had to adjust the microphone for a symphonic recording to accommodate Thomas’s sonorous voice.
To fill the other side of the record, Thomas recorded a story he sold to Harper’s Bazaar, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. This recording established the story as a classic. Today, it is Dylan Thomas’s most widely known work and, as a model of translucent prose, stands as an everlasting testament to his greatness as poet and bard.
Audio Format Reaches a Turning Point in the 1980s
Just like the history of music, the history of audiobooks closely follows the twists and turns of the recording industry.
One of the more remarkable turning points was the 1980s, with the longer audio format of cassette tapes and the inexpensive, portable Sony Walkman becoming prolific at the time.
With the accessibility and format of recordings now able to more adeptly serve the audiobook industry, by 1984, there were 11 audiobook publishing companies.
However, it was Brilliance Audio who created waves in the industry after inventing a way to record twice as much on cassettes. This meant audiobook publishers could now produce affordable unabridged editions of their most popular books.
Just one year later, there were twice as many audiobook publishers in the market. New major book publishers, such as Harper and Row, Random House, and Warner Communications joined in the distribution of audiobooks.
Audiobook Market Becomes Profitable in the Late ‘80s
Also in the ‘80s, a number of events happened that cemented audiobooks as a profitable market.
Leading the scene was the development of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), a professional non-profit trade association established by a group of publishers to promote awareness of spoken word audio and provide industry statistics to the public and its members.
Around the same time, the Book-of-the-Month, Time-Life, and the Literary Guild began offering audiobooks to their subscribers and other book clubs formed such as the History Book Club, Get Rich Club, Nostalgia Book Club, and Scholastic all offering audiobooks.
In 1987, Publishers Weekly began running a regular column to cover the audiobook industry. At the time, audiobooks were being sold in 75 percent of regional and independent bookstores and, as 1987 came to a close, the audiobook industry was estimated to be a worth $200 million.
The late 90s and Early 2000s Usher in the Age of Digital Audiobooks and Podcasts
In the late ‘90s to early 2000s, new compressed audio formats and portable media players furthered the popularity of audiobooks with consumers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by around the mid-’90s, the audiobook industry grew to a whooping 1.5 billion dollars per year in retail value. Not bad for something that started out as experimental curiosity. The audiobook industry was lifted to new heights when the APA introduced the Audie Awards, which would become known as the ‘Oscars of spoken word entertainment.’
In 1997, Audible.com pioneered the world’s first mass-market digital media player, named ‘The Audible Player,’ which sold for $200 and was advertised as being ‘smaller and lighter than a Walkman.’
As digital technology grew there was a movement in digital audiobooks which allowed consumers to access their audiobooks instantly from a growing number of online libraries. Audible.com was the first to establish a website (1998) where digital audiobooks could be purchased and downloaded.
The 2000s Leverage Podcasts to Bring Audiobooks to the Masses
In 2005, Montreal-based writer Hugh McGuire posed a question on his blog: “Can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?”
From that notion he created of LibriVox, a website where volunteers select books in the public domain (royalty-free books) to narrate by themselves or as a group of narrators. By the time 2012 rolled around, LibriVox carried a catalogue of over 6,244 unabridged books and continues to produce dozens of titles per month.
Side Note: You can still become a volunteer narrator at LibriVox. This platform provides a good way for up-and-comers to practice the art and skill of audiobook narration, as well as test drive the niche to see if it’s right for your voice acting career.
In 2003 and 2004 cassettes were phased out and replaced by CDs as the dominant format for audiobooks, but the CD steadily declined as digital technology became more accessible and the popularity of audiobooks continued to grow.
At the end of 2013, the Audio Publishers Association released a report indicating that CD revenue was down 7 percent, but still represented approximately 53 percent of the market, while download units were up 29 percent and represented approximately 61 percent of the market. Download revenue went up 24 percent, representing approximately 41 percent of the market. In the overview the report cited, “The greatest potential for growth exists in digital formats.”
Michele Cobb, President of the APA, said that “The future of audiobooks is our industry continuing to do more of what we do best – make amazing performances from excellent content. We’ve been extremely good at evolving, embracing new formats and growing. I have no doubt that we will continue this and when the next big thing in digital makes its way to the surface will be riding the wave at the front.”
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