I started listening to audiobooks only last year and they’re already one of my favorite forms of consuming stories. I enjoy the convenience of plugging in my earphones and getting through a day of chores. On days dedicated to reading, I love how audio enhances the experience and drowns out the distractions.
Audiobooks open up an entire world. I feel closer to the story when its read by the author or awesome narrators. It creates an immersive experience that I can recreate with each play and pause.
According to the Audio Publishers Association, “Audiobooks allow listeners to stretch their horizons and tackle complex texts. A young person’s listening skills are typically a minimum of two years above their reading skills.” I find this endlessly fascinating. I have experienced it when finishing complex books on audio in a week after hesitantly flipping through them for a month.
Let’s dig into the history of this absorbing form of media.
How It All Started
A lot of people associate the very first audiobook with Dylan Thomas’s beautiful poetry. Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night coming out in the 1950s has etched its place in history and our memories. However, novels were recorded two decades earlier for the visually challenged.
In 1932, The American Foundation of The Blind created book recordings on vinyl records. Their demand increased after the war, as soldiers came home with damage to their eyes. The recordings became a means to receive and process information in an alternate form.
The vinyl records had 15 minute speeches on each side. They were called “talking-books” referring to Frank L. Dyer’s “talking machine record” technology. The initial recordings of these talking-books included William Shakespeare plays, the U.S. Constitution, and the novel As the Earth Turns by Gladys Hasty Carroll. Owing to their demand, in 1933, the Talking Books program was allotted $10,000 (worth $175,000 today).
The American Foundation for the Blind and Royal National Institute of Blind People continue to record talking books to this very day. However, unlike audiobooks, talking books aren’t sold to the public. They have been restricted to people with impaired vision in order to secure copyright exemptions from publishers.
The talking book program continues to make reading more accessible.
Cassettes and Compact Discs
A lot of early audiobook culture is associated with cassettes tapes that we can hold in our hands and insert in our beloved players. They gained popularity in late 1970s with the portable Sony Walkman. When Duval Hecht decided to start Books On Tape Inc. in 1975, it appealed to commuters and travelers. The company also provided unabridged audiobooks to schools and libraries. Companies such as Books on Tape Inc., Books in Motion, and Recorded Books laid the groundwork for today’s audiobook industry.
“In the late 1990s, some commercial books on tape made the transition to compact disc, but the cost to consumers—about what I once paid for Nintendo games—didn’t broaden the audience for audiobooks. According to the Audio Publishers Association, the CD would supplant the cassette as the leading format of audiobooks for only five years, from 2003 to 2008.”
While cassettes and CDs were still being used, digitalization of audiobooks came along in the 2000s.
The First Digital Audiobook
Overdrive and Libro.fm have been such a huge part of my audiobook journey. The sheer convenience and unlimited options available at my fingertips are intoxicating. But it wasn’t always this easy to download and listen to your favorite titles. In 1997, Audible.com introduced the first mass-market portable digital audio player. The Audible Player cost $99 if you agreed to purchase at least $120 worth of audiobooks during the year.
To use the device, one had to connect it through the serial port on the computer, fire up Windows 95, and download a maximum of 2 hours of audio to the device. In 1997, four years before the iPod was released, the device was far ahead of its time.
Here’s a video giving us more nerd content about Audible’s quirky, forgotten “internet based spoken audio system.”
Audible.com went live in 1997, public on NASDAQ in 1999, and introduced its first subscription model in 2000. It was the first website to conveniently purchase and download audiobooks from. And then there was no going back. Today, we have endless options for the pleasure of listening. LibriVox, Spotify, OverDrive, and Project Gutenberg are some great free options. There’s also paid options. Choosing the paid options according to our specific listening needs makes a world of difference. Check out our Audible vs Libro.fm article for more insights into this.
The revolution caused by digitalized audiobooks can be summed up in these lines by Matthew Rubery from Digital Audiobooks: New Media, Users, and Experiences,“While an unabridged recording of Tolstoy’s War and Peace once required 119 records, 45 cassettes or 50 compact discs, today’s MP3 file has made the audiobook weightless and not limited to one delivery technology.”
Audiobooks come with ultimate convenience and newfound excitement. I hope you also carry a part of its history when you next tune into your favourite one!