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Amazon’s Audible released the first portable digital audio player for audio books in 1997. Photo courtesy of Audible

A short history of the audiobook, 20 years after the first portable digital audio device

Twenty years ago, Amazon’s Audible released the first portable audio player designed specifically for listening to audiobooks. It cost $200 and could only hold about two hours of audio. Today, readers can listen to hundreds of hours on their smartphones and choose from more than 35,000 books published each year on dozens of applications and devices. More than 67 million Americans now listen to audiobooks annually, according to the Audio Publisher’s Association.

On the anniversary of the device, the PBS NewsHour looks at back at the history of audiobooks, how they’re different from reading on the page, and where they’re headed next.

Where audiobooks began

Audiobooks first emerged in 1932 with the establishment of a recording studio by The American Foundation for the Blind, which created recordings of books on vinyl records. Each side held about 15 minutes of speech. The following year, Congress passed an amendment that allowed the Library of Congress to begin producing audiobooks.

Initial recordings included William Shakespeare plays, The Constitution and the novel “As the Earth Turns” by Gladys Hasty Carroll. More recording companies slowly emerged, mostly to assist the blind. In 1955, the Listening Library became a major distributor for recorded books.

New technology spurred audiobook growth with cassette tapes in the 1960s and compact discs in the 1980s. Waldenbooks installed “audio centers” in their bookstores and the publishing houses Random House, Warner Publishing and Simon & Schuster opened audio publishing divisions.

By 1994, the term “audiobook” had become an industry standard. And a year later, Audible made it possible to download books onto desktop computers.

Audiobook devices

As audiobooks have become more popular, there have been countless debates over the best applications and ways to digest the medium. Audible is among the most used paid subscription platforms, with apps that can be downloaded on smartphones, iPads, desktops and Kindle, but there are also plenty of free applications through local library systems, such as Hoopla and Overdrive.

CD versions of audiobooks are also still sold and available in libraries, as are devices made specifically for audiobook reading.

“At the beginning it was about having the right device to play the file format,” said Christopher Platt, New York Public Library’s chief branch officer.  Now that the books are in digital format, he said, they are accessible to many more people.

Platt said the biggest change for the audiobooks was the move from cassette tapes to CD players in cars. He recalled an entire suitcase of cassette tapes when someone once checked out an audio version of the Bible.

The growth of an industry

As the publishing industry is seeing an overall decline in physical and ebook sales, audiobook sales are booming.

In their 2016 annual report, the Audio Publishers Association, which tracks the industry, found that sales totaled $2.1 billion in 2016, an 18.2 percent increase from the previous year.  Compare that to $1.8 billion of hardcover copy books sold in 2016.

The amount of available audiobooks has also increased. In 2016, 51,000 audiobooks were published, up from 7,200 in 2011. Making an audiobook has become a much faster and more widely practiced option for publishers, Platt said.

“I’ve always said content is king, it is really about what is being offered,” he said. “The days of having simple classics [available] are long gone… People want what people are currently reading and talking about.”

Dan Zitt, vice president of content production at Penguin Random House Audio, said the industry gained more traction after voice performer Jim Dale’s reading of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series in over 200 different voices hit digital shelves in 2015.

Multicast talent performances are also becoming more common, with Audible’s recent dramatization of “The X-Files: Cold Cases” and “Stolen Lives,” which featured the original series’ cast, and Penguin Random House’s production of George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo” with 166 narrators.

While celebrities are increasingly more interested in voicing audiobooks, the majority are still read by specific audiobook readers.

Are audiobooks right for you?

The biggest question about audiobooks is: Does listening to a book count as much as reading it? Some traditional readers may scoff at listening to a great classic, having tried audio and hated it. Meanwhile avid audiobook listeners say they read and comprehend more with audio, and that it allows them to read more books.  

Some studies show that listening to books does not keep readers as focused, and the print versus audio debate goes all the way back to the visual and auditory learner style question. The answer seems to be that it depends on the person, as well as the book.

While audiobooks may not be for everyone, their numbers continue to rise, especially for people  under 35, who make up nearly half of frequent audiobook listeners.

Where audiobooks go from here

About 55 million people listen to an audiobook each year and that number continues to grow, according to the Audio Publishers Association. Many users now listen to fill their time during chores, commuting or to multitask with other work. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bragged in a 2013 annual shareholder statement, “Audible makes it possible for you to read when your eyes are busy.”

In-home devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home have also meant more people are tuning in at home, and the APA is expecting to see a rise in that kind of listening.

Mobile devices also allow readers to constantly listen, optimizing their time and reading more, and some argue that audiobooks are yet another way to always stay online, drive productivity, and constantly be in the know.

But Platt believes audiobooks actually slow readers down and the medium “forces you to take the time with a slow story and the information coming through to pay attention in a different way.”

This different, slower way of consuming content is similar to radio and podcast listeners and is key to the growth of the audiobook industry, he believes.

“It has to do with people’s time and their willingness to consume a book in a new way,” Platt said. “I think [the audiobook’s] popularity won’t decrease anytime soon. It might level off like we have seen with ebooks, but it is not a format that is going away.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly attributed a statement that connected the growth of the audiobook industry to voice performer Jim Dale’s reading of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. It was Dan Zitt, vice president of content production at Penguin Random House Audio, not Mike Charzuk, vice president of production with Audible.