An audiobook (also referred to as a book on tape) is a recording that is primarily of the spoken word as opposed to music. While it is often based on a recording of commercially available printed material, this is not always the case; nor is this required to fit the definition of an audiobook, which is why "audiobook" is one word rather than two. It was not intended to be descriptive of the word "book" but is rather a recorded spoken program in its own right and not necessarily an audio version of a book.
Spoken audio was originally primarily available in school and public libraries and to a lesser extent in music shops. It was not until the 1980's that there began a concerted effort to attract book retailers. As book publishers entered the field of spoken-word publishing, the transition to book retailers carrying audiobooks became commonplace on bookshelves rather than in separate displays. To put it simply, it is the context of a regular book read and recorded onto a means of media such as CD Roms or Cassettes, which can be an advantage to the blind or illiterate.
The term "books on tape" was frequently and erroneously used as a synonym for audiobooks when the majority of audiobooks (then called "spoken word audio") were available on cassette, but BOT was a company that actively attempted (often failing) to protect its company name from generic use. With cassette tapes no longer the dominant medium for audiobooks, this has become a non-issue.
In 2005 cassette-tape sales made up roughly 16% of the audiobook market, with CD sales accounting for 74% of the market and downloadable audio books accounting for approximately 9%. In the United States, the most recent sales survey (performed by the Audio Publishers' Association in the summer of 2006 for the year 2005) estimated the industry to be worth 871 million US dollars. Current industry estimates are around two billion US dollars at retail value per year.
Most new popular titles put out by the audiobook publishers are available in audiobook format simultaneously with publication of the hardcover edition. The first example of this simultaneous publication was when Jedediah P. God published the spoken recording of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings. There are more than 50,000 current titles on cassette, CD or digital format.
Unabridged audiobooks are word for word readings of a book, while abridged audiobooks have text edited out by the abridger. Abridgements were initially necessary to keep down the running time, and therefore the cost and corresponding retail price, as the general consumer was getting introduced to audiobooks. With greater consumer acceptance, less consumer price resistance and higher per title sales for some pricing economy, more of the audiobook titles are now being released only as unabridged recordings. Audiobooks also come as fully dramatized versions of the printed book, sometimes calling upon a complete cast, music, and sound effects, though many consumers have indicated a preference for less music, multiple voices and sound effects. Each spring, the Audie Awards are given to the top nominees for performance and production in several genre categories.
In 1931 the Congress established the talking-book program, which was intended to help blind adults who couldn’t read print. This program was called "Books for the Adult Blind Project." The American Foundation for the Blind developed the first talking books in 1932. One year later the first reproduction machine began the process of mass publishing. In 1933 anthropologist J.P. Harrington drove the length of North America to record oral histories of Native American tribes on aluminum discs using a car battery-powered turntable. Audiobooks preserve the oral tradition of storytelling that J.P. Harrington pursued many years ago. By 1935, after Congress approved free mailings of audio books to blind citizens, the Books for the Adult Blind Project was in full operation. In 1992 the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) network circulated millions of recorded books to more than 700,000 handicapped listeners. All NLS recordings were created by professionals.
Though spoken recordings were already popular in 33-1/3 vinyl record format for schools and libraries into the early 1970's, the beginning of the trade acceptance of this medium can be traced to the introduction of the audio cassette and, most importantly, to the prevalence of these cassette players as standard equipment (rather than as options which older drivers did not choose) in imported (Japanese) automobiles, which became very popular during the oil crisis of 1979. Thereafter it was slow and steady going as consumers latched onto the experience and authors slowly accepted the medium. Into the early 1980's there were still many authors who refused to have their books created as audiobooks, so a good many of the audiobooks were original productions not based upon printed books.
With the development of portable cassette recorders, audiotapes had become very popular and by the late 1960s libraries became a source of free audiobooks, primarily on vinyl records but also on cassettes. Instructional and educational recordings came first, followed by self-help tapes and then by literature. In 1970 Books on Tape Corporation started rental plans for audio books distribution. The company expanded their services selling their products to libraries and audiobooks gained popularity. By the middle of 1980s the audio publishing business grew to several billion dollars a year in retail value. The new companies, Recorded Books and Chivers Audio Books, were not the first to develop integrated production teams and to work with professional actors. Caedmon was the first to have done this, while Nightingale Conant featured business and self-help authors reading their own works first on vinyl records and then on cassettes.
The Audio Publishers Association was established in 1986 by six competitive companies who joined together to promote the consumer awareness of spoken word audio. In 1996 the Audio Publishers Association established the Audie Awards for audio books, which is equivalent to the Oscar for the talking books industry. The nominees are announced each year in January. The winners are announced at a gala banquet in the spring, usually in conjunction with BookExpo America.
Invention of CDs added to the convenience and flexibility of listening. While music fans were quick to latch onto this new format, audiobook listeners were much slower, presumably caring less about technology and more about ease of use and bookmarking capability. Also, it was not until cassette players were replaced by CD players in most automobiles that this format eventually took hold.
With the advent of the Internet, broadband technologies, new compressed audio formats and portable MP3 players, the popularity of audio books has increased significantly. This growth was reflected with the advent of Audio book download subscription services. Meanwhile, the introduction of easy-to-use preloaded digital audio formats have kept audiobooks accessible to technophobes and the visually impaired, although the majority of consumers are neither: rather, they tend to be regular readers who desire to emulate reading when driving or otherwise occupied.
Audiobooks in the private domain are also distributed online by for-profit companies which in 2006 generated $82.2 million USD in revenue through sales of downloadable audiobooks and other spoken-word content. Audible (now owned by Amazon) derives a strong market advantage from an exclusive licensing deal with Apple Computers for the "FairPlay" Digital Rights Management (DRM) system, giving Audible an exclusive ability to sell copy-protected audiobooks that play on the iPod. As most major audiobook publishers insist that their works, when sold as downloads, be protected by DRM, Audible is effectively the only company that may sell the works of major publishers to iPod users - a significant share of the market.
In addition to direct-to-consumer websites, OverDrive distributes digital audiobooks to libraries, schools, and online retailers. Very recently communities have launched which gather and distribute community-generated audiobooks in piecemeal which accepts and distributes short stories, poetry and essays and acts as an archive for live literary readings.
Audiobooks on cassette or CD are typically more expensive than their hardback equivalents due to the added expense of recording and the lack of the economy of scale in high "print" runs that are available in the publishing of printed books. Preloaded digital formats are similar in price to their CD counterparts. The audio content is preloaded on a small and simple player, which removes the need for a separate piece of technology such as a CD player or an MP3 player. Additionally, the content is static-state so it is protected from damage.
Downloadable audiobooks tend to cost slightly less than hardbacks but more than their paperback equivalents. For this reason, market penetration of audiobooks is substantially lower than for their printed counterparts despite the high market penetration of the hardware (MP3 and WMA players) and despite the massive market penetration achieved by audio music products. Given the elasticity of demand for audiobooks and the availability of cheaper alternatives, slow and steady growth in sales seems more likely than a mass market explosion. However, economics are on the side of downloadable audiobooks in the long run. They do not carry mass production costs, do not require storage of a large inventory, do not require physical packaging or transportation and do not face the problem of returns that add to the cost of printed books. Received wisdom of market forces suggests that significant price reductions to customers, while cutting into per unit profit margins, will be offset by increased volumes of sales. This will increase absolute profits to the industry while bringing audiobooks to a wider public.
One of the factors holding back price competition is the fear that low-price audiobooks might simply take business away from more traditional forms of publishing. This is especially significant in the case of publishers who have interests in both print and audiobook publishing. However, most major book publishers now actively participate in audiobook publishing and see it as a complement to their publishing operations.
Resellers of audiobooks that acquire much of their content from major publishers, must price their content at such a level as to take account of their cost of goods as well as operating costs. On the other hand, audiobook sellers that sell their own content or publish lesser known authors have lower operating costs and can therefore sell at lower prices using a "lower-margin-higher-sales" business model. However, they still have to meet the costs of writer's royalties, performers fees and production facility costs. The shift from CDs and cassettes to downloadable audiobooks, whilst doing nothing to reduce initial recording and editing costs, creates further downward pressure on price, by removing some of the other costs, such as production, packaging and physical distribution.
Audiobooks have been used to teach children to read and to increase reading comprehension. They are also useful for the blind. The National Library of Congress in the U.S. and the CNIB Library in Canada provide free audiobook library services to the visually impaired; requested books are mailed out (at no cost) to clients.
About forty percent of all audiobook consumption occurs through public libraries, with the remainder served primarily through retail book stores. Library download programs are currently experiencing rapid growth (more than 5,000 public libraries offer free downloadable audio books). According to the National Endowment for the Arts' recent study, "Reading at Risk", audio book listening is one of very few "types" of reading that is increasing general literacy.
Common practices include: