Q: When did the audiobook business get started?
Taro: I’d say it began in 1877, when Thomas Edison recorded Mary Had a Little Lamb onto tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. The recordings, then called ‘spoken word,’ were only two to four minutes long but a big hit with the public.
Q: When did longer recordings become available?
Taro: The record disc was invented by Emile Berliner in the late 1800s. It played for 10 or 12 minutes, but by the 1930s, Long Playing Records (LPs) became available. They could play for 45 minutes, and a new term came into use, ‘talking books.’ They were initially produced for veterans blinded in WWI and other blind folks. The American Foundation for the Blind and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project created the Talking Books Program and by 1934, ‘talking books’ were being sent to blind people. By the 1940s, children’s records of narrated fairy tales, nursery rhymes and other stories were also being produced and marketed.
Q: When did audiobooks become a recognized part of the entertainment industry?
Taro: The big commercial breakthrough came in 1952 when two Hunter College graduates, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, convinced Dylan Thomas to record a collection of his poetry for their newly formed label, Caedmon Records. Needing material for the B side, he recorded his story, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It was a huge hit! The National Recording Registry credits it with “launching the audiobook industry in the United States.” Other early companies, like Listening Library and Spoken Arts, began producing and distributing talking books to schools and libraries. And soon others, like Books-On Tape, Recorded Books and Chivers Audio Books for example, entered the field, developing audiobook production teams and hiring professional actors.
A huge spotlight was shone on the industry in 1959 when the first Grammy for the
Best Spoken Word Album was awarded to The Best of the Stan Freberg Shows
Q: What do you think helped boost the popularity of audiobooks?
Taro: The Sony Walkman – which became available in 1979 – and the automobile cassette player were game changers. Everyone the world over loves to hear stories and now we could listen to them as we were driving. We could listen on headphones as we rode the bus, did chores or worked out. Andreas Pavel is actually the person who invented the portable player in the 1970s, but he couldn’t get any company to manufacture it. He is quoted as saying “They all said they didn’t think people would be so crazy as to run around with headphones…” Now, we’re all running around with headphones or earbuds.
Audiobooks for children became so popular that in 1994, the Grammys presented their first award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children to Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales. Sadly, Ms. Hepburn had died in 1993, so Deborah Raffin, one of the producers, was to accept the award if they won. I was sitting with her when they announced her name. She was so stunned that her mouth dropped open, and she just sat there. I had to nudge her and whisper, “get up on stage!”
Q: You’ve referred to spoken word and talking books. When did the term audiobook catch on?
Taro: The term came into use in the 1970s along with books on tape. Then, in 1994, the Audio Publisher’s Association (APA) established the term audiobook as the industry standard. Books on tape is rarely, if ever, used now, but spoken word has become the general term for all forms of spoken word media: podcasts, radio, and audiobooks. And the Grammys still use Spoken Word for their audiobook category award.
Q: How are audiobook sales doing?
Taro: The numbers are pretty exciting. According to the APA, net sales revenues rose to $1.79 billion in 2022. This was up 10% over 2021, making it the eleventh year of double digit growth.
Q: How has the audiobook industry changed over the years?
Taro: Audiobooks have gone from being popular with a small group of listeners to being indispensable to a huge audience worldwide. Part of this change is thanks to the evolution of the audiobook delivery system from the original tinfoil around a cylinder, to digital delivery via a string of 1s and Os.
Another very exciting change is that the industry now has its own stars. Film and TV celebrities used to be sought after to attract an audience. But the audience has matured. Listeners want to hear great books read by great audiobook actors, and they have their favorites; audiobook actors who are celebrities in their own right.
Additionally, opportunities for audiobook actors have expanded with the rise of self-publishing. There are now numerous companies linking indie authors with audiobook actors. And of course, there’s the rise of audiobook actors recording in home studios, a major change from the early days.
Q: What effect has Covid had on the industry?
Taro: Covid certainly increased the trend for audiobook actors to set up home studios, thus enabling the industry to continue to produce new titles during the lockdowns. Sales certainly increased, but they were increasing prior to Covid and as I mentioned, according to the APA, they’ve increased every year for the last eleven years.
Q: It seems as if large publishers are releasing a lot of new books and the audiobook versions simultaneously. I’ve even seen a few cases where the audiobook was available before the print book.
Taro: Audiobook lovers want to hear the audiobook version of a book as quickly as readers want to read it. And, as for Audio First Publications, their numbers now total 6% of revenues.
Q: Can the techniques in your book be used for other disciplines.
Taro: Good storytelling is acknowledged as the key to engaging listeners in any field. Podcasters for example, are telling a story, and even if they’re introducing guests, they are setting the stage for the experience the listener will have. Concepts like setting a tone, defining your point of view, creating experiential immediacy (which means reacting moment to moment as each new idea is presented) keep a listener waiting to hear what’s next… and why.
I worked with a gentleman who led seminars for managers of not-for-profit organizations. He wanted to make his presentations more exciting and interesting. He wanted to be able to use emotion to inspire and galvanize his listeners. The techniques in the book worked for him because while they’re structured and organized for the audiobook actor, they are beneficial to everyone who speaks publicly or tells stories.
Q: Are there instances when 2 or more actors read together?
Taro: Yes. Audiobook casts range from a single actor reading the book and portraying all the characters, to multi-cast productions.
Q: And finally, what does one need to do to get a competitive edge in the business?
Taro: I wrote this book to answer that very question. The more skilled you are at creating a great read, one that will engage the listener, the more you’ll attract the attention of the people who hire.
You want your work to stand out, to make the producer auditioning for their next project say, “That audiobook actor knows how to tell a story! That’s the actor I want for my project!” That’s certainly what I listen for when I’m casting.
The more skilled you are, the more you’ll convert your listeners into fans. They love a great storyteller, and nothing gives you more of an edge than being prepared with the “know-how” to create a compelling read.