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FEATURE THE BIRTH OF AUDIO


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books. Yet book sales overall benefited from tapes. Listeners were often avid readers who used spoken-word recordings as a supplement rather than a substitute for print. People listened to books when they couldn’t read them. Diminishing reading time was a regrettable fact of life. The following testimonial from a Books on Tape subscriber put it best: “I assume that many of your readers feel the same way as I do . . . reading has always been a way of life, the moments I spent with a good book were very special. And then one’s life gets so hectic and busy and time for reading becomes more and more rare.”


EXPANDING THE MARKET Hecht founded Books on Tape for the millions of bored drivers stuck on the US’ highways with nothing to occupy their minds. When the company began, spoken-word recordings were used mainly by people with disabilities, devoted Bible readers and connoisseurs


of the arts. Books on Tape helped change the reputation of taped books by marketing them to the nation’s growing number of commuters and other professionals. “Changing the way America reads” was one slogan considered by the company. Drivers who resented hours wasted on the road welcomed taped books as a way to make this time useful. Books on Tape convinced enough


drivers of the benefits of taped books to build a successful business that competed with “traditional” book publishers. In fact, the Books on Tape brand had become so recognisable that even the shift from cassettes to CDs in the late 1980s made no difference: books on compact disc remained equatable to “books on tape” in people’s minds. And competitors recognised the brand’s value. In 2001, Random House acquired Books on Tape and its backlist of approximately 5,000 books. For Hecht, the happy ending might have come


straight from the pages of a bestseller. Yet the company’s success did


little to reassure critics. Suspicions remained that the taped book was an impostor. They saw sound technology less as reading’s saviour than as the latest threat to the silence and repose necessary for it. Books on Tape tried to win over sceptics by making unabridged recordings that stuck closely to the book and bore little resemblance to the abridgements that turned books into entertainment designed to compete with TV, film and computers. The result was a clientele who saw themselves as book readers. This made little difference to defenders of the printed word, who saw people “reading” while driving cars, washing dishes or jogging through parks. For them, taped books raised troubling questions about the nature of reading. The long debate over the format’s legitimacy carried on as a result. 


This article is an edited extract from The Untold Story of the Talking Book (Harvard University Press, November 2016) by Matthew Rubery, professor of modern literature at Queen Mary University of London. Rubery is a keynote speaker at The Bookseller’s AudioBook Revolution, part of FutureBook 2016, on 2nd December in London.


NeTw for 2017 PROFESS ON L


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