Thursday, June 30, 2005

Hear Here; Audiobook Trends in Libraries

What is the future of audiobooks in public libraries? They are certainly very popular, but there are several formats competing in the marketplace. There was disagreement among the panelists and vocal members of the audience at the Public Library Association’s program Hear Here: Audiobook Trends in Libraries held Saturday at the American Library Association Conference.

Robin Whiten of Audiofile Magazine, which she started in 1992, said public libraries are the leading advocates for audiobooks, and the survival of the industry relies on libraries, which buy a large portion of the products sold. Most individual listeners do not want to own their audiobooks (unlike movie fans who like to own DVDs) and must borrow their titles from public libraries. Bookstores now carry some abridged audiobooks, but most unabridged audiobooks are found only in libraries.

Whiten said the future of audiobook formats will be decided by listener preferences and cited an Audiofile online survey that polled its website visitors. While 36 percent of these listeners preferred books on CD, 27 percent still like cassettes, 25 percent want digital downloads, and 10 percent want MP3 CDs. I question Whiten’s suggestion that the general public would split along these same lines. Many of the users at my library, especially older adults, are not web savvy, and I doubt they would chose the digital downloads at this time. I’m sure they were not represented in the survey.

Jim Peterson from Recorded Books may have surprised some of the audience with his belief that cassettes are more durable than CDs. He said that children’s audiobooks are his company’s top selling category and that children damage more CDs than cassettes. Recorded Books has stockpiled blank tape and will continue to make books on cassettes as long as they sell, which Peterson suggests will be a long time.

Recorded Books has also gotten into the digital audiobook market, vending its annual subscription library instead of selling individual titles. The books can be downloaded remotely by library users who are authenticated by library card number. There is unlimited borrowing of titles, so there is no waiting for titles that are checked out. The books can be played on PCs or downloaded to MP3 devices, but not IPods. The audiobooks will not burn to CDs.

Claudia Weisman of Overdrive presented a very different model for digital audiobooks from that of Recorded Books. Libraries chose individual titles to buy (and own forever) and loan to listeners one at a time. Library users visit the website Overdrive creates for the library to download books. The titles come from a variety of audiobook publishers and can be burned to CDs.

Jenny Levine from the Metropolitan Library System spoke about ListenIllinois, a consortium of libraries loaning digital audiobooks on library owned MP3 players. Levine told how the program has been popular in the participating libraries, but development is being slowed by’s digital rights management concerns. She is working to add titles from other vendors and to get the rights for libraries to download audiobooks to user owned digital devices. Until the downloading rights are settled, ListenIllinois will be a demonstration project, not the major service she wants it to be.

The final speaker was Scott Brink, a narrator who records for Books on Tape. He told the audience about his daily routine and the celebrity of being an audiobook narrator. People in bars recognize his voice. He often speaks with the authors to verify pronunciations and accents. All the work he did to prepare for recording Dune by Frank Herbert will become an online glossary with sound files. (He did not give a URL.)

The meeting ended with questions and another disagreement. Jim Peterson stated in one of his answers that his company wrote off MP3 CDs because there were no players in automobiles, which led a BBC Audio salesperson in the back of the room to cry out that new model cars do have such players and her company is selling audiobooks in the format. It is hard to foresee the future when even the present is disputed.

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