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Hooked on audiobooks

Hooked on audiobooks

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Last fall, facing a 950-mile round-trip drive to Kansas by myself, I couldn’t bear the thought of being at the mercy of radio all that way. Because watching television while driving is still illegal, I decided I needed an audiobook.    »   » A week and 18½ hours of Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep” later, I was addicted. Since then, I’ve listened to so many books, and enjoyed them so much, that it’s not much of an exaggeration to say my life — at least my life in the car — has been changed.    »   » “That’s how it happens,” says Mary Beth Roche, publisher of Macmillan Audio. “Frequently it’s a car trip or a long commute that introduces a person to audiobooks. And once they listen to a good book, they’re hooked.”

My commute isn’t long; just 20 minutes each way. But combined with errands and other car time, it turns out that’s long enough to listen to a lot of books. Drive an hour on assignment? Sure; happy to.

Other people listen to audiobooks in different ways, while walking the dog or knitting or doing anything that keeps the hands occupied but the mind free.

“Fitness enthusiasts are some of the biggest consumers of audiobooks,” says Amanda D’Acierno, publisher of Random House Audio. “Crafters tell us they listen while they work, and other (people) listen while they’re cooking, or doing the dishes.”

Roche’s husband “knows I’m listening to a good book when I want to go to the gym,” she admits. She adds that “an artist once told me that he listens to books all day while he paints.”

One noted proponent of audiobooks is columnist George Will, who has been quoted as saying he goes through more than 50 extra books a year that way. “And people use them to keep up with their book clubs,” Roche says, “avoiding the secret shame of going to a meeting without having read the book.”

Audiobooks are not new. Books have been recorded since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. For many years, though, they were mainly used in schools, or for the visually impaired.

“The big change came with the first mobile device: the Sony Walkman,” D’Acierno says. That 1980 player, wildly popular on the mass market, widened the audience for audio as well as music cassettes.

“Before that, audiobooks were on these big, heavy LP records,” D’Acierno says. “Record companies produced them themselves. But with the boom of the Walkman, publishing houses began to open their own audio book divisions.”

Portable devices “opened audiobooks to a whole new level of consumers,” Roche says. “Mobility made audiobooks hip. They weren’t just for granny anymore.”

An increasing number of cassette decks, and then CD players, in cars also expanded the audience, not just to commuters but to truckers on the road and parents driving their kids to activities.

More recently, the addition of wireless connectivity with devices in many new cars has made listening to books easier than ever. Kevin Colebank, CEO of audiobook publisher Tantor, cites the growing availability of digital downloads to Internet-connected mobile devices for bringing more new listeners to audio. Audiobook revenue grew to $1.6 billion in 2013 and is expected to remain on the upswing, Colebank says, quoting figures from an IBISWorld report.

Digital downloads “are in a huge growth period,” D’Acierno says. “If there’s a book you want, you can download it to your device immediately and start listening. There’s a huge appeal to instant gratification.”

June is National Audiobooks Month, timed to the many summer car trips during which a book could be played.

D’Acierno, who has a 10-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, says listening to a well-chosen book together can engage the whole family.

“We really like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books,” she says. “It’s a shared experience, and they entertain all four of us.”

In general, books that are popular with readers are also popular as audiobooks, Roche says. “It’s rare for a book that doesn’t do well in print to do well on audio,” she says.

But memoirs, read by the authors, are an especially strong audiobook category. “Most books are best served when they’re read by a professional actor,” she says. “But there’s nothing like hearing someone tell you their own story.”

D’Acierno agrees, saying Random House first noticed this when former President Bill Clinton published the first volume of “My Life” in 2004. “People were buying the book, but they were also buying our abridged version of the audiobook, because they wanted to hear him read it.”

The reader of an audiobook “makes a huge difference,” D’Acierno says, and every audiobook experience is a crucial one. “If the first book you listen to is weak, we’ve lost you,” she says.

The necessity of hiring good readers and producing perfect, polished audiobooks helps to explain why the finished product is comparatively expensive. (The complete “Harry Potter” on CD runs 116 hours and costs $243 new.)

“We could do it cheaper, but not with the same quality,” D’Acierno says, acknowledging that “the price point can be prohibitive.”

There are ways to save, however. Digital versions of audiobooks are widely available from services such as Audible.com, owned by Amazon, which charges $14.95 for one download per month and boasts of having more than 150,000 titles. Audiobooks.com has similiar terms.

Books are also available on iTunes and for download from Barnes and Noble, which also sells them on CD in stores. Simplyaudiobooks.com mails books on CD, with a $17.98 monthly subscription; send one book back and get the next one.

And there’s always the library. “Libraries are some of our biggest accounts,” Random House’s D’Acierno says. “They have lots of audiobooks, not just for download but the physical CD sets.”

Audiobook highlights

Here are highlights of what I’ve been listening to so far, and what I thought of each. I’ll check in monthly on the Books page (stltoday.com/books) with more reports on audiobooks.

• “Doctor Sleep,” by Stephen King (Simon & Schuster), read by Will Patton. This 18.5-hour sequel to King’s “The Shining,” featuring a grown-up Danny Torrance and a little girl with similar powers of “shining,” is riveting on audio, and Patton is an outstanding reader. Highly recommended for a long car trip. I also listened to King’s “Under the Dome” (36 hours, and very different from the TV series) and “11-22-63” (30-plus hours). “Dome” is too gory and has a disappointing ending, but “11-22-63” may be King’s best work.

“The Signature of All Things,” by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin), read by Juliet Stevenson. The author of the memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” turns to fiction with this long, fascinating saga (21.5 hours) about Alma Whittaker, following her from 1800 Pennsylvania through her lengthy life as a botanist and single woman. My only objection, and I got over it, is that Stevenson is British while Alma is American.

“The Last Enchantments,” by Charles Finch (Macmillan), read by Luke Daniels. A young American man takes a fellowship at Oxford and upends his love life in a slight, somewhat sad romance that’s most interesting because the protagonist isn’t a woman. Daniels wasn’t my favorite reader; he’s American, and all his Brits tended to sound like Beatles. This one was a nice change, though, because it’s shorter, just nine discs, or about seven hours.

• “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” by Nancy Horan (Random House), read by Kirsten Potter. The story of Scottish poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Alma (yes, another Alma), is one of my favorites. After 17 hours, I felt I knew the two intimately, and I was only sad that I was aware of how their real story ended.

“The Snow Queen,” by Michael Cunningham (Macmillan), read by Claire Danes. Cunningham is the acclaimed author of “The Hours,” and Danes, of course, is the star of “Homeland.” I couldn’t wait to listen. But this book is the dull, depressing story of two self-indulgent brothers who talk in circles and never accomplish anything. If it hadn’t been so short (just six discs, less than 5 hours), I wouldn’t have finished it.

Next up • “Carsick,” by John Waters, read by the author (June) and “Landline,” by Rainbow Rowell (July).

Stay tuned in

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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