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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

The rise of audio books

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The print and publishing industries may be in flux, but a force has emerged that is making a significant impact on the way we see, or rather hear, the printed word. Despite the well-documented changes in the book industry, it appears that audio books are here to stay-and in the process, they may even save you a buck or two.

Given their accessibility and transportability, audio books add another dimension to educating and entertaining our society. Granted, many people still feel that if they're going to take the time to enjoy a book, they might as well read it for themselves. And these people wouldn't be wrong in their thinking. If you enjoy reading and have the time, read away. But this doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. For those who don't enjoy the printed word as much, or who want to enjoy a book while engaging in another activity, an audio book may be a better option.

The Audio Publishers Association (APA), a not-for-profit trade organization that tracks the world of audio books, recently released the results of a user survey it held last year. The survey reveals the most common reasons for listening to an audio book, such as the need for entertainment on a long trip, like in a car or plane, a desire to be entertained while doing housework, and simply a preference for listening to a book rather than reading it.

Other reasons for listening to audio books include learning or teaching a new language or class assignment, trying to increase reading comprehension, wanting to enjoy a book while exercising or multitasking, or listening because of a visual or other impairment.

The APA survey shows that the audio book industry rakes in more than $1 billion a year in the United States alone, up 12% from a 2006 survey. According to the APA survey, the typical audio book listener is a fairly affluent, college-educated person over the age of 30 who-perhaps most revealing-is also an avid reader of print books. Of course, the "typical" reader only describes part of the picture. Children, teens, and 20-somethings are increasingly becoming vital demographics as well.

The APA noted that people with MP3 players or other portable devices with online capability are likely to buy audio books, too. Top genres include comedy and science fiction for 18- to 24-year-olds, and mystery/thriller/suspense and general fiction for those 35 years or older.

For those who don't have the means or desire to spend money on audio books at retail stores, other options are available. Libraries typically carry both new and used audio books on CD, cassette or even vinyl. And, like most library services, they're free.

You can also download audio books from the Internet as a cheaper alternative to buying physical copies. Several sites offer audio books with professional and amateur production values. The Web site Audible (www.audible.com) offers both annual and monthly Netflix-like subscription services from as low as $8 a month, although the available number of audio books is limited. OverDrive (www.overdrive.com) offers everyone, especially educators, both free and inexpensive audio textbooks and other library services. LibriVox (librivox.org) offers free downloads on public domain texts (usually printed before 1923), and even allows you to read a chapter or more yourself.

When books first burst onto the scene, they provided incalculable value by increasing the spread of human knowledge-a trend that continues to multiply. And the rise of audio books has coincided nicely with the boom of the information age. Indeed, with today's technology, books can be a feast for the eyes and the ears.

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