News: Once Upon a Highway

Stuck in traffic or simply on the road, more commuters are turning to audiobooks

May 27, 1999 at 2:06 pm

The car starts, stereo on. But it's not playing the latest Top 40 hit. A soothing voice speaks. It's telling a story. It's not talk radio. Three more cassettes lie on the passenger seat. The driver changes tapes, eager to hear more of the story. Audiobooks have found their market.

"One of the things that surprised people is how much they're stuck in their car," says Paul Rush, president of Earful of Books, a nationwide audiobook rental chain that opened its first Tristate store April 5.

Rush says he spends 18 to 20 hours a week in his car because of travel and traffic.

He became an audiobook user when he was doing oil and gas consulting and spending a lot of time on the road.

Like his customers, he was overwhelmed with the hectic schedule of everyday life. Audiobooks provided a way to get through the stack of books on the nightstand collecting dust. "Our customers are readers," he says.

"They just don't have time. They're looking for ways to spend time more effectively."

Rush has a profile for the typical audiobook listener. They're often in their mid- to late-30s, married, college-educated, frequent readers and they spend a lot of time in their cars. "They're looking for ways to make the commute enjoyable," he says.

Not everyone falls into those demographics. Twentysomethings, Rush says, look for something more than they get in the pages of a book by listening to authors reading their own works. Older listeners enjoy audiobooks because they remind them of the old-time radio shows they listened to while growing up, he says.

It was during the heyday of radio shows like The Shadow and Fibber McGee and Molly that audiobooks began. Released on LPs in the 1930s, they were designed for people who were sight-impaired. But it was in the 1970s that the format started to grow with an emphasis on self-help books. Mystery novels were the preference in the 1980s as audiobooks' popularity continued to grow. Now, bookstores and libraries have whole sections dedicated to audiobooks, sections that continue to expand. Rush reports the growth at about 30 percent a year.

It used to be that 50 titles were released a month in the audiobook format. That number has grown to about 1,000.

"One of the trends now is the audiobook is released at the same time as the hardback," Rush says.

But there are other trends in the growing field.

"The trend is toward longer and longer listens," he says. "People want the whole experience, not just part of it."

Because of that, more unabridged audiobooks are being offered. The move from cassettes to CDs also is expected to be more of a trend in the new millennium.

Another expected change is the growth of audiobooks used for educational purposes. These days, audiobooks are promoted primarily as entertainment vehicles. But children are benefiting from audiobooks.

"Most children listening to audiobooks are ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or dyslexic," Rush says. "It increases their retention level."

The average user, however, mainly enjoys catching up on the latest releases. For Earful of Books, the new release section is the strongest rental area, generating almost 25 percent of the company's revenue. Biographies, mysteries, self-help and personal growth also are quite popular sections as are science fiction and fantasy novels done in the style of old radio shows, becoming multicast productions with sound effects. But each location of Earful of Books is stronger in different areas.

"Most stores seem to be a heavy fiction store or non-fiction store," Rush says. "(The Kenwood) store will be a fiction store."

The problem is initiating interest in those who aren't listeners. Rush's company gears advertising to those who already are listeners, tackling newcomers second.

"If someone listens to an audiobook, and it's a poor one, then they feel they're all poor," he says. "I was highly skeptical. I approached it very skeptically. If people who haven't tried it would just give it a try, they would see it's a different way to see a book."