Although many companies publish audio -- often abridged -- books for sale, only a few offer unabridged books on a rental basis. Tapes, which are shipped in postpaid mailers, may be kept for 30 days. Broken cassettes are replaced free.

Audio Book Co., P.O. Box 7111, Pasadena, Calif. 91109; (818) 799-4139. More than 100 titles available at an average cost of $8 per title.

Audio Book Contractors/Classic Books on Cassettes, P.O. Box 40115, Washington, D.C. 20016; (202) 363-3429. Approximately 110 cassettes of children's and adult classics are for sale or can be rented for one-third the purchase price.

Books for Listening, 289 Country Way Scituate, Mass. 02066; (617) 545-6959. Classics and popular literature, approximately 75 titles, at $6.50-$14.

Books on Tape, Box 7900, Newport Beach, Calif. 92658; 1-800/626-3333. Publishes an annual catalogue and monthly updates. Rentals from $9.50 to $17.50 per box. Discount plans include 10 percent off for ordering three books at one time, 10 percent off plus a free selection for ordering 10 books. Interval shipment available. Gift certificates for $15 or more are available. A current promotion allows a customer to order a book as a gift for a new customer for $5. If the recipient places an order, the giver receives a free rental.

Cheshire Cat Children's Bookstore, 5512 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20015; 244-3956. Classic books for children and teen-agers available for rent at $5 per week.

Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5010 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; 364-1919. Has about 50 books on tape, mostly of 19th-century classic novels, available for rent at $5 per week.

Recorded Books, P.O. Box 409, Charlotte Hall, Md. 20622; 1-800/638-1304. Publishes a bimonthly catalogue. Rentals range from $7.50 to $20.50. Discount plans include 10 percent off for ordering three books at one time, free postage for ordering 10 books.

Tape Rental Library, P.O. Box 107, Covesville, Va. 22931; (804) 293-3705. Subscribers pay a $120 annual rental fee and may exchange cassettes as often as desired. Classics as well as management and personal-development tapes available.

Public Libraries

Libraries in the Washington area find it hard to keep shelves stocked for walk-in patrons, but are building their collections.

Library of Congress "Talking Books" Program, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Washington, D.C. 20542, or contact your local library for information. Tapes and equipment lent free to people with handicaps that preclude the reading of conventional print materials. Eligibility must be certified by a physician. More than 40,000 recorded books available through the mail.

On Cassette: 1987-1988, an annotated guide to audiocassettes, available in library reference sections.