The turn of the century was approaching, and so was the death of the book.
That’s what some were saying in the 1990s, as the Internet became ubiquitous. But in predicting print’s downfall, the prognosticators were 100 years behind the times.
“Phonography will probably be the destruction of printing,” said the narrator of “The End of Books,” a story published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894. Others agreed that Thomas Edison’s new sound-recording machine would transform publishing. As Matthew Rubery notes in “The Untold Story of the Talking Book,” a number of writers of the late 1800s contended that “the recorded book was not merely an alternative to the printed book. It was the realization of what the book was always meant to do.”
Rubery’s history of what we now call audiobooks focuses on content, creative breakthroughs and user experience. He tells memorable stories about what the technology has meant to the blind, and he explains why some authors resisted the idea of audio recordings. He also recounts the industry’s enormous expansion in the second half of the 20th century. All of this is interesting.
But his reporting on the publishing world’s finances isn’t as timely as it could be. Rubery says that audiobook sales, which in the late 1990s were generating less than $500 million a year, hit $1.2 billion in 2012. But if you want up-to-date information about the growth of the market, you’ll need to look elsewhere. According to the Audio Publishers Association, sales have increased 20 percent in each of the past two years, topping $1.75 billion in 2015.
Rubery, who teaches literature at Queen Mary University in London, is better at evoking the past. He traces the idea of the audiobook to a 17th-century novel by Cyrano de Bergerac. The Frenchman envisioned a “book made wholly for the Ears and not for the Eyes.” Two centuries passed before Edison unveiled his phonograph. The inventor suggested that recorded books could fundamentally change reading. “The advantages of such books over those printed are too readily seen to need mention,” he wrote in 1878.
It was the 1930s by the time sound-recording technology could accommodate full-length books on sequential phonograph records. The titles that emerged in the interwar years were funded by Congress and produced for the blind, most of whom didn’t read Braille. As Rubery notes, “The talking book only exists because a group of people had no access to books.” The first batch included Shakespeare, the Bible and P.G. Wodehouse.
Rubery uses letters sent to the American Federation for the Blind to chronicle how the recordings were received. “I cannot give you any idea of what these Talking Books mean to those of us who cannot read ordinary print,” a Maryland woman wrote. An Oregon resident liked to “lie down, put on my head phones, light a cigarette or pipe, and enjoy the world’s finest drama.” A Georgian was pleased that “The Book of Negro Humor” had been recorded but wondered why the reader was “some elderly white spinster who probably wears pince-nez or bifocals.”
Some authors shunned the new technology. Margaret Mitchell said no to a “Gone With the Wind” recording because she worried that “her book might be broadcast over the radio,” Rubery reports. Willa Cather refused for aesthetic reasons. “The vocalization,” she wrote, “is often done by people with horrid voices and sentimental mannerisms.” Thomas Mann, however, was thrilled that “Buddenbrooks” would be recorded. No award “has touched me more,” he wrote, than the knowledge that his novel would “speak to those whom fate has denied the eyesight to read it.”
The consumer market’s first major player was Caedmon Records, which sold more than 400,000 copies of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” in the 1950s. This, Rubery writes, “proved that spoken word recordings could be both commercially viable and culturally significant.” Others followed Caedmon’s lead, among them the cassette-rental company Books on Tape, founded in 1975. Industry revenue surpassed $150 million a year in the 1980s.
Rubery spends some time discussing the industry’s massive growth since the 1990s, as Audible and Amazon came to dominate the downloadable audiobook business. But questions of content and narration get much more attention than recent sales trends. Given how rapidly the landscape is shifting, it’s hard to understand why Rubery cites three- and four-year-old data when timelier information is available.
“The Untold Story of the Talking Book” closes with a look at how contemporary publishers and authors are modifying the form. Novelist Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” he notes, was reinvented as an “audioplay” with music and sound effects, and Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” features “a multiracial cast of four southern women.”
How much realism and vocal diversity have some audiobook fans come to expect? A lot, if we’re to judge by the Word of Promise’s Audio Bible. The recording features more than 600 performers, Rubery writes, and among its many sound effects is “the thud of John the Baptist’s beheading.”
Kevin Canfield has written for Film Comment, Bookforum and other publications.
By Matthew Rubery
Harvard University Press. 384 pp. $29.95