A few numbers
Today I want to take you on a little tour through the history of audiobooks to show you why they matter. Currently in 2018, 18% of US consumers listen to audiobooks, compared to 74% readers overall, 67% print readers and 26% e-book readers (1).
There are two defining factors in the audio success story: The first is technological development. Prior to the LP we already had radio plays. But a talking book that you could consume on your own schedule was an impossible thing. The cheaper and more convenient technology has become, the more popularity audiobooks could gain.
The other crucial aspect were disabled people. In 2015, 10.5% of 18-65 year old US citizens had a disability and 35.4% of people aged 65 and older. (2)
Now, I’m not claiming that only disabled people listen to audiobooks or that they are meant only for disabled people. I’m trying to show you why their inclusiveness is an important feature of audiobooks that deserves appreciation, no matter whether you are a listener yourself or not.
Inclusion and the lack of it
As readers we generally like to think of ourselves as open-minded, well-read, aware. That’s why, fortunately, the “print vs. e-book vs. audiobook“-debate has considerably quieted down and usually only takes on the form of: “Of course every book format is equally great!” Unfortunately, I have never found a post on this topic that made a big point out of the importance of audiobooks for disabled people. Sadly, as it is so often, the not fully able-bodied remain mostly invisible.
A while ago I asked in a Facebook group (Audiobook Addicts) why people liked to listen to books. As expected, a lot of them said they listened during commutes or while doing chores. Many said that, like me, they were avid readers but didn’t have much time anymore to sit down with a book. But some also mentioned that they weren’t able to read print or e-books due to disabilities or cognitive impairments.
Did you know that…
…. audiobooks were invented for blind and disabled people?
…. the standard size for Braille books is 11 x 11.5 in (28 x 29.21 cm), making them very big and inconvenient to hold? (3)
…. some diseases like MS can make it difficult to hold a book or an e-reader?
…. brain injuries and brain fog can make it difficult to read?
… audiobooks help dyslexic people become better readers and turn reading into a positive experience? (4, 8)
Audiobooks are not for people who are too lazy to read “a real book”. Audiobooks are for people who can’t read the words, who can’t hold up a book, but also for people who are so crazy about books that they couldn’t bear not having them in their lives anymore because they work long hours.
There is a big number of avid readers among the blind and disabled since – as we readers are all well aware – : Books are uniquely able to transport the emotions necessary to let us experience something that we cannot experience in reality.
A brief history of audiobooks
In 1931 the American Foundation for the Blind and the Library of Congress Book for the Blind Project cooperated ion the “Talking Book Program” which developed the audiobook. At this time the amount of books that were recorded as well as their distribution was limited. The Bible, the constitution and only few fiction pieces were available through postal service.
In 1948 Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic was formed. “Learning Ally” started to provide text books for blinded WWll veterans to support their college education. LP records were invented in the same year.
In 1952 Caedmon was the first publisher to bring out an LP recording of poems and a story, read by the author. It became unexpectedly popular and turned the publisher into a household name. The invention of the cassette in 1963 was a game-changer. Where before only few libraries offered recordings, this swiftly changed now and in the 1970’s all libraries were carrying audiobooks.
With the new technological means audiobooks kept gaining in popularity. In 1985 21 publishers offered audiobooks and recorded books became a more widely available and accepted form of entertainment.
In the 1990’s audiobooks quickly grew into an industry of their own. The Audie Awards were presented for the first time and Audiofile Magazine was launched. And already in 1997 Audible presented the first digital audio player.
In 2003 Audible made audiobooks available on Apple’s iTunes. And yet, only at this point did CD’s replace cassette tapes as the most popular format. However, in 2008 digital downloads already replaced the CD as most common way to obtain and listen to audiobooks.
The programs that first distributed audiobooks to disabled people are still active. Learning Ally is now the largest provider of audio textbooks.
(See sources 5, 6 and 7)