Why Audiobooks?

Listening to someone reading you a story is one of life’s great pleasures. Most of us grew up listening to stories – whether read by a parent, grandparent, carer, sibling, or on the radio or television. Our aural tradition is part of our DNA and listening to a story, read in an intimate and compelling way is an exhilarating and enlightening experience. It feels a little like going to the theatre to see a performance given for you alone, it’s just you and the voice in your ear going on an amazing journey together. Achieving that connection between author, reader and audience is what makes audiobooks such a rewarding experience.

How did books in audio begin?

In Britain, the first attempt to create a book in audio was as a direct result of First World War injury sustained during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 when Captain Ian Fraser lost his sight. Mourning the loss of one of his greatest pleasures, reading, when he returned to England he began working for NIB (the National Institute for the Blind in 1918 and began experimenting with making recordings of people reading aloud. Early discs could hold only five minutes of recorded voice, but despite slow progress, Fraser and his team at NIB continued experimenting.  

Some years later, NIB and St Dunstan’s (a charity set up in 1915 to care for soldiers blinded in the war) created ‘The Sound Recording Committee’. The Committee decided that the best format for ‘Talking Books’ as they were then called, would be on gramophone records gramophone and work began on recording the first titles to be delivered. By narrowing the shellac record’s grooves and playing at a reduced speed on special machines, Fraser and his team managed to create records that played for twenty-five minutes on each side, so the average novel was sent out on ten records which were played on special machines. Early ‘Talking Books’ were often read by BBC announcers, whose clear and precise tones were already familiar. 

The first ‘talking book’ deliveries were made on 7th November 1935, and only two years after the library first opened, almost a thousand blind and partially sighted people had received a machine and were regular listeners. In 1937 NIB built its first dedicated recording studio. NIB received its Royal Charter in 1948 and became The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) in 1953. It is now known as the Royal National Institute of Blind People and has more than 2 million members in the UK. The Talking Book Library is still operational, recording new titles from its own studios and sending out over 10,000 talking books in its own DAISY format every day. 

In America, the Pratt-Smoot Act was established in 1931 to provide blind adults with access to books created in Braille. In 1933 the act was amended to include talking books recorded on vinyl. Early recordings included readings of Helen Keller, The Bible, O. Henry, and Edgar Allen Poe. Since many soldiers sustained eye injuries during WWI, and later WWII, there was a continued focus moving forward to provide veterans and other visually impaired Americans with access to books in audio form. 

The development of audiobooks. 

Things began to change rapidly in the late 1960s with the development of the audio cassette. These were unanimously adopted for talking books and the medium began to gain popularity although it was still regarded as being a niche market. When major print publishers including Penguin Random House and Simon and Shuster started taking an interest and opened their own audio publication divisions, their popularity – and their audiences – grew. Talking Books were no longer regarded as being only for people who had, for whatever reason, a difficulty in reading themselves. 

The idea of having a story told to you, read by a professional narrator, began to gain widespread appeal. By 1994 the term ‘Audiobook’ was universally adopted, and a year later Audible made it possible for people to download audiobooks onto a desktop computer. 

Today, Audiobooks are widely enjoyed by people without any visual impairment or other reading difficulty. They are no longer regarded as an inferior way of consuming books, or as a poor substitute for reading. Audiobooks are now recognised as a major contributor to the publishing industry as a whole, and though not every book that is printed is automatically made available in Audible, there is a growing demand for audiobooks to be made as part of the publishing package rather than as an optional extra. 

Tens of thousands of audiobooks are recorded every year – and the numbers are steadily increasing. Over 80,000 in the US alone last year, and according to the Audio Publishers Association (APA) that number is rising year on year.

There are hundreds of voice actors, editors, producers, and audio engineers involved in making audiobooks. Some are created in the traditional way in a mainstream studio, but an increasing number are recorded remotely from personal studios. More and more of the industry is moving to this model – engineers, proofers, editors, narrators and producers invest thousands of pounds in personal studios in their own homes, to deliver audio of a comparable quality to that achieved in an all bells and whistles studio in Central London, New York, or Los Angeles. 

Raconteurs is part of this audiobook revolution. Thanks to our meticulous screening and careful editing and mastering which is tailored to each individual project, clients can be confident that we achieve quality at an affordable price. All of our productions are created remotely; allowing us to keep our rates competitive, without any reduction in the quality that our clients expect and deserve. 

Helen Lloyd.

© Raconteurs Audio LLP 2024.

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