Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Audio Book Niche

Previously, I've talked about eBooks and how it's having difficulties penetrating the market for one reason or another. I think another topic that bears mentioning is the audio book, a product that is definitely older than eBooks (anyone remember cassette tapes?) but seems to have similar problems with popularity.

Well, the last statement wasn't quite right. It seems to be popular in certain segments. A quick trip to the bookstore showed two kinds of audio books on shelf. The more popular ones are the business and self help audio books. The other is children's books.

I'll tackle children's books because it's quicker and easier. As a child, I remember learning to read by listening to an audio book that accompanied a regular story book. These days though, the audio books I see on the shelves is the likes of Harry Potter. Now I'm not saying that's bad. I'm just surprised that it's Harry Potter because the series is relatively long. If you're listening to an audio book of Harry Potter, it's not because you're teaching yourself how to read but because you're interested in the story (and perhaps increase your grammar and vocabulary along the way).

Now two decades ago, I don't think an audio book of Harry Potter would be possible. Not because there isn't an audience for it but because of technical limitations. Could we have produced a full-length audio book of a novel in the 80's? Yes but it would have consumed a lot of cassette tapes and driven the prices too high. These days however, that's been solved by CDs (although an unabridged novel will still have lots of CDs!) and in the future, compressed digital formats such as mp3s might be the future of audio books (and simply store your collection in your iPod instead of bringing a stack of CDs around with you).

For regular fiction however, that's not the case. Unless you're really a popular fiction author, I don't see a lot of audio books popping up here in the country. And I'm not saying that's wrong--it becomes a question of whether there's demand for it after all. And for me, active listening and active reading are two different skills. I can't imagine the Griffin and Sabine trilogy converted to audio book format for example. Shakespeare, on the other hand, seems perfect for the audio book format (but the actual performance of the play is perhaps the best). A decade ago, fiction audio books probably wouldn't have caught on because again, I don't think people will be lugging around a stash of CDs for just one book. These days, thanks to portable mp3 players and podcasts, it might actually catch on (Wikipedia states that in 2005, it was a $871 million industry).

Next are the business and self-help books. In retrospect, the reason seems simple as to why they caught on. But I'm sure it never dawned on people initially that this would be the segment that would maximize audio books. I think the biggest asset of audio books is that you can multi-task with it. You can be driving your car and be listening to an audio book. You can be walking in a park and listening to an audio book. Basically, it lets you leverage your time more. And to the business segment, that's something they appear to want.

How many times have you heard the excuse that a person doesn't want to read a book because they don't have the time? Well, with audio books, that's not a good excuse anymore. Either you want to read/listen to these business/self-help books or you don't.

Of course the other nature of business and self-help books is that they're not really long. The lessons in such books can be read in an hour or two. Fiction books are wordy but these books aren't. And so in many ways, they were perfect for the audio book format, even taking the technical limitations of the cassette tape.

The other aspect is that the business/self-help books are intent on teaching rather than telling a story. The message is direct and in many ways, those lessons can be reinforced by verbal emphasis. If people learn via keywords, business and self-help books are full of keywords. Fiction, you have to wade through large amounts of text. I mean between the two kinds of books, you'd probably need to concentrate more when listening to the latter. A seemingly insignificant detail might be pivotal to the plot. With the former, you won't miss it because the author will probably repeat the important keyword and expound on that idea repeatedly.

So here's my question. Do you listen to audio books? Why not? Do you even consider audio books an actual book?

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