An oar-some audio feat

Duvall Hecht was stuck in traffic when the idea came to him. Every day he drove 100 miles from his home in Newport Beach to a brokerage firm in Los Angeles. The two-hour journey got to him. “I became frantic with the commute,” he recalled. “It’s such a terribly numbing experience.” Radio didn’t help. He wanted more mental stimulation than could be provided by the top 40, news and commercials; he claimed: “My brain was turning into cottage cheese.” If only there were a better way to pass the time.

Hecht, a former US rower who won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics, wrote to every organisation he could think of in search of something to listen to while driving. What he found were motivational speeches, marketing seminars, meditation courses, language tutorials and poetry. Caedmon specialised in literary excerpts, and another company sold Plato’s Phaedrus, along with a handful of other classics.

With a typical price of $10 for a 60-minute recording, however, these options were hardly practical for commuters. The only full-length books he could find were made by the Library of Congress, exclusively for people with vision impairments. Still, Hecht was certain he wasn’t alone. Surely other commuters shared his wish for something worthwhile to occupy their minds?

Books on Tape, the company founded by Hecht in 1975, went on to become one of the world’s largest audio publishers. It was the first to focus exclusively on unabridged recordings of books. Its catalogue held more full-length books than any other source, and provided countless hours of distraction to the nation’s drivers. The company’s founding principle was that Americans wanted to read more books but lacked the time to do so. In response, Books on Tape came up with a way for them to read without disrupting their “readers’” busy schedules. It did so by turning the mindless activity of driving into an opportunity to hear books read aloud.

Forms of flattery

Publishers responded to competition in two ways: they either made recordings as bookish as possible or, conversely, modelled them on other forms of entertainment. Books on Tape, Recorded Books and Listening Library, among others, hewed as closely as possible to print; some publishers even packaged their tapes to resemble hardbacks.

Hecht described his subscribers as “book people” who wanted to maintain contact with the world of letters despite their busy schedules. Many customers still thought of themselves as book readers and deliberately listened to taped books as an alternative to watching TV. Books on Tape’s marketing campaign appealed to such sentiments, with slogans such as: “Let your mind make the movie.”

By contrast, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Bantam and other publishers sought to compete with screens, not books. Their tapes were similar in length to the average film and often reproduced books that had already been made into TV shows or movies. For them, the lines between media were hazy. Ben Kingsley narrated Caedmon’s Mahatma Gandhi recordings, for instance, after the actor played the Indian leader in Richard Attenborough’s film. Sound effects moved books closer to other forms of entertainment: S&S’ recording of Clive Barker’s The Inhuman Condition used stereo to attempt to enhance the atmosphere of dread. There was just one problem: the symphonic music distracted from the words.

Readers worried then, as they still do today, about technology replacing books. Yet book sales overall benefited from tapes. Listeners were often avid readers who used spoken-word recordings as a supplement rather than a substitute for print. People listened to books when they couldn’t read them. Diminishing reading time was a regrettable fact of life. The following testimonial from a Books on Tape subscriber put it best: “I assume that many of your readers feel the same way as I do...reading has always been a way of life, the moments I spent with a good book were very special. And then one’s life gets so hectic and busy and time for reading becomes more and more rare.”

Expanding the market

Hecht founded Books on Tape for the millions of bored drivers stuck on the US’ highways with nothing to occupy their minds. When the company began, spoken-word recordings were used mainly by people with disabilities, devoted Bible readers and connoisseurs of the arts. Books on Tape helped change the reputation of taped books by marketing them to the nation’s growing number of commuters and other professionals. “Changing the way America reads” was one slogan considered by the company. Drivers who resented hours wasted on the road welcomed taped books as a way to make this time useful.

Books on Tape convinced enough drivers of the benefits of taped books to build a successful business that competed with “traditional” book publishers. In fact, the Books on Tape brand had become so recognisable that even the shift from cassettes to CDs in the late 1980s made no difference: books on compact disc remained equatable to “books on tape” in people’s minds. And competitors recognised the brand’s value. In 2001, Random House acquired Books on Tape and its backlist of approximately 5,000 books. For Hecht, the happy ending might have come straight from the pages of a bestseller.

Yet the company’s success did little to reassure critics. Suspicions remained that the taped book was an impostor. They saw sound technology less as reading’s saviour than as the latest threat to the silence and repose necessary for it. Books on Tape tried to win over sceptics by making unabridged recordings that stuck closely to the book and bore little resemblance to the abridgements that turned books into entertainment designed to compete with TV, film and computers.

The result was a clientele who saw themselves as book readers. This made little difference to defenders of the printed word, who saw people “reading” while driving cars, washing dishes or jogging through parks. For them, taped books raised troubling questions about the nature of reading. The long debate over the format’s legitimacy carried on as a result.

This article is an edited extract from The Untold Story of the Talking Book (Harvard University Press, November 2016) by Matthew Rubery, professor of modern literature at Queen Mary University of London. Rubery is a keynote speaker at The Bookseller’s AudioBook Revolution, part of FutureBook 2016, on 2nd December in London.