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Audiobooks: A rising industry and multitasker's dream

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5 2013 5:26 p.m. MST

Utah native Kirby Heyborne is considered an up-and-coming star in the world of audiobook narration.

Photo courtesy Kirby Heyborne

To be on his game as a renowned columnist and Fox News contributor, George Will has to know his stuff. In a recent question-and-answer session with students at Brigham Young University, the journalist and author offered an insightful tip.

“I read all the time. It’s all I do. I have on my smartphone, 34, at the moment, 34 recorded books. I got up today and it was pitch-dark in downtown Provo and I went for my morning walk listening to a book. And I’ll drive back to Salt Lake City Airport listening to a book. I shaved this morning listening to a book. I go through three hours of listening to books a day. I go through 70 books a year. Over a decade, that’s 700 books — adds up — and a little bit of it sticks,” the Pulitzer Prize-winner said. “So read. Read, read, read more.”

As illustrated by Will’s comment, audiobooks are a multitasker’s dream. With more people carrying smartphones and digital devices, audiobooks are becoming more affordable, more accessible and more popular. An audiobook’s success also depends largely on the voice talents and skill of the narrator and the quality of the finished product.

“The audiobook world is getting bigger and more amazing,” said Kirby Heyborne, an up-and-coming narrator who has received several awards for his work.

“I think people who haven’t given it a shot should do so.”

Interesting facts

The first form of the audiobook was born in the 1930s when the Library of Congress created a “talking books” program for the blind.

About 50 years later, audiobooks gained popularity through cassette tapes and later CDs, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Now in digital form, audiobook sales have increased by double figures in recent years, according to the same Wall Street Journal article.

Retail sales have jumped from $480 million in 1997 to become a $1.2 billion industry today.

An average downloadable audio-book costs about $20. Because of smartphones, more are downloading books and fewer are buying CDs. The unit sales of downloadable audiobooks climbed nearly 30 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

Depending on the size of the book, advances in digital technology have lowered the cost of audiobook production while the demand has risen, said Kenny Hodges, who independently produces audiobooks for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain Publishing. Just two years ago, Hodges said 90 percent of the audiobooks were produced in his home studio using local narrators and authors, he said.

“But we’ve found that it was actually less expensive to hire national narrator talent from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco … get them the manuscript and details … and have them send in the recording files and have me put together the final form,” Hodges said. “We have literally saved thousands of dollars that way and we’re getting a better product.”

How is this media consumed? According to a Bowker market research study cited by the New York Times, 47 percent of people who buy audiobooks listen while commuting in a car. About 25 percent listen while working around the house and 23 percent while exercising, the Bowker study said.

Audiobooks are a popular item at community libraries. While learning to read, children can follow along in the book. It’s convenient to check out a book online and download it to a mobile device. They can’t be lost or damaged, and they don’t have to be returned because they automatically deactivate. The only downside is they can be expensive, said Jerry Meyer, assistant director of the Davis County Library.

“It’s become a big thing,” Meyer said. “It encourages people to experience books they probably wouldn’t try otherwise.”

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