Author: Reynolds, Angela J
Date published: March 1, 2012
With two books loaded onto my iPod, I am ready for a long trip. Just last year, I would have had a big pack of CDs in my car's glove compartment for the same trip. Ten years ago, it would have been cassettes. Rapid changes in audiobook format-and production-can make your head swim. Does the format of my audiobook matter?
Are digital downloads replacing and if they are, does it matter? Now that we've become enamored with audiobooks, what will keep them alive? And what does all this mean for libraries?
Two years ago at ALA I interviewed audiobook producers and found that CDs were still king. Digital downloads were making inroads; cassettes were falling by the wayside. At the end of 2011, while CDs are still being purchased, digital audios are gaining a solid foothold. Paul Gagne of Scholastic Audio says, "I think physical CDs and digital will continue to co-exist for a while, but we're definitely seeing a shift toward digital becoming the predominant format in terms of our sales." A quick survey of a few colleagues confirms that audio CDs are still being purchased by libraries, though digital downloads are creeping in.
Since our library system went digital (we belong to a consortium, as many libraries do), we have funneled much of our audiobook budget to the digital stream. Our patrons can now go directly to our website, download free software, and begin browsing the audio collection. Checkouts are only a few clicks away, and once the book is checked out, patrons can download and start listening right away. Hard copies of CDs are still popular with those who have CD players in their cars, and for children. Teens with MP3 players are more likely to download their books, but younger readers are still hooked on CDs. Most public libraries are no longer purchasing cassettes, though older holdings still circulate. (Cassettes are pretty much a thing of the past for audiobook companies, though Recorded Books does still offer them, mostly to the school market.) Some libraries successfully use the stand-alone devices known as Playaways, which have one audiobook preloaded, but our library has decided against those mainly because of battery and handling issues.
When library audiobook budgets slip from $5000 to $1000 in a year, it is difficult to decide which format you'll purchase: download or CD. High-interest books like Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid, Christopher Paolini's Inheritance, and all the Rick Riordan series are easy to justify on CD, because librarians know they will circulate. It gets trickier when you want to provide quality listening experiences in both formats. I usually order on CD only the most popular and those that get high marks from reviewers, but am more willing to take a risk with the downloads, since they have a larger audience.
Authence and, by extension, circulation of audiobooks is the key. Who is listening? I know for certain that ours get used heavily by those with low vision and reading disabilities such as dyslexia. Schools in our area have very limited budgets, and so the only audiobooks available come from our public library system. Reading resource teachers rely on our library to provide audiobooks, in CD or in digital format, for their students. As above, families that do not own iPods or MP3 players are still relying on CDs to supply them with audiobooks. Picture book and CD combinations are still quite popular for the younger set-these will likely oudast the longer audiobooks as far as format goes.
There does not seem to be the same worry over the future of audiobooks that we have over print books being replaced by e-books. I am very attached to my print books, especially picture books. But I don't really care if my audiobook is digitally downloaded or on CD as long as I can listen to it when and where I want. The experience is the same, no matter the format. But the beauty of digital is convenience. With digital titles, I can order them and the next day my patrons have them on their iPods; with CDs, there's shipping time, processing and cataloging, etc. Browsing digital collections can be a bit trickier than browsing the CDs on the library shelf, but savvy users don't seem to mind.
Budget-wise, reviews of audiobooks are in some ways more crucial to me than book reviews-I can easily justify ordering several paperback copies of a supernatural romance because I know it will get taken off the shelf. But an audio-sometimes those have to be hand-sold, and since audios can often be double the price of that paper version, I have to make sure I'm getting the best for my shrinking budget.
I think I speak for every librarian here: if it sits on the shelf and collects dust, I can't keep throwing money at it. Fortunately, I've created audiobook lovers in my region, and I gladly supply them with new titles, mainly digital, but also on CD. Booklists that I create always have an audio or two on them, showcasing the must-listen books. There's no lack of well-produced audiobooks (in fact, according to the Audio Publishers Association, the number of audios being published has doubled in the past three years), so format change has not seemed to be a detriment to the industry, nor is it to the listening experience. Audiobooks are thriving in this many-formatted environment, and that makes my ears happy.
When all is said and done, an audiobook is an audiobook is an audiobook. For a well-done production, it doesn't matter if it is on a CD in my car, in earbuds from my iPod, or on a take-away device such as Playaway-the quality of the narrator, the clarity of sound, and the marriage of story and voice are what matter. That's what, as a librarian, I really want to share with readers - that love of story that can be so powerful when read at just the right tempo, with just the right accent, and by just the right narrator.
Angela J. Reynolds is head of youth services at Annapolis Valley Regional Library in Nova Scotia, Canada, and reviews audiobooks for The Horn Book.