Audiobooks were set to destroy books — but instead, they opened a new world

“The turn of the century was approaching, and so was the death of the book.

That’s what some were saying in the 1990s, as the Internet became ubiquitous. But in predicting print’s downfall, the prognosticators were 100 years behind the times.

‘Phonography will probably be the destruction of printing,’ said the narrator of ‘The End of Books,’ a story published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894. Others agreed that Thomas Edison’s new sound-recording machine would transform publishing. As Matthew Rubery notes in ‘The Untold Story of the Talking Book,’ a number of writers of the late 1800s contended that ‘the recorded book was not merely an alternative to the printed book. It was the realization of what the book was always meant to do.’

Rubery’s history of what we now call audiobooks focuses on content, creative breakthroughs and user experience. He tells memorable stories about what the technology has meant to the blind, and he explains why some authors resisted the idea of audio recordings. He also recounts the industry’s enormous expansion in the second half of the 20th century. All of this is interesting.

But his reporting on the publishing world’s finances isn’t as timely as it could be. Rubery says that audiobook sales, which in the late 1990s were generating less than $500 million a year, hit $1.2 billion in 2012. But if you want up-to-date information about the growth of the market, you’ll need to look elsewhere. According to the Audio Publishers Association, sales have increased 20 percent in each of the past two years, topping $1.75 billion in 2015.”

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