Blind World Magazine

In all likelihood, it's coming soon to a library near you.

June 19, 2005.
Philadelphia Inquirer, PA.

Bob Wetherall has tried it, and he likes it.

The Gloucester County Library director simply sat at his computer, clicked a few buttons, and waited a bit.

Not long afterward, he was in his car, listening to one of John Sandford's Prey novels on a little device plugged into the sound system.

"It works!" he said. Better still, "it's easy."

And, in all likelihood, it's coming soon to a library near you.

One of the fastest-growing segments of the publishing world is audio books, and one of the fastest-growing segments of the audio book world is digital downloads - loading a book onto a personal listening device via the Internet.

The latest development - one that will bring more audio books to more people and, best of all, for free - is that libraries are offering downloads.

The Gloucester County library system recently started offering downloads from Recorded Books, giving patrons access to 800 audio titles and growing.

You don't have to be in the building, or even in the same state. You just need a computer.

Basically, you log on to the library Web site, enter your library-card number, and you're zapped into the download site. Assuming you have a quick connection (dial-up is possible, if interminable), 20 minutes later you have an entire book in your computer, ready for burning to a CD or transfer to a personal listening device.

Like something out of Mission: Impossible, in an allotted period of time (21 days, say), the book in your computer as good as self-destructs - it locks up and is no longer accessible, although if you've transferred it already, keep listening.

Burlington County has a similar service. Chester and Camden counties plan to offer audio downloads in July.

Bucks, Delaware and Philadelphia are waiting and watching with interest.

No more late fees. No more lost books. No need to replace an entire recording because one CD is scratched.

Some think downloads will bring in a whole new raft of library customers. Maybe a new group of audio-book converts.

"Libraries are going to get tens of millions of new customers hooked on your product," Steve Potash of OverDrive, one of the digital-download companies, told a group of audio publishers in New York recently.

Interest in David McCullough's new history, 1776, is high. But a library can afford only so many printed copies - six in the case of Gloucester County. All are checked out, and 19 "hold" requests have mounted up.

But since Recorded Books allows unlimited downloads of any title, "just go get it when you want it," Wetherall said. "It's always in."

Downloads mean libraries can be open around the clock. They require zero staff time.

All this is possible because of the proliferation of personal listening devices.

Brian Fielding of Audible, another download company, figures there are 140 devices capable of playing a book, including iPods, MP3 players and PDAs, and even some of the newer high-memory cell phones. (Not all downloads work with all devices. The Recorded Books service won't work with iPods.)

Consider the possibilities for Philadelphia, where Mayor Street wants to build a citywide wireless Internet system.

If the Philadelphia library decides to go with digital audio - "we're definitely looking into it," said Anne Lee of the materials-management department - you could be at LOVE Park, at the sports complex in South Philadelphia, or picnicking along the Schuylkill and still be able to download an audio book from the library.

Digital doubters have only to look at Audible's own growth, mostly due to direct consumer downloads, although it also serves about 100 libraries.

Sales were $12 million in 2002, then $19 million in 2003, $34 million last year, and now on target for sales of $65 million this year.

The company has more than 500,000 customers, growing at a clip of 120 percent per year.

"We have only scratched the surface at this point," Audible spokesman David Joseph said.

OverDrive began offering digital downloads to libraries in November. Eight months later, they're in 1,000 libraries, including Burlington County's.

Burlington County's service is one title, one checkout instead of unlimited. "I can tell by the fact that they're checked out that people love them," library coordinator Molly Connor said.

On Monday, the New York Public Library became OverDrive's latest customer, starting with 733 titles. As of Thursday, a little more than three days later, 680 of those had been checked out.

The library's staff was bowled over. "We're certainly hoping to add to the collection," spokesman Tim Farrell said. "We're very excited."

Recorded Books, which has offered book rentals and sales for two decades, began its download service in February. About 200 libraries have signed up.

Audio publishers predict an end to cassettes - maybe even CDs - within 10 years. It hinges on how soon manufacturers install hard drives in cars - a few are planning to do so next year.

Brilliance Audio's Eileen Hutton foresees a day when a book will be loaded into your car stereo via your home computer network while you brush your teeth. Drive to the train, and your car will tell your portable device where to pick up its reading. Want to curl up with the print book at night? Your device will note what page you're on.

Another factor is the popularity of audio books themselves.

On average, each of Gloucester County's 8,000 audio books circulates 6.5 times a year, compared with 2.5 times a year for other materials.

The 7,000 audio books at Chester County's Exton branch circulate 10 times a year.

Retail sales for audio books are growing at 14 percent a year, even as the rest of publishing has gone flat.

Some publishers predict this could be the year audio books gain not only recognition as more than "those books for the blind," but also legitimacy among all but diehard snobs.

Just weeks ago, that most literary of Manhattan hotels, the Algonquin, began lending guests iPods loaded with audio books.

"If we... just put music on, it wouldn't make sense," said manager Anthony Melchiorri. Listening to literature, on the other hand, "is true to who we are."

Literary critic Harold Bloom recently insisted to a New York Times writer that "you need the text in front of you."

"We'll always have Harold Blooms around," said Audio Renaissance publisher Mary Beth Roche, "but they'll be drowned out by the people clamoring for audio."

Times change; so do opinions.

Philadelphia author Jennifer Weiner, a former Inquirer reporter, declared in this newspaper in 2000 that audio books were "unsatisfying," not to mention "less engaging, less fulfilling."

But guess who narrated the audio version of her latest novel, Little Earthquakes.

Jennifer Weiner.

It's even available as a digital download.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 610-701-7635 or

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