Now Hear This


This is a golden age for listening to audiobooks on portable electronic devices like smartphones and iPods, but the high price of audiobooks still holds them back from becoming as popular as electronic books or printed books. Before the inclusion of compact solid state storage on portable devices, audiobook listeners were encumbered with multiple compact discs (CDs) or cassette tapes for each book. The combination of compressed audio formats with high capacity compact storage has unlocked a perfect setting for listeners to take advantage of audiobook downloads from the internet and then enjoy a seamless listening experience any time and anywhere.


While the marriage of hardware technology with software format is now ideal for enjoying audiobooks, the pricing remains a stumbling block. Regular prices can start at $15 and go on up to $100. In any case, the audiobook price is always the highest of any of the formats, from hardcover or paperback print to ebook. Production costs for publishers are higher naturally because of the need for voice talent, production personnel, and recording facilities. It may be that to produce a truly professional result the costs cannot be lowered, and therefore audiobook prices will remain high. That would be a shame, since the technological moment has never been better and that has in turn increased demand. If increased demand does not drive the price down, then most likely audiobook sales will hit a wall, and new listeners will no longer be drawn to the format.

Anker Sonntagnachmittag 1861
Sunday Afternoon, an 1861 painting by Albert Anker (1831-1910).

There are some alternatives to the business model of publishers producing audiobooks themselves or licensing their books to production studios, a model resulting in high overhead costs which increase the prices of best sellers and niche books alike. One alternative encourages authors to engage voice talent and production facilities and staff more or less on their own, knocking down the overhead costs. An author could still go for high concept production, but most have not. This business model has had the effect of increasing the overall amount of titles with audiobook versions, and at better prices than the standard publishers’ audiobook versions. It seems the publishing houses have been unable to take advantage of the audiobook’s golden age on account of their lumbering dinosaur steps, and a more nimble approach was needed.

Another alternative is the free model of LibriVox, staffed by volunteer readers using their home studios. The books they read are all in the public domain, and are free to download, with no digital rights management encumbrances. LibriVox is a laudable project, and even though there are no modern best sellers available for listening, the collection of classic literature is extensive. As can be expected with volunteer readers producing their efforts themselves from probably quite modest facilities, the results are wildly uneven, sometimes within the same audiobook, since LibriVox occasionally parcels out different chapters to several readers. Listening to LibriVox audiobooks is therefore a hit or miss experience which can be useful all the same in filling in gaps for a listener, especially when it comes to the classics.

The enjoyment of listening to a great storyteller goes back to childhood individually, and to the beginning of history for the human race as a whole.
It appears the audiobook industry has settled on the monthly subscription model as its most effective way to sell to listeners. Relatively few people are interested in buying titles outright considering the high prices. Subscription rates for only one or two audiobook downloads per month are also high, but at $10 to $20 they seem easier to swallow. The public library is yet another alternative for downloading audiobooks, although because of budget cutbacks libraries are having more difficulty than ever stocking a selection of audiobooks comparable to their print book inventory. For an audiobook fan with a middle class or slimmer amount of disposable income, putting together a home audiobook collection like a roomful of long playing records or several bookcases filled with paperback books is probably not feasible. For a frequent listener, the rental plan offerings are not very filling at only one or two audiobooks per month. A little of this and a little of that might be the best strategy for an audiobook fan with shallow pockets – a monthly subscription if it can be had at a good rate, an active library card, and an electronic bookmark for the LibriVox website.
— Techly


Don’t Call Me “Stupid”

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart 1804
James Madison, portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
― James Madison

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes in his latest book, Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, that low information voters would do better to stay away from the polls on election day rather than cast their vote based on an inadequate understanding of the issues. This is sensible advice and in an ideal world those low information voters would heed it in order to benefit everyone. No one buys a car, after all, without at least kicking the tires and pretending some knowledge of what’s under the hood. But aside from safety considerations on the public roads, buying a car is largely a personal choice, affecting solely the owner. The effect of a person’s vote, however, amounts to a civic responsibility because it is a decision which affects everyone. This much seems obvious, yet it is amazing how much more effort some people will invest in researching a car or stereo system than in how politicians stand on the issues. In that case, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar makes a valid point.

Are low information voters stupid? Not necessarily. Some feel obligated to vote yet lack the time or desire to get up to speed on the important issues at stake. Others are deluded by questionable sources for their information, such as major media outlets which give a one-sided slant to the news and are often obsessed with sensationalism and trivia. Still others are blinded by party loyalty to information about defects in their preferred candidate. If anything, all of these attributes describe laziness rather than stupidity.

In this age of Standards of Learning testing in the public schools, it appears social studies education generally, and civics education particularly, are getting squeezed in favor of the three Rs, which are more readily documented to show results. Elementary and secondary school education in civics instills in future voters not only knowledge of the structure of government and how it works, but more importantly why that matters to them in their daily lives. That is the vital aspect of civics education which needs to remain with people throughout their lives, and which they are apt to lose sight of in the noise and confusion of earning a living and raising a family.

This is also the Age of Information, when sources of information are more widely available to the common person than they have ever been. Some sources are worthwhile and some are not. Some people view sorting through it all an engaging experience and some view it as drudgery. But it is there for people if they choose to look for it and choose to exercise a capacity for critical thinking which they ideally would have learned from their civics education. Today, for most people in a relatively affluent society, there are fewer excuses than ever for ignorance when easily the equivalent of the ancient Library at Alexandria is available to them in their computers, in their tablets and smartphones, or in the computers and book stacks at an institution usually somewhat less grand than the Alexandria Library – their local public library.

― Ed.


The Great Library of Alexandria, drawing by O. Von Corven.