Talking Books

Article excerpt

Until beginning work on this article, I fostered the idea that the world of book publishing was characterised somehow by a charming anachronism when compared with modern commercial standards, a world still of the gentleman's agreement and merely nominal deadlines. Of novel publishing today, this is quite inaccurate.

One excellent example of how publishing in the 1990s is entirely contemporary is the proliferation, over the last five years or so, of audiobooks: that is, books read onto tape. In high street chain-stores, bookshops, record stores and lending libraries, an increasing number of titles on cassette testifies to this rapidly expanding market. There's even now a talking bookshop in Wigmore Street in central London, given over entirely to the sale of recorded books. It is an Aladdin's cave for anyone interested in this form of entertainment. Its shelves carry thousands of titles recorded by an astonishing number of different companies: established record labels as well as specialist firms, and, naturally enough, well known book publishers also.

Penguin Books is a field leader in this last group. Known world wide, Penguin this year is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. Its audiobook publishing operation, however, is less than two years old. Its inception is a clear testament to Penguin's dynamic approach in a fast-changing entertainment market. Jan Paterson, publishing manager of Penguin Audiobooks and its effective head, spoke recently to the Contemporary Review for this article. He is proud of their achievement so far. `On our launch list in November '93, we had twelve titles which ranged across the nature of our publishing. There was Dirk Bogarde's autobiography, Beatrix Potter, Homer's Iliad, Madame Bovary. We're now doing about 100 new titles a year'.

Even a cursory glance at Penguin Audiobooks' catalogue is enough to see that their selection policy is eclectic. `There are four areas in which we publish', explains Jan Paterson. `We publish the classics; also there are twentieth century classics, which are the ones that have the eau de nil binding, such authors as Evelyn Waugh, Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouak and so on. Then contemporary titles which have the Penguin orange binding: Dick Francis, Barbara Vine, Dirk Bogarde, William Boyd, Stephen King, Donna Tart. This autumn we'll be starting a new series of Children's Classics which will include such things as Black Beauty, Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and Kidnapped'.

Who are Penguin's audiobooks aimed at? Debate continues to rage among visually impaired people (a group of consumers with long-standing experience of books read onto tape) over the legitimacy of the abridging of books prior to recording. The point arises because a substantial number of audiobooks commercially available, Penguin's included, are heavily cut. It's all down to cost. Several companies do record books in full but they retail way above what most consumers could afford. A single title read over eighteen or twenty tapes might cost in the region of 50[pounds]. Such products are aimed principally at lending libraries with library budgets. For general readers, audiobooks only become a realistic possibility at much lower prices. Publishers and record companies achieve these by abridgement.

Penguin, though, have hit upon a compromise. Traditionally, books have been produced on two cassettes (three hours running time) which for a long novel, like Wuthering Heights or any Dickens title, can sound very condensed. Jan Paterson records many books on four cassettes running at six hours, for under 10[pounds]. This provides more of a flavour of the full text. `Although we've pioneered these six hour abridgements, we've priced them very competitively at 9.99[pounds] as opposed to three hours at 7.99[pounds]. Anybody can see that the margin is going to be a lot smaller on the 9.99[pound]s. We just felt that you couldn't abridge some of these larger books and keep the integrity of the book in three hours. …