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A new trick for Hawthorne Publishing: An Audio Book

The phenomenal growth in the publishing industry in the last two years has not been in paperbacks or even e-books. Hardcovers long ago got left behind, “shelved,” so to speak.

It’s audio books which are capturing the book buying market. In 2018, the last year for which I could find statistics, over 50,000 audio book titles were published. Michelle Obama’s Becoming sold 752,352 copies.

The fact that there are no illustrations and a simple voice or two reading for the length of whatever narrative there is does not deter people. In fact, simplicity is a common attraction for those who buy an audio book.

Audio books are a product of modern consumers’ wishes to utilize the technology of a personal laptop computer or especially I-phone to expand their reading. For anywhere from $8 (or much less or free) to $20, a person sitting in an armchair or making his or her way along a highway, yes, definitely on the road, can hear Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens spun out in whatever amount of time is available. Non-fiction, fiction, everything. So easy.

Hawthorne Publishing, which has put out hard and softcover books (counting its former incarnation as Guild Press) since 1987, and e-books since 2014 or so, is publishing its first audio book, As I Remember: A Walk Through My Years at Hughes Aircraft 1961-1997 by Scott Walker. It will be available in the listening format on Amazon in August of this year. It’s a vocal rendition of a print book which has continually sold for us for since 2010.

Your Hawthorne senior editors have listened to CDs of books for years. But we had only recently taken up audio books for our cellphones. My first one just this month was Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. It is the story of a very independent young woman, being raised by her orthodox Hassidic Jewish grandparents, who chafes against the traditions and constant strictures of the religion of her community. She eventually leaves.

I wanted to get impressions, to see how a book which was being read instead of looked at in the year of this modern market could convey its story to the reader. What I found was this:

  • The voice in this case did not need to be consequential: no need in this dramatic story to have a British or Australian accent or employ a dramatic actor with a recognizable voice pattern. The story was being told painstakingly, and it needed to stand on its own, full of surprising detail, strange happenings, enflamed feelings, and the oddity of Hassidic culture (to most of us.) Voice or personality can be used in other contexts but would not be desirable in this one. Simply a woman reading the story.
  • Listening to a few hours of a book on the cellphone can sometime be tiresome. When the author has given us TMI, as does happen in these days of sometimes excessive spin-out of a story, you can’t just put the book down for a few minutes, thumb through pages to where it gets interesting again, or skip material you don’t want to read about. On it goes.
  • I can’t tell if that overindulgence in describing every detail that I was seeing in this book was just author ego, unrestrained by editors, a feature of only this one book, or whether it is desired in the audio book platform. I suspect the latter.
  • I miss artwork, illustrations, drawings, photos. They have always so enriched the print book platform by broadening its scope and giving details that I think the lack of visuals is telling.

We can bear these things in mind as we design our own audio book.

We are a moving culture. Having these things in cars as people inch along home from work or pass the hours of boredom in a job that requires one to be “on the road” can be a real asset.

And we all have too many books with covers, bulky with pages, sitting on our shelves. Observe sales day at the local library and you can see what a storage and disposal problem modern print books pose.

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have walked 17 miles as a young man to get a book to read.

What would he think of this new way to access a library over the miles?

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing