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. Also, in terms of a satisfying listen, if you have six hours over a weekend, say, and you're doing a lot of driving or whatever, a book in six hours can be so much more satisfying than three hours. Our longer abridgements can be so much more fulfilling because we can achieve more depth and detail.'
Obviously, though, these are still summaries of the originals. For Penguin Audiobooks, and presumably for all the other publishers of abridged books on cassette, this is not a problem since they don't regard their audience as wanting titles in full. `They actually don't want to listen to twenty-four hours of a book being read. They want story telling and that is essentially what we're doing. We take a novel, and in the same way a film maker would adapt it into a film script, we're taking words away to distil a very strong narrative sense from it.'
Who buys them? `Market research is very difficult because there are never the resources to do it properly. From the limited amount we have done, car drivers (in-car entertainment) seem to be a primary market. Secondly, people doing the ironing, housework. Basically, audiobooks can accompany people doing any task where you need your eyes and hands but where your mind doesn't have to be engaged. You can put your walkman on while walking the dog or in bed where it can be very relaxing. It takes you back to pre-adulthood with someone reading you a story. I hope the abridged audiobook will invite people into the world of the imagination, into the world of fiction in a way that perhaps just picking up a classic and trying to read it, might not. It's a way of getting through to people who perhaps don't have the time or the inclination to buy and spend time reading books.'
Interestingly enough, all this implies that sales of an audiobook don't hinder sales of the same title in other formats such as hardbacks. Mr. Paterson confirms this. `Our feeling always has been that, as a major publishing house, we publish books in a number of formats. Hardback and paperback releases of the same book have been the case for years, of course, but as electronic media develop there's audio and, depending on the title, there may be in the future `CD ROM' or other, interactive presentations. Increasingly publishers will have to see themselves as creators of copyright rather than as, specifically, book publishers. If you're spending so much money on advertising and promotion you might as well have it available in as many different formats as will sell. This autumn we're publishing a new collection of John Mortimer's Rumpole stories as Viking books. At the same time as that comes out in hardback, we'll also be publishing the audiobook. The same applies to Dirk Bogarde's autobiography. There is absolutely no evidence that hardback sales are declining because of audio sales.'
Surprisingly, Penguin's talking books' operation is not bound by Penguin lists. Jan Paterson has the freedom to buy whatever he thinks will sell on cassette. `Obviously the main store of material is going to come from Penguin because of our relationship within the company, but for example, I've acquired this autumn Harry Secombe's autobiography which we have no book connection with. I've acquired Quentin Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant read by him which, again, we don't publish in book form.' Penguin Audiobooks' best selling author is Dick Francis. There isn't an identifiable worst selling author because, as Jan Paterson points out, if someone isn't selling well you stop publishing them.
Any audiobook costs many thousands of pounds to produce. If asked, Jan Paterson is coy over exact amounts or even estimates come to that. Costs for a specific project might include a producer, a reader, abridge meet, recording rights, studio and crew. Producers, performers, abridgers and the like will all be freelance, engaged to work on one title. Penguin Audiobooks only employs two people full time but, of course, has access to corporate facilities such as marketing and sales.
What are Jan Paterson's plans for the future of Penguin Audiobooks? In November this year they're publishing their first poetry collection. `Perhaps our most ambitious project to date. It's a series of poetry readings entitled Penguin English Verse. It isn't based on any book. We've selected the poems specifically for this collection. It consists of six volumes, each of three hours. The volumes are 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, the Romantics, the Victorians and finally, early 20th century. It's been a nightmare to put together, but for variation we're using nine readers and have edited the series so that shorter and longer works are interspersed. Each volume comes with a booklet containing all the works on that cassette so if you want to read and listen you can do. It offers a real way into poetry.'
`In addition to that', Mr. Paterson continued, `we would like to develop some more poetry.' Next spring sees the release of some selected Canterbury Tales. `We'll be developing the Children's Classics' list. We'll be doing more of the classics on tape, so this time next year you should be able to get almost all the works of, say, Dickens or Hardy or Jane Austen on Penguin Audiobooks. We'll continue as we're going with contemporary titles as and when they're suitable.' Penguin, I suspect, like many other labels, would love to release drama on cassette. The cost of drama capable studios plus sizeable casts make such schemes prohibitively expensive however. `I'd like to do more non-fiction. We've done a lot of autobiography and I'd like to do some historical biography.'
`Penguin is unusual in being an international publisher. We sell in America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. We have a company in India and Hong Kong as well as offices throughout Western Europe. I was visiting our Paris office a few weeks ago when the W H Smith in the Rue de Rivoli had just ordered one hundred copies of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. In the European export market a lot of people use audiobooks as supplementary English language material. An unabridged recording can be used for listening comprehension for instance. There are also ex-patriot communities for whom audiobooks can be a way of keeping in touch with British culture or whatever.'
Critics and purists look down on audiobooks. They regard them as symptomatic of an increasingly passive literary culture: testaments to the basely popular, the sound-bite mentality and shrinking concentration spans. Over the question of abridgement, audiobook publishers do have a charge to answer but if one accepts their claim to be in the business of story telling rather than the repackaging of novels, it is a charge which they can plausibly rebut. They could also add that story telling is probably one of the oldest communicatory arts. Penguin can point to titles in its lists such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid plus forthcoming poetry publications as examples of works which were created for the oral tradition, works which were later set down on the written page.
Whatever your view, audiobooks are here to stay and it's a fast growing market. Jan Paterson believes it is only just beginning. It might be as well to bear in mind the scepticism with which the novel was first received in the early eighteenth century.
[Tim Gebbels is a freelance radio producer and journalist.]
EDITOR'S NOTE: Among other noteworthy audiobooks, two from Reed Audio are worthy of special mention. Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road has become a minor classic since its publication in 1971. The book has been adapted for radio, television, stage and film and now it makes a welcome appearance on tape. It consists of letters between an exuberant New York author who has a sparkling love of English literature and an old fashioned London bookshop. On these slightly abridged tapes, the letters of Helene Hanff are read by Rosemary Leach, while Frank Finlay reads the replies of Frank Doel, the bookseller who gradually lays aside his natural English reserve to become a friend. 84 Charing Cross :Road is exactly the right type of book to have on tape as one never tires of hearing the marvellous letters that say so much about human nature and the Anglo-American connection. Death in Venice also has appeared in various forms since Thomas Mann's short novel was published in 1913. This story of an aging writer's fascination with an alluring youth was made into a memorable film. Dirk Bogarde, the star of that film, reads the slightly abridged novel in translation by David Luke.