The Rise and History of Audiobooks

how audiobooks were once sold: Vinyl, CD, Cassette Tape, and Phone

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Recently I was stuck in traffic returning home from a weekend at the beach. To most, this would be the ultimate nuisance — a wasted Sunday afternoon in standstill traffic. But to me, it was time well-spent. I enjoyed two hours of a terrific audiobook, An Immense World, by Ed Yong.

While fellow drivers scowled in frustration, I got lost in Yong’s fascinating exploration of how animal senses reveal the hidden world around us. It was a true luxury to enjoy in a not-so-luxurious situation. At the rate that technology changes, you might take audiobooks for granted and assume they have always been an accessible option for readers. But, of course, that’s not the case.

So, how did we get here? How were audiobooks once sold? How did audiobook consumption become so prevalent and popular?

Audiobooks in the 20th century

The audiobook industry, just like the music industry, has been profoundly influenced by evolving technologies. Throughout the 20th century, listening methods were changing by the decade as we cycled through the eras of vinyl, cassette tapes, and compact discs. Audiobooks experienced a similar trajectory that began with a straightforward purpose — providing auditory options for visually impaired war veterans.

The impact of World War II on audiobooks

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, thousands of men returned home from the war with severe injuries. Many of these afflictions affected their vision and eyesight. For that reason, there was a growing demand for audio content and “talking books,” and audiobooks were once sold as LP records. According to the American Foundation for the Blind:

The outcome of this research and development effort was a 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm disc made out of a synthetic material called Vinylite. The disc was both durable and flexible and therefore suitable for transporting. It had many more grooves per inch than the traditional 78 rpm record and rotated at a far slower speed, allowing for larger amounts of material to be stored on a single side. Regarding the development of a “reproducer” as the Talking Book machines were called, AFB devised two — one electric, the other spring-driven. The former cost approximately thirty dollars and the latter, designed for those without access to electricity, cost twenty dollars.

Data recorded by the American Foundation for the Blind estimates that by 1942, over 23,000 “talking book machines” were distributed across America and those who suffered devastating injuries in the war were still able to enjoy books. These talking books were made for the visually impaired, not the masses. However, talking books became the foundation for the audiobook industry’s development.

The emergence of audiobook publishers

While audiobook production began in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that true audiobook publishers emerged, significantly changing the landscape and transforming how audiobooks were once sold. In 1952, Dylan Thomas met with representatives from Caedmon Records (now owned by Harper Collins) to record his work, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Unlike talking books, this recording was not specifically for the blind and visually impaired. Rather, it was recorded to be enjoyed by everyone who desired to consume the written word in a new way.

As a poet, Dylan Thomas allowed readers to enjoy his poetry by expressing his passion, emotion, and utilizing his unique voice. Dylan Thomas, along with the two women who produced his vinyl audiobook (Barbara Cohen Holdridge and Marianne Roney Mantell), paved the way for the audiobook industry to grow and flourish.

First audiobooks and their reception

Dylan Thomas’ poetry audiobook was wildly popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies over the next decade. In 1959, the New York Herald Tribune did a profile on Caedmon Records that reported over 250,000 sales.

Of course, listening to a vinyl record is a completely different experience than the convenience of enjoying a book through smartphones today, but the tremendous value was still there for the masses. Even when audiobooks were in their absolute infancy, the product sparked excitement in the reading community. Readers, slowly but surely, were becoming listeners.

How audiobooks have transformed in the digital age

The 1980s introduced the Sony Walkman to consumers. Large headphones were not only pumping music, they also were narrating stories in audiobook format. Duvall Hecht is responsible for many of the earliest innovations that brought audiobooks to cassette players and eventually compact discs. Hecht had a desire to make his long Los Angeles commute less of a drag. Bored with music, he began listening to books via cassette, and eventually commercialized audiobook listening by founding Books on Tape.

The digital revolution and its impact on audiobooks

Thanks to innovators and dreamers, the audiobook industry always had potential. However, the digital revolution launched it to another stratosphere. The explosion of audiobook popularity and self-publishing audiobooks are due in large part to two factors — convenience and accessibility. Both result from advancements in digital technology.

Audiobooks in the age of smartphones and tablets

As of 2023, the audiobook industry has experienced ten consecutive years of growth. If you look deeper, you’ll also learn that the Association of American Publishers reports that audiobook sales grew by 157 percent between 2015 and 2020. This explosion coincides with developments in our new digital era in which both streaming and cloud storage make it easier than ever to access and enjoy content.

Catalog Hana BannerThanks to this widespread prevalence of smartphones, tablets, and streaming devices, you can listen to a book anytime and anywhere. Avid readers are using audiobooks to live healthier and happier lifestyles. They can enjoy a book while exercising, traveling, or when they’re stuck in traffic (like I was).

Ever since the audiobook industry began as a resource for the visually impaired, it has evolved through developments in technology, with each step bringing significant advancements making it more convenient and enjoyable to listen to books. Today, it seems like we have reached the pinnacle for the industry. But that’s not what history says. Time and time again, audiobooks surprise us by becoming even more accessible and impactful. What does that mean for tomorrow?

It may be difficult to imagine audiobooks changing much for the listener, but there will be significant developments for authors. Historically, it’s been an expensive process to produce an audiobook. An author is tasked with finding a producer, hiring an audiobook narrator, and covering the production costs.

Recent technological advancements have made the process much easier and more affordable for authors. For example, BookBaby has partnered with Speechki to provide authors a service to create audiobooks quickly and economically while earning the highest royalty rates in the industry.

Audiobook industry in 2023

According to data from the Audio Publishers Association, the audiobook market has grown to two billion dollars and is likely to surpass eBooks by the end of 2023. Sales revenue for audiobooks in the United States increased by 50 percent over the last five years and nine percent of all book sales are now coming from audiobooks. The listener will continue to fill more of their time, particularly when taking on menial tasks, with an audiobook calmly narrating in the background.

There are plenty of ways to listen to audiobooks, but Audible is certainly the biggest player in the game. In fact, it is the biggest audiobook retailer in the world. Owned by Amazon, Audible has a US market share in the audiobook category of 64 percent. It operates as a subscription service and makes up 4.2 percent of Amazon’s book publishing revenue and produces 10,000 titles per year.

In the grand scheme of the industry, Audible is important. It’s an expansive platform to explore a diverse library of traditionally published audiobooks. However, if you’re looking for audiobooks by indie authors, you will find Audible to be limited. It’s home to the big names and the big sellers. On the other hand, BookBaby is a part of a growing movement to support and sell audiobooks created by independent authors.

How to Create an audiobook with BookBaby

The next time you listen to an audiobook, I encourage you to think about everything that led to the audiobook narration humming through your speakers. BookBaby provides an independent author a service to create and sell audiobooks without spending thousands of dollars and taking months of production time.

An independent author simply needs to upload their manuscript and select a voice in one of the 75 offered languages, and then an audio file will be sent for approval within a few days. Once completed, your audiobook is available for sale on BookBaby Bookshop – where every sale pays a 75 percent royalty rate.

Give us a call to speak with a dedicated publishing specialist at 877-961-6878 or go to to learn more.

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