Mary had a little lamb.
That, according to the Library of Congress, were the words Thomas Edison literally etched into a cylinder as a recording needle captured his voice’s vibrations in 1877. He wanted his invention— the phonograph— to have many uses, among them “letter writing and dictation, phonographic books for blind people, a family record (recording family members in their own voices), music boxes and toys, clocks that announce the time, and a connection with the telephone so communications could be recorded.” Eleven years later, he and his assistant William Dickson created an early prototype of the motion picture camera, called the Kinetograph.
Stunningly, however, the audiobook didn’t really come into its own until the 1950s. According to The Evolution of Audiobooks: From the First Audiobook Recording to Digital Downloads, two women — Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney — persuaded Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to record his poetry. The two women co-founded Caedmon Records and launched not just spoken word with Thomas’ album (featuring Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and A Child’s Christmas in Wales), but the audiobook business. (You can hear a charming interview with Holdridge about how the two came up with the idea to record the poet in one of their regular lunch meetings where they would “lament the fact that we were working for bosses who much more stupid than we, being all of 22 years old.”)
Rather than albums, however, the affordability of cassette tapes and the ubiquity of the then-revolutionary Sony Walkman really made audiobooks widespread in the 1980s. Audible was founded in 1995 and, while owned by Amazon now, had great infusions of cash from companies like Microsoft and Apple. Audiobooks had their time on CD but Steve Jobs helped propel his legions of Mac users to download books onto their iPods. With the dominance of audio, some authors release their works exclusively on audio — such as Michael Lewis’ The Coming Storm.
All this to say, MIDNIGHT HOUR is now on audiobook, Audible and even old-fashioned CD (on April 14). Surprisingly, even though I have been listening to audiobooks for decades (and still can’t resist saying “books on tape”), I am mixed about having my story, MURDERERS’ FEAST, in audio because — spoiler — the experience itself is a spoiler. The first-person voice doesn’t reveal identity — not gender, not age. The only thing the reader first comes away with is that this person really wants techpreneur John Manley dead. Ironically, by having an appropriately cast narrator, the revelation comes a little sooner than in the written word.
Audio is compelling for a completely different reason than sheer storytelling. Whether you write as a journalist or an author, the universal tip to see how your story reads is to read it out loud. Nothing exposes the stuttering flaws, clumsy missteps and annoying tics more than to hear those words spoken out loud. The eye controls the speed of the scan, while audio playback controls really only work up to 1.75 of normal speed before the narrator sounds like s/he is sucking helium — so long-winded verbiage is less forgiven. Another thing that painfully stands out are clichés — not just predictable language, but also the predictable beat of the words themselves. The eye can still perceive staccato sentences but hearing them aloud drives me, paradoxically, into a bored rage.
So how does MURDERERS’ FEAST hold up in the telling? I’ll leave it to your ear.