Term Paper - Are Digital Audiobooks Truly Ear-resistible?
ARE DIGITAL AUDIOBOOKS TRULY EAR-RESISTIBLE?
A term project submitted to the
Graduate School – New Brunswick
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
Information Technologies and Information Analysis (17:610:550).
Prepared under the direction of
Professor J. Sanchez.
New Brunswick, New Jersey
December 17, 2009
Table of Contents
Table of Contents ii
Description of Digital Audio Book Technology from OverDrive 4
Current Studies & Opinions 6
Appendix A 13
Appendix B 14
Appendix C 15
Appendix D 16
Appendix E 17
Appendix F 18
Digital audiobooks (DABs) are a growing industry. Roughly 28% of U.S. citizens have
listened to an audiobook in the last year, and the total size of the audiobook industry, based on
the dollars spent annually by consumers and libraries, is close to $1 billion (APA, 2009).
Because libraries are public-service-oriented organizations, they must pay attention to the needs
and trends of their patrons, and DABS are clearly important to patrons.
This paper explores the history of audiobooks leading up to DABs and seeks to explain
why DABs have suddenly become valued commodities. After giving an overview of the
different DAB services available, the author provides an in-depth look at OverDrive, one of the
main DAB commercial content providers to libraries, including a miniature case study of its
utility. The paper reviews the literature on DABs and summarizes the major arguments for and
against the technology, including its fit in today’s society, its convenience, its effects on
intelligence and comprehension as compared with reading, its potential to increase antisocial
tendencies, the size of its potential user group, the lack of standardized formatting, and digital
rights management. The paper concludes with an endorsement for DABs, finding them a
worthwhile investment for libraries.
Are Digital Audiobooks Truly Ear-resistible?
According to a 2009 report by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), the total size of
the audiobook industry, based on the dollars spent annually by consumers and libraries, is close
to $1 billion. While Compact Disc (CD) sales still represent 72% of the audio market, direct
downloads from the Internet have grown to comprise 21% of the market, and Egidi & Furini
(2005) see the downloadable format as being the most promising format for digital files.
Furthermore, more than 1 in 4 U.S. citizens (28%) reported having listened to an audiobook in
the last year, and, as measured by publisher revenue, libraries are the 2nd largest channel in the
audio industry at 32% (APA, 2009). Clearly audiobooks are important to both libraries and their
patrons, but just what is a digital audiobook (DAB), and why is it suddenly becoming a hot new
The history of audiobooks can be traced back to the late 1870s when Thomas Edison
introduced Victorians to sound technologies on wax cylinders with his phonograph. Fifty years
later, literature was first recorded for phonographs on vinyl records in the 1920s for soldiers who
had been injured during World War I (Rubery, 2008). The U.S. Library of Congress got
involved in the audio business in 1934 when it began providing recorded books for the blind,
going through a progression from 33 ⅓ rpm records, to 16 ⅔ rpm records in the 1960s, to 8 ⅓
rpm records, to magnetic tape (analog cassette tapes), to CDs, and finally to digital files (Taylor,
2004). Indeed, audiobooks have historically been seen as a means of helping print-impaired
individuals – the blind, the visually impaired, the physically handicapped, and the learning
disabled (e.g. dyslexics). Returning to the question of why a service that has existed for about
85 years has suddenly been called ‘new media,’ Rubery’s (2008) answer is that digital
technology has expanded the audiobook market from print-impaired individuals to readers of
every kind. In the early days when audiobook users had to struggle with toting and swapping
45-50 cassettes or CDs into a cumbersome player to hear War and Peace without being able to
jump to specific pages or to find desired sections using a Table of Contents, those who could use
other formats, did. However, the convenience of new digital formats makes them appealing to a
much wider mainstream audience (multi-taskers, commuters, gym rats and mall-walkers,
auditory learners and reluctant readers, those learning other languages, and more), and DABs
can be found on the websites of popular vendors such as Audible and the Apple iTunes Store.
Although “digital audiobook” seems relatively straightforward, “the audio representation
of a written book” in the words of Egidi & Furini (2005, p.2), another new craze in the digital
book world, the textual e-book of the variety seen on Kindles and Nooks, has made
distinguishing between the two formats increasingly difficult. The terms “a-books” and “e-
audio” are occasionally used to distinguish the former from the latter; however, “digital talking
book” (DTB) is often used for both formats because the natural partnership of audio and visual
material has encouraged many digital book publishers to merge the two to create a multimedia
experience designed to appeal to a wide range of users. The official definition of a digital
talking book according to the ANSI/NISO Z39.86 2002 Standard is a
collection of electronic files arranged to present information to the target population
via alternative media, namely, human or synthetic speech, refreshable Braille, or
visual display…The content of DTBs will range from audio alone, through a
combination of audio, text, and images, to text alone. (Section 2)
Indeed, the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY), which helped develop the
Standard, includes full audio, audio and text, and full text option under the rubric of DTBs.
Freitas & Kouroupetroglou (2008) makes the distinction that DTBs use only Text-to-Speech
synthesizers for their audio files where DABs use pre-recorded digitally-compressed human
speech, but this distinction was not made elsewhere in the literature (Peters, 2007).
The major commercial DAB services available to libraries provide content by several
different means. Audible, OverDrive, and NetLibrary (from OCLC) allow users to directly
download audio files; Playaway offers preloaded, self-contained portable playback devices; and
TumbleTalkingBooks provides streaming content over the Internet. There are also free sources
online such as LibriVox, Podiobooks.com, Project Gutenberg’s Audio Book Project, and the
Spoken Alexandria Project, but the downsides to these audiobook sources is that they are
comprised largely of the Classics and other public-domain works, often read by volunteers
lacking the same levels of vocal training as professional readers, and may have restrictions on
the quantities downloadable per day.
While there are many benefits to combining digital audio and textual sources, this paper
focuses strictly on digital audiobooks obtainable by libraries from commercial content providers.
When using my home library’s catalog several months ago, I noticed that it offered “e-books.”
Thinking this referred to the textual versions, I was disappointed to learn that the library was
mis-using this descriptor for DABs and that true e-books were not available. Having already
piqued my interest about the terminology, I was reminded of the subject when I began
commuting to school by car and found that I had lots of time to listen, yet none to read. I knew
that my library offered the Playaway technology, but, not wanting to use it while driving, I
desired to learn whether the library’s “e-books” (audiobooks) could be downloaded and played
through the car sound system. Finally, because I had not heard much about audiobooks recently,
I wondered whether they were being replaced entirely by textual e-books, as suggested by
Damian Horner’s questions,
Are we all looking the wrong way? While everyone gets obsessed with e-books, is
the future of mass market books somewhere else entirely? Is the biggest impact of
digital technology actually going to be the rebirth of something that has been around
for years – the humble and much-maligned audiobook? (cited in Rubery, 2008, p.64)
Description of Digital Audio Book Technology from OverDrive
Because my library only provided DABs from OverDrive through ListenNJ, OverDrive’s
products are the focus of my case study. Founded in 1986, OverDrive is based in Cleveland,
OH. In 2000 they launched Content Reserve, their online digital warehouse, then extended their
services to libraries in 2002 with Digital Library Reserve and began providing content tailored to
school libraries (K-12) in 2006 with School Download Library. They also have the College
Download Library for colleges and universities, and, as of June 2009, OverDrive has over 9,000
lending institutions around the globe and provides 200,000 downloadable digital titles in 42
languages, covering a wide variety of genres – anything from business to sci-fi – from many
well-known publishers (See Appendix A). Indeed, OverDrive claims to have the largest
collection of iPod-compatible DABs for libraries, and the company was named to EContent
magazine’s 100 List of companies that matter most in the digital content industry (OverDrive,
OverDrive offers a website that is customized to match a library’s own website and ILS
with no extra hardware or software hosting requirements. Optional MARC records may be
provided, and libraries are free to set their own lending periods. Libraries can choose their
content or select a Download Standing Order Plan and Holds Manager to automate collection
development, upload and share local digital content (e.g. historical documents or local bands’
audio files), and staff can both view and create customized circulation data reports. OverDrive
even provides staff training and help with promotion. In terms of fees, OverDrive charges both
a purchase price for each copy (book prices range from $1.96 to $240) and a monthly platform
maintenance fee (Peters, 2007).
The free OverDrive Media Console needed to play OverDrive titles works with and
offers support for Macs and PCs, and, although not every library carries every format,
OverDrive offers both MP3 and WMA file formats that can be downloaded, burned to CD (if
allowed by the publisher), and transferred to many devices including PDAs, iPods, iPhones,
Zunes, and Sony Readers (OverDrive, 2009b). To facilitate quick and easy downloads,
OverDrive titles are divided into parts of no more than 40MB each, and, while an entire book
may take a while to download, each part can be listened to immediately upon downloading. The
Transfer Wizard allows users to decide which parts to transfer, notifies users when there is not
enough storage space on the device and allows users to address the problem without having to
continuously restart the whole process, and gives instructions on how to restore iTunes settings
that need adjusting. Files are divided into logical sections (e.g. chapters) which are marked by
MediaMarkers, and, similar to DVD chapters, these markers allow users to jump directly to the
desired section. The OverDrive Media Console allows users to skip back 15 seconds, advance to
the furthest point played, choose from a variety of playspeed options, and even add bookmarks
For my case study, I visited the New Brunswick Public Library’s website, clicked on
ListenNJ, and downloaded the free OverDrive Media Console following the instructions (see
Appendices A, B, & C). Using OverDrive’s Amazon-like shopping features to browse by genre
and author, I added a desired book - Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment - to my shopping cart
and then followed standard online shopping procedures to checkout – the difference being that
the I only needed to provide my library card number and PIN (see Appendices D & E). The 16-
part book I selected downloaded in about 1 hour, after which I used the OverDrive Transfer
Wizard to transfer it to my iPod (see Appendix F). It was very simple! As advertised, the
Wizard handled everything - asking me the parts I wanted to download, prompting me to free up
space on my iPod, and instructing me to adjustment my iTunes import settings to improve the
transfer of the DAB files. Because the book was in WMA format, the Wizard automatically
used iTunes to convert the files to MP3s, and, in 90 minutes, all 16 parts had been transferred
(about 5 min. per part).
Current Studies & Opinions
By and large, audiobooks have been ignored by the academic community, making
audiobook-specific studies few and far between (Irwin, 2009). As Rubery (2008) notes,
The growing popularity of audiobooks over the last decade means that literary critics
may no longer be able to turn a blind eye – or a deaf ear, in this case – to the ways in
which oral delivery influences the reception of literature. Digital audio may compel
those of us accustomed to silent reading to heed recent calls to refine our skills in
What, then, are the pros and cons of digital audiobooks?
One of the benefits of the medium, according to Peters (2007), is that it fits in well with
today’s lifestyle in a way that silent reading does not, an argument with which I completely
agree. Not only are DABs convenient, easy, and relatively quick to download from home, 24/7
and without requiring a library visit, they allow literary works to be absorbed in the middle of a
hectic schedule – no light source or page-turning or cassette-changing abilities required! Their
narrated performances and ease of use - the push of a button – enables listeners to be drawn
quickly into the story for the short 10 minute time segments between errands. Furthermore,
placing DABs on light, compact, portable devices makes them easy to transport anywhere, and
they allow listeners privacy and confidentiality because no one knows whether the listener is
enjoying music, a timeless classic, or a trashy beach novel.
These perceived benefits, however, touch upon audiophobics’ core argument that
listening to books instead of reading them is fundamentally detrimental; not only does it increase
antisocial tendencies, but it fails to engage the brain in the same way as reading, ultimately
causing a decline in intellectual development. As Irwin (2009) noted, “The natural presumption
seems to be that listening is easier than reading, and what is harder is better” (p.360). However,
Irwin continues, if listeners engage their mental faculties by listening closely (the aural
equivalent of close reading), they may actually be in a better position to comprehend, appreciate,
and critique literature because less energy is being expended. Furthermore, close listening has
been found to be much more complicated than is commonly imagined, and Rose & Dalton
(2007) give a comprehensible overview of the studies done with modern neuroscience proving
that skillful listening is complex and actually involves “the same executive functions in the
prefrontal cortex that are engaged during active, strategic reading” (p.17). Listening to books
and poetry is also a way to discover details that would otherwise be missed, especially with
Victorian literature (e.g. Dickens) that was often written to be read both silently and aloud at
popular book readings. Quoting Rubery’s (2008) excellent article on the subject, the earbuds
typically used with DABs allow listeners to “attend to minute sonic details that might otherwise
go unheard” (p.72). While it is true that the narrator-based performance of an audiobook does
require listeners to relinquish some interpretive control to the narrator, who selects the
characters’ vocal cadences and tones, listeners must still vizualize the setting. Close listeners
may also use characters’ words to judge whether a narrator’s characterizations match their own
interpretations. Ironically, in the time of Plato, it was believed that reading and writing would
reduce memory and attentive listening – exactly the opposite of what is being argued by
audiophobics today (Rose & Dalton, 2007)!
The fear that DABs promote isolationist tendencies, creating “a form of pseudo-intimacy
used to lull consumers into a manufactured sense of companionship” (Rubery, 2008, p.70), is a
legitimate concern. While earbuds might pipe the words directly into one’s ears, they do limit
one’s social engagement by distracting the listener’s attention from the real world. Rubery
(2008) comments that the “sensation of listening to someone else’s voice whispered directly into
my ear can be far more intimate than any number of public readings could ever hope to be”
(p.71), and this perceived intimacy may entice some listeners to turn to DABs for their
interactions instead of live individuals. On the other hand, the APA found that 9% of adults said
that listening to audiobooks was a great way for them to interact with their children. For
example, if a family listens to an audiobook together, the book can serve as a point of discussion
and bonding in much the same way as a book group, disabusing the notion that DABs are an
intrinsically antisocial medium.
Contributing to the negative reaction about DABs are two National Endowment for the
Arts studies To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence (2007) and Reading
At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004). Their findings showed an alarming
downward trend in American’s reading habits, correlating with lower levels of academic
achievement, reading and writing ability, and even levels of civic involvement. The 2004 study
concluded that “electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands
on their audiences, and often require no more than passive participation” (Preface). However,
DABs were not specifically addressed, and other studies have found that interest in reading
actually increases with audiobook listening, encouraging readers to get physical copies of books
that are unavailable as audio files and to listen to more audiobooks (Rubery, 2008; Rose &
Dalton, 2007; Lo, 2009). One library patron even said, “I couldn’t be bothered to read when
cassettes were the only option, but now that we have this system [DAISY] I am interested in
reading again” (McGrory et al, 2007, p.978).
These positive comments do not mean that DABs are uniformly helpful, however, and
another negative reaction is that portable players are not designed for everyone (Peters, 2007;
Irwin, 2009). Seniors with arthritis and poor vision cannot operate playback devices, and some
players are non-user-friendly. A study of elementary school students in Hong Kong by Lo
(2009) found that several students preferred reading over listening to DABs because they found
audiobooks boring, inconvenient, and either too fast or too slow compared with reading. Lo also
found that, although many students found DABs enjoyable and helpful, DAB use was not
associated with any significant differences in the students’ reading motivation. However, DABs
are intended as just one of many formats used to reach out to libraries’ communities, and those
who are not well-served by DABs can continue to use print resources.
Two related issues associated with DABs are non-interchangeable proprietary formats
and digital rights management (DRM). Coyle (2001) makes a good argument for the necessity
of standards for audiobooks and gives a list of current proprietary e-book formats that, although
partial, is a whopping 23 names long (p.317). Although there is still tension between companies
over standards, three standard formats have emerged, MP3, AAC, and WMA, which coincide
with the popular music industry (Egidi & Furini, 2005). Indeed, the DAB industry appears to
take many of their cues from the music industry’s empirically-tested model, which offers
solutions to the many digital content hurdles. For example, as of 2008, large book publishers –
Random House and Penguin Group – planned to strip away the anticopying software on DAB
downloads, allowing for sharing between devices. According to Stone (2008), the publishers
hope the move will renew growth in the audiobook industry and allow Apple products (which
only play Audible’s format or unprotected MP3 formats) to play all files. They take the attitude
expressed by Bruce Coville, author and owner of Full Cast Audio production company, that, “if
a person wants to bypass DRM, he will” (Harris, 2007, p.24).
Peters (2007) raises several issues that speak specifically to libraries. He comments that,
although libraries can aid people in avoiding costs by providing free DABs, he does not see how
libraries can add to the “direct-to-consumer” experience when commercial websites already have
low download prices. When libraries have to supply technical training, troubleshooting support,
money to buy and maintain DAB services (including cleaning the earwax off players loaned out
by the library), are these services for their patrons really worth the cost?
My answer to this question is, “Yes.” Libraries are inherently service-oriented, and
DABs serve the print-impaired as well as many other groups within the community – from
Prensky’s (2001) young “digital natives” to squinting seniors. As McGrory et al (2007) writes,
“From a services perspective, ‘digital’ clients now have far greater choice of information
resources, reading materials, and formats, more timely access, and the opportunity to manage
their library service independently” (p.991). Indeed, all the articles I read related the many
positives of DABs, so, as Peters’ question suggests, the only real problems are the logistics for
libraries, which can be managed by pooling resources and creative thinking. In short, for
libraries and their patrons, digital audiobooks are both irresistible and “ear-resistible.”
References (APA format)
ANSI/NISO. (2005). ANSI/NISO Z39.86 - Specifications for the Digital Talking Book. National
Information Standards Organization. http://www.niso.org/standards/z39-86-2005/
APA (Audio Publishers Association). (2008, September 15). More Americans are all ears to
APA (Audio Publishers Association). (2009, June 23). Audio industry holds ground in 2008.
Coyle, K. (2001). Stakeholders and standards in the e-book ecology: or, it’s the economics,
stupid!. Library Hi Tech, 19(4), 314-324.
Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) website. (2009). http://www.daisy.org
Egidi, L. & Furini, M. (2005, September 12-14). The Digital Restyling of Audiobook. Paper
presented at the Proceedings of the Communication Systems and Networks (CSN2005),
Benidorm, Spain. http://cdm.unimo.it/home/dsscq/furini.marco/2005-csn.pdf
Freitas, D. & Kouroupetroglou, G. (2008). Speech technologies for blind and low vision
persons. Technology and Disability, 20, 135-156.
Harris, C. (2007). Popular author’s next book isn’t a book. School Library Journal, 53(10), 24.
Irwin, W. (2009). Reading audio books. Philosophy and Literature, 33, 358-368.
Lo, P. (2009, August). Effects of online audio-book resources on library usage and reading
preferences and practices of young learners in an elementary school library setting in
Hong Kong. Paper presented at the World Library and Information Congress: 75th IFLA
General Conference and Council, Milan, Italy. http://www.ifla.org/annual-
McGrory, M., Williams, M., Taylor, K. & Freeze, B. (2007). The impact of the integrated digital
library system on the CNIB Library. Library Trends, 55(4), 973-993.
National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in
America. (Research Division Report #46). Retrieved from
National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To read or not to read: A question of national
importance. Retrieved from http://www.arts.gov/research/ToRead.pdf
News-focused library. (2009). American Libraries, 40(12), 31.
OverDrive, Inc. (2009). Download Services for Public Libraries. (2009).
OverDrive website. (2009). www.overdrive.com (accessed December 10, 2009).
Peters, T.A. (2007). Digital audiobook services through libraries. Library Technology Reports,
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.
Rose, D. & Dalton, B. (2007). Plato revisited: Learning through listening in the digital world.
Paper prepared for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, Princeton, NJ.
Rubery, M. (2008). Play it again, Sam Weller: New digital audiobooks and old ways of reading.
Journal of Victorian Culture, 13(1), 58-79. doi:10.1353/jvc.0.0019
Stone, B. (2008, March 3). Publishers phase out piracy protection on audio books. The New
York Times. http://www.audiopub.org/Articles/NewYorkTimes3308.pdf
Taylor, J.M. (2004). Serving blind readers in a digital age. American Libraries, 35(11), 49-51.
a) OverDrive’s top suppliers (OverDrive, 2009b)
b) How to use OverDrive’s ‘Virtual Branch’ library system (OverDrive, 2009b)
a) Screenshot of New Brunswick Public Library’s website
b) Screenshot of ListenNJ’s website
a) Screenshot of how to download OverDrive Media Console
b) Screenshot of OverDrive Media Console before downloading audiobooks. “Welcome to OverDrive Media
Console” is pre-loaded.
a) Screenshot of the variety of titles provided by ListenNJ as well as the different device options available.
b) Screenshot of ListenNJ’s book options. For each book, the system shows an image of the front cover, user
ratings, a brief synopsis of the book, the type of file, and the devices on which the file will play.
a) Screenshot of the book I downloaded.
b) Screenshot of the 16-part book downloading to OverDrive Media Console.
a) Screenshot of the book’s license, including transfer information.
b) Screenshot of the book’s transfer to my iPod using the OverDrive Transfer Wizard.