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Commuting may be a headache for many people facing traffic gridlock, but Patricia Henke doesn't mind the drive as long as one of her carpool partners is Harry Potter. Or Lemony Snicket will do in a pinch.
Five days a week, Henke and her 10-year-old son, Drake, tune out the news and traffic reports on their commute to Atlanta and pop in an audiobook about J.K. Rowling's boy wizard or some other literary character.
It's very family-friendly,'' says Henke, 39.I don't have to worry about violence in the news, inappropriate commercials or vulgar comments on the radio.''
Henke is among a growing number of busy Americans who have more time to listen to books than to read them.
Over the past five years, book sales have been flat, and overall readership has declined. But the $800 million audiobook business has grown by 10 percent a year since 2000. A recent Library Journal survey reflected a 13.5 percent jump in circulation for adult audiobooks in two years.
Part of the increase surely can be attributed to the amount of time Americans spend in their cars. In Atlanta, the average daily commute is about 31 minutes each way.
Random House Audio Publishing ranks Atlanta as the second largest market for its recorded books _ after Los Angeles, naturally _ primarily because it is a city of so many commuters.
For Tisa Washington, 29, who got hooked on audiobooks while commuting in metro Atlanta, finding a good novel was the perfect remedy for road rage.
It usually took me an hour and a half to get to work,'' she says,and [the books] made sitting in traffic a breeze.''
Beyond commuting, audiobooks appeal to people who want to ``read'' while doing other favourite activities.
``Audiobooks are wonderful tools to help people experience books, whether they're in a hellish commute or working in the garden,'' says Mary Beth Roche, president of the Audio Publishers Association.
Shannon Maughan, who writes about audiobooks for the industry magazine Publishers Weekly, tries to match her listening choices with her particular activities.
I sometimes listen to a food book while cooking,'' she says.I don't want anything so detailed or suspenseful that I'll burn the dinner.''
Spicing up the workout
Katherine Truesdale, 33, has listened to more than 60 audiobooks while working out at the gym. Otherwise, she says, her exercise sessions would be boring, and she wouldn't be able to keep up with everything she wants to read.
I listen to every category except romance,'' Truesdale says.Mostly it's nonfiction _ finance and management _ but I've also read mysteries and Michael Crichton's thriller State of Fear.''
Truesdale gets her audiobooks from BookEars, a chain of stores that specialise in books on cassette and CDs.
For an annual membership fee of $299, she can rent two audiobooks at a time as many times as she likes.
Allison Ilg has become an avid listener as well, picking up her CDs and tapes at Cracker Barrel restaurants. The chain has a programme that allows customers to rent an audiobook and return it within five days to any of its restaurants.
It was weird at first to listen to a book,'' Ilg says.But it makes the time go by faster on the drive. It puts you in another place.''
How the written material is presented on audiobooks is as varied as the producers themselves. Some authors read their own works; actors or professional narrators provide voices for others.
For some books, publishers employ sound effects and multiple casts of readers in a bona fide literary performance.
Jim Dale, who has become a celebrity narrator for his work in the Harry Potter audiobooks, speaks in a different voice for more than 200 characters.
By adding such extras as music and sound effects _ making audiobooks more of an entertainment event _ publishers are hoping to make inroads into the iPod generation.
One of the fastest growing segments of audio publishing is digital downloads.
Audible.com is one of the leading companies providing downloaded audio, says Roche, who sees virtually unlimited potential in the market.
Roche says, ``Fifty percent of Audible.com's first-time customers have never listened to an audiobook.''
Customers can click onto the site, purchase a book, burn their own CD or download it to an iPod or other portable player.
The cost is usually less than a standard audiobook. Audible.com's price for The Da Vinci Code, for example, is US$28.97, compared with a retail audiobook price of $44.95.
And listening to a book on an iPod, many enthusiasts are quick to point out, is a lot more convenient than lugging around, say, 22 CDs for James Joyce's Ulysses.
Giving kids an edge
Alarmists may worry that listening to books will ultimately replace reading them altogether, but many in the publishing industry consider audiobooks a handy tool in building literacy.
Roche cites studies that show children can listen to books two levels beyond what they're able to read in print. And the listening experience helps build their vocabulary, she says, because they hear new words in context.
Also, audiobooks help them learn how to read with expression,'' she says.They make the whole reading experience more pleasurable.''
In some cases, audiobooks can even help bring parents and children closer together.
Amanda D'Acierno, publicity director for Random House Audio Publishing, says many adults like to listen to the audio versions of the books their kids are reading.
That way, they can keep up with what their children are reading,'' she says,and have conversations about the books in the evening.''
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