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Talking Books: Developing for the Better

We mentioned one form of audio book briefly in the February 2002 issue, including the means to turn reports available as word processor files into audio files. The technology we discussed then involve...

January 1, 2003
By Pulp & Paper Canada


We mentioned one form of audio book briefly in the February 2002 issue, including the means to turn reports available as word processor files into audio files. The technology we discussed then involved computer-generated speech and the results were far from appealing, although quite accurate in presenting straightforward text. This month we will look at audio book technology that is much more effective.

It has been possible to buy some books on audio tapes for years, although many are abridged. You will find a wide selection on www.amazon.ca, as well as in some bookstores.

Although it is relatively simple to copy the recording of a person reading a book to CD-ROM discs and play them like music in a computer or automobile CD player, most books would require multiple discs if the audio were simply recorded.

It takes about twice to three times as long to read a book aloud as to read normally, so a typical novel may require about eight hours of audio. Since a CD provides about 80 minutes of audio, half a dozen CDs would be required.

To overcome the problems of the large recording capacity required for normal speech, software has been developed to compress speech, which is amazingly effective in many cases. For example, a selection of speeches by Winston Churchill, mostly recorded in the original, requires 8 Mb on my hard disc, but when converted to play as an audio CD in my car, required almost two full CDs, for a total file size of about 1200 Mb. Either version plays equally well, with only very slightly distorted audio, relative to a top quality recording. The 8 Mb version requires software to decode and play it, which is provides free by vendors of audio books. Since it requires computing power, it cannot be installed in an automobile CD player.


There is a major vendor on the Internet at www.audible.com. They claim to have 4,500 books and 10,000 other audio “programs” available, including speeches by famous people, daily news from the Wall Street Journal, radio shows, etc.

Audible.com offers each book in several file sizes. The least compressed files have the best audio. Their scale is from 1 to 5, but I have tried only level 2, since the level 4 files are about three times larger, and I have only a modem connection to the Internet.

Audible.com prices are generally slightly below those for paperback versions of the same books. Amazon prices for audio versions are generally well above the paper versions.

On Amazon.ca, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets costs $54.57 on audio CD, $38.50 on audio cassette, and $11.95 as a paperback. Amazon actually ships a CD or tape to you, while Audible.com audio books are delivered by download. Apparently, the vendors have decided not to pass on the obvious savings in reproduction/printing costs for electronic copy vs. paper copy to the customer.


Most laptop computers and many desktop computers are equipped with speakers, and it is fairly simple to equip any reasonably modern desktop computer with sound capabilities. One can use speakers, or plug in earphones, as appropriate to the circumstances. Hardware is therefore not normally an issue.

Presuming that you purchase audio books by downloading over the Internet, a high speed connection is desirable, since file sizes are typically several Mb.

If you wish to transfer downloaded programs to your portable player, then a USB port is normally required. These are standard on recent computers, and can be retrofitted to older models.


There are several ways of playing audio books in a car, each with its own pros and cons.

You can simply strap your laptop down in the passenger seat, and let it play the book, using its speakers (remember that wearing headphones while driving is illegal in many jurisdictions). This uses minimal disc space, and requires no additional equipment.

If your car has a built-in MP3 player, then you can play many audio book files directly. I have not seen an MP3 player offered by a car manufacturer, but there are several on the third-party market, in auto accessory and in audio shops.

You can convert the original audible book file to CD format, using software that is available free on the Internet. These can play directly in the car’s CD player, but as mentioned above, several discs will usually be required for a regular-sized book.

Portable, “Walkman-style” players are available for under $200. Although they can be used directly in a car, it is probably best to spend the $30 or so extra for an adapter that connects the earphone jack in the player, to the tape cassette slot in the car’s equipment, and plays through the car speakers.


The cost of audio books ranges from similar to paperbacks to several times the price. I expect the audio books will become much less expensive as competition heats up, since the real production and distribution costs are much lower. It is difficult to imagine that the costs of recording (a one-time issue) can approach printing and physical distribution for thousands of copies of traditional books.

The only real justification I can see for audio books or magazine subscriptions is to replace reading, when driving or to overcome eyesight problems.

Audio books produce more hours of entertainment for drivers per dollar cost, but on the other hand, most people are likely to listen to an enjoyable tune many times, while few will play a book multiple times.