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Taped Books Enter Literary Fast Lane

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a veteran magazine representative selling advertising, William Dotts of Corona del Mar is on the road at least six hours a day, driving to San Diego, Los Angeles and, sometimes, even as far as Fresno.

Dotts, 57, views all that driving as a necessary evil, strictly “a means of doing business.”

And, as Dotts sees it, “it’s a stupid waste of time listening to that marvelous thing they call radio. You don’t want to listen to mindless music or just the same old news over and over again.”

Dotts doesn’t listen to his car radio much anymore--hasn’t, in fact, for years.

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Instead he pops an audio book into his tape deck.

And, in an instant, he is transported into the mysterious world of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee or he is reliving the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Gordon W. Prange’s “At Dawn We Slept.”

Driving, Dotts says, has never been so pleasurable since he started listening to books.

“It’s a chance to improve your mind and use your time in that car to your advantage,” said Dotts, who listens to one or two books a week and just finished biographies of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Winston Churchill.

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With a good book along for the ride, he said, “you really don’t pay attention to the commute and it keeps you from getting frustrated, shall we say, because of a traffic jam.”

Dotts is not alone in the literary fast lane.

There’s Betty Sutton of Laguna Beach, who listens to a half dozen books a month: “I love to read, I don’t have much time and I’m in the car a lot.”

And there’s attorney Sallie Reynolds of Newport Beach, who not only listens to books when she’s driving, “but when I do the dishes and garden or make the bed. I just listen to them constantly.”

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The well-read trio are all customers of Books on Tape, a Costa Mesa company that produces and rents out full-length cassette recordings of bestsellers, classics, self-help, history and business books.

Books on Tape is one of the leaders in the burgeoning audio publishing industry, which is cashing in on the popularity of Sony Walkmans and cassette tape players coupled with America’s freeway bound, too-little-time-too-much-to-do lifestyle.

The result is that audio books have revolutionized the way many Americans read.

R.R. Bowker’s “On Cassette,” the standard reference in audio book publishing, lists 30,000 titles from 600 producers.

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The majority of the titles are abridgements for sale in retail outlets, many featuring celebrities such as Kirk Douglas reading his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (Simon & Schuster Audio), or Elliot Gould reprising his movie role as detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” (Dove).

Simon & Schuster has even released a three-hour recorded version of Richard M. Nixon’s new memoir, “In the Arena,” in which listeners can hear the former President himself reading his own words. Ronald Reagan did likewise for “Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches With Personal Reflections,” released by Simon & Schuster in December.

Increasingly, bookstores are devoting more shelf space to the tapes.

“They’re very popular,” said Fred Schreier, manager of Scribner Book Store in Costa Mesa, which is expanding its already extensive selection of audio books.

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The number of audio books, according to Schreier, “increases every year, so just about every book now has an audio tape.”

The Random House catalogue is a case in point.

The New York publishing house began its audio book line five years ago by offering 12 titles. Today it offers more than 250 different titles, with 50 to 60 new ones added to the list each year.

“When we first started, the spoken-word audio industry was in its infancy,” said Leslie Nadell, director of publicity and promotion for Random House Audio Publishing.

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Random House and other publishers increasingly have been releasing cassette recordings of new books at the same time as the print editions. By doing so, Nadel said, “it gives us the added pop of the publicity. Because the audio industry is young, we have to piggyback on that sort of thing.”

Another sign of the times is that five years ago audio publishers were complaining that the medium was so new that reviewers virtually ignored it.

Indeed, as recently as three years ago Nadel knew of only eight reviewers who reviewed audio books occasionally. She now estimates that there are several hundred reviewers covering audio books on a semi-regular basis.

If the industry was in its infancy when Random House started its audio line, it was virtually embryonic when Duvall Hecht started Books on Tape in 1975.

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The formation of the nation’s first audio book rental service was, as Hecht says, a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

At the time, Hecht was living in Newport Beach and commuting to downtown Los Angeles where he worked as marketing manager for a brokerage firm.

“I became frantic with the commute,” Hecht said. “It’s such a terribly numbing experience.”

Burned out on “bad music and worse news,” Hecht wrote to everybody he could think of--libraries, publishers, recording companies--to find out what they might have that he could listen to during his commute.

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He discovered there were motivational tapes, sales tapes, meditation tapes, language tapes, how-to tapes and poetry tapes--but “at $10 a shot for 60 minutes--you’ve got to get one tape going up and one to come back--it just isn’t practical.”

Recalled Hecht: “I thought there should be some place that provided a steady diet of good quality books that you could access at reasonable cost.”

Thinking that “there’s got to be a lot of people like me who are bummed out” by their commutes, Hecht and his now ex-wife, Sigrid, acquired the rights to four books and began renting the unabridged taped books by mail out of their home.

Books on Tape now operates out of a 15,000-square-foot former sail loft in Costa Mesa, boasts 75,000 customers nationwide and a catalogue of more than 2,500 titles. Between 200 and 250 new titles are added each year.

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A typical 350-page book equals about 12 hours of tape and rents for $15.50 to $17.50, plus postage, for 30 days.

Hecht concedes that his service isn’t inexpensive. “But it’s reasonable compared to what you spend for abridgements, which are $15 for two hours. A commuter wants to fill his hours, so with us you spend $15 and you get 10 hours.”

Because they began their business on a shoestring--$4,000 from the sale of Hecht’s 1965 Porsche--the Hechts were able to offer authors only $100 in advance royalties, plus 10% of all rental income, for the audio rights to a book.

“In those early days we had one standard offer: Take it or leave it,” Hecht said.

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Most took it.

“I always acknowledge how the publishers helped us get started because $100 isn’t an economic decision. It’s a decision that says, ‘Well, we’re going to help these guys and we’re going to see what they can do,’ ” said Hecht, who still marvels at the fact that Books on Tape paid Robert Ludlum $1,100 for the audio rights to 11 of the best-selling author’s books.

Books on Tape can now afford to pay up to a $10,000 advance royalty for best-selling authors such as Tom Clancy, but the company usually pays between $500 and $5,000.

Because of the expense and difficulty in hiring name actors and actresses who have the time required to do the lengthy unabridged readings, Books on Tape has always used unknown actors and actresses as readers.

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Actor Michael Prichard, business manager at the Pasadena Playhouse, has been a reader for Books on Tapes since 1976, recording up to three books a month. It takes him about 18 hours to record a six-hour book, the equivalent of 300 pages. But he will read, at most, only 2 1/2 hours a day. “I find 2 1/2 hours of concentrated reading can exhaust you,” he said.

Prichard said that doing a book reading is a lot different from acting on stage. Readers, he said, must keep in mind that they’re reading to one person, not an audience.

“I try to tell it the way the author would like it told or would tell it himself if he had a chance,” Prichard said.

Although a relatively unknown actor such as Prichard can develop his own coterie of fans--over the years he has taped readings of 150 books--celebrity readers dominate the abridgements.

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And there’s no denying that the celebrity factor adds significantly to the tapes’ appeal.

After all, who wouldn’t like to hear Charlton Heston read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” or the inimitable Shelley Winters talking about her love affairs in “Shelley II: The Middle of My Century.”

“I think it’s what makes it fun,” said Seth Gershel, vice president and director of sales for Simon & Schuster Audio. “It’s kind of nice to sit back and hear a voice that you’re familiar with.”

Celebrity or not, the right match of reader and material is critical.

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Henry Trentman, founder of Recorded Books, a Maryland audio book rental company, said: “A reader can really have a dramatic effect on a book. They can take a mediocre novel and make it much better than it is, and take a good novel and lessen the enjoyment of it.”

Since the beginning, audio books have been criticized for further eroding the nation’s reading habit.

Hecht and others in the field maintain that isn’t so.

“The people who subscribe are all highly literate people, all book people,” Hecht said. “The problem, as they see it, is they don’t have enough time to read with their eyes. This is just another way of reading.”

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Random House’s Nadell agrees.

“By far, the majority of our product is sold in bookstores and anyone who walks into a bookstore is first and foremost a reader,” she said. “It’s similar to the movie industry: Just because you rent a videocassette at home does not mean you don’t go to the movies.”

Audio abridgments, in particular, have come under attack by critics who decry them as “Kentucky Fried literature.” Despite the appeal of hearing a familiar celebrity voice, there’s no question that abridgment listeners receive only a sampling of an author’s work--a literary hors d’oeuvre rather than a full-course meal.

Take Tom Wolfe’s 659-page “Bonfire of the Vanities,” for example. The unabridged Books on Tape version read by Michael Prichard runs 27 hours; Random House’s abridgement read by actor John Lithgow runs only 180 minutes.

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And, as Playboy book critic Digby Diehl recently wrote, in comparing the two versions: “I can assure you that by going the condensed route, you will be missing eight-ninths of the fun.”

As Hecht sees it, there’s room for everything.

“For some people, what they want--what they’ve got time for, what suits their concentration--is to have a quick fix on an abridgement,” he said. “And we have folks who want to dig deeper--they want to get the whole thing--and that’s the market we serve.”

Hecht views audio books as simply a way to fill down time.

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“If a person is sitting down around the home, I think he wants to read a book,” Hecht said. “But if he’s out gardening he’ll want to have a headset on. And then there’s those times when they’re in their cars. The commuters are the guys who are desperate for something to listen to.”

From the beginning, Hecht predicted that commuters would be the company’s biggest customers and he was right: 90% of Books on Tape subscribers listen to them while driving.

As producers of full-length taped books, both Hecht and Trentman concede that they are reaching a limited market, however.

Trentman said Recorded Books has 20 employees, all of whom have the opportunity to listen to all the books they want for free. And even though some of them drive 40 minutes to work, he said, “only a couple of them listen to books.”

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The bottom line, he said, is “you’ve got to be a reader to enjoy it.”

Indeed, like their printed-page counterparts, audio book customers sometimes get so caught up in a book they just can’t turn off.

Books on Tape regulars Ron and Joyce Hanson of Laguna Beach recall the time they were listening to John le Carre’s “The Russia House” while driving to their ranch in Idaho.

They weren’t finished with the book when they arrived at the ranch and so, Hanson said, “we sat in the garage 45 minutes to hear the end of it.”

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