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How some Americans drive, do dishes -- and 'read' at the same time

Curled up with a good book lately . . . in the driver's seat? A rapidly growing number of bibliophiles are doing just that, poring over classics and best sellers while maneuvering in rush-hour traffic -- or while doing the dishes , mowing the lawn, or walking the dog, as well.

It's not some bewildering optical feat. These bookworms are reading with their ears, not their eyes -- listening to cassette tape recordings of everything from Richard Nixon's recently released "The Real War" to Colleen McCulloch's "Thornbirds" and Irving Stone's "The Agony and the Ecstasy."

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"Spoken word" recordings, as the industry refers to tapes and records based on printed material, have been around a good 30 years, mainly as a classics-only market catering to public schools and libraries.

But the relatively recent advent of the cassette tape -- now played on recorders in an estimated 80 million American homes -- has changed all that. Today the tape-recorded book business is, if not booming,at least growing at a healthy clip.

Now radio-weary commuters can pick and choose from among hundreds of cassette titles, including self-help and nonfiction volumes, best-selling novels, and even a 90- minute news magazine that is "published" twice a month.

"It's very much of an expanding market," says Gerald McKee, editor and publisher of the Audio Cassette Directory, and industry publication.

Among the several new companies to have entered the literary tape field in recent years. Books on Tape has become the biggest success story, growing from 5,000 customers across the country in 1977 to 30,000 avid "readers" today.

Unlike older spoken word companies that offer only abridgements or condensations, Books on Tape features all full-length titles in its current 350 -book catalog. (Audio rights are acquired from book publishers.)

Also unlike other companies, the mail-order firm does not sell tapes, it rents them. For an average of $10 per title, a customer can choose his book, which is generally nine or 10, 60-minute cassette tapes long, and peruse it at his leisure for a month.

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While many reader-renters are commuters, says Books on Tape vice-president Norm Witt, customers include just about anyone whose hands are busy, but whose minds are free: housewives, salesmen, and businessmen who sandwich bits of listening time into otherwise full schedules.

"This is the only way I'm going to be able to read books," says one Books on Tape fan, an investment counselor who flips on the tape recorder for a few minutes during lunch or while he shaves in the morning.

Still other firms court a more specialized reader. The Success Motivation Institute in Texas, for example, puts out just two lines of books -- self-improvement titles, such as Robert Ringer's "Winning through Intimidation," and athletic success stories by such sport stars as Pete Rose and Rod Carew.

At high-brow Caedmon, a long-established firm which, with 900 titles, is by its own account the world's largest seller of spoken word recordings, best sellers are shunned in favor of "lasting literature."

The Caedmon emphasis is on drama, poetry, children's books and adult fiction. Most works are read by the authors themselves (literary luminaries like Robert Frost and Alan Paton) or by famous actors.

"We would never do "The Thornbirds," sniffs marketing director Robert Knox, who says that cassettes, which five years ago accounted for only 20 percent of Caedmon's scribers who pay $195 a year for the business- oriented magazine, which is culled (with permission) from several leading newspapers and magazines. And in Washington, the United States Chamber of Commerce is now trying to decide how to market "Washington Audio Journal," a taped newsletter it has been experimenting with for the past year.

Although much of today's communication industry hoopla focuses on the developing video casette market, audio casette dealers say they expect to hold their own -- much as radio successfully weathered the 1950s debut of television.

"You can't look at a picture all the time, and you can't read printed matter all the time," says Newstrack editor Ed Horton, who predicts the market for his magazine may reach as high as 30,000.

"But," he continues, "we're all doing things where we could be listening."

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