THE ancient art of storytelling has found a new form in the '80s: books on tape. Commuters can listen to Jane Austen's ``Emma'' (read by Dame Peggy Ashcroft), Anne Beattie's ``The Burning House'' (read by Mary Beth Hurt), or get so enthralled with Steven King's ``The Mist'' that they drive right past their exit. Recorded books have been out in one form or another (78s, LPs, cassettes, now CDs) since the early '50s, but only in the past few years has the market gone into high gear. No longer confined to libraries and schools, book tapes are cropping up in bookstores, supermarkets, drugstores - and truck stops, where Louis L'Amour is a big hit.
Paperback Booksmith in Cambridge, Mass., started stocking them in quantity only three years ago, says manager Charles Ridewood. Now a large section bulges with about 300 titles of classics, best sellers, nonfiction, business-finance, mystery-horror, biography, vintage radio, humor, languages, drama, short stories, poetry, children's programming, health, and self-help - all attractively boxed to look like books.
Cassette player market explosion
It was the market explosion in the early '80s of the portable cassette players (particularly the Walkman type, and car stereos) that brought book tapes into popular markets. Twenty-six million ``personal stereos'' have been sold, according to the Electronic Industries Association, and three out of four American households have at least one cassette player.
Book tapes ``have changed the way people spend their waiting time, especially driving a car,'' says Clare Curtain, marketing director at Caedmon, a record and tape company. ``People use them to catch up on culture. States with a huge commuting population sell a lot of tapes.''
``I really get into them,'' says Susana Brown of Dover, Mass., vice-president of sales for a metal fabrication company. ``My job consists of a lot of driving. There's a tremendous chunk of time that I have available when my hands are busy and I'm able to fill that intellectual void with listening to books.''
Writers read their own books
The idea of recorded books first materialized in 1952, when two Hunter College graduates in English lit started Caedmon and got Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath to read their own works.
Today, authors like Maya Angelou, Saul Bellow, and John Updike are on tape. The latest venture is to have authors read their current best sellers, even before the books come out in paperback.
The ``spoken audio'' field teems with more than 100 independent companies. In the last few years, the large publishers have jumped in as well. Harper & Row, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and others have all turned to spoken audio.
And it's a market that took off suddenly. Seventy percent of bookstores now carry cassettes, most of them only since 1985. ``It's safe to say that five years ago very little was sold at retail,'' as opposed to schools and libraries, says Tom Spain, audio-video editor of Publishers Weekly. This year, sales are estimated at $200 million. The market for books (trade), by contrast, is $6 billion.
Customers like Susana Brown get their books through mail-order rentals, another chunk of the market. She orders 10 at a time, one delivered every three weeks, and gets the 11th free. To minimize cost, she shares them with a friend.
But what they hear is often different from what they'd read. Unabridged versions are available in libraries and through mail order, and can often run as long as 16 cassettes, but most retail books are abridged.
Trimming a 400-page book down to two 90-minute cassettes can be a substantial task, but the condensers, says Paul Kresh, Listen for Pleasure's director of artists and repertoire, ``are so good you can't tell the difference. When we do Thomas Hardy, we don't just do the plot, we try to keep some of the atmosphere. Our main concern is to keep it moving and to be faithful to the author.''
Taping may enhance a book
Some books are read by famous actors, some by unknown but trained actors. Sometimes one actor will read all the parts, using different voices for each character. Dramatized versions present a whole cast of actors. ``A good actor can do with his voice what it takes an author a lot of description to put over,'' says Mr. Kresh.
But if listeners are not getting each word, they are getting a different experience. Sometimes, says Spain, the tape can enhance the book. ``In Rosalynn Carter's `First Lady from Plains,' you hear her tell her story in her own voice. It's pretty moving.''
Will listening to books supplant reading, them? No, analysts say. ``It can give you a good portion of the entertainment value and the informationm but it can't give you the whole experience the book could,'' says Simon & Schuster's Seth Gershel. ``In some cases I could see it lead someone into reading. ''
``When I go on vacation,'' says Ms. Brown, ``I like to lie on the beach and read a real book.''