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Audio Books Find Niche With Time-Strapped Readers

EVER feel like picking up a good book during a traffic jam en route to work?

The idea may drive safety experts crazy, but drivers can nevertheless safely enjoy bestsellers while waiting at stop lights, driving down winding country roads, or even cruising along the busiest super highway. The solution: books on cassette.

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In a year when the sale of printed books are down, the audio book industry continues to grow.

According to James Brannigan, president of the Audio Publishers Association, retail sales in 1990 of all spoken audio material, including audio books, was approximately $1 billion. Sales increased by 10 percent in 1991, the latest figures available, according to Mr. Brannigan.

"The audio format for the spoken word has become popular because it's something you can do while you do something else. You can drive your car, clean your house, tend your garden, mow your lawn, ride the train, ride the plane, virtually anything," Brannigan says.

The cassettes come in different formats. Some tapes include language instruction, self-help techniques, business management skills, or radio shows. Literature is available, both abridged and unabridged. Some audio books feature celebrity readers while others bring in the authors to read their own work.

UNABRIDGED versions may include special effects.

"Science fiction [audio books] have tended to have more bells and whistles in terms of sound effects and studio effects," says Brannigan. "Most seem to be single voice dramatization, someone telling a story."

Eileen Hutton, acquisitions editor of Brilliance Corporation of Grand-Haven, Mich., says her company is the country's leading publisher of unabridged audio books.

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"We found that most of our customers are very strong readers. They like this as an alternative to books," she says. Brilliance uses special technology that allows the company to record three hours of tape on 90-minute cassettes.

"We can use half as many tapes and, therefore, we can keep it affordable for the average person," Ms. Hutton says.

So what kind of audio books are people buying?

"The most popular for us are novels, anything on the bestseller list," says Hutton. "We find that action-adventure types of things make very good audio. They make the commuting miles pass very quickly."

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