Sales soar as talking books mark 75 years

What began as a public service for blinded First World War veterans is now a major publishing success story

They started as an aid for battle casualties and elderly people with failing eyesight. Now talking books are a publishing sensation, enjoyed by millions as an alternative to the printed word.

According to the most recent sales figures from the Publishers Association, downloads of audio books grew by 72 per cent between 2008 and 2009. Sales of talking books on CD, cassette and DVD also grew to an annual £22.4m, according to the sales monitoring company Nielsen BookScan.

It all began very differently. Exactly 75 years ago today, audio books were first produced as a public service for soldiers blinded in the First World War. The Talking Books Service, an audio library run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, was launched in 1935, when Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was recorded on to LPs and distributed to users, along with a large record player. Modern technology – particularly MP3 players – and a growing roster of high-profile narrators, have given the format a dramatic boost.

AudioGO, which took over BBC Audiobooks last year, is one of the UK's largest producers of recorded books, and passed a landmark millionth download last year. Its publishing director Jan Paterson said: "The market is growing all the time. The portability of MP3 players has made more people interested in listening to books. The perception of the audio book as something for older people has changed because people listen to them while doing other things."

The RNIB has been a major beneficiary, with the five audio books it offered in 1935 growing to more than 18,000 titles, which are distributed to 1.76 million Britons.

The actor Martin Jarvis, who has narrated hundreds of books, said: "I get letters from people all the time who say they listen to me in their cars or hear my voice coming from their children's bedrooms. When I record I'm shooting a movie in my mind; I want the listener to forget they're listening and imagine they're there."

Sir Duncan Watson, 84, vice-president of the RNIB, said: "I've been using Talking Books since I lost my sight at 16. They were on big records then and didn't play for long, but now I've just heard Alastair Campbell's The Blair Years on two CDs. It really gives you a window on the world."

Sue Townsend: Author of the Adrian Mole series

One day, after a heavy writing stint, I lay down on the sofa with a copy of Simon Gray's diaries. I read 17 pages then I went to sleep. When I awoke I couldn't see. Those 17 pages were the last words I read unaided.

The RNIB Talking Books Service lifted me out of the pit of misery. I went on holiday and lay listening to hours of beautifully read books. Talking Books helped me to realise that it was possible to be well read without books.

Talented talkers: Voices that bring words to life

Stephen Fry has made a fortune as the official narrator of the audio books for all J K Rowling's Harry Potter series in the UK. His output pales, however, compared with actors Miriam Margolyes and Martin Jarvis, two of Britain's most prolific recorders of talking books.

Jarvis was described by columnist Christopher Hitchens as like "a company of actors inside one suit" after he listened to his recordings of P G Wodehouse's novels.

Roald Dahl recorded several readings of his own children's books, including Fantastic Mr Fox and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, often beginning tapes with the words: "Read by Roald Dahl, that's me."

The tones of Joanna Lumley have also become ubiquitous on audio books; the actress has narrated everything from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to war poetry and Dahl's Esio Trot.

Gordon Brown used the Talking Books service after an operation on his retina when he was 21 meant he was entirely blind for several days, while Margaret Thatcher also borrowed from the RNIB library after an eye operation. The actor Eric Sykes and poet laureate Sir John Betjeman also used the service.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album