The industry has a prehistory dating back to the Fifties when a tiny record company, Argo, sold recordings of Shakespeare; but this and other initiatives, such as EMI's cheap 'n' cheerful Listen for Pleasure series, did not make much of an impact.
The present boom was spurred by the growth in sales of Walkmans and, above all, the installation of cassette players as standard fittings in cars. But the industry is still so new that sales estimates vary - between pounds 25m and pounds 50m - and there is no agreed name for the tapes. The usual expression, 'talking books', is too narrow. Perhaps the best term would be that old favourite of writers of TV detective series - the 'verbals'.
By all accounts Helen Nicoll, TV producer and writer of children's books, set the pattern. Ten years ago she bought a recording of Jane Eyre to give to her ailing mother. Unfortunately, Mrs N had read the original, and neither she nor her daughter were happy with an abridgement that contained only about a sixth of the original text. Hence Cover to Cover, Ms Nicoll's imprint, which produces the full texts of books on tape.
But hers is a small-scale effort, with fewer than 100 volumes in the catalogue. Industrially the pioneer was the BBC, which woke up to the riches in its sound archives six years ago. As well as the classic comedy programmes, such as Dad's Army, successes have included such delights as Alan Bennett reading The Wind in the Willows.
Bestsellers such as this are not, in general, demanding listening. As Sue Anstruther of BBC Enterprises pointed out at a recent seminar organised by the Society of Authors: 'These are what you might call 'security blankets'. People generally use our tapes as boredom dispellers . . . in cars, while ironing . . . they don't want challenging listening.' Ms Anstruther has been successful enough to plough put back pounds 500,000 profits annually into the BBC's coffers and to fund some of Radio Drama's more ambitious plans by guaranteeing to sell selected plays on tape.
At the same time as the BBC launched its range, W H Smith came to the conclusion that there was a profitable gap in the market. Since 1989 the retail chain has allocated steadily increasing shelf space to word tapes.
The average three-tape set will only hold 30,000 words, a third of a normal-length novel and an even smaller proportion of most Victorian masterpieces. The Americans, who pioneered the form, are now talking of 'unabridged excerpts' - chunks of books separated by explanation.
The first major book publisher to take the new medium seriously was Harper Collins, which is now issuing four or five tapes a month. Penguin is being more enterprising, commissioning books and tapes together - such as a new narrative poem by Craig Raine: History, The Home Movie.
As Jan Paterson of Penguin pointed out to the seminar, tapes enable publishers to reach back to storytelling days. The new(ish) format could also resurrect the 20- 30,000 word novella, a largely lost art form; John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men fits snugly on to a couple of tapes.
As publishers dream of new outlets - not just bookshops and record stores but garages as well - so authors are growing wary of the new medium. While they should get a small additional advance and some form of royalty from a taped version of their work, they often feel that they should read their own books. However, with obvious exceptions such as Garrison Keillor, actors tend to do the job better. They are also concerned that publishers should take as much care producing their tapes as they do their books.
Above all, authors are alert to the way their precious works are liable to be hacked about to fit the two/three-tape straitjacket. It would not be surprising if George Eliot's grave was in turmoil at recent edited tapes of Middlemarch, released to cash in on the success of the TV series - some of them a third the length (and price) of the full Cover to Cover set.
The ghost of Ms E could argue that pounds 69.99 for the full version on 24 tapes is not unreasonable. But better, perhaps, the 'Themes from Middlemarch' than nothing.
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