Evolution of the Spoken Word as We Journey into 2017

The oral art of spoken word is the earliest form of human communication, allowing storytelling, teaching and the natural evolution of human ability to express and disseminate personal experience, advice, news and  limitless curiosities of the imagination. With deep roots dating back to ancient Greece, this powerful form of wordplay and storytelling continued to have an  impact with Native Americans in ceremony and ritual, African Americans battling the loss of freedoms and identity and so many more peoples throughout history. The spoken word  as a speech, monologue or recitation also transformed the ability to comprehend humanity for the blind and has transferred and revived ancient classics that might otherwise be lost to digital format. It continues to relate the power of human story using intonation and emotion to connect people across time and space. The audiobook format in itself allows authors, orators, dreamers, revolutionaries, scientists and all who dare to create a living record of their experience, allowing the listener to connect fully with the power of their words.

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick -a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.”
— Neil Gaiman

While it may seem novel in today’s digital era, spoken word recordings first arrived in the late 1800s with Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877. In fact, Edison envisioned the phonographic book to enable communication with the  blind and recited ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ into his invention as a first recording, which we know today as one of the earliest known recitations able to be played back via the phonograph alone. It worked by amplifying the voice through a mouthpiece cylinder which made a recording needle move, indenting the sounds onto tin-coated cylinders.

Throughout the 1930s, spoken word continued to evolve, with the Library of Congress establishing the ‘Books for the Adult Blind Project’, according to Matthew Rubery in ‘Audiobooks, Literature & Sound Studies’, which offered literary listening material to the visually impaired, including many war-blinded WWI veterans, including excerpts from Hellen Keller and the Bible. Rubery’s book dives into that era and looks closely at that process and the evolution of recorded narrative from the phonograph to the audible digital download as well as the debate on whether a recorded book transformed the work into something else entirely, making it no longer a book but something people in that era couldn’t quite put their finger on. Rubbery quotes a woman who describes a blind person’s experience in ‘The Untold Story of the Talking Book’ “as a prosthetic, rather than a substitute for print since most blind readers had no choice in the matter.” We love that concept and couldn't agree more. 

“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”
— Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

The early Soundscriber Phonograph recorded books, poems and other narratives  to 6 inch vinyl records, which quickly made their way into libraries, schools and homes from the 1950s through the mid- 1960s when the cassette tape came onto the scene. That little two-holed rectangle so many fondly remember brought with it devices that enabled audio recordings to reach the masses, including the Walkman and automobile cassette players. Naturally with these innovations, the early 1970s brought instructional recordings, the first voice-over books featuring actors reading classic literature and mail order rental services of audiobooks on tape for avid travelers (genius!)

The 80s showed up hard in the audio world, bringing the formation of the nonprofit Audio Publishers Association, a ragtag band of publishers to promote awareness of spoken word audio and keep statistics on the growing popularity of the art form. By the late 80s, the audiobook market was estimated to be a $200 million trade,, according to Virgil Blake in ‘"Something New Has Been Added: Aural Literacy and Libraries". In the 1900s, the Internet brought an entirely new capability to audiobook technology--digital. Audible.com lead the way in the late 90s with the world's first digital media player, dubbed "The Audible Player".  In 2015, 35,574 audiobooks were published, according to The Audio Publishers Association. Audiobook sales that year also totaled more than $1.77 billion, up 20.7% over 2014. 

When digital technology started becoming the norm, you’ve got 50, 60, 70 years of recordings on tapes that are just deteriorating. Like, a two-inch reel of recording tape won’t last forever. It dissolves. It will disappear.”
— Dave Grohl

And here we are in 2017, continuing to witness leaps in technological advances that enable our ability to carry prose, fiction and fantasy, short stories and motivational teachings around with us on palm-sized devices that slip into the small pocket of our jeans.

So, who are the people creating the abundance of audiobooks we’re hearing worldwide?

  • Authors with previously published work, who are looking for ways to expand the accessibility of their printed masterpieces

  • Coaches, thought-leaders and motivational speakers who are building their brand and audience in our digital landscape through audio

  • Educators who know the power of combining the written word with the spoken word, and are tuning into auditory learning

& so many more types of people in vastly different fields of work around the world who are sharing their story audibly and giving people the chance to listen in wherever they are in all of life's situations. The beauty of a book in a downloadable format is it's ability to travel with you in situations where you otherwise wouldn't be able to pick up a printed book and read. The stories unfurl syllable by syllable as the listener drives their car to visit family in another state, plods gently along the dirt path near their home, walks through the city to grab the morning paper and on and on. Digital stories travel. 

Curious about the process of creating an audiobook? Learn more about our team here at Spoken Word Inc.