We all have our pet industries, those quirky little eddies in our massively flowing economy (although it's not flowing well at the moment) that for some reason we love to watch and ponder. For example, in the Eighties I became interested in the pork bellies market. Maybe it was my Iowa upbringing, although I never lived on a farm and slopped any hogs. Several times a week I would check in on pork bellies futures -- the old fashioned way, in a printed newspaper, as I trudged barefoot six miles through a raging blizzard to class. Truth to tell, at the time I was in graduate school and working part-time at a restaurant-bar, so I never actually invested any money in pork bellies, but for some reason pork bellies captured and held my attention for awhile.
In this first decade of the new century I have moved a little higher on the hog and become interested in digital audio books. If olfactory readers (you know, those readers who, when pressed for the root cause of their love of printed books, throw up their hands and declare, "I don't know why, I just love the smell of printed books.") skoff at the notion of the barbaric practices of reading (and writing) electronic books on PDAs, cell phones, and other newfangled contraptions, they positively turn up their noses at the idea of calling listening to an audio book a valid and worthwhile form of reading. For many olfactory readers, auditory reading is not reading at all.
So my ears pricked up last week when I heard that Amazon purchased Audible.com. Audible is one of the largest purveyors of downloadable digital audio books. One blogger, who seemed to be a knowledgeable and trustworthy chap, claimed that Audible controls 75 percent of that little quirky eddy.
What Amazon plans to do with Audible is anybody's guess. Companies that focus on downloadable digital audio book services for institutional customers such as libraries -- OverDrive, NetLibrary, and others -- probably should not be too concerned. Neither Audible nor Amazon seem to be very interested in institutional customers. For years Audible claimed that they were working on a business plan tailored for instituional customers, but as far as I can tell nothing substantial came to fruition. That didn't deter some libraries and consortia, such as the Lobe Library, from purchasing and circulating content from Audible, because Audible has a substantial collection of spoken digital content.
Amazon may decide to kill off Audible, or let it suffer from benign neglect, but my suspicion is that they have big plans for downloadable digital audio books. Despite the pooh-poohing of Steve Jobs and most of the biblioblogosphere over the launch of the Kindle ebook reading device, Amazon may be slowly positioning itself for the long haul, via the Kindle and whatever succeeds the Kindle, to deliver all types of content over the Internet in an easy to purchase and easy to use manner. Besting bricks and mortar bookstores was an achievement of sorts, but that aspect of Amazon's business still relies on the internal combustion engine to lug all that pulp, and the future of petroleum based businesses is not rosy. Amazon seems to want to get into digital content in a big way.
Of course, there are a couple of other kids on the block, Google and Microsoft, who want to get into digital content in a big way, too, and they seem to be succeeding. If Microsoft is able to acquire Yahoo, the resulting slugfest may generate a little interest and a few blog posts.
Meanwhile, digital audio book services, both for individuals and for institutions, will continue to gain acceptance and use by the reading public. I think there are multiple reasons for this. In this era of busy lives characterized by frequent multi-tasking, listening to an audio book fits well into the lifestyles of many people. Individually, we all were listeners of audio books before we became readers of printed and digital texts, as we listened as children to our moms, dads, teachers, librarians, and other caregivers read to us. Also, collectively we listened to stories long before we read them with our eyes. The habit of reading silently is a relatively recent development in the history of humankind.
So, during the commercial breaks in the upcoming techno-geek version of American Gladiator between Google and Microsoft, keep an eye on what Amazon does with Audible. It may be a good, barely audible story.