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Taped Books Enter Literary Fast Lane

May 12, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a veteran magazine representative selling advertising, William Dotts of Corona del Mar is on the road at least six hours a day, driving to San Diego, Los Angeles and, sometimes, even as far as Fresno.

Dotts, 57, views all that driving as a necessary evil, strictly "a means of doing business."

And, as Dotts sees it, "it's a stupid waste of time listening to that marvelous thing they call radio. You don't want to listen to mindless music or just the same old news over and over again."

Dotts doesn't listen to his car radio much anymore--hasn't, in fact, for years.

Instead he pops an audio book into his tape deck.

And, in an instant, he is transported into the mysterious world of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee or he is reliving the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Gordon W. Prange's "At Dawn We Slept."

Driving, Dotts says, has never been so pleasurable since he started listening to books.

"It's a chance to improve your mind and use your time in that car to your advantage," said Dotts, who listens to one or two books a week and just finished biographies of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Winston Churchill.

With a good book along for the ride, he said, "you really don't pay attention to the commute and it keeps you from getting frustrated, shall we say, because of a traffic jam."

Dotts is not alone in the literary fast lane.

There's Betty Sutton of Laguna Beach, who listens to a half dozen books a month: "I love to read, I don't have much time and I'm in the car a lot."

And there's attorney Sallie Reynolds of Newport Beach, who not only listens to books when she's driving, "but when I do the dishes and garden or make the bed. I just listen to them constantly."

The well-read trio are all customers of Books on Tape, a Costa Mesa company that produces and rents out full-length cassette recordings of bestsellers, classics, self-help, history and business books.

Books on Tape is one of the leaders in the burgeoning audio publishing industry, which is cashing in on the popularity of Sony Walkmans and cassette tape players coupled with America's freeway bound, too-little-time-too-much-to-do lifestyle.

The result is that audio books have revolutionized the way many Americans read.

R.R. Bowker's "On Cassette," the standard reference in audio book publishing, lists 30,000 titles from 600 producers.

The majority of the titles are abridgements for sale in retail outlets, many featuring celebrities such as Kirk Douglas reading his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son" (Simon & Schuster Audio), or Elliot Gould reprising his movie role as detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" (Dove).

Simon & Schuster has even released a three-hour recorded version of Richard M. Nixon's new memoir, "In the Arena," in which listeners can hear the former President himself reading his own words. Ronald Reagan did likewise for "Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches With Personal Reflections," released by Simon & Schuster in December.

Increasingly, bookstores are devoting more shelf space to the tapes.

"They're very popular," said Fred Schreier, manager of Scribner Book Store in Costa Mesa, which is expanding its already extensive selection of audio books.

The number of audio books, according to Schreier, "increases every year, so just about every book now has an audio tape."

The Random House catalogue is a case in point.

The New York publishing house began its audio book line five years ago by offering 12 titles. Today it offers more than 250 different titles, with 50 to 60 new ones added to the list each year.

"When we first started, the spoken-word audio industry was in its infancy," said Leslie Nadell, director of publicity and promotion for Random House Audio Publishing.

Random House and other publishers increasingly have been releasing cassette recordings of new books at the same time as the print editions. By doing so, Nadel said, "it gives us the added pop of the publicity. Because the audio industry is young, we have to piggyback on that sort of thing."

Another sign of the times is that five years ago audio publishers were complaining that the medium was so new that reviewers virtually ignored it.

Indeed, as recently as three years ago Nadel knew of only eight reviewers who reviewed audio books occasionally. She now estimates that there are several hundred reviewers covering audio books on a semi-regular basis.

If the industry was in its infancy when Random House started its audio line, it was virtually embryonic when Duvall Hecht started Books on Tape in 1975.

The formation of the nation's first audio book rental service was, as Hecht says, a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

At the time, Hecht was living in Newport Beach and commuting to downtown Los Angeles where he worked as marketing manager for a brokerage firm.

"I became frantic with the commute," Hecht said. "It's such a terribly numbing experience."

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