PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. — Driving a battered Toyota Corolla well beyond the 200,000-mile mark somewhere between Pennsylvania and North Carolina, traveling salesman Henry Trentman battled traffic, sleep and mind-numbing boredom.
Talk radio was stultifying. The Jack Benny records he'd taped were exhausted. And a stream of billboards and roadside images swept over him like a warm martini on a hot day.
In 1978, after eight years of hawking scientific machinery, Trentman turned his tedious trips into inspiration and founded Recorded Books Inc., the audio book company.
Since then Recorded Books has won favored shelf space from audiophiles and libraries for its unabridged format and painstaking research on everything from "Beowulf" to Pat Conroy's new novel "Beach Music."
There's just one problem: With a 10-minute commute and a thriving company to run, Trentman now has little time for leisure listening.
"It's very annoying," he says.
The venture wasn't an instant success. For his first book, Trentman hired actor Frank Muller to read Jack London's "Sea Wolf." The sound quality was so bad Trentman had Muller record it again four years later to spare himself the agony of hearing the original.
For the first six years, Trentman, 51, had to hire a manager to run the books business and keep his own sales job to make ends meet. His salary the first year was $15,000.
"I thought when I got into this business that all you had to do was get a tape recorder, give it to an actor, give him a book to read, put an ad in the paper and in a few years you'd be rich and smoking big cigars in the Caribbean," he says. "It wasn't that way at all."
It may not have been easy at first, but the math was right. Each day 85 million Americans drive alone to work for an average commute of an hour a day, according to Recorded Books. And Americans, crunched for time, read about 30% less than their European counterparts.
Now millions make up the time on the road.
"If you put the right book in, it just takes your mind out of that world into another world and by the time you get home you're civil, you're good to the kids, good to the wife," Trentman says. "It's the world's greatest tranquilizer."
The Audio Publishers Assn. estimates the audio book market at $1.5 billion. The market grew 37% in 1992, 40% in 1993 and 17% the first half of 1994, the association said.
As a privately held company that does mostly rental business, Recorded Books keeps its sales and earnings figures to itself. But the company puts out 240 titles a year and has produced 1,600 of the estimated 20,000 titles produced overall.
Licensing agreements bar Recorded Books from selling at the retail level, so the company does the bulk of its business selling and renting cassettes through direct mail and selling to libraries. Retailers including Encore Books rent Recorded Books.
Since big publishers such as Bantam, Random House and Simon & Schuster jumped into the growing market, they have stayed mainly with abridged, two- and four-cassette best-sellers. Recorded Books and California-based Books on Tape Inc. have stayed with unabridged recordings.
"It never occurred to me to do anything other than unabridged," Trentman says. "I couldn't imagine anybody wanting to listen to an abridged copy."
Although not the first company to produce audio books and certainly not the biggest, Recorded Books' unabridged-only policy has won the favor of such high-profile authors as Stephen King. In a 1994 interview with the Daily News of Los Angeles, King said he listens to audio books from Recorded Books, which has produced two of his books.
Most authors take the money and run when a publisher offers to put their books out on abridged cassettes, but they rarely like the results, said Barbara Mertz, a best-selling author of more than 50 romantic mysteries under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.
"You know how shortened the abridged versions are--they're not half of the book," says Mertz. "They're about a tenth of it, and there's no room for anything in there but the plot. . . . Most authors don't like to see our wonderful words cut out."
The company's New York staff interviews more than 400 actors each year and adds two or three to its ranks of narrators, according to studio manager Claudia Howard. Reader Barbara Rosenblat conveys the stories so well, Mertz says, that she made Rosenblat's narration a condition of her contract.
"They're really about the best," says Dean Thompson, a blind audio aficionado who owns a Staten Island, N.Y., television production company and writes audio books reviews for Audiofile magazine. "It's not just the reader and the research but whether the cotton-picking cassettes work."
The company's research goes beyond carefully choosing a narrator and using decent cassettes. The New York studio staff recently spent a year and a half producing the only audio version of James Joyce's "Ulysses," a Mount Everest of a project researching pronunciations in eight languages and adding more than two dozen musical snippets on 42.5 hours of tape, Howard says. The cassette box looks like a small briefcase.
An audio book may be the only way many readers will ever get to an author whose works some college graduates compare unfavorably to an eye chart.
"A lot of people will pick the classics because of guilt," Trentman says. "They knew they should've read them, they never have, and they're in their car and the book has sat on the table for months or years.
"I think the important thing that is now happening is that people who never had time to read but have the intellectual curiosity--it still requires that--are now reading."