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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The publishing industry is listening carefully to the latest news about sales of audio books, and it likes what its hearing. Total sales for audio books hit $871 million in 2005, up almost five percent from a year before. Downloading of books into MP3 players and iPods is increasing, too, both from commercial sites and from local libraries.

NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: When Harry Potter spread his magic through the publishing world, audio books rode on the coattails of his popularity. The audio version of the series about the young wizard is often credited for helping to raise the profile and boost the sales of all audio books. Now, they're getting another boost from the magic of the digital world. Downloads represented nine percent of sales in 2005, a 50 percent increase over the previous year.

Beth Anderson, a senior vice president at Audible.com, says that number will keep going up, as more people get MP3 players.

Ms. BETH ANDERSON (Audible.com): People are realizing that they can use that not only for listening to music, but for listening to books or comedy or speeches or now watching movies and other things. So I think part of it is the availability of devices and part of it is just that we're so busy, we're looking for ways to do two and three things at once and to bring reading back into our lives.

NEARY: The increasing popularity of downloadable audio books is already shaking up the publishing world. Ana Maria Allessi, publisher of HarperMedia, says in the past, all books came out first in hardcover — but that's changing.

Ms. ANA MARIA ALLESSI (HarperMedia): I'm very interested in more pursuing a number of authors where we're going to work with them on what we're calling born digital products, where we'll say it will start its life as a digital download audio book, and it may then go to e-book. And with that success, we may talk to you about printing paper.

NEARY: But as audio book sales increase, so do the number of digital books loaned by public libraries.

Ms. KAREN SIMPSON (Librarian): Ask a librarian, Karen Simpson, can I help you?

NEARY: The Montgomery County Public Libraries in Maryland is one of some 4,000 libraries across the country that are now offering digital downloadable books for free. Mary Ellen Ikaza, Electronic Services librarian at Montgomery County Library, says audio books have always been popular with library users. And librarians are finding that patrons are eager to switch over from checking out CDs and cassettes, because they love the portability and convenience of digital books.

Ms. MARY ELLEN IKAZA (Montgomery County Public Libraries): It's available on our Web site, so it's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So you can be downloading it from at home in your pajamas at 2:00 a.m., or you could be traveling through France and decide you want a book to listen to while you're driving around France. So you could just log onto a PC and download the book.

NEARY: As Ikaza demonstrates, downloading a digital book from the public library works pretty much like downloading audio material from a commercial site — except instead of using a credit card, you use a library card.

Ms. IKAZA: We're going to do a search for "The Awakening," and see if it's available.

NEARY: After choosing from a list of available titles, you click on the book you want and you can audition the book to see if you like the sound of it.

(Soundbite of audio book, "The Awakening")

Unidentified Woman: The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

NEARY: Some titles are always available. Others might have only a few copies in the library, which means there can be a waiting list for some audio books. Steve Potash is CEO of Overdrive, one of the largest providers of audio books to libraries. He says publishers work out different deals for different titles. But Potash says every download has a copyright protection and can only be listened to for a limited time period.

Mr. STEVE POTASH (Overdrive): And this has given us the ability to assure the major publishers and authors that by providing their titles and selling them to the libraries that patrons will get to enjoy them, but those titles aren't going to be necessarily pirated or file shared for dozens of other users.

NEARY: A recent survey of audio book users indicated that 51 percent of the books consumers listened to came from the library. And the increasing popularity of the downloadable version of audio books at the library, says Ana Maria Allessi, makes audio book publishers a little nervous, because digital books don't need to be replaced like books made of paper.

Ms. ALLESI: When you have a digital file that presumably will not ever erode, it just complicates it. And one has to think creatively about how to effectively share that risk and reward to all the different parties.

NEARY: Still, Allessi acknowledges, libraries are helping to bring more attention to audio books, which in the end can only help the business. And right now, she says, there are a lot of unknowns for audio book publishers. While CDs still represent the largest portion of the audio book market, Allessi says digital books could overtake them within a few years. And no one can predict how that will affect the business either.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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