Amateur Audio Books Catch Fire on the Web Literature fans looking for something beyond Oprah Winfrey's book club are discovering a new kind of club on the Internet -- Web sites that offer audio versions of books, voiced by fans and authors instead of professional voice actors.

Amateur Audio Books Catch Fire on the Web

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And as with Wikipedia amateurs are now delving into audio books. Audio books that are podcasts, those are digital, downloadable versions of books on tape and usually books on tape are read by professionals, but literature fans are doing it themselves. And their efforts are building a new community of book lovers. Our regular tech contributor Xeni Jardin prepared this report.

Ms. KARA SHALLENBERG (Stay-at-home Mom): No room, no room, they cried out when they saw Alice coming. There's plenty of room, said Alice indignantly.

XENI JARDIN, reporting:

You may recognize that story. It's Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, but you probably don't recognize the voice. Kara Shallenberg is a stay-at-home mom in Oceanside, California. She's reading Alice for a new website called Librivox, a catalog of downloadable spoken word sound files for books not under copyright protection. Kara jumped at the chance to read classics for Librivox.

Ms. SHALLENBERG: It's really fun to read these books. It's a really friendly community, very welcoming, very encouraging, very enthusiastic about books.

JARDIN: Kara has now voiced over a hundred chapters of books for Librivox and other literary podcasting sites. Our Francis Smith is a fellow Librivox volunteer who contributed another chapter of Alice in Wonderland.

JARDIN: Smith is a fellow Librivox volunteer who contributed another chapter of Alice in Wonderland.

Mr. SMITH: In the very middle of the court was a table with a large dish with tarts upon it. They looked so good that it made Alice quite hungry to look at them.

JARDIN: Smith works as a computer administrator in Stillwater, Oklahoma and in his spare time he's voiced Bram Stoker's Dracula, some Grimm's Fairy Tales, and the entire text of the Bible's New Testament. He's a busy dad of two and first started listening to book podcasts for convenience. But he says there are other reasons to be excited about putting classics like Alice in Wonderland online.

Mr. SMITH: This is something that a lot more people have scene an animated movie version of than have actually sat down and read the book version of. What Librivox really wants to do is to make sure that classic works aren't disappearing from the public consciousness.

JARDIN: That's particularly true for the age group most plugged into podcasting. In addition to bringing new fans to literary classics, this can also help bring new authors to reading audiences. Publishing companies may not want to release more obscure book titles as traditional audio books because of the financial risk; what if nobody buys? But with fan-created book podcasts, money is no object and it doesn't matter if five people or five million end up tuning in. The sci-fi book podcasting site Escape Pod features the work of writers who see this as a way to attract new audiences. Steve Eley is a science fiction writer and founder of Escape Pod. Unlike other book podcast sites, this one pays writers.

Mr. STEVE ELEY (Editor/Producer, Escape Pod): We buy stories from authors, we buy nonexclusive audio rights from them. We podcast the work and we put it out on a Creative Commons license which means that the work is free for anyone to listen to. We make this back by asking for donations from our listeners.

JARDIN: Eley said each podcast averages about 10,000 downloads a week. That's a lot more people for a lot cheaper than these authors might reach through small science fiction magazines. Henry Jenkins is Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT. He researches how fan communities operate on and offline. Jenkins believes that book podcasts may give literary culture a shot in the arm in years to come.

Mr. HENRY JENKINS (Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT): Think of it as the electronic equivalent of a book club. Not the commercial kind of book club, but the kind of clubs people have formed around town libraries or meeting in their living room for some period of time where they read a book in common and then discuss it. Using the podcast as the center of that, around it, then you have opportunities for dialogue and conversations about that book with other people.

JARDIN: Although fans may appreciate these amateur efforts, sometimes you have to wonder if the voicer's interpretation is exactly what the author intended.

Unidentified Woman: Connie went to the wood directly after lunch. It was really a lovely day.

JARDIN: That's a clip from Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence read on the audio book blog Urban Art Adventures. But the unpolished delivery of some podcasts isn't really a problem, says Jenkins of MIT; especially for lesser known works.

Mr. JENKINS: Where the amateur becomes valuable is when there is no commercial alternative available. When you're dealing with a book that otherwise you wouldn't be able to consume in this format. And there's something so wonderful about hearing a human voice read to you.

JARDIN: Jenkins says as the amateur podcasts become more popular, writers and publishers may discover it's all good for book business. And book fans may discover a lot more to like.

For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

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