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The Other eBook

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Forget Kindles and iPads and Sony Readers and Nooks. While traditional publishers and e-tailers battle for readers, I've discovered another kind of electronic reading experience: audiobooks.

According to the Audio Publishers Association, consumers and libraries spent close to $1 billion last year on audiobooks. "Despite economic challenges, millions of consumers still turn to audiobooks for education and entertainment," said APA President Anthony Goff in a 2009 report. Sales of downloadable audiobooks jumped to 21 percent in 2008, up from 17 percent of all audio sales in 2007. And it's not just books. At Audible.com, you can subscribe to newspapers and magazines, and listen to radio shows, podcasts, original programming, stand-up comedy, and speeches.

Perhaps the best part about audiobooks is that you already own the device necessary to play them. Audiobooks can be downloaded to your computer, then copied to your MP3 player, PDA, or cell phone. You can burn a copy to CD, or play them on your home entertainment system. Content can even be delivered wirelessly to your smart phone, taking the computer out of the equation.

I used to think audiobooks weren't for me. I've always considered myself a visual person. Tell me your name when we're introduced in a social setting, and it's gone five seconds after I hear it. Write it down where I can see it, and I'm the elephant who never forgets.

But after my science thriller Freezing Point sold to Audible.com as part of their "Breakout Thrillers" program, suddenly, I had reason to pay attention. I listened to samples of my narrator's reading on Audible's website, and fell in love. His voice quality, and his wry, sardonic tone, were absolutely perfect for my novel.

Prior to recording, he called me to go over a few pronunciations. "I am responsible for the research for my projects," audiobooks narrator Tavia Gilbert confirms in a fascinating interview by Sandra Parshall on Poe's Deadly Daughters, "so I look up a lot of the language in a dictionary or encyclopedia, call hotels or city halls or embassies to double-check pronunciations of geographic locations and proper names, and call librarians for assistance."

Audiobook narrators are:

"professional narrators or actors and actresses that have voice and dramatic training, are able to use dialects and accents, can respond to direction, have the stamina that being in a closed studio for many hours requires, and ultimately deliver the feeling behind the author's intent of the book or project," according to the APA website.

"I have a stock of characters that I can pull from," says Gilbert:

(Ok, he'll be my low, slow Southern guy, and I'll use my bright, breezy snob for her), and I continue to explore and challenge my vocal instrument and my acting specificity to create new people to play. I constantly soak in the way people speak, listening critically to how people express themselves with sound and language, tone, pacing, rhythm, volume, pitch, placement. I have started finding clips of interesting and idiosyncratic speakers that I can imitate for a particular character, from YouTube or NPR or movies.

When Freezing Point released in audio, I couldn't wait to hear what my narrator had done with the book. At Audible, purchasing an annual plan lets you download 12 books for as little as $7.49 each -- less than the price of my paperback. I signed up, downloaded the software, and took the plunge.

What an experience it was to hear my words read out loud! An audiobook, I discovered, isn't just a reading. It's a performance, like listening to a one-man play. The emotion my narrator conveys through his voice adds a whole new dimension to my written words. And the accents -- Irish, Brazilian, English, Australian -- until I heard my book read out loud, I had no idea I'd created such an international cast.

This week, I made my second audiobook purchase when my short story about a young logger in Michigan's Upper Penninsula was published in a major anthology. First Thrills, edited by Lee Child, is a mix of stories from bestselling thriller authors and newer ones. In addition to the print version (a shiny new copy of which is sitting on my desk), the book is available in audio. I downloaded a copy, and was once again thrilled to hear my work read out loud. The inflection, the pausing, a breath or smile you can feel through your headphones add immeasurably to the experience. First Thrills is especially fun to listen to because the stories are read by a variety of narrators.

Now I'm hooked. I realize that by assuming audiobooks weren't for me, I'd boxed myself into a corner in which I didn't belong. Turns out, I'm both a visual and an audio person.

So if anyone has a recommendation for my third audiobook purchase, I'd love to hear them. I have a cross-country trip coming up, and 10 Audible credits to spend!