WATERTOWN, Mass. Brick-and-mortar bookstores, long predicted to be on their deathbeds due to the growing market power of on-line sellers, are on life support these days due to an unexpected shot-in-the-arm from an unlikely vaccine: audio books, now the most heavily-prescribed remedy for what ails the publishing industry.
“It’s the fastest-growing category out there,” says Simon Pearsall of DigiPublishing, a trade journal that covers the business of selling books not made with paper. “Nobody saw this coming, maybe because we spend all our time at trade shows in hotel bars.”
The trend has made “rock stars” out of certain audiobook narrators, including Maeve Glincher, an unassuming woman with grey hair and bad posture who is favored by readers of what is sometimes referred to as the “there’s-something-nasty-in-the-garden” genre of women’s fiction written by authoresses such as Rosemary R. DeLuth and Anna Marie Glockenspiel. “Typically you have a quaint, idyllic setting, such as the Cotswolds in England or Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey,” Glincher says as she takes a seat behind an autograph table at Charles River Books here. “The scullery maid comes back from the compost heap to say the vicar’s been clubbed to death with a potato rake, that sort of thing.”
The line starts moving and Glincher tries to accommodate each request for a personal inscription with a smile, but she is buttonholed by one woman who wants to gain some insight into the nitty-gritty details of book narrating.
“Do you read straight from the book,” the woman asks as she fishes an audiobook by Glockenspiel she bought online out of her knitting bag, hoping to save $3.29 off the in-store retail price.
Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey (not shown actual size)
“Oh no, the type’s too small,” Glincher says. “I need my own big print version.”
“Can we see one?” the woman next in line asks hopefully.
“Well, sure, I have one right here,” Glincher says, but as she pulls a well-worn manuscript out of her tote bag, the women in line recoil in horror, as if they’ve stumbled upon one of the grisly scenes they love to hear their favorite narrator describe.
“It’s . . . it’s Comic Sans,” one woman exclaims, her hand flying to her mouth as if to keep from vomiting. “I don’t think I can ever listen to you again!”
“You don’t actually hear the typeface,” Glincher says apologetically. “It’s easy-to-read, unlike Garamond,” she continues with a supplicating tone. “My eyes aren’t tired at the end of a recording session,” she says weakly, but it’s clear she’s lost the wave of enthusiasm that had twenty-seven bookish women prepared to buy her latest effort at the full price of $31.50, plus 6.25% sales tax.
“Comic sans” is a casual sans-serif non-connecting script typeface inspired by comic book lettering. It is intended for use in informal documents and children’s materials but has spread like an invasive weed to formal documents such as SEC filings, office lunch room posters, and first-to-die life insurance policies.
“Generally speaking, the typeface a narrator chooses is irrelevant to the audiobook experience,” says Norton Weaver, Jr. of Books-on-Disks. “Some people with Stage 3 Comic Sans-o-Phobia develop a ‘contact high’ similar to that experienced by ‘guides’ on youthful LSD ‘trips,’ however, although I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
For those listeners, the knowledge that a narrator favors what has been described as “the most hated typeface on earth” is a deal-breaker. “How COULD you!” Emily Grotswiler screams at Glincher as she escorted from the store by security guards. “I’ll have to re-think whether I even enjoyed you before!”