My Kind of Audiobook

I recently finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left by Landon R. Y. Storrs. Not only was the book informative and persuasive, but it may herald a new kind of audiobook offering.

As I’ve mentioned before, if you look hard enough, you can find audiobooks by university historians. But most of the titles have two things in common.

First, they fit into one or more of what I think of as the six genres of popular history: war, crime, disaster, heroic science/technology/medicine, biography of an eminent person, or sports. To be sure, they may play with these genres, the way that David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story complicates the heroic-medicine narrative by explaining why the scientific establishment never regarded Salk as highly as did the American public. But they still connects with a familiar genre.

Second, I think that with the exception of the Oxford series, all of the titles on my Guide to Audible.com were published in print by trade presses, such as Knopf or Norton. The pattern seemed to be that only if your book promised sales high enough to justify a trade-press contract might you get an audio version.

The Second Red Scare breaks both patterns. Yes, it does have a lot of biographical detail about such folks as Leon Keyserling and Mary Dublin Keyserling, which is one of the reasons it succeeds as an audiobook. But I wouldn’t call it a biography along the lines of Mellon: An American Life or The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century; there are too many characters, and none of them are as prominent at Mellon or Luce. And the print version comes not from a trade press, but from Princeton University Press, publisher of many of the finest monographs in twentieth-century U.S. political history.

I read books like this all the time, but rarely have the chance to listen to them. Will Princeton follow with audio versions of other titles in the same series, Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America? Will Penn respond with audio versions of its series, Politics and Culture in Modern America? When will I be able to choose books for an entire graduate seminar by listening to them?

Another question is pricing. The Amazon page for the book shows just how weird book pricing has become:

Hardcover: $39.50
Audible Audio Edition: $21.95
Kindle Edition: $21.73
Audible Audio Edition, when you buy 24 credits at once: $9.56

In other words, if you can afford a device that can display Kindle books, you get a 50 percent discount off the print version, and if you can afford to spend $229.50 up front, the audio version costs you less than a quarter of what you would pay for the print book. Obviously the marginal costs of transmitting an electronic text or recording are much lower than those of producing, storing, and distributing a physical object. But as Joshua Kim pointed out in 2009, charging occasional listeners double what already committed listeners pay may not be the way to grow a market for these kinds of books, especially among the college students whom we hope to train to take scholarship seriously. Will Princeton sell audiobooks to university libraries?

So questions remain. For now, though, I want to thank Professor Storrs and Princeton University Press for letting me rethink the impact of anticommunism while I washed dishes.

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