Jonathan Lowe's latest novel is unreadable.
That is, you can't buy Fame Island in print form, neither as a book nor as text on your computer screen. In order to experience it, you have to buy or rent the 10-hour audio version on cassette, CD or MP3 from Blackstone Audio. Lowe hasn't sold the print rights to the novel yet.
Perhaps Lowe is at the head of a new trend, the literary equivalent of direct-to-video movies.
"Yes, a recorded book is like an audio movie," the Tucson writer and audio-book reviewer allows. "More and more, people are too busy to read, but they want to be entertained." Hence the explosion of audio books since the early 1990s. The book-on-tape business got started in the 1970s, but because early productions tended to be bare-bones, dryly read and often heavily abridged, they appealed mainly to the visually impaired.
Now it's a business that in the United States annually turns anywhere from $800 million--according to the Wall Street Journal last November--to $1 billion--according to Lowe, looking at more recent industry statistics. Lowe says audio book sales rose 12 percent over the past year, while sales of hardcover books declined 12 percent.
Obviously, people with perfectly good eyesight are buying and renting these things--truckers, commuters, people working repetitive jobs, people on the run, people who get more from hearing something than seeing it.
And the recorded books are much more sophisticated than they were in the beginning; they often involve music, sound effects and, most importantly, expert readers--some professional actors, and some who mainly read books for a living.
Lowe is in the thick of it all. First, he's a consumer of audio books. He has a numbing job at the post office, forwarding mail sent to no-longer-valid addresses. So the whole time he's typing his little routing codes, he's plugged in to an audio book. And since he's such a big consumer, it made sense for him to become one of the format's leading reviewers. He writes reviews for audiobookcafe.com, XM satellite radio, Land Line trucking magazine and, until his work on satellite radio projects started taking up too much time, even Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores. He's become so prominent that he's been recruited to judge the annual Audie awards.
"Well, it's like being the big fish in a small pond," Lowe admits. "I'm on the A-list of reviewers for major publishers like Random House, but if I reviewed print books like everybody else, nobody would have heard of me."
Lowe also writes several ear-loads of fiction each year. His first novel, Postmarked for Death, a mystery having to do with (of course) the post office, was published by a small press about 10 years ago, and soon it was issued in audio form as Postal, featuring leading reader Frank Muller. "I was blown away," Lowe says, even though Muller consistently mispronounced the word "saguaro." That's when Lowe became a believer in the potential of audio books. That's also when he decided he'd need to have a bit more input into the narration of future books.
Lowe was involved in three other audio projects after that, much of the recent work produced by local sound engineer Jeff Davis. And now comes Fame Island, narrated by Emmy-winning actor Kristoffer Tabori. It's an adventure novel about a Powerball winner for whom the jackpot isn't enough. He wants fame, too. So, to call attention to himself, he disappears shortly after collecting his check. A tabloid reporter tracks him down, and somehow, the two become involved in a potentially attention-getting coup attempt against the corrupt governor of a small island paradise.
Lowe's next opus is a mystery called Geezer, due out in early 2006. Lowe says that Scott Brick, at $300-per-finished-hour the industry's highest-paid professional reader, has already expressed an interest. That suspense novel revolves around testing a stolen longevity gene.
Although it's not his specialty, Lowe has a longstanding interest in science fiction. In fact, Lowe says that celebrated science-fiction author Ray Bradbury is the reason he's a writer today. When Lowe was 15, he had the nerve to send Bradbury one of his stories. "He wrote me back and encouraged me," Lowe says, "and that was it." Lowe has been writing ever since, and usually making money from it.
With a major in business and a minor in English, Lowe could have gone any number of directions that didn't lead to 19 years as a postal drone, but he insists that his U.S.P.S. job is ideal: He can listen to audio books on the job, and he has plenty of time after work to write.
"It would be nice to have a little more luck as a writer, but I figure perseverance will win in the end. As a writer, you need to have something to say, and you need to have faith in what you say that can carry you through the long run."