Originally in the New York Times, July 1, 2015
In Stephen King’s memoir, “On Writing,” he gives aspiring authors this advice: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
He might have added another tip, a practice he says has benefited him as a writer perhaps even more: listen.
Mr. King credits his decades-long obsession with audiobooks with sharpening his prose, improving the pacing of his narratives and helping him ward off lazy phrases and clichés.
“If you listen to something on audio, every flaw in a writer’s work, the repetitions of words and the clumsy phrases, they all stand out,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “As a writer, I say to myself, how will that sound?”
This week, Mr. King will find out whether his fans share his appetite for narrated books. In an unusual experiment, he released a new short story, “Drunken Fireworks,” as an audiobook exclusive on Tuesday morning, months before the story arrives in print.
Though he risks disappointing devoted fans of his print books, Mr. King is betting that “Drunken Fireworks” will turn more of his readers into audiobook converts.
“Every now and then, the discussion will come up, ‘Are audiobooks as good as books in print?’ and the answer to me is a no-brainer,” he said. “Yes, they are, and they might even be better.”
“Drunken Fireworks” unfolds as a detailed statement given to the police by a hard-partying man who is arrested for his role in a Fourth of July fireworks competition on a lake in Maine. The narrator, Alden McCausland, is a bumbling, unemployed man who spends his days drinking coffee brandy cocktails with his mother, and going to great, and illegal, lengths to outdo his nemesis’s annual fireworks display.
Mr. King wrote it for his coming short story collection, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,” but wanted to see if the story could stand on its own as a spoken performance.
“It’s an oral kind of story that should be listened to,” he said.
The arrival of “Drunken Fireworks” as a stand-alone work of audio is the latest sign that audiobooks, which were once little more than an afterthought for writers and publishers, are evolving into a vibrant and independent art form.
Digital audiobooks have become one of the fastest growing categories in publishing, bolstered by the growing use of smartphones. Revenue and unit sales for downloaded audio grew around 27 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year, easily outpacing e-books and print, a recent report from the Association of American Publishers showed. Production is up, too. Audiobook publishers released some 25,000 titles in 2013, compared with 3,430 in 2004, according to the Audio Publishers Association.
Brand-name authors like Mr. King are paying more attention to the form, and some have started catering to listeners as much as readers. Last year, the best-selling thriller writer Jeffery Deaver released an original, multicast audio drama, “The Starling Project,” with Audible.com. The science fiction writer John Scalzi will release a original audio piece with Audible later this year. And Mr. King’s son, the horror writer Joe Hill, will release an audio drama based on his graphic novel series, “Locke & Key,” with Audible in October
With “Drunken Fireworks,” which costs $15 as a CD and $10 for the digital version, Mr. King and his publisher are testing whether audio can serve as an effective teaser for a future print book.
Mr. King decided to create a stand-alone audiobook out of the 12,200-word short story last year, when he was shopping in a discount chain store and saw a CD by the register that was narrated by his old friend and fellow Maine resident Tim Sample. He knew Mr. Sample, an author and comedian, could capture the necessary nuances of the Maine accent in “Drunken Fireworks,” and help anchor the story geographically with regionalisms like “rud” for “road” and “pitcher” for “picture.” Mr. Sample was game, and narrated the story in a flawless Yankee accent.
“The biggest mistake people make is they slip into a Southern drawl, when it’s closer to the British Isles,” said Mr. Sample, whose voice mail message says “have a wicked good day.” “There’s a kind of lumpy rhythm to the language, and it’s very nasal, way up in the nose.”
Mr. King was delighted with the performance. “I can hear that voice in my head because I’ve been listening to it my whole life,” he said.
Mr. King’s interest in audiobooks took root in 1981, when a nationwide air traffic controller strike grounded flights around the country. At the time, Mr. King was traveling from his home in Maine to Pittsburgh to visit the set of “Creepshow,” a George Romero film based on Mr. King’s screenplay. Stuck in the car alone for hours, he devoured audiobooks of novels like “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough.
Back then, unabridged audiobooks were scarce, so Mr. King had to settle for some amateur work. He paid his children $15 to $20 to record themselves reading novels for him. Somewhere in his basement in Bangor, Me., there are boxes full of cassettes narrated by his three children, including recordings of novels by James Ellroy, Wilbur Smith and Frank Herbert.
“The readings weren’t professional quality, but the kids got something out of it,” Mr. King said.
Mr. King’s sons, Owen and Joe, have become novelists themselves. Owen King, who published his first novel, “Double Feature,” with Scribner in 2013, credits his unusual childhood chore with shaping him as a writer. “It was a great job, and the pay was exceedingly generous when you take into account that when he first hired me, I was 9 or 10,” he said in an email message. “I also believe it improved my writing because it gave me the habit of testing the sentences I write by ear.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 1, 2015, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: With a Short Story by King, Audiobooks Branch Out on Their Own.