Duvall Hecht: He Popularized Audiobooks As Founder of Books on Tape

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Duvall Hecht, who popularized audiobooks as founder of Books on Tape, dies at 91”:

Duvall Hecht, who spun the tedium of his daily commute into a cottage industry as founder of Books on Tape, a company that converted the written word into recorded sound and helped popularize the concept of audiobooks, died in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Mr. Hecht was an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, a Marine Corps pilot and, with the establishment of Books on Tape in 1975, an entrepreneur who harnessed the still-new technology of cassette tapes to offer bibliophiles a novel way of experiencing literature.

He was working at a brokerage firm in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, with a roughly one-hour commute on either end of his workday, when he became “frantic,” he said, to escape his daily misery on the road.

Radio, he said, offered little more than “bad music and worse news.” He found a degree of solace in recorded books for the blind, which he played on a reel-to-reel machine that rode along like a passenger in his Porsche. (Cassettes, still in their infancy, were soon to explode in popularity.)

Surely, Mr. Hecht thought as he navigated freeways clogged with commuters who shared his misery, others might like to listen to books on tape.

Books on Tape became the formal name of his business, which he established in 1975 with help from his first wife, Sigrid, and with seed money from the sale of his Porsche. The venture made him, in the description of the trade publication Publishers Weekly, “the first great purveyor of full-length recorded books on cassette.”

Mr. Hecht was not the first person to record audio versions of books. Aside from books for the blind, he said, one could find book recordings offering instruction in foreign languages, recitations of the Bible, inspirational and self-help manifestos and advice for salespeople on closing a deal.

But “I wanted something that would help me get through life today,” he told the Times. “I wanted modern, current literature.”

Mr. Hecht insisted that customers of Books on Tape receive no abridgments. Only the full works, as conceived by their authors, would do. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” ran 45 tapes. But it was complete.

To make recordings affordable, Mr. Hecht’s company offered them for mail-order rental. Books on Tape catered to libraries and schools but also cultivated a base of private renters that grew to reach 85,000.

Mr. Hecht’s daughter described the operation as a family business, with her parents working together and the children duplicating tapes and preparing them for shipment to customers.

Just as readers nurture special affection for certain writers, some Books on Tape listeners declared themselves loyal to particular narrators. Mr. Hecht hired actors who were well trained but not necessarily the costlier marquee names that other publishing houses engaged for mass-market audio books.

Books on Tape advertised in highbrow publications including the New Yorker magazine, the Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian magazine. By Mr. Hecht’s account, the company catered to “the absolute upper 5 percent of the socioeconomic structure.”

While other publishing houses offered abridgments of new releases such as Elmore Leonard’s thriller “Glitz” and Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca’s best-selling autobiography, Mr. Hecht noted, Books on Tape was producing full recordings of works such as Winston Churchill’s 1899 book “The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan.”

“We’re over here in this meadow cutting tender succulent grass, and they’re over in a field,” Mr. Hecht told the Times in 1985, “cutting each other’s throats and fighting for shelf space.”

(Over the years, Books on Tape did also provide such crowd-pleasers as the legal thrillers “The Burden of Proof” by Scott Turow and “The Client” by John Grisham.)

Naysayers griped that recorded books were no substitute for bound ones and that audiobooks would bring about a cheapening of literature. Mr. Hecht harbored no such fear, and reminded skeptics of the long oral tradition of literature.

“Listening is just returning literature to its original form, before Gutenberg got into the act,” he once told the Journal, referring to the 15th-century craftsman regarded as a father of modern printing.

Although he originally envisioned his company as serving commuters consigned to hours of daily gridlock, Books on Tape proved a welcome presence in other settings as well.

“We have weavers and sculptors who rent from us,” he said in 1986. “There’s even an undertaker who listens with a tiny earpiece during funerals.”

Books on Tape had amassed 5,000 titles by 2001, when it was sold to Random House for a reported $20 million. According to the Audio Publishers Association, revenue in the audiobook industry reached $1.3 billion in 2020.

Duvall Young Hecht was born in Los Angeles on April 23, 1930. He had hoped to play football at Stanford University but was too small to make the team. His physique proved more suited to rowing, the sport that would take him to two Olympic Games.

He competed in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, the same year that he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stanford. After college, he joined the Marine Corps but continued training as a rower. He and a teammate, James Fifer, won gold in the coxless pairs event at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Mr. Hecht received a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford in 1960 and remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1966. Having trained as a fighter pilot, he flew briefly for Pan Am airways before entering the investment banking field in Los Angeles. He kept up that career until the mid-1980s, his daughter said, by which point Books on Tape had become successful enough to pay him and his wife a salary.

Mr. Hecht founded the rowing program at the University of California at Irvine and also coached for periods at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., and the University of California at Los Angeles.

After selling Books on Tape, he became a truck driver, eventually buying his own rig. His long drives afforded him more time to listen to recorded books….

Although Books on Tape offered recordings of books across genres, Mr. Hecht was partial to works of history, especially World War II, and accounts of the life of Churchill. Another of his pleasures was the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian about the British navy during the Napoleonic wars.

In an interview, Mr. Hecht’s daughter recalled listening with her father to the island adventures of “Robinson Crusoe” on the reel-to-reel that had been used in his Porsche. She said that if they arrived home before a chapter was over, they would sit in the driveway and continue listening until the passage ended.

In a poetic irony, she said they heard from many Books on Tape customers who reported doing the same. Having found so much pleasure listening to recorded books, they extended, if only by a few minutes, the commutes they had once dreaded.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

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