God is in the details, excellence in the last 3% of effort, so we need to get intimate if we mean to understand the origins of a business success. Did Johannes Gutenberg know he had the world's bestseller? Did he consider starting out instead with—just for instance—God for Dummies? Tragically, it is no longer possible to question Gutenberg. The audiobook industry, on the other hand, is such an infant that you can still phone the pioneers, hear actual voices.

I spoke with Marianne Mantell, cofounder in 1952 of Caedmon Records, the greatest single source of high-quality recordings of poets and literary writers, and with Duvall Hecht, founder in 1975 of Books on Tape, the first great purveyor of full-length recorded books on cassette. Both have pleasant voices. Neither is at all surprised by the explosion of the industry they helped create. "I was amazed that it wasn't bigger," Hecht recalls. "I never thought it was a wacky idea," Mantell bristles, when I suggest as much.

"I have a tendency to talk, and when I hear myself, I say, 'Gee, that's a good idea,' " she says, recalling her early days writing liner notes for the record business. "So I said, 'Why don't we do poetry? And the idiot I was working for, he said, 'Oh, poetry. Poetry's been done.' This was 1951. I'd been pushing a series of medieval things, because I figured we could sell them through the Metropolitan. And a wicked gleam illuminated his ugly face. 'I've got it,' he said, 'we do medieval American poetry.'

"I was young and naïve and polite enough not to roll my eyes. It happened that I was having lunch with the gal who subsequently became my partner [Caedmon cofounder Barbara Holdridge]. 'Dylan Thomas is reading at the Y tonight.' She said, 'Why don't we go?' And I said, 'Great idea! Why don't we record him?' So that was the beginning of it."

The list of artists Mantell and Holdridge led to the microphone is awe inspiring and includes William Faulkner, e.e. cummings, Eudora Welty, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg and even my somewhat reluctant father, John Cheever, who lamented afterward that he sounded like a moldy fig, whatever that means. By 1959 their company (named Caedmon after the first poet to write in English) had annual revenues of $500,000. In 1970, they sold to Raytheon. HarperCollins bought the label in 1987.

A Commuter Founder

Duvall Hecht returns my call from his car. This is appropriate, since he got the idea for his Books on Tape while stuck in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. Duvall has a big voice, deep and generous. Like Mantell, he is as happy to listen as to speak.

"My first job involved a long commute," he recalls. " It was a shock to find myself in the midst of this flood of automobiles. And with nothing to do. There were no talk shows at the time. There were no cell phones. A recording of a book that you could listen to was the first what-if that occurred to me.

"I was in the investment business. I was not a gifted financial individual. And I saw this chance to do something I loved.

"I continued in the brokerage industry for another 10 years. And it took us about that time to get up to where we were like $2 million or $3 million."

Hecht sold his company to Random House in October 2001. "Random House made us a very generous offer," he says, adding that the experience would have been worthwhile even if it had not been profitable. Neither Hecht nor Random House will say how much the company went for, though one insider estimated the price at $20 million.

Whatever he got for it, Hecht confesses to some ambivalence about giving up the business. "I'd like to still be running the company," he says. "When we sold it to Random House, we had 6,000 books. They immediately took 3,000 out of circulation. I think if I had known they were going to do that, I might not have sold them the company."

Random House discontinued the direct-to-consumer business that Duvall had started with and retired some 3,000 titles, but kept the library trade alive, and beefed up retail sales.

Amanda D'Acierono, director of publicity at the Random House Audio Publishing Group, sounds convincingly upbeat about the business. "I am happy to report that sales are up 120% since acquisition," she says. "Books on Tape releases 35 new titles each month in comparison to the 16—20 that were released each month prior to our acquisition."

Many of the recordings from the no longer available direct-to-consumer line can be downloaded by the general public at Audible.com, in which Random House is a major investor.

You can hear the enthusiasm in D'Acierono's own voice as she reels off titles she's listened to recently: Billy Collins Live: A Performance at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, E.L. Doctorow's TheMarch and Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg. Hecht himself is still a listener and has just finished Patrick O'Brian's 20-book Aubrey/Maturin series.

Starting out, Hecht was animated—his word—by the guy who wants to learn, but has to pay the mortgage, and "he's got these two deadly hours every day, getting back and forth to work."

I told him I've listened to thousands of books. "That's wonderful," he says. "That's wonderful!"

Dead time didn't motivate Mantell. What she wanted was to gain a deeper understanding of the artist. "It used to take weeks, sometimes months, to get poets to relax sufficiently so that they felt that they were reading to us rather than reading to a microphone," she says. "We were not interested in the complete stories of Thomas Mann. We were interested—I was interested—in that part of his writing to which his voice would give a clue."

Don Katz, the founder of Audible.com and pioneer of the downloadable audiobook, is cheerful and enthusiastic about the business. He must be one of a very few cheered by the news that Americans spend 550 million hours a week sitting in traffic. With Audible they can listen to books, and also the Times, the Wall Street Journal and even the New Yorker. "We're consistently changing the definition of literate listening," he tells me.

Robin Whitten started Audiofile, the magazine for people who love audiobooks, as a 12-page newsletter in 1992. Now it comes out six times a year, full color and 70-plus pages. Is her enthusiasm for the format in her voice now? Was it in her voice back in 1992?

These questions I can't answer. Of one thing I am certain. The human voice is a far more powerful intoxicant than even the priciest Bordeaux. We need to learn to speak of its glories.