Seen as a good way for busy people to catch up on their “reading” during commutes or on-the-job breaks, audiobooks are quickly becoming a fixture among time-pressed Japanese.

Here are some basic questions and answers about them

What are audiobooks and where can one buy them?

Audiobooks are recordings of books read out loud by narrators. In Japan, these “books,” which are actually cassette tapes or CDs, have mainly been used by blind people, while in the U.S. they are more popular with drivers on long commutes.

These days, audiobooks are usually downloaded over the Internet, where they are available on such Web sites as Apple Inc.’s iTunes Store and Otobank Inc.’s FeBe. A download can cost anywhere from ¥100 to more than a ¥1,000, depending on how many files are needed to complete the audiobook. Copies of actual books are not included with the purchase.

Once files are downloaded onto a computer, they can be transferred to a portable music player or mobile phone.

When did audiobooks catch on in Japan?

The audiobook market began expanding in Japan after Apple launched the Japanese version of its iTunes Store in August 2005. Other companies have since jumped on the bandwagon with their own Web sites.

Publishers are looking for new opportunities to increase sales in collaboration with Web distributors at a time when more and more people are spending their time on computers or mobile phones.

Why are they becoming popular now?

There are two factors. First, portable media players such as Apple’s iPod have made it easy to carry around the downloaded material, and second, the variety of material has increased.

People too busy to read can get information by listening to stories while doing something else, such as driving, bicycling, eating or cooking.

Kazuyo Katsuma, an independent economist and a former analyst at JPMorgan’s Japan unit who has authored several popular books on how to improve productivity and efficiency at home and work, is an audiobook advocate. Books written by Katsuma, who is a mother of three, are also sold in audio file form.

Audiobook publishers hope that by expanding their market they will also reinvigorate the publishing industry as a whole.

“Publishers want to reach out to more people who don’t usually buy books,” said Yuya Kubota, an executive of Otobank.

“We offer book previews and authors’ messages on our site to make books more attractive.”

Otobank founder Wataru Ueda said Japan’s situation is not so different from the U.S. now in that the iPod has lured young people in both countries to audiobooks. “Now, all we have to do is to provide more content,” he said.

Because it can function as an iPod, Apple’s iPhone, which debuted in Japan this month, may help boost the popularity of audiobooks.

How big is the audiobook market in Japan?

Because it is a fairly recent phenomenon, there are no exact figures. Citing a survey by the U.S.-based Audio Publishers Association, Ryuichi Sasaki, chairman of MobileBook.jp Inc., an audiobook publisher for mobile phones, estimates the market stands at around ¥1 billion, out of a global market of ¥110 billion.

Otobank, which runs the FeBe Web site, has seen audiobook downloads grow by an average of 50 percent a month since January 2007, when it started the services.

Otobank said sales in its 2008 business year, which started in December, will probably be over ¥400 million and are expected to rise to some ¥2 billion by 2010.

Sasaki of MobileBook.jp predicts that audiobooks on mobile phones will take off next year when more advanced phones with huge memory will be released. If downloading files via mobile phone becomes easier, it will save people the time and trouble of downloading them to their computer, he said.

He forecast the market will reach ¥50 billion in three to four years if mobile carriers put audiobook content on their official Web sites. Currently, carriers do not offer such services.

What kinds of books are selling well?

Books designed to sharpen skills, such as language materials, accounting courses or self-help titles are popular.

And, of course, in such a stress-filled society as Japan, books on healing are doing well. In May last year, trading firm Itochu Corp. released the “Oto Yoga” (“Sound Yoga”) series of downloadable audiobooks developed by Studio Yoggi, a major yoga studio.

Priced at ¥500 apiece, the 29-volume series provides easy-to-follow instructions that let people practice simple poses in even limited spaces, such as during flights.

MobileBook.jp’s Sasaki believes audiobook publishers should offer more mobile phone novels, books written by young authors and women, and healing and entertainment content that would appeal to female customers.

“We need to include more women in order to expand the market,” he said. “They are the ones who spend money on content and who spread word-of-mouth information.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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