The true business of any industry is to create customers and keep those customers happy. But for the audiobook industry, where much of the business involves trying to be heard (literally) above the louder buzz of print-book promotion, creating customers can be a challenge. PW recently spoke with some audio publishers to see what they've been doing to get potential consumers to listen.
Audiobook publishers have long known that theirs is a "try it, you'll like it" world. Most people in the field can share anecdotes about how they converted someone to audiobooks by simply handing out one of their products. This basic giveaway philosophy remains the cornerstone of audiobook promotion.
In recent years, the audiobook sampler—an excerpt or collection of excerpts from various audiobook recordings—has become a popular handout at conventions, trade shows, book festivals and other events where audiobook publishers exhibit their wares. The sampler is a key component of the Audio Publishers Association's annual Audiobook Month awareness campaign in June as well. In addition, some publishers send samplers or advance reading copies to key accounts and reviewers.
Maria Manske, HighBridge Audio marketing coordinator, said her company is jumping into the fray for the first time by providing a sampler of its top fall titles in the September "white box" mailing to BookSense member stores. However, Maja Thomas, v-p of TimeWarner AudioBooks believes that samplers can often be "more confusing than useful" as a promotional item. Thomas said that for the first time, her company gave away a complete recording during BEA (the unabridged, five-cassette edition of James Patterson's Beach House), and it was a huge success. "We couldn't even keep them on the table at our booth," she said. "We'll definitely do it again."
Looking beyond the obvious opportunities to provide samplers to retailers and librarians, audiobook publishers know that giveaways are almost always a hit when presented directly to consumers. Carrie Kania, v-p, associate publisher for HarperAudio, commented, "From radio giveaways to online giveaways, we believe you have to get the audio in the hands of people who haven't tried an audiobook before to build new listenership." Other publishers agree, many of them expanding on the giveaway momentum and experiencing success with offering audiobooks as contest prizes, or in a premium/gift-with-purchase campaign.
As a successful (and unusual) gift-with-purchase effort, Simon & Schuster partnered with Media Play stores and 16 Valvoline Instant Oil Change stores in the Buffalo, N.Y. area for a July promotion that targeted drivers—the largest segment of audiobook listeners. Valvoline customers purchasing an oil change service received a coupon sheet offering savings at Media Play stores. The center panel of the sheet featured an offer for a free CD audiobook—one of five titles provided by S&S, including Riding the Bullet by Stephen King and Self Matters by Phillip McGraw.
Robin Lenhard, area marketing coordinator for Media Play, noted, "Of the seven offers on the sheet, the audiobook coupon had the highest response." About half of the free audiobook recipients subsequently filled out a Media Play survey postcard indicating that they had never purchased an audiobook before. "It's the first time we've reached out to an outside group," said Lenhard, "and it was very successful for us."
S&S Audio is also currently participating in an unprecedented audio premium campaign with General Mills. General Mills is packaging a free CD recording of the bestselling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey on 550,000 special banded packs containing both Basic 4 and Oatmeal Crisp Raisin cereals. An additional 13 million boxes of cereal, including such popular flavors as Wheat Chex and Raisin Nut Bran, feature a mail-in offer that allows consumers to choose a free audiobook from among five other top S&S titles including Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley. Full visibility for this promotion runs September through December. "We're giving the best to people in order to attract them to become audiobook listeners," said Gilles Dana, president and publisher of S&S Audio.
Michael Snodgrass, publisher of Brilliance Audio, is hoping that the giveaway concept becomes a runaway concept via a new "viral marketing" campaign he has developed. Inspired by the success of a pass-along book-sharing program featured on www.bookcrossing.com, Snodgrass has, together with a full-time Webmaster at Brilliance's offices, created www.ilistentobooks.com. Though funded by Brilliance, the site is not branded or publisher-specific and is meant to be a place for audiobook fans to share reviews and opinions. It's an extension of Snodgrass's idea of leaving free audiobooks where listeners will find them and encouraging those listeners to respond to the Web site and then leave the audiobook somewhere else for another listener. Audiobooks in the program (currently almost all Brilliance titles) carry an explanatory sticker that reads "I'm Not Lost. I'm Just Making the Rounds!" and a tracking number. Any other audiobook publishers interested in participating may obtain the promotional items via the web site. "All the materials have a unique number and through our mapping program you can see all the places a title has been," Snodgrass said. "We've learned that pass-along listenership with recordings works really well," he continued. "The goal is to introduce audiobooks to people who haven't listened to them before."
The next best thing to getting an audiobook for free is getting one at a great price. In July, S&S Audio launched a new imprint called Encore, a line of value-priced backlist titles primarily sold at mass-market retail outlets. "We wanted to attract the attention of the casual audiobook listener, or the new audiobook listener as an impulse item," said Dana. Similarly, retail chain Borders embarked on a cost-conscious audio program last year when it rolled out a proprietary line of unabridged audiobooks called State Street Audio, a partnership with Recorded Books, which produced the recordings previously unavailable at retail. As for the appeal to new listeners (or any Borders shopper), Borders audio buyer Clay Farr commented, "These are high-quality recordings of great books offered at a more affordable price-point." Including such titles as Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter, State Street Audio serves as companion to the State Street Classics line of print books.
Following Consumers' Lead
Michael Dougherty, director of marketing, publicity and sales for Audio Renaissance, spoke for many audio publishers when he said, "The most important thing is trying to figure out what the consumer wants." In the audiobook world this basic business principle applies to both format and content. "Until we can figure out what the market wants, we're going to be making multiple formats [CD and cassette]," Dougherty added. However unwieldy, most audio publishers have adopted the multiple-format stance producing titles on a variety of formats that can include cassette, CD, MP3 CD and digital downloads. Dana of S&S noted, "For two years now we've been releasing all of our titles simultaneously on cassette and CD. We let the consumer decide."
Also on the format front, the APA continues to meet with representatives from the automobile and consumer electronics industries, hoping to gain a more noticeable presence for audiobooks in these important arenas. Though talks have been encouraging, audiobook publishers have not yet moved closer to what most people believe would be the industry ideal: a predominantly one-technology/one-format audiobook landscape (similar to the music industry's move to CD and the video industry's shift to VHS and now DVD).
When it comes to audiobook content, "We try to get the biggest titles we can buy," said Dougherty. "We recently completed the recording of Running with Scissors," he explained. "That was a book that started to get a lot of attention and we were amazed that no one had bought the audio rights yet. We go for bestsellers whenever possible."
The belief at S&S and Time Warner is that title selection can be the key to attracting a whole new listening audience. "Ten years ago we did a Twin Peaks audiobook," recalled Dana of S&S. "The popularity of the TV show helped us move 100,000 units, which was an amazing number at that time. We crossed over from the typical audiobook audience to a mainstream audience. It happened when we published Rush Limbaugh's book, too. This year we're releasing Meet the Osbournes, going after the MTV generation that is accustomed to CDs and doesn't necessarily read much." Dana also noted that publishing original audiobooks by Stephen King [Riding the Bullet, May 2002, LT's Theory of Pets, Aug. 2001] was a unique way to convert book readers to book listeners. "These books were never in print, and only in audio," he commented. "With King's book fans, we were able to bring in a new audience."
Sounds True Audio has seen a great response to the launch of its Beginner's Guides series. "We've been able to penetrate what for us is a much more mainstream market," said marketing/publicity manager Beverly Yates, "by making it both affordable and easy for the average listener to get a taste of topics they may be curious about but reluctant to invest heavily in pursuing [Buddhism, the Kaballah, feng shui, dream interpretation]."
Thomas of Time Warner notes that title selection is a crucial part of her company's overall strategy to win over younger listeners. "We have to keep moving our demographic younger," she said. "We can't just wait for people to reach our core 45-and-older group." To that end, Time Warner will be going after a poetry slam audience with a spoken word recording by R&B music artist Ashanti due out in November. And Thomas said that the revamped www.mytimewarneraudio.com will likely attract a "younger more techno-savvy audience that will be drawn to the site's exciting features and visuals."
Getting the Word Out
In addition to selecting the right titles, the right audiobook narrator can attract new listeners as well. It doesn't hurt that an increasing number of popular stage, screen and TV actors (Blair Brown, Stockard Channing, Edward Hermann, John Ritter) have joined the ranks of established audiobook performers. Harper Audio was able to collect some of its star power for an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Caedmon Audio last winter. "Promoting audiobooks in such a big way, with high profile actors and authors doing a reading at a big venue, only helps grow the industry," said Kania.
Speaking for Random House Audio, v-p and director of publicity Mary Beth Roche said, "We use a celebrity narrator when it's appropriate," a tactic that can boost sales considerably when big names and big titles collide. "When something like Julia Roberts's performance of The Nanny Diaries gets coverage on Entertainment Tonight, a consumer not necessarily exposed to audiobooks will learn about it," she added.
While TV exposure is a rare coup, over the past year or so, publishers have become more aggressive about getting all types of mainstream attention for their titles. "We've increased and broadened our publicity coverage to general print media like Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek," said Roche. On a smaller scale, the ongoing success of AudioFile magazine (which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary) and the recent launch of www.audiobookstoday.com both point to a healthy audiobook market ripe for many kinds of advertising.
Radio promotion has helped boost Time Warner audiobook titles by humorist David Sedaris, who appears on National Public Radio and is often on the college lecture circuit. NPR is also a frequent component of HarperAudio's publicity efforts. "We do target NPR promotions with stations throughout the country," said Kania. "One of our most successful campaigns was a "Caedmon Celebration" we coordinated with a station in California. This one station played 24 hours of Caedmon audio—with excellent promotion of audiobooks throughout the day. We received several phone calls and we saw increased traffic on our Caedmon Web site."
Radio has also become a promotional outlet for S&S Audio. This past summer S&S targeted drivers with national spots played in and around rush-hour Shadow Traffic reports. "For the first time we spent money on radio advertising to reach people during those peak driving times," said Dana.
Not every audiobook publisher can afford celebrity wattage or national advertising campaigns, however. For these smaller companies, niche marketing is playing a bigger role. "We have enjoyed great success selling our products in natural foods markets such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods Markets," said Yates of Sounds True. Each month Sounds True places a new endcap in all 100-plus Wild Oats stores nationwide. In addition, Wild Oats features Sounds True titles in its advertising mailers. "Our titles are a natural fit for the customers who shop at this type of store," Yates commented. "We also created special natural wood floor and countertop display units that complement the store environment."
Audio Bookshelf, an independent audio publisher based in Maine, is taking an educational approach to finding new markets. "Our products are beginning to be available in gift shops in many national parks, including Civil War, Revolutionary War, Black History and Presidential sites," said publisher Heather Frederick. "These shops find new listeners for the entire industry, no doubt about it. They are driving to and from the sites!"
The Shelf Shuffle
One of the brightest developments for audio publishers over the past year is what seems to be a slight increase in audiobook exposure at the retail level. Farr of Borders said, "We attempt to satisfy audiobook listeners (both new, as well as regular listeners) by offering the best selection in which to browse, staying in stock on the bestsellers they may be looking for, and as best we can, by reacting to their changing needs. This means stocking multiple formats of a single title, actively promoting unabridged audiobooks and keeping a strong selection of backlist titles by favorite authors."
Farr noted that Borders stores "regularly do in-section audio promotions on endcaps and on top-shelf displays. Additionally, we have begun displaying audio new releases alongside the book at the storefront whenever possible. Our audio bestsellers are also displayed together and are changed out on a weekly basis." Barnes & Noble stores have a new-release bay that features monthly face-outs of new titles and offers a 20% discount on the 15 top selling titles. According to B&N spokesperson Mary Ellen Keating, the stores include audio pages in the holiday catalogue and cross-merchandise with book promotions.
The cross-merchandising efforts of the two big chains are especially encouraging to Roche of Random House, whose company has focused on this particular strategy. "We've done in-store surveys and we've found that when audio is merchandised with a book and merchandised outside the audio section, there is a significant increase in sell-through to the consumer. " Roche cites a "Listen While You Cook" campaign, which featured food- and cooking-themed audiobooks in the cookbook section of stores, as a substantial success for Random last year.
This winter Random House will target the business traveler by creating a display to feature business audiobooks in bookstores' business section. Joseph-Beth and Davis-Kidd stores tried mixing audiobooks with print books for the first time this summer. "We included audio on our summer reading and 'new books' tables and the audio did well," said Michele Sulka, director of communications of the Joseph-Beth group. "We also paired large-print books with audio for a Grandparents' Day display and that seemed to do well. We were unsure about offending some people, but happily that turned out not to be the case. We'll absolutely continue to place audio with books whenever we can."
While cross-merchandising appears to be a sure thing, many stores cannot take part, due to extreme space limitations. And for lots of stores, stocking multiple formats of audio titles further erodes shelf space, forcing them to choose fewer titles, or focus on the most popular format (increasingly CD). Karen Wallace of Dutton's Books in Los Angeles echoes the comments of many when she states, "We have a substantial audio collection in a good location. But we really can't intermix books and audio at all. The store is jam-packed."
Another way of giving audiobooks good browse appeal on the shelf is package design. "People perceive that audio makes a great gift," said Thomas of Time Warner Audio. "We keep trying to come up with packaging that is more like some of the great print gift books out there." But accommodating different formats and trying to complement the jacket design of the print book can pose production obstacles for publishers, too.
Despite the many challenges that audiobook publishers still face, audio companies are making headway (perhaps only in small increments) into consumer consciousness via various trade and mainstream media. And for the moment, audio publishers are happy to be hitting a few of those high notes.