One might say that the late Anthony Ditlow had an ear for a good book. In 1955, the former teacher put his knowledge of literature and yen for a good yarn together and changed careers, founding the audiobook publishing company Listening
Library, working out of his Red Bank, N.J., home with his wife, Helen, by his side. The switch was a good fit for Ditlow, who had been recently diagnosed with macular degeneration, a disorder that diminishes one's eyesight.
Because reading the printed page had become difficult for him, Ditlow appreciated spoken-word recordings as a source of entertainment. He was familiar with the Talking Book recordings at the Library of Congress as well as titles by new companies Caedmon Audio and Spoken Arts. However, Ditlow had a vision that reached far beyond what was available on the market and felt certain he could expand the audiobook genre. He was right—though it took a few years to truly show it on paper.
Beginning with Verne
Listening Library's first recording in 1955 was Around the World in 80 Daysby Jules Verne. "It was in the public domain, so they didn't have copyright issues, and the movie was about to come out starring David Niven," recalled Tim Ditlow, Anthony's son and Listening Library's current publisher. "Those first years were very much on a shoestring budget," Ditlow told PW. "They never got into the black until the early 1960s."
But all along Listening Library was making great strides. Anthony Ditlow set up shop in New York City and then later in what had been a bowling alley in Old Greenwich, Conn. The company became one of the first to distribute audiobooks (its own and those of other publishers) to schools, libraries and other special markets, including VA hospitals. Technologically, Listening Library's advent came just as the popularity of the LP record (invented in 1948) was especially strong. Federal funding for libraries and schools was on an upswing.
The elder Ditlow prided himself in securing rights to respected works by authors valued in library collections and school curricula such as Poe, Twain, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Teachers and librarians recognized Anthony Ditlow's efforts and his knack for hiring stellar voice talent and making quality recordings. "He was pushing the educational value of audiobooks before the term literacy was used as it is today," noted Tim Ditlow.
A New Generation
In the 1970s, Listening Library continued to grow, as audiocassettes became the technology of choice and the company expanded into strong mail-order business. Recent college graduate Tim Ditlow joined the family business in 1979 when his father asked him to consider "working for the company for one year, with no strings attached," Ditlow said. "He very wisely took a 'try it, you'll like it' approach, and it worked."
Ditlow began to learn each area of the business from typesetting catalogues to traveling to trade shows and found he actually enjoyed it. "It was like an extended form of college," he recalled. "I think it's normal to reject what your parents do. I didn't pay attention much when I was younger. It wasn't until I went away that I realized what a great environment it was to be in."
The Children's Niche
Tim Ditlow believes he finally found his niche—and professional passion—in the early 1980s when he was introduced to the children's book world by such well-known children's marketing and publishing figures as Bill Morris, Charlotte Zolotow and Margaret McElderry. Ditlow began to expand Listening Library's list to encompass recordings of new authors of the day like Paula Danziger, Betsy Byars and Richard Peck. It was also at this time that Ditlow embraced the unabridged format, which had been resisted in the '70s. As the 1980s progressed, the large trade publishing houses and others began to enter the audiobook field.
In 1986 Anthony Ditlow died, and Tim took the Listening Library reins completely. The company eventually came to publish only children's and young adult titles, as it does today, and has steadily earned accolades in publishing, retail and educational circles. By 1999, Ditlow was publishing 20—25 children's titles per year. And as the millennium approached, Ditlow accepted an offer from Random House Audio to acquire Listening Library.
Today Listening Library is home to the audiobook editions of numerous Newbery Medal winners and the record-breaking Harry Potter series narrated by Jim Dale. The catalogue has won scores of awards, including the Audio Publishers Association's first-ever Audiobook of the Year, given to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
The move to Random House's large corporate structure has provided many advantages. "It gave me the freedom and support to enlarge the list," Ditlow said. "We can also release more audio titles simultaneously with the print book and reap the benefits of what happens when a book takes off. This scale of distribution, publicity and marketing is outside the realm of a small company. It makes your heart happy to see your titles get out there."
Listening Library currently publishes roughly 80 titles per year, but Ditlow notes his job is "not so different than the days in Old Greenwich. Except I don't produce now, and I am acquiring three times more titles. My father always said that cream has a way of rising to the top if you make it the right way. His legacy, and mine, is to keep on acquiring, producing and creating top-notch children's recordings. Technologies may come and go, but as all that swirls around us, it's important to remember that good audiobooks last."
The official anniversary is marked in April, but the festive air will last all year long. Fittingly, Listening Library has just released a new recording of Around the World in 80 Days, narrated by Jim Dale, and the company will host a cocktail party at the New York Public Library on June 2 to toast not only Listening Library's 50th but sister company Random House Audio's 20th and Books on Tape's 30th anniversaries—totaling "100 years of Audio."