With yet another banner sales year for audiobooks in 2015, independent publishers are getting into the audio game, investing in an industry that is thriving, particularly in digital formats. Based in Oakland, Calif., Berrett-Koehler, which landed on PW’s Fast-Growing Independent Publishers list for 2015, attributed part of its revenue bump to the company’s burgeoning audiobook program, launched in January 2015. According to Maria Jesus Aguilo, B-K’s director of subsidiary rights, after receiving steady demand for audiobook content from digital content partners such as Hoopla and OverDrive (both of which already offered B-K’s e-books), the publisher decided the time was right to enter the growing audio field. At first, B-K was releasing only digital audiobooks, but in spring 2015 it signed with Dreamscape to produce titles in MP3, CD, and CD-box formats.
“The audiobook format was becoming increasingly important to our authors, but audiobook publishers were being more selective than we would have liked” about signing authors, Aguilo says. Since the launch of its new program last year, every new title, as well as a selection of previously published titles, are released in audiobook. The publisher has seen a few surprise hits in the format, such as The Idea-Driven Organization by Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder, which was previously unlicensed in audio and sitting on B-K’s backlist. The title, which stresses the importance of harnessing employees’ ideas, performed especially well in B-K’s corporate subscription programs. It “broke out in ways an audio-only publisher wouldn’t have predicted,” Aguilo says.
The move to take audiobook production in-house wasn’t without risk. In doing so, B-K relinquished “significant” rights revenue, according to Aguilo, and started from scratch with just a handful of titles. “We were very cautious and projected conservatively, knowing that the program needed to ramp up over time,” Aguilo says. “However, those nontrade channels ended up being even more lucrative than we expected, and our partnering with Dreamscape to cover the physical market added additional income that we had not projected for.” This year’s projections are almost 10 times higher than B-K’s forecast for 2015, and, thus far, the publisher is on target to meet expectations.
Bestselling titles in the trade market include Chess Not Checkers by Mark Miller, Negotiating the Impossible by Deepak Malhotra, and The 8 Dimensions of Leadership by Jeffrey Sugerman. But other titles have produced much higher revenue through the corporate subscription channels, Aguilo says. Though the company has been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of CD formats, audio growth at the publisher has primarily taken place on the subscription level; in 2015, physical formats were 13.5% of B-K’s audio revenue.
In the past year, Aguilo has channeled her efforts into preparing content for production and is now turning her focus to promoting the audiobooks. “Our success has come about with no marketing or publicity efforts,” she says. “However, we know we have much to learn from audio-only publishers in terms of marketing and publicity.” After attending the Audio Publishers Association Conference in Chicago earlier this month, Aguilo says she is eager to put what she learned into practice.
According to David Caron, the “growth of listening” was a driving force behind a new joint audiobook program among a coalition of independent Canadian publishers. Caron is the president and copublisher of the Toronto-based ECW Press, which spearheaded the venture alongside fellow Canadian indie publisher Coach House Press. In development since 2015, the new initiative officially launched in April, with Coach House’s Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis. ECW has 32 books in the audio pipeline and Caron says he expects the number of releases from other publishers to quicken in the next several months, with the goal to release 100 titles in 2016. He expects eventual participation from roughly 15 Canadian independents, including Biblioasis, Dundurn, House of Anansi, Inanna, Playwrights Canada, and Wolsak & Wynn.
Through the program, publishers approach ECW with titles they believe will do well in audio, and ECW and Coach House take the lead on casting, production, and distribution. Caron says there is a bias in favor of frontlist titles, but he also has a number of backlist titles in the works. Individual publishers retain the audiobook license (with the option to distribute through ECW), and all audiobooks are released digitally and through Midwest Tape via physical-on-demand.
The initiative was spurred not only by the boom in audiobooks, but also by the opportunities Caron pinpointed within the Canadian audiobook market. “To date, most of the production of Canadian-authored audiobooks has been done in the U.S. with Audible, Recorded, and other audiobook publishers,” Caron says, adding that as of yet, no one has “taken advantage of the great resources in Toronto in book content, audio production, and voice talent.” When Caron heard that Canadian librarians were clamoring for more local audio content, he decided a “major marketing initiative about Canadian-authored audiobooks was needed.”