In an era when digital downloads have led the audiobook industry to nine straight years of double-digit sales growth, independent, Ashland, Ore.–based Blackstone Audio, a division of Blackstone Publishing, is a bit of an outlier. Like other major audio publishers, Blackstone has seen its digital sales grow by double digits in both the trade and library markets in the past 12 months—sparked in part by consumers’ increased digital consumption during the pandemic. But Blackstone’s physical audio sales have also had double-digit gains over the past year, whereas other publishers have largely given up on the format. In fact, the company has established itself as the industry’s dominant producer of audiobooks on CD and MP3-CD (a format that it pioneered). According to Anne Fonteneau, Blackstone Publishing’s chief sales officer, this positioning is largely due to the new manufacture-on-demand partnerships it has signed with other companies.
Blackstone now teams with audio publishers large and small (including Hachette, Harper, Naxos, Recorded Books, Simon & Schuster, and Scholastic), bringing their catalogs to consumer and library markets in CD and MP3-CD formats. In this capacity, Fonteneau noted that Blackstone currently offers more than 150,000 titles and releases more than 1,000 new titles per month. “All manufacturing is done in-house, on demand, with rapid turnaround times,” she said. “Publishers upload their assets and metadata into our systems, and we then handle the marketing, manufacturing, customer service, and selling of the product.” The audiobooks are sold under the names of the originating publishers.
“Our goal is to be a one-stop shop for all physical formats for retailers and libraries,” Fonteneau added. “By having all assets under one roof, along with the machines to manufacture on demand, we are positioned to provide an extremely fast turnaround time and have all products always in stock.”
Via sales reps in the various markets, Blackstone makes its partners’ titles available to big-box bricks-and-mortar retailers (B&N, Costco, Target, Walmart), independent bookstores, libraries, and wholesalers. It also has two direct-to-consumer websites, Downpour and Audio Editions, where listeners can find thousands of audiobook titles in digital and physical formats. Downpour also rents audiobooks.
And while the Association of American Publishers reported that sales of physical audio were down about 5% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to last year’s first period, Fonteneau said Blackstone expects to see more gains this year, due in part to the need for libraries to refresh their audio collections as they reopen following pandemic-forced closures.
On the publishing front, Blackstone’s own original audiobook division has a catalog of more than 13,500 titles and releases nearly 1,500 new recordings each year. Recent top performers include The Silent Wife by Karin Slaughter, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. In 2015, Blackstone expanded beyond audio to launch a print and e-book division, which currently publishes roughly 100 new books per year and has a backlist of more than 500 titles.
That’s a lot of bandwidth for a venture begun with just a handful of employees. Blackstone was founded in 1987 by Craig and Michelle Black in their home in Medford, Ore. They then sold the company and bought it back in 2013, and Blackstone remains a family business—though now it has more than 200 employees. Its Ashland headquarters spans 40,000 square feet and is home to five in-house recording studios. The company has satellite offices in Portland and New York City, as well.
Expanding POD Capabilities
Under president and CEO Josh Stanton, Blackstone Publishing’s sales across all divisions have “more than tripled in the last 10 years,” Fonteneau said, and going forward, it plans to increase title output for its audio, print, and e-book lines “at a rapid rate.” To that end, the company has made a “sizeable investment” in new equipment to bring all book printing in-house by the end of the year.
With the advent of this on-demand printing program, Blackstone plans to offer all of its titles in large-print editions in the near future, and the company is considering offering on-demand printing to other publishers in 2022. Next year will also see the launch of a new book imprint with actor Norman Reedus and his company Bigbaldhead Productions. And 2022 may also see Blackstone move into a different area: “Down the road you will be learning about Blackstone Films—more to come on that next year,” Fonteneau promised.
The Blackstone team with author Meg Gardiner in the New York City office, before the pandemic.