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Audio Books: Audible Is Loud And Clear
Trudi M. Rosenblum -- 3/6/00
Deals with Robin Williams, Amazon and Microsoft raise the company's profile

The new millennium is starting off with a bang for Audible, in Wayne, N.J., the company that allows consumers to download spoken-word audio from its Web site.

Amazon's recent purchase of 5% of Audible (News, Feb. 7) is set to bring consumer awareness of Audible to an all-time high. Amazon customers who click on a book title will now see immediately if it is available for purchase as an Audible download as well as in hardcover, paperback or audiobook form. By clicking on the Audible link, they can then buy the title as a download.

Audible scored another coup by signing comedian/actor Robin Williams to do an original half-hour comedy program every week exclusively for Audible, premiering in April. The free program, available at robinwilliams@audible.com, will feature Williams performing his own routines as well as talking with guests.

"I love reading out to audiences directly,"Williams said. "I support artists having control over their material, whether it's getting to say what they want on the radio or musicians who are bypassing traditional channels and finding new audiences over the Internet. I hope that this effort will prompt other artists to take control of their talent."

Meanwhile, one of Audible's original obstacles -- consumers' hesitation to spend hundreds of dollars on the company's Mobile Player -- has vanished with the proliferation of handheld digital devices. In fact, Audible has now ceased production of its Mobile Player. Audible's content can now be downloaded and listened to on the Cassiopeia handheld PC, the Diamond Rio, the Palm Pilot, laptop computers and other portable devices. The Diamond Rio 500, which shipped in February, can hold up to 28 hours of spoken audio and was the first digital audio device to come Audible-ready -- able to play Audible's content.

Not only are these new devices Audible-ready, they actively promote Audible's service by including a brochure introducing customers to Audible and offering them four free audiobook downloads or a three-month subscription to the Wall Street Journal on audio.

"People buy these devices as a personal assistant, then get into Audible,"said Jonathan Korzen, Audible's media relations manager. "People who buy this kind of device are clearly Web-savvy and want to make the best use of their time, so they're perfect candidates for audiobooks."

The company's higher profile has had tangible results. According to Korzen, Audible's number of customers increased 45% from the first quarter of 1999 to the second quarter, another 51% from the second to the third quarter and an additional 54% from the third to the fourth quarter. "That's people who have actually bought something,"Korzen added. He attributes the growth to the fact that "this was the first year where we've had a marketing program -- running banner ads, working closely with both our content and hardware partners, helping them get the word out about Audible. What we're anticipating as 2000 progresses is that as new devices come to market, the customer base will grow, because now there are more devices."

Since these new devices are being manufactured by consumer electronics companies rather than computer companies, "They can bring down the price and market to more mainstream appeal and more mainstream retail channels, like Radio Shack,"Korzen noted.

Audible currently offers 20,000 spoken-word audio titles, including audiobooks, National Public Radio shows and audio versions of periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal. The company recently renewed and expanded its agreement with Simon & Schuster Audio, allowing Audible's customers to download many more S&S bestseller and backlist audiobooks.

In other Audible news, the company has appointed Thomas G. Baxter CEO and president. Baxter will also serve on the company's board of directors. He was operating partner at Evercore Partners, a private equity and advisory firm. A 20-year veteran of the broadcasting and cable television industries, Baxter served as president of Comcast Cable Communications Inc. from 1989 to 1998.

Celebrities Launch New Family Audio Series

Simon & Schuster Audio will launch a new series of family literature classics on audio, featuring celebrity actors as narrators.The first titles in the series, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, read by Paul Newman, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, read by Jack Lemmon, will be released in June. Both titles are abridged at two hours and will retail for $18. These will be followed in September by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, read by Sally Field. The series is produced by Anthony Harris and Susan Kendall Newman, Paul Newman's daughter.

Gilles E. Dana, senior v-p and publisher of S&S New Media, said, "We developed this series to encourage children and adults alike to embrace these memorable works. Having such amazing talent support the project is truly a testament to its worth."

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of these audiobooks will be donated to children™s literacy programs. S&S will promote the series with advertising in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and BookPage, as well as with online advertising and in-store event kits.

"My life™s work is to combine entertainment with education," Susan Kendall Newman told PW. "We all know that storytelling enhances child development. Therefore, a project that has the power to promote literacy has real value."

-- T.M.R.

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