The just-released results of a consumer study commissioned by the Audio Publishers Association and conducted by Ipsos-NPD, a national marketing information company, reveal that overall audiobook usage is up 1.5% since 1999. The study indicates that 22.5% of American households now listen to audiobooks. These figures update a 1999 habits and practices study conducted by research outfit National Family Opinion for the APA. According to the 1999 data, children's audiobooks comprise 14% of the $2-billion audiobook industry, up from 10.3% in 1995. And with the dragon-size success of Listening Library's unabridged recordings of J.K. Rowling's four Harry Potter books casting a glow over the children's audio category, publishers and retailers have much to smile about. PW spoke with audiobook publishers as well as some retailers about the factors creating this pleasant state of affairs.
Publishers and retailers agree that the profile of the children's audiobook genre has been given a boost in the past year, and that boy wizard Harry Potter deserves much of the credit. Just as J.K. Rowling's books about Harry racked up unprecedented sales and enticed legions of new readers, the four unabridged Harry Potter audiobooks from Listening Library, performed by Jim Dale, have worked magic in their own right. With the titles already on a roll, the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, won the Grammy Award for best spoken-word recording for children last February. "Harry Potter catapulted our entire industry into a whole new realm," comments Heather Frederick, publisher of Audio Bookshelf. Carrie Kania, associate publisher of HarperAudio, concurs. "The most obvious change over the past year or so was the birth of Harry Potter on audio," she says. "Those recordings just took what was a very nice, steady business and exploded it. Harry gave the industry a good jumpstart and has had a ripple effect on all kids' titles. If only half of the people who bought Harry Potter and enjoyed it go back into the store looking for more children's audiobooks, that's an amazing number."
According to Listening Library publisher Tim Ditlow, "We're really seeing the echo of the Harry Potter titles. We're very close to the two-million-unit mark [for all four Harry titles, all formats] and we know that there is a strong pass-along factor beyond that. I think there has been a noticeable effect on consumers since the success of Harry Potter—stores are buying more frontlist and also stocking more backlist titles for family listening."
Publishers agree that the Harry factor is an overwhelmingly positive one, though Frederick sounds a note of concern. "The only down side to the Harry Potter phenomenon," she says, "is that everyone's expectations are higher. Realistically, most children's audiobooks will never have those sales or make that kind of money."
That reality, however, has not stopped new industry players from getting their feet wet. "At HarperAudio we recently put a new emphasis on our children's line," Kania explains. "We launched in fall 2000 and as we grow our list, we're seeing more and more people stepping into the children's arena—it's very exciting. Last week we were able to seal the deal on a title we had been after for many years. I think with the release of our most recent unabridged titles and our reissued backlist we've proved our renewed commitment to children's audio."
Of late, "There are lots of people who have a keen interest in entering the field or establishing a bigger presence," says Ditlow. "We welcome HarperCollins and others who are broadening the category. It helps to not be the only one out there." Among those companies taking steps in the direction of children's audio are N.J.-based independent Listen & Live, which released its first children's title in 2000, All-of-a-Kind Family; Barefoot Books, which released adaptations of its story collections and picture books; and Chinaberry, which revives favorite children's classics like Wind Boy by Ethel Cook Elliot and the just-released Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
Though competition is generally welcome, it's still competition. "In the last two years, things have become a bit more difficult for smaller publishers," says Frederick. "So many major publishers have their own audio divisions. The larger companies often go head-to-head for the big, hot books and the small publishers have to focus on other things. This spring when I was looking to buy rights, I was shocked to see advances increase quite a bit. I got the top six titles on my wish list, but I had to pay more for them and go through a tremendous amount of negotiation," she explains. This situation was indeed a change from past years for Frederick, but, she adds, "I realized that I can't move forward unless I change my mindset."
In the Marketplace
Retailers have been a key part of the equation when it comes to gaining exposure for children's audio. The publishers PW spoke with indicated that retailers have offered increased support of the category over the past year. "In the past six months, we've seen booksellers do more front-of-store displays and bring in bigger numbers on backlist titles," Kania observes. And since its inception four years ago, the Audio Publishers Association's annual "June Is Audiobook Month" campaign has done much to help retailers focus their promotional efforts. Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Debra Williams points out that B&N stores are "featuring more audiobooks in end-cap and top-shelf displays" this year. She also says that the chain is producing a special catalogue for Audiobook Month that will include a children's section highlighting such titles as the Junie B. Jones series (Listening Library), the Series of Unfortunate Events titles (two recordings each from Listening Library and Harper Children's Audio), Witch Child by Celia Rees (Listening Library), Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers (Harper Children's Audio) and The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin (Listening Library). The Books-A-Million chain is doing a children's audio push this summer, including both frontlist and backlist titles, and BookSense, the national marketing campaign supporting independent booksellers, will produce an audio bestseller list for June.
"We sell them; we love them," sums up Linda Laramy, owner of Crackerjacks children's bookstore in Easton, Md. "We do particularly well with audiobooks in the summer, because so many people are listening to them in the car when they travel on vacation. And we're hearing from our customers that kids are listening to some of the more popular titles, like Redwall and the Harry Potter books, again and again." At Linden Tree Children's Recordings and Books in Los Altos, Calif., sales of audiobooks are steady. "We have a good selection of audiobooks and we include them in a summer display," says owner Dennis Ronberg. "We always remind people that audiobooks are great for travel, too." William Hibler, manager of Earful of Books in Plano, Tex., says, "We have a huge Hank the Cowdog [a favorite series written and recorded by Texas native John R. Erickson] display up right now and a Harry Potter poster and display at the front of the store. The Harry Potter titles are still immense for us and have generated interest in other books, too."
To coincide with Audiobook Month, Listening Library is sponsoring a "How I Survived My Summer Vacation" contest with prizes that include a digital camera and an audiobook library. In-store contest materials feature new Listening Library releases The Amber Spyglass and The Princess Diaries and were mailed to 140 bookstores, a number that is nearly "quadruple" what past participation has been, according to Ditlow. Official entry postcards asking entrants to provide tips on how they survived a family vacation can be obtained at participating retailers. Contest rules are also available at listeninglibrary.com.
Later this month, Listening Library is sponsoring a first-ever bookstore appearance by a panel of authors—Michael Laser (6-321), Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) and James Howe (Bunnicula)—who will be discussing the audiobook adaptations of their work. The event will be held June 26 at the Barnes & Noble on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Mary Beth Roche, v-p of publicity for the Random House Audio Publishing Group, says her company "hopes to do more and more events like this. Now that people have seen the success of Harry Potter and what audio can do, people seem more willing to play. The situation has given us lots of opportunities and we want to continue to find ways to work with booksellers to promote audio."
As examples of other new promotional campaigns, Harper Children's Audio has produced a colorful poster for stores touting its new releases and reminding listeners of the company's venerable backlist, which is becoming available once again. Frederick at Audio Bookshelf has focused her efforts by traveling year-round to regional conferences and conventions and doing targeted mailings to schools and libraries.
Schools and libraries seem to be experiencing the same kind of upswing that retailers have seen. Publishers report that schools and libraries have increased their support of audiobooks in recent years. "In the last three years schools have become my largest customer base," Frederick says. "It used to be my smallest. My orders have increased at just about every educational and library conference I attend." Roche reports, "We've seen double-digit growth in the school and library market over the past year, and that's across the board, frontlist and backlist titles." The new APA market study supports that there is a strong demand at the library level—38% of audiobooks are borrowed from libraries; 37% are purchased, 10% are received as gifts and the rest are either borrowed (9%) or rented (6%).
Greater visibility for the children's audio category has wrought other changes as well. "Children's audio used to be a sub-arm of the publishing industry," comments Frederick. "Now it's a nice slice of the pie, and as a result, has more respect." A new respect for the industry may be behind the seemingly growing number of celebrity narrators for children's titles, as some of the publishers we spoke with suggested that more agents might be seeing children's audio in a new light.
But Kania of HarperAudio believes that recording an audiobook is an appealing project to celebrities for some very basic reasons. "Oftentimes a children's book is short enough that it is not a huge time commitment for a celebrity to record it," she says. In addition, "many actors and celebrities are eager to attach their names to great writers and books. The reason we can get A-list actors is that we are offering A-list properties."
Ditlow says, "We have always had a mix of celebrities, authors and unknown actors on our productions. That balance hasn't really shifted. But with the way things are in the industry right now, and the reputation we have established, I feel more confident about approaching celebrity narrators who are on my wish list, knowing that agents are likely to consider the request."
Citing another shift in the category, Ditlow notes that children's audio has recently followed the lead of adult audio divisions by producing more simultaneous hardcover book/audio releases. Both Listening Library and Harper Children's Audio have stepped up efforts in this area over the past year. "It's been a major change in our program," he says. "We are able to tie in with the book publisher's promotion and publicity, including author tours and ad campaigns. We've seen a bump in sales when we do this. It's a riskier way to publish, because we're not waiting for reviews of the book to come in first. But the gamble has paid off nicely for us."
The Internet and Beyond
None of the children's audio publishers PW spoke with were particularly apprehensive about the brave new world of audio downloading on the Internet. "We're very early in that game," says Kania. "We want to do what's best for the authors. At this point we would make select titles available, stressing quality over quantity, and work with a retail partner. But the whole world could change again in six months, so we don't want to be locked into anything, either." Frederick says, "I need to look into the various technologies, but we all know that in five years it will all be different. You have to consider how much and how fast you can retool your list and at what expense." At Listening Library, Ditlow remarks, "We have a rich treasure trove of content and as the technology evolves, we're there; we could convert quickly. But we also have a moral responsibility to authors and agents not to take any risks with delivery systems."
For now children's audiobook publishers seem appropriately pleased with the healthy state of their industry. "Every year our market share grows, the format remains consistent and we are quietly doing our thing," Ditlow observes. "The slow road is really the fast road when you look at the big picture."
Kania of HarperAudio has a similarly upbeat view. "Children's audio is on a tremendous upswing right now," she says. "And we're at a point where we have a great opportunity to keep it going." Audiobook listeners everywhere hope she's right.