This year's Audio Publishers Association Conference offered something for everyone: seminars on the newest upcoming technology, a narrator panel, results of a consumer market survey, discussions of what libraries and retailers need from audio, and a panel on piracy and legal issues.
One of the most entertaining panels was an eye-opening look at good audiobook ideas gone wrong. Audio publishers bravely shared stories of audiobooks that seemed great at the time of recording, but bombed at retail. Simon & Schuster director of sales Ken Oxenreider talked about Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up, read by the author. "We got great orders, lots of publicity and co-op," he said. But reaction to the yellow cover, with the author's name but no title, was (as Oxenreider succinctly put it): "Ewww!" Oxenreider drily noted another drawback: "Ever hear Tom Wolfe read?" The title didn't sell. Caleb Carr's Killing Time also seemed like a sure thing, since "his two previous audios sold fabulously," Oxenreider said. But the futuristic novel was a new direction for the author, and consumers rejected it.
Grady Hesters, owner of Audio Partners Inc , spoke of a 1988 project, Listen and Decide, featuring David Frost's in-depth interviews with the presidential primary candidates. But the complicated deal required that the audio be sold after the interviews had aired on syndicated television, and the TV airings kept getting pushed back. By the time the audio came out, it had lost its window of interest. Hesters said he learned two lessons: "When timing is everything, control is everything else" and "When the going gets tough, cancel."
B&B Audio president Beth Baxter had come up with the Plug'n'Play, a package containing two audiobooks and a Walkman. It seemed ideal for airports and hospital gift shops. But airport stores insisted on tripling the wholesale price ($18) and selling it for $50, which was too high to be an impulse purchase. The product did sell at hospital gift shops, but it didn't sell through quickly enough to be profitable, so it was dropped from hospitals. However, Plug'n'Play does work for in-store promotions, such as "summer travel" and Father's Day, Baxter said.
Hesters summed up the panel by saying, "There are times when the market just isn't ready for your genius idea. Don't beat yourself up. We really have failed if we don't fail a few times."
Panels on e-books and digital gadgets showcased new technology. At the e-book panel, Leo Dwyer of Rosetta Books said that Rosetta has entered into a marketing and content agreement with a company called DataPlay for production and sale of e-books, audiobooks and hybrids of both, on the DataPlay minidisc, a tiny one-and-a-quarter-inch disc that can hold 30 hours of spoken-word audio. The DataPlay will be launched in the fourth quarter of 2001, he said. Rosetta has done co-productions with Audio Partners on DataPlay minidisc, and wants to make deals with other audio publishers, Dwyer said. He also suggested several uses for an e-book/audiobook crossover: it could be used to teach languages, with text in one language and audio in another; or an avid reader could listen to the audio while driving, then continue reading the text in bed when he got home.
A representative from a company called I-JAM showed off a similar disc, the Sony Minidisc, and another small format called the I-JAM LP, in which the disc is sealed in a clear plastic case so it can never be scratched. He noted that the new digital formats have "locks" that allow the rights owner to specify (for example) that users can make only one copy, can make unlimited copies for a week, etc., so security is protected. He also presented the idea of the I-JAM Jam station, a retail kiosk that allows secure in-store downloading.
Beth Anderson of Audible and Jeana Peterson of Microsoft both displayed the many personal digital assistants (PDAS) and other devices that can play audio. But as audio veteran Seth Gershel noted, as promising as all these new formats are, they won't become widespread among mainstream listeners until "it's so easy for audience to use that they may find it more convenient" than cassettes or CDs.
In contrast to the techno-talk, the APAC luncheon focused on the human aspects of audio listening. In a heartwarming presentation, nine-year-old Sam Baxter was honored with the Audiobook Heroes Award. This young audiobook fan singlehandedly launched a project to get audiobooks into children's hospitals. Through his efforts, Panasonic donated 25 audio players and five boom boxes to California Medical Center, while audio publishers provided the titles.
L.A. Theatreworks also received an Audiobook Heroes Award for its Alive and Aloud program, which provides audiobooks and study guides to 2,000 schools.
Audiobook listeners' habits were the focus of the APA's new consumer study, which found that audiobook usage is up: 22.5% of American households listen to audiobooks, up from 21% in the 1999 survey. CD usage has also gone up: the average number of hours per week households listened to CDs almost equals that of cassettes. The average audiobook listener earns 25% more than non-listeners, has a higher level of education, and is more likely to hold a professional or managerial position than a non-listener. The survey also found that 76% of listeners are female, 24% male. Of the respondents polled, 28% ranked mystery/horror/suspense as their favorite audiobook genre; however, the choices did not include general fiction, which might have topped the list otherwise. The survey did not ask if listeners preferred abridged or unabridged titles. The study was commissioned by the APA and conducted by Ipsos-NPD Inc.
The narrator panel was nearly cancelled when narrators Frank Muller and Carol Stewart were unable to attend. But four pinch-hitters stepped up to the plate—Robin Whitten of AudioFile, Stefan Rudnicki of Skyboat, independent producer Linda Ross and Max Bloomquist of Brilliance—and the panel went on.
The most well-received panel was "An Ear to the Marketplace." Attendees unanimously praised the wide range of perspectives offered, from libraries, bookstores, truck stops, the press, and the aforementioned I-JAM.
At APAC, the APA announced its new slate of officers and board members. Eileen Hutton was named APA president; Maja Thomas was named v-p; Anji Cornett was named treasurer; Michelle Cobb was named secretary; and Joe McNeeley, Patricia Keim and Beth Anderson became new board members.
APAC was attended by 250 people, and most were pleased with the content. Attendees praised the mix of subjects, from technology to marketing to narration, and were also glad that that "beginner" panels from previous years (with names like "Audiobooks 101") had been dropped, resulting in more emphasis on the current state of the industry for professionals.