Spoken Audio for Spring
Children's Audio/Video for Spring

The year may still be relatively new, but the issues facing audio publishers in 2003 are very much the same old story. It will come as no surprise that, unanimously, the most vexing (and, in some cases, the most inspiring) hurdle for those producing audiobooks is format: deciding which format(s) to publish in.

"We're looking forward to continuing to try and find the best ways to deliver our content to listeners," said Christine McNamara, v-p and publisher of Random House Audio. "While CD is the format that is growing most quickly for us, cassette is still responsible for a significant portion of our net sales, especially in light of unabridged programming being an increasingly important part of our publishing program and philosophy," she explains. The scenario is much the same at Time Warner AudioBooks, where Maja Thomas, v-p Time Warner AudioBooks says, "Buyers and consumers are responding well to multiple formats. We continue to see growth in unabridged numbers, and on CD. However, cassette sales still remain strong."

In theory, the strategy of publishing in multiple formats will yield the maximum number of audio consumers, as publishers cater to a variety of listeners' preferences. In practice, the multiple-format plan is often a headache for both publishers and consumers. "With the plethora of formats available, one of our biggest challenges is to get the right formats at the right accounts," says Mary Beth Roche, publisher of Audio Renaissance. "There is always limited shelf space for audio, and we want to make the most effective use of it." According to Gilles Dana, publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, the multiplicity of formats (some companies offer four different editions of a major title) can definitely be a problem. "It affects sales—frontlist and backlist—when you are crowding out product at the marketplace," he says. At present, it appears the options are few for effectively addressing the issue. "One solution is for a buyer to choose a particular format to stock and offer to customers, but potentially you might turn off some consumers that way," Dana says.

Or something else has to give. "We either need more space for retailers, or we should cut down on the number of offerings we produce," Dana reasons. But as time marches on and technology progresses, he believes that "with the current trend toward CD, the format problem will eventually resolve itself. Within the next five to seven years, cars will not come with cassette players," Dana notes.

In the meantime, his company is making efforts to forge ahead by producing all of its Nightingale/Conant nonfiction titles only on CD beginning this year. "Retailers could really help publishers in this transitional phase," Dana says. "We are all leaving money on the table if we don't reduce the choices available."

Technology Watch

With an aim toward catching an up-trend and streamlining their production efforts, it's with very keen interest that audio publishers continue to closely track what audiobook listeners want in terms of playback devices. Any type of true technological shift in the playback arena these days is, well, driven, to a large degree by the auto industry (and the manufacturers that supply stereo systems), because a majority of audiobook listening still takes place in the car. "We're exploring new media and formats and trying to stay on top of consumer preferences," says Maria Manske of HighBridge Audio. "But to what extent is there a risk of getting ahead of the consumer?" she wonders. Eileen Hutton, associate publisher of Brilliance Audio and president of the Audio Publishers Association echos those thoughts: "As car manufacturers begin to install MP3-CD players, as more and more home stereos have MP3-CD players, publishers are trying to gauge when the market will be ready for them to plunge in," she says. "More and more titles are being sold as downloads; will the future be media-free?"

As the crystal ball is obviously still murky when it comes to formats and playback devices, the most common tactic for now seems to be further exploration and observation. But, as Hutton notes, the APA intends to be in on the ground floor as the next technology wave takes hold. To that end, APA has met with the manufacturers of sound systems and automobile manufacturers, and has formed a strong working relationship with the Consumer Electronics Association. "The APA has been working with CEA this year to set standards for playback devices, so that audiobook users have an enjoyable experience," Hutton says. The standards, which have been adopted, were presented during last month's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Car manufacturers and home and personal stereo manufacturers were invited to attend an APA/CES joint presentation called "Give Them What They Want... What Audiobook Consumers Want from Us: How Setting Listening Device Standards Can Boost Sales for All of Us." The response could not have been better, according to Hutton. "It was a great show," she says. "Manufacturers were absolutely thrilled to make contact with the APA [whose members exhibited in a pavilion at CES for the first time]."

The newly adopted APA/CES standards—which include a playback device's ability to "hold state" when media is removed or transferred from one player to another—currently apply only to MP3-CD format. However, a joint committee continues its work on issuing standards for other formats and devices as well. In this self-certification program, playback manufacturers who meet the standards will be able to display a consumer logo deeming their products "Audiobook Compatible." The upshot of APA's work with CES is that audiobook publishers are taking a big step toward a more streamlined future. "We are being proactive instead of reactive," says Hutton. "We hope not to have the same difficulties we had when the CD format was first adopted. We want to be ahead of the problem this time."

Though the APA/CES efforts demonstrate that the MP3-CD is gaining ground, the format is certainly not the only new kid on the technology block. During the CES show in Las Vegas, Time Warner AudioBooks announced the forthcoming release of the first commercially available audio e-book. In conjunction with AFB Talking Books (a department of the American Foundation for the Blind) and Dolphin Computer Access, TWAB will publish The Jester by James Patterson in the new format, alongside traditional print, audio and e-book editions next month. The audio e-book appears on an additional CD that will be packaged with the unabridged CD version of the audiobook.

A Dolphin software program called EaseReader allows consumers to listen to and/or read the audio e-book on a desktop or laptop PC. Maja Thomas of TWAB described the format as "innovative and efficient... a perfect example of how universally designed technologies can benefit both companies and consumers." Research and development of this format has been in the works for several years at the DAISY Consortium, a group whose mission is to develop standards and strategies for "producing, exchanging and using Digital Talking Books."

Market Moves

In the coming year audio publishers will also be more focused than ever on drawing the attention of listeners. One tried-and-true way publishers try to win more consumer dollars is to demonstrate more value for money. TW AudioBooks will be playing up "added value" according to Thomas. Author interviews, introductions, bonus tracks and archival recordings are among the things "that can distinguish our programs from others on the shelves, and encourage consumers to choose Time Warner AudioBooks," she said. Simon & Schuster Audio will continue its Encore line (launched last summer) of budget-priced bestsellers and will publish several audio originals, like the seminar-based titles by Anthony Robbins (including Lessons in Mastery).

Many audio publishers will again be rolling out brand-name-author bestsellers (most often simultaneously with the author's print editions) whenever possible. And just about every publisher plans to polish its already successful gems. "We will be mining our backlist and the Caedmon archives," said Harper Audio associate publisher Carrie Kania. "We want to produce classy CD editions that booksellers can sell for a very long time." Last year's focus on Caedmon titles and the imprint's 50th anniversary yielded stellar results, including huge sales for the re-issued A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas and the author's re-mastered boxed set of recordings. A more recent Harper classic, the children's novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder including Little House on the Prairie will make their audio debut this year in unabridged recordings read by Cherry Jones. "Projects like this draw attention to the whole list," Kania said. "People who are trying audiobooks for the first time often try classics. If they have a good experience with those titles, that brings new listeners to the medium."

"Cross-marketing and cross-merchandising," will help Audio Renaissance plans put an emphasis on attracting more listeners, said Roche. A number of publishers have stressed that merchandising audiobooks outside of their category in-store—i.e. pairing audiobooks and with print counterparts in various store sections; placing audio in a front-of-store or special display location—significantly increases sales. Unfortunately, audio publishers lament the fact that many retailers have not embraced these practices yet, or do not have the space to do so. "We plan to continue working with our retail partners to try and help educate the consumer about our titles and the existing format availability," said McNamara of Random House. "Finding ways to guide potential listeners to our programs and the best format for them is going to be key, and the only way we can be successful in doing so will be to work closely with our partners on the account level to creatively market, promote and merchandise our titles and category."

Other efforts to make a splash with audio buyers this year include Random House Audio's launch of a new imprint called Imagination Studio. Officially debuting in June 2003, the imprint will bow under the Listening Library umbrella, (the children's division of Random House Audio). Imagination Studio will be home to titles that appeal to children, tweens and teens, and will focus on tie-ins cross-promoting with media and book publishing. Titles on the launch list this spring include abridged CD recordings inspired by TV's Alias, comic book heroes the Hulk and Justice League, and The Second Summer of the Sisterhood by Anne Brashares, sequel to the hit book The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Listening Library publisher Tim Ditlow said, "Imagination Studio is a great opportunity to work with some of the hottest properties and continue to develop our children's audio business. I'm eager to extend our production quality to a new line of titles and authors while expanding the breadth of our publishing program to an even wider audience."

New endeavors like these, and the continued vigor and enthusiasm of audio publishers surely bode well for the various challenges of the coming year. For a closer look at the titles audio publishers are serving up for spring (January—June 2003), see the following pages.