Though the dog days of summer are upon us, the traditionally strong fall and holiday buying seasons are approaching at a fast clip. And according to a recent polling of audio publishers by PW, many companies are heading into the fourth quarter on a slight upswing.

It's no secret that a weak economy, slowed by various political concerns and overall consumer caution, has dimmed retail results of late. But good numbers in May and June (with blockbusters Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling leading the way) hopefully signal a meaningful turnaround. The Association of American Publishers reports that audiobook sales rose in the month of May (up 1.2%) for the first time in 2003. However, the AAP also finds the audiobook category down 14.2% for the year.

Though this last statistic seems grim, it doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. Of the various publishers we spoke with, none indicated substantial losses over the past 12 months.

"I'd say that business is between flat and up; we're up a couple of percentage points in the past year," said David Naggar, president of Random House Audio Publishing Group. (Naggar's assessment excludes the performance of the latest Harry Potter title, which is obviously a phenomenon; to date the audio versions of Phoenix have sold a combined 375,000 copies.) "What that means to me," he continued, "is that we clearly have dedicated listeners. That helps us weather a downturn better than a more widely distributed category. However, it also means that we haven't reached the potential of the audio market yet."

Looking ahead, Naggar plans to keep focusing on geography, market and format. "We try to figure out where each category is selling and capitalize on it," he said. "Not every title works everywhere—in all retail channels or geographically."

This fall Naggar is very enthusiastic about Bleachers by John Grisham, read by the author. "He has done a fantastic job; he has that hint of a southern accent. We've had retailers come back and up their orders because he is the reader." Other lead RH Audio titles include Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and Babylon Rising by Tim LaHaye.

At Listen & Live Audio, president Alfred Martino noted, "We have experienced some increase in returns recently, but we always see a sales buildup in the fall. We're pleased with how our acquisitions are going—we're publishing our first straight fiction title [Nina: Adolescence by Amy Hassinger] and our first mystery [Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell] this season. We're hoping that our strong lineup can overcome any flatness in the economy or in the industry."

Carrie Kania, outgoing associate publisher of Harper Audio (see News, this week), is leaving the category on a high note. "We had a great year. I'm really happy about it. Sales were up nearly 20%, and that's across the board—not one account, not just the top titles, but overall."

Kania cites the general "strength of our list and the growth in our children's audio program" as factors in boosting the bottom line. Of many fall highlights she mentions new titles by Lisa Scottoline and Dennis Lehane, "who are writing at the top of their game." Fluke by Christopher Moore and The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald are also predicted hits.

Simon & Schuster Audio has seen some slowdown in backlist audio sales over the past year, according to v-p and associate publisher Chris Lynch, "but on our frontlist we've been blessed with some very good titles," he added. "We're very bullish about the upturn we've seen with blockbuster titles this summer [Living History] and we're confident that we'll end up better than last year."

Lead S&S Audio titles for fall are "the long-awaited" Dark Tower V by Stephen King, Ultimate Weight Solution by Dr. Phil, The Funny Thing Is... by Ellen DeGeneres and Barbara Bush's memoir, Reflections.

Though Recorded Books LLC is relatively new to the retail channel (two and a half years), the company has had significant early success. "We are very pleased to have gone from zero dollars to a strong eight-figure business in a short time," said v-p and editor in chief Brian Downing. He cited bestselling titles The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith as "nice surprises" discovered by the company.

However, Downing also noted a "distinct softening of the market" since February, adding that "retailers are buying conservatively and returning aggressively." Recorded Books is countering this climate by expanding distribution to its stronger retailers. "We are hopeful that a recent uptick is a trend and are looking forward to a strong holiday season," Downing said.

Patti Pirooz, executive producer for Penguin Audio, noted, "Sales don't seem to be as strong as last year, but they are not dropping off significantly either. We're unique in that we have several 'repeater authors' on our list who turn out a big title once a year." Moving into fall, Pirooz has high hopes for Kate Remembered by A. Scott Berg, due out in October, as well as a new Kay Scarpetta title (Blow Fly) from Patricia Cornwell to be released the same month.

Audio Renaissance is also heading into autumn with momentum. "Even in this marketplace we are up and seeing growth," said publisher Mary Beth Roche. She explained that much of the upward mobility is due to Holtzbrinck's acquisition of the company last year, which paved the way for the list to expand from smaller, more specialized titles to a broader array of titles with bestseller potential. Hot fall selections include Ultimate Punishment by Scott Turow, The Hours read by author Michael Cunningham and The Christmas Blessing by Donna VanLiere.

For a closer look at more autumn audio offerings, please peruse the following pages—and happy listening!