Actor Ron McLarty is no stranger to audiobooks. He has been recording them for Recorded Books and other companies for years. Not many of his audiobook fans know that McLarty is also a writer, but that's about to change, thanks in large part to Stephen King. Now the rest of the world will get a chance to read McLarty, too, as he's just signed a reported $2-million, two-novel deal with Viking Penguin for The Memory of Running (to be published in 2004) and a second book. Most interestingly, however, this story begins with an audiobook.
"The whole thing started back in 1999," said Recorded Books publisher Brian Downing. "A number of years ago Ron had come to do work for us through Danielle Steel; he was her narrator of choice. Ron developed a friendly relationship with our executive producer Claudia Howard and had been telling her about his writing projects. She asked to see some of them." According to Downing, McLarty is a self-professed insomniac and had penned several novels in his many waking hours. None of said novels had been seen in print; they'd all received their share of rejection letters from publishing houses. But one of those works, The Memory of Running, caught the eye and ear of Recorded Books's Howard.
"Claudia read it and thought it was great," said Downing. She championed the title in-house and suggested the company produce Memory as an audiobook original. "We said let's do it; there's something here," Downing recalled. The story of an overweight, out-of-shape guy on a cross-country bicycle trek to retrieve his deceased sister's body was soon on its way to listeners.
Recorded Books released The Memory of Running to the library market in August 2000. "We weren't sure how the libraries would react," said Downing, noting that most libraries do not purchase audiobook titles without also ordering the print version. "But we decided we would take the plunge and promote it. We started handselling it to libraries." The title had good success in that market, as well as on the company's Web site, but Downing felt the general book trade would be too tough a sell since most audiobooks piggyback on its print counterpart's campaign; something that didn't exist in this case.
Memory jogged along doing respectable business for a few years, until this past summer, when McLarty's creative worlds collided when he met Stephen King at an audition. McLarty, in turn, told Howard about the encounter and asked if she might send King a copy of Memory to listen to. Howard, who had corresponded with King over the years (Recorded Books publishes the library editions of several King titles), obliged. King loved what he heard, and in the September 19 issue of Entertainment Weekly, lauded Memory as "the best novel you won't read this year" in a new, regular column he writes for the magazine. King went on to cite examples of publishers who had almost missed the boat by passing on projects that went on to be big and to urge EW readers to order a copy of Memory: "Let's make a little history here, what do you say? If that happens, the book probably will be published.... Do I want some credit if this nice thing happens? You know I do."
When early word of King's essay reached Recorded Books, Downing remarked, "Holy cow. 800,000 people read that magazine—this could really be something." Sure enough, a bevy of agents began contacting McLarty wanting to represent him, and McLarty's current agent (Jeff Kleinman at Graybill & English) received numerous queries about rights. Memory quickly became "the fastest selling audio we've ever had on our Web site," Downing said. "And this was largely a nonaudio audience that was responding."
As attention reached its highest pitch, a seven-day/seven-publisher auction for world print rights culminated in Viking Penguin senior editor Ray Roberts walking away with a deal. On the sales front, Downing says that Amazon.com has begun carrying the audiobook, which will be released to the trade simultaneously with the print version of Memory next year.
Downing has spoken with McLarty since all the hoopla and said the newly minted author is understandably thrilled. "He's amazed by it all," Downing related. "He's very grateful to Claudia and to Recorded Books. This just couldn't have happened to a more wonderful, decent person; it's great to see. You always wonder where these deals come from, and in this case it was one word from Stephen King."
It looks like McLarty won't be getting sleep anytime soon.