After what audiobook publishers (and retailers) characterize as a "difficult" period in early 2003, the year saw a strong finish, with most audiobook companies racking up very merry fourth quarter/holiday sales. Spirits and expectations were generally high as publishers reflected on recent successes and unveiled their spring lists.

"Our holiday season was just fantastic, with our best sales to date," noted Maja Thomas, v-p and publisher of Time Warner AudioBooks. "Over 300,000 units were sold from October through mid-December, a 29.5% increase from last year," she added. Among the highlights of the past year, Thomas singled out the "critical praise and impressive sales" for the Hyperion Audiobooks imprint and the particular success of David Sedaris: Live at Carnegie Hall, "an unusual live performance program."

For Harper Audio, overall strong holiday sales were led by The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston and Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, according to associate publisher Ana Maria Allessi. "One of the things that has been most exciting to me in the last year is the progress of our children's audio imprint," said Allessi. Top children's releases included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, read by Eric Idle, and Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, read by Jim Broadbent, which both received Grammy nominations (the winners will be announced February 8).

The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith was a 2003 standout at Recorded Books. "The ultimate in publishing is when a title we love comes together with a good financial performance," said Recorded Books publisher Brian Downing. "We shipped tens of thousands of units." He also pointed to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon as a "truly a special book," that enjoyed good sales success.

Simon & Schuster Audio had a "solid holiday season with some nice bright spots," according to Chris Lynch, executive v-p and publisher. The Funny Thing Is... by Ellen DeGeneres and The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King "continued to sell extremely well all through the fall," Lynch said. The Pimsleur language line, which Lynch called "one of the fastest-growing areas" for the company, and two titles by Dan Brown, Angels & Demons and Deception, also racked up good numbers.

Of course, Dan Brown was an all-star for Random House Audio as well. "Business was very solid this holiday season, with The Da Vinci Code leading the charge," said v-p and publisher Scott Matthews. The abridged CD and cassette editions had such sustained good sales that Random introduced unabridged editions in time for the holiday season. "They quickly joined the abridged editions at the top of the audio bestseller lists," Matthews said. "We're particularly proud of John Grisham's Bleachers," he added, "because for the first time ever fans had a chance to enjoy John's wonderful narration."

In the Listening Library children's division of Random House, "holiday sales were more than merry," according to publisher Tim Ditlow. "The timeliness of Jim Dale's A Christmas Carol, the explosive success of Eragon by Christopher Paolini and the ongoing steamroller Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [another Grammy nominee]" received much of the credit for the company's top-notch results.

Alfred Martino, president of Listen & Live Audio, said, "we had a strong fall list. I think it's the best selection of titles we've ever released." Martino states that sales have supported his assessment, noting that "for our company—we're still growing—sales each year continue to improve over the previous year."

The sales story appears to be the same for Brilliance. "2002 was our best year ever, for both sales and profits, and we beat 2002 by 14%—15% in 2003," said v-p Eileen Hutton. "We've had double-digit growth for a while now and are projecting at least that much growth in 2004." Hutton believes the strategy of "signing bigger and bigger authors and controlling our costs" keeps Brilliance moving from "strength to strength."

At HighBridge, marketing specialist Maria Manske said, "Our holiday season was much brighter than we had hoped, given the way the year started out." Keeping things on the upswing was Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken. "The brouhaha over his exchange with Bill O'Reilly at the BEA luncheon, together with the Fox lawsuit, made for the best instant marketing campaign anyone could hope for," she added. Other solid performers included The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and various backlist titles by Garrison Keillor.

The Bard and mystery maven Agatha Christie were two stalwart performers for The Audio Partners in 2003. "Our sales increased 67% in the last four months of the year compared to the same period last year, much of it due to spectacular sales of The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare," said publisher Grady Hesters. He noted that 75% of the sales of that title, which is a 98-CD set priced at $600, were to consumers. "I think that reveals a greater potential for high-value, collectible audio programs," he said. The ABC Murders by Christie and Leap of Faith by Queen Noor rounded out the company's top sellers.

Mary Beth Roche, publisher of Audio Renaissance, noted, "The fall and holiday season were very strong for us." Not surprisingly, some of the success can be credited to arguably the year's most valuable player. "Maybe most notable for us was Digital Fortress by Dan Brown," Roche said. "We went back to press four times before the on-sale date, which was very exciting." Roche also noted the continued success of Janet Evanovich titles. "We're especially happy to see continued growth with Janet Evanovich, particularly the Stephanie Plum series. We saw a 20% increase in sales from Hard Eight to To the Nines. That's very encouraging this far along in the series." Aside from specific titles or authors, Roche commented, "The whole year was exciting for us because it was a real transition year—our first year in New York, our first year with the new team in place," referring to Holtzbrinck's relocation of the audio division after it purchased Audio Renaissance in 2002.

A Blossoming Season Ahead

Moving into spring 2004, publishers are implementing and/or refining strategies to deal with the perennial challenges of the audiobook industry, namely, audiobook formats (which to publish) and retail merchandising (there's not enough). It follows that technological advances, pricing and packaging (making products easier to use while driving) are also cited as issues on which publishers, retailers and consumers must eventually have a meeting of the minds.

"Honestly, our biggest challenge is still format," said Patti Pirooz, executive producer of Penguin Audio. "When do we stop doing cassettes? We still net on cassettes. What happens in the marketplace when you just discontinue a format? Will people go buy the CDs? I think it will be resolved within 10 years, but it's still our biggest problem."

Publishers unanimously echo this sentiment. "We're still in a state of flux with format, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. We're all phasing out cassettes, but can't afford to say good-bye yet," said Lynch of S&S.

Likewise, Roche at Audio Renaissance speaks for her colleagues when she says, "One of our evergreen challenges is having enough presence in the retail marketplace for our products. I think retailers are experimenting, but we're just not there yet."

"We need to work with bigger retailers to get them to merchandise audio better—with audio bestseller sections, front-of-store displays, displays featuring related audiobooks in the various book sections," said Lynch. "Every account that tries these things sees audio sales go up, and it does not affect book sales adversely. As we move in that direction, I hope we can get more shelf space for backlist."

Increasingly, publishers are doing more to assist retailers in these efforts—everything from advertising to consumer promotions to more streamlined packaging. Adding bonus materials like an author interview, introduction, author's note, or even producing an enhanced CD with extras, is becoming a more popular practice. Publishers believe that such audio-only treats will prove enticing to audiobook fans as well as new listeners and retailers.

In this same vein, many of the larger publishers now offer value-priced lines of popular backlist titles hoping to lure new listeners and get retailers to bite at a good merchandising opportunity. Time Warner AudioBooks joins the fray with its line this spring.

A spring bouquet of promotions is poised to bloom as well. Random House kicks off with Fab February, tying in to the white-hot success of Bravo/NBC TV's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. This month Random publishes Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Fab 5's Guide to Looking Better, Cooking Better, Dressing Better, Behaving Better, and Living Better with an exclusive 27-minute Q&A with the authors, who also narrated the title, adding in bonus tips for listeners along the way.

Audio Renaissance plans a year-long promotion of Janet Evanovich featuring two different consumer contests (details not yet finalized), as well as audio-specific author appearances. And Downing said Recorded Books is "sinking a lot of money into promotional opportunities with the chains, and we are expanding our distribution to independent stores."

S&S Audio continues its recently launched Inner Life series of self-help/spirituality titles and this spring debuts the Relaxation Company line of similar titles, which S&S now distributes.

Penguin Audio enters 2004 with a streamlined name. "As of the summer 2004 list, all our audio titles will be under the Penguin Audio imprint," Pirooz said, marking the end of the Putnam Berkley and Penguin Putnam names. "It took a long time, but now we're all under one umbrella."

Brilliance Audio is planning "a number of marketing things" to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2004, according to Hutton, though details have not been finalized.

Audiobook publishers across the board expressed tremendous pride in the quality of titles they are publishing this year and a generally bullish take on the industry. A number of those PW spoke with indicated stronger-than-ever anecdotal evidence that audiobooks are taking hold with consumers. "Everyone I talk to has such a strong reaction to their listening experience; really, they speak with such passion about a favorite title or narrator," said Allessi of Harper. "I believe this kind of word-of-mouth is growing. Consumer enthusiasm combined with retail enthusiasm—which came first, the chicken or the egg?—will continue to grow sales."