Most audio publishers would agree that getting attention for audiobooks at the retail level has frequently been a challenge. But in the current tough economy, it's more important than ever that retailers and publishers capitalize on the kinds of strategies to get audiobooks into the shopping bags of listeners. PW recently spoke with a number of industry professionals about some of the keys to merchandising audiobooks.

Before retailers can merchandise audiobooks, it's obvious they need to carry audio titles in the first place. Traditionally, retailers who have been hesitant to stock audios cite such reasons as: not enough floor/shelf space; too many formats; difficult-to-shelve packaging; price resistance; and a lack of familiarity or expertise with the product (which hinders the all-important practice of handselling). Publishers have made efforts to address many of these issues in the past and, beginning this month, are trying something new to help retailers become more comfortable and confident with the audio category.

The Audio Publishers Association has devised a system that will allow retailers to acquire a library of audiobooks for staff listening. Information about the new initiative debuts in the April White Box mailing to BookSense members; details are also available from the APA office (703-556-7172). According to Audio Renaissance publisher and APA president Mary Beth Roche, retailers have expressed a desire to familiarize themselves with more audio titles, but are reluctant to open shrink-wrapped stock to do so. "Booksellers have ready access to galleys and advance reading copies for print books, so it makes sense for them to have the same kind of library for audio," said Roche. "It's a great way for retailers to discover and enjoy audiobooks and will make it easier for them to recommend titles to their customers."

Retailers who sign up for the program will receive a box of assorted audio titles from APA member publishers. "We will encourage them to listen and to circulate the audiobooks among the staff," said Roche. "And we hope that they will be inspired to try some audio merchandising or promotion in their stores." Grady Hesters, publisher of Audio Partners, agreed that more retailer involvement is a good idea. "Developing an enthusiasm among booksellers makes good business sense; the sales per square foot for audio are typically among the highest in any category," he noted. "The number of booksellers who actively promote the audio category is extremely limited, but when it does happen, the results are outstanding." Eileen Hutton, v-p and associate publisher at Brilliance Audio concurred: "A word-of-mouth recommendation goes a long way toward winning new converts to audio."

Further capitalizing on the word-of-mouth influence, this June the APA will launch a Tell a Friend/Enter to Win campaign/sweepstakes. By filling out a tear-off form at participating retailers, consumers can designate a friend to receive a free audiobook and, in turn, be entered to win a year's supply of audiobooks. All addresses collected during the promotion will receive an "Audiobook Digest" booklet containing editorial information on audiobook titles.

Some Nuts and Bolts

Once retailers have made a commitment to audio, publishers believe that the next step, merchandising the titles, should be modeled on longstanding print-book merchandising practices. "Our most important message to booksellers is to merchandise audiobooks as you would books," said Gavin Caruthers, v-p and director of marketing for Simon & Schuster Audio. "That means creating bestseller and new release sections, endcap and table features and in-section face outs, as well as featuring audiobooks out of section—for example, placing business audiobooks in business sections. All these contribute to greater exposure and increased sales. We have had positive results at those retailers who have tried this," Caruthers added.

Other publishers agreed with Caruthers's support of cross merchandising. "We'd love to see more audiobooks in different sections, when it's appropriate—placing the audio title next to the book, so the choices are there," said Jean Marie Kelly, marketing director for HarperAudio. Borders is one retailer that has been making strides in this area. "We're moving away from keeping audio as a separate entity and making it more a part of the regular book offerings in our stores," said Clay Farr, category manager for the chain. "Wherever there is an opportunity, we will promote the audiobook with its print counterpart. We want to reach those who are already addicted to audiobooks, but also those people who haven't tried them yet. Sometimes you have to go out of section to do that."

Scott Matthews, publisher of Random House Audio, is enthusiastic about such changes. "It's great to see more and more retailers build sales by finding ways to get audiobooks out of the audio section when it makes sense for the title," he said.

While cross-merchandising increases visibility outside of the audio section, retailers must also find ways to make their audio sections stand out. "Let's not hide the audiobook section behind the column in the back of the store near the bathroom," said Kelly of HarperAudio. "When you put the product in the customer's eye range in an attractive area to browse, both established listeners and newcomers to audio are more inclined to buy," she added.

Farr at Borders noted, "Basically, we are trying to simplify the shopping experience. Traditionally, there were a lot more subcategories in the audio section than we have now. We hope that will make it easier for shoppers to find the titles they want."

Many retailers have traditionally found that compatibility between store fixtures and numerous audio formats and packaging designs has been a challenge. Farr, for one, sees the situation improving. "Publishers are moving in the right direction. Most of the majors have switched to more consistent packaging. If you look at the audio section now, it looks a little neater than it was. Some smaller companies are still producing packaging that is too big, but overall things have greatly improved."

Beefing up the audio section in retail outlets could also include taking a page from the music industry and allowing customers to sample the goods in the store. "Listening bays would be an ideal way for consumers to preview audio programs," said Maja Thomas, publisher of Time Warner AudioBooks. "Separate sections for CD and cassette programs would aid consumers in format choices, and so would a top 10 audio section, which is frequently done with bestselling books," Thomas continued. Employing this approach within the audio section is already proving successful across the pond. In the U.K., BBC Audiobooks recently designed a program in partnership with bookstore chain Waterstone's, implementing the strategies that Thomas mentioned. Since the debut of the revamped Waterstone's audio sections in August 2003, sales of BBC audiobooks have increased by 53%, according to a February report in the Bookseller. BBC Audiobooks is now performing a similar makeover on the audio sections in more than 140 W.H. Smith stores.

Other steps for encouraging better audio merchandising at retail include value pricing, a practice that a majority of the major publishers have already put into effect. "One area that is being tested with the hope of bringing new consumers to the format is the promotion of special consumer discounts and low-priced product," said Matthews. Thomas noted, "Lower CD pricing for new authors is particularly appealing to our accounts."

Standard bookstore fare like spinner racks, mixed book/audiobook displays and shelf talkers can be helpful to retailers looking for merchandising ideas. Audio-focused in-store events are something to consider, too. HarperAudio (for Caedmon's 50th anniversary celebration, in 2002) and S&S (for Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot, last fall) have created retail celebrations replete with live readings, musical performances and/or audio clips, with very good results.

Moving beyond the store doors, Kelly at Harper believes that retailers could be more pro-active on a local outreach level. "Bookstores could do a lot with their newsletters and mailings, getting information about audio to customers and identifying a clientele of listeners," she said. Caruthers at S&S mentioned a similar idea. "We're experimenting with offering newsletter co-op to bookstores," he said. "This is relatively new ground for us, but another example of how we are working with bookstores to feature audiobooks in the same way that's been successful for books."

Regardless of how retailers pick up the audio merchandising mantle, publishers simply hope that they do so. "No model is better than any other, as long as it involves eye-catching placement," Matthews said. "All good merchandising involves making it easy for the consumer to find the title, even when merely browsing."