Recorded Books is something of an anomaly in the audiobook industry. Publisher Brian Downing considers Recorded Books an independent audiobook company that has maintained an independent spirit because it is not owned by or affiliated with a major trade print publisher. Without an in-house print library to choose from, Recorded Books has plenty of rights negotiating to do to meet its title output. Some companies would think this was a liability, but Recorded Books still publishes 800 new unabridged titles per year. The company's backlist catalogue now consists of more than 6,000 titles, "which we believe to be the largest unabridged catalogue in the world," said Downing.

Home Recordings

In the mid-1970s, Henry Trentman was a manufacturer's rep with a large territory (roughly Delaware to North Carolina) that he covered by car. Trentman longed to fill all that drive time with something interesting. Frustrated with the audio offerings available at the time, he began making his own home recordings of favorite old radio programs and records. Trentman soon outgrew his private collection and hatched the idea to create an audiobook company from his southern Maryland farm.

Recorded Books made its debut in 1979 with five unabridged titles. Among them was The Sea Wolf by Jack London, a production that Trentman remembers taking a year to complete. Though there were some new-company hurdles to overcome, Trentman made some early moves that proved to be prescient. He recruited Frank Muller, then an actor with the nearby Arena Stage group in Washington, D.C., to read for him—something new for Muller as well. The partnership proved fruitful in many ways and Muller became a sought-after star in the field.

In the 1980s, Recorded Books experienced steady growth as a mail-order and library concern. The company established its headquarters in Prince Frederick, Md. Today, said Downing, "We have 95,000 square feet housing production, warehousing, marketing and fulfillment." Recorded Books also has six recording studios in New York City, where studio director Claudia Howard, who has been with the company since 1984, oversees operations. The majority of Recorded Books' 330 employees are based at the Maryland headquarters, with 15 staffers in New York, 15 in the U.K. and a number of sales reps around the U.S.

In the 1990s, it established an in-house sales force and a division to focus on schools. In 1997, Recorded Books started selling directly into the U.K. market and by 1999 the company had launched W.F. Howes Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary in the U.K.

In late 1999, Trentman sold Recorded Books to Haights Cross Communications, an educational and professional publisher. "The acquisition has helped us because HCC is a forward-looking company with the willingness and ability to invest in its people and their ideas," Downing told PW. "They believe in sound fiscal management, new product development and aggressive marketing, and back it up with the appropriate budget line items. They also have extensive publishing experience and assist us in developing our markets." Current Recorded Books president David E. Berset assumed that title in 1999; he had been national sales manager since 1990.

Though Recorded Books has expanded into all aspects of the audio industry, mail-order has not gone away. The direct-to-consumer channel today accounts for 6% of the company's business and remains a key piece of the pie. "It is very important to us to keep our finger on the pulse of what the ultimate user desires," said Downing. "We have a very loyal and well-heeled customer base that consists of some of the most rabid users of audiobooks anywhere. Some individual customers spend several hundred dollars each month with us."

These dedicated customers (along with library accounts) have been receptive to a "soft launch" of a new non-book—based audio line called the Modern Scholar. Downing describes the series as "college-level lectures and booklets aimed at lifelong learners, delivered by well-known professors from prestigious universities." Recorded Books will soon widen its marketing approach for the line.

Among other areas, "Our schools division is perhaps our most dynamic," noted Downing. "The combination of aggressive marketing, sophisticated product development and the largest backlist of children's audio titles in the world put us into over 10,000 schools last year. Despite a tough market, we were able to show an exceptional increase in the first quarter of 2004—almost 25%." Downing notes that Recorded Books is the market leader in libraries, with approximately $45 million in sales.

Recent Launches

In November 2000, the company launched a successful retail line. Recent retail bestsellers include Glorious Appearing by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Downing anticipates strong performances from fall releases The Sunday Philosopher's Club by Smith, His Excellency by Joseph J. Ellis and Loop Group by Larry McMurtry.

Haights Cross expanded its audio reach further in 2002 with the purchase of Audio Adventures, a line well established in the truck-stop market. Recorded Books has 650 rental kiosks in truck-stop centers; truckers can rent a title at one shop and return it at another. Downing estimates that there are three million long-haul truckers who are enthusiastic audiobook listeners.

Of Recorded Books' 800 new unabridged titles per year, 650 are released to libraries/ schools/mail order/rental. Fifty of those 650 titles are made available for the retail sales market. Of the 800 new titles, 150 titles are sold only into the U.K. market.

The company has looked beyond audiobooks in recent years, too. Recorded Books distributes Putumayo World Music and Yo Yo (Latin) Music, as well as an independent film series called the Film Movement.

Recorded Books' lack of affiliation with a major print publisher makes gathering audio rights more of a challenge. Said Downing. "It forces us to read more books, to hustle more, and to take a bit of risk when necessary. We have something we refer to as the 20/20 rule. It means that we almost never end up selling more than 20,000 copies of something we paid more than $20,000 for. It is something we keep in mind in nosebleed territory during auctions."

However, Downing noted, "We do have a built-in advantage in rights. Our sales and standing orders in the library market means that often we are starting with very meaningful sales before we have sold copy one into the stores. That's a huge advantage. When we decide we want something we can write a big check without losing a lot of sleep."

All these strategies appear to be paying off handsomely of late. First quarter 2004 showed a 6.8% rise in revenue with more than $16 million in net sales. Clearly something to celebrate—which Recorded Books will be doing all this anniversary year "in a typical low-key way as it goes about its business," said Downing.