One might say that the late Anthony Ditlow had an ear for a good book. In 1955, the former teacher put his knowledge of literature and yen for a good yarn together and changed careers, founding the audiobook publishing company Listening

Library, working out of his Red Bank, N.J., home with his wife, Helen, by his side. The switch was a good fit for Ditlow, who had been recently diagnosed with macular degeneration, a disorder that diminishes one's eyesight.

Because reading the printed page had become difficult for him, Ditlow appreciated spoken-word recordings as a source of entertainment. He was familiar with the Talking Book recordings at the Library of Congress as well as titles by new companies Caedmon Audio and Spoken Arts. However, Ditlow had a vision that reached far beyond what was available on the market and felt certain he could expand the audiobook genre. He was right—though it took a few years to truly show it on paper.

Beginning with Verne

Listening Library's first recording in 1955 was Around the World in 80 Daysby Jules Verne. "It was in the public domain, so they didn't have copyright issues, and the movie was about to come out starring David Niven," recalled Tim Ditlow, Anthony's son and Listening Library's current publisher. "Those first years were very much on a shoestring budget," Ditlow told PW. "They never got into the black until the early 1960s."

But all along Listening Library was making great strides. Anthony Ditlow set up shop in New York City and then later in what had been a bowling alley in Old Greenwich, Conn. The company became one of the first to distribute audiobooks (its own and those of other publishers) to schools, libraries and other special markets, including VA hospitals. Technologically, Listening Library's advent came just as the popularity of the LP record (invented in 1948) was especially strong. Federal funding for libraries and schools was on an upswing.

The elder Ditlow prided himself in securing rights to respected works by authors valued in library collections and school curricula such as Poe, Twain, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Teachers and librarians recognized Anthony Ditlow's efforts and his knack for hiring stellar voice talent and making quality recordings. "He was pushing the educational value of audiobooks before the term literacy was used as it is today," noted Tim Ditlow.

A New Generation

In the 1970s, Listening Library continued to grow, as audiocassettes became the technology of choice and the company expanded into strong mail-order business. Recent college graduate Tim Ditlow joined the family business in 1979 when his father asked him to consider "working for the company for one year, with no strings attached," Ditlow said. "He very wisely took a 'try it, you'll like it' approach, and it worked."

Ditlow began to learn each area of the business from typesetting catalogues to traveling to trade shows and found he actually enjoyed it. "It was like an extended form of college," he recalled. "I think it's normal to reject what your parents do. I didn't pay attention much when I was younger. It wasn't until I went away that I realized what a great environment it was to be in."

The Children's Niche

Tim Ditlow believes he finally found his niche—and professional passion—in the early 1980s when he was introduced to the children's book world by such well-known children's marketing and publishing figures as Bill Morris, Charlotte Zolotow and Margaret McElderry. Ditlow began to expand Listening Library's list to encompass recordings of new authors of the day like Paula Danziger, Betsy Byars and Richard Peck. It was also at this time that Ditlow embraced the unabridged format, which had been resisted in the '70s. As the 1980s progressed, the large trade publishing houses and others began to enter the audiobook field.

In 1986 Anthony Ditlow died, and Tim took the Listening Library reins completely. The company eventually came to publish only children's and young adult titles, as it does today, and has steadily earned accolades in publishing, retail and educational circles. By 1999, Ditlow was publishing 20—25 children's titles per year. And as the millennium approached, Ditlow accepted an offer from Random House Audio to acquire Listening Library.

Today Listening Library is home to the audiobook editions of numerous Newbery Medal winners and the record-breaking Harry Potter series narrated by Jim Dale. The catalogue has won scores of awards, including the Audio Publishers Association's first-ever Audiobook of the Year, given to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

The move to Random House's large corporate structure has provided many advantages. "It gave me the freedom and support to enlarge the list," Ditlow said. "We can also release more audio titles simultaneously with the print book and reap the benefits of what happens when a book takes off. This scale of distribution, publicity and marketing is outside the realm of a small company. It makes your heart happy to see your titles get out there."

Listening Library currently publishes roughly 80 titles per year, but Ditlow notes his job is "not so different than the days in Old Greenwich. Except I don't produce now, and I am acquiring three times more titles. My father always said that cream has a way of rising to the top if you make it the right way. His legacy, and mine, is to keep on acquiring, producing and creating top-notch children's recordings. Technologies may come and go, but as all that swirls around us, it's important to remember that good audiobooks last."

The official anniversary is marked in April, but the festive air will last all year long. Fittingly, Listening Library has just released a new recording of Around the World in 80 Days, narrated by Jim Dale, and the company will host a cocktail party at the New York Public Library on June 2 to toast not only Listening Library's 50th but sister company Random House Audio's 20th and Books on Tape's 30th anniversaries—totaling "100 years of Audio."

Retailers' Event KitIn honor of Listening Library's first half-century, the publisher has prepared a 50th Anniversary Celebration-in-a-Box event kit for retailers. Packaged in what looks like an old suitcase plastered with travel stickers, the kit contains promotional materials for an anniversary display and helpful items for hosting in-store events. Among the goodies are a promotional sampler CD containing an excerpt from the forthcoming Magic Tree House #34: Season of the Sandstorms by Mary Pope Osborne; and a Family Road Trip Survival Guide. Peter H. Reynolds has created a new piece of original artwork to be used on all the materials.
Retailers who enter the anniversary Create-a-Display Contest this spring are eligible to win a trip for two to Paris, France, which comes with dinner at Le Jules Verne Restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower.
Ditlow's Fan ClubI have a secret weakness: I am a huge sucker for a good sentimental tear-jerker novel. I remember one of the last books I read for Tim Ditlow at Listening Library; it was The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck. Its story of smalltown life on a farm at the turn of the century reminded me of stories my father had told me of his upbringing. One passage, when the lead character realized, finally, why his sister was pushing him so hard to succeed at school, left me choked up to the point that I could not continue with the recording. Luckily, Tim Ditlow happened to walk in the door for a visit, and I was granted a break to recover myself before plunging back into the story." —Dylan Baker, actor
"It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Holes was going to win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 1998 [the year that his Joey Pigza Swallowed the Keywas also a finalist]so I knew the reading the night before was where I could really cut loose and swing my cat. The audience was full of life anyway, and they lit up when I unleashed my lines—especially when I hollered out Joey's tag line of, 'Can I get back to you on that!'
That night, Tim was in the audience, and he immediately tracked me down and invited me to read what would become the Joey Pigza trilogy for Listening Library. I had never read for a recording before, but he gave me the confidence to do my best as I had tried to do on stage.
Kids listen to the tapes at schools, and when I arrive to visit them they all scream out, 'Can I get back to you on that!' On some days I think Tim may have been too successful." —Jack Gantos, author
"Tim was my mentor-guide into the world of audiobooks. We got started because he had asked about the rights to one of my books. When we launched the Words Take Wing imprint at Listening Library, Tim came up here [Syracuse] for one of the recordings. We were pushing the local studio to its limits—it wasn't designed for spoken word—and were in a real time crunch. Across the street a man was moving his double-wide and all his belongings from one side of the lot to the other, creating a huge racket while we were recording. Finally, Tim went outside, handed the guy some cash and said, 'Why don't you go get a drink and knock off for the day?' When he returned to the studio, Tim said, 'I'm not above bribing to get a project done.'
On all his recordings the level of attention to detail and perfection is incredible. The work I do now is informed by that." —Bruce Coville, author; publisher, Full Cast Audio
"I think the contribution they have made to the field is outstanding. They have some of the highest quality recordings around; they know quality books and quality recordings. We hear so many stories from customers who take the longest way home or take a detour so they can listen to one last chapter of a Listening Library title." —Jewell Stoddard, Politics & Prose