When BBC Audiobooks America released Alex Haley's Roots and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist in March 2007, it was the audio publisher's first step into the retail market after more than 11 years of supplying product to libraries and institutions. The expansion into the retail channel helped to spark a 30% increase in total sales at the company last year, according to president and publisher Jim Brannigan.
The addition of stores to the company's mix gives BBC distribution through three pipelines: trade, institutional/libraries and digital. “The library market is still the biggest part of our business and a great place to build from,” said Brannigan.
As BBC moves deeper into the retail market Brannigan is not worried that the growth of digital downloads means CDs are on their way out. “We see the CD as having several years left of viable activity,” said Brannigan. “Fifteen years ago, people were saying we needed to get out of the cassette market because CDs were taking over. Nothing ever happens as fast as pundits say it will happen. We just stopped publishing cassettes last year, and if we'd made the switch when people told us to, we'd be out of business.” Brannigan also stressed that BBC's decision to stop producing audiobooks on cassette was not because there wasn't still a demand for the format, but because the company decided there were too many formats competing for shelf space.
“Digital is growing, but at a far lower rate than originally predicted,” said Brannigan. “And the CD business is still growing in all channels—there's still room for more expansion in CDs. That's the beauty of this business: I suspect the digital customer is a different customer than the CD customer.”
Concurrent with its retail launch in 2007, BBC purchased Audio Partners and instantly got a backlist of more than 400 titles for the retail market. “It's not big, but it's strong—including backlist titles by Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and the Archangel Shakespeare productions,” said Brannigan. “This is a list with long legs; we've been rebranding them as BBC Audio product and they're doing very well. We have a backlist that sells over a long period of time and we continually support those titles to keep them selling by rebranding, relaunching, repromoting, resoliciting, reformatting and offering special pricing.”
Consistent with the strong backlist of classics, Brannigan's focus on future releases is to “bring good, timeless books to audio.” BBC's ties to the library market allow the company to test the popular demand for classics like Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time before deciding to expand distribution to the retail market. “We can publish to a specific channel, but we prefer to publish across all channels,” said Brannigan. About four of the 20 titles BBC publishes monthly make it into the retail channel. Sound Library, BBC's library-only imprint, has a backlist of “several thousand titles.”
Titles set for release in July include Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife (“We bought it mainly for the library market through Sound Library before the print version became so popular,” said Brannigan. “We just liked the story. Now it's coming out in trade.”). Another July release is written specifically for the audio format without any print tie-in: Karin Slaughter's Martin Misunderstood, narrated by Seinfeld's Wayne Knight.
Among the titles slated for this fall are a 75th-anniversary reissue of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. The very popular full-cast BBC Radio productions of all of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels will also be joined this fall with a new full-cast recording of Tolkien's forthcoming Tales from the Perilous Realm. With the company operating effectively on a number of levels, Brannigan said, “It's a fun time to be in the audio business.”