Publishers experiment with audiobook-only productions

Chicago Tribune

An evolving trend in audiobook publishing sounds a bit like looting the mansion for hidden treasure:

“We’re asking our best-selling authors, and all of our authors, about old stories, short stories that were never published, plotlines that changed,” says Anthony Goff, senior vice president of content development and audio publisher at Hachette Audio. “Things they might find in their desk drawer that they could record in audio.”

Hachette is among a growing number of publishers that want to take advantage of the flourishing market for audiobooks by fostering a straight-to-audio revolution that skips books entirely — or publishes the print book and e-book after the audio version.

And no wonder. Audiobook publishers saw the third consecutive year of sales growth nearing 20 percent, with revenue of more than $2.1 billion in 2016, according to recent Audiobook Publishers Association-commissioned surveys by Edison Research and Management Practice. Sales of print books, which remain a far larger market than audiobooks, rose for the third consecutive year as well, Nielsen BookScan reported, but that was by 3.3 percent in 2016.

Audiobook listeners are a hot demographic, with almost half — 48 percent — younger than 35. Edison Research reported listeners completed an average of 15 books in 2016, marking them as avid “readers.” Plus, there’s room for growth in the audiobook segment; 24 percent of Americans listened to an audiobook in the past year.

Publishers acknowledge that podcasts have opened up the horizons of what’s possible.

“We’re wondering if books drawn from podcasts might be the new hot thing,” said Jamie Leifer, associate publisher of PublicAffairs, part of Hachette. She notes the remarkable advance sales for “The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic” by Mike Duncan, host of “The History of Rome” podcast for 10 years, and, since 2013, the podcast, “Revolutions.”

“We weren’t sure if Mike’s avid fans would convert to readers,” Leifer said in an email. “But I’m thrilled to say that they have.” Two months before the book’s Oct. 24 release date, PublicAffairs had “racked up the kinds of pre-orders in hardcover, e-book and downloadable audio that Hachette usually sees for anticipated franchise fiction releases, not serious history titles.”

The crossover between podcasts and audiobooks is a natural, data from Edison Research suggests: Survey respondents who listened to both had consumed twice as many audiobooks as nonpodcast fans.

“Consumers are moving in that direction, and we want to be ahead of those consumers,” said Ana Maria Allessi, vice president and publisher of HarperAudio. “I think their appetite is expanding for very creative and extremely well-produced podcasts. Three years ago, I couldn’t have fathomed doing an audio original and getting away with it. Today, that’s just storytelling. Readers accept that.”

And it’s a great marketing tool, several publishers noted. They hope that audiobooks may push listeners to discover other titles in their catalogs.

Toward that end, Harper sponsored a radio drama-writing contest with New York University Tisch School of the Arts last year. The winner, “Rebuttal” by Jyotsna Hariharan, became an audio-only production.

Macmillan Audio made inroads into the podcast market a decade ago when it created the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network, beginning with Mignon Fogarty’s “Grammar Girl” podcast. Fogarty’s first book, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing,” was an audiobook before it appeared in print. Now there are 14 separate QDT podcasts and several books by QDT podcasters.

But Mary Beth Roche, president and publisher of Macmillan Audio, said the first season of “Serial,” the spinoff from “This American Life,” was transformative. “Serial” relayed producer Sarah Koenig’s week-by-week examination of the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, who had been sentenced in the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. After the broadcast, a judge vacated Syed’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

“It gave podcasting a kind of mass appeal,” Roche said. “It took us from some people saying, ‘What is a podcast? How does that work?’ To pretty much most people you meet, if they hadn’t listened to it, they had an idea how to.”

There’s a throwback quality to all this because several of the straight-to-audio podcasts under development are dramatizations. “It’s everything old is new again, like the old-style radio dramas,” said Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association. But unlike some of the first audiobook dramatizations, today’s sound less like a 1940s flashback, with greater sophistication in storyline, sound effects, musical score and performance.

Macmillan moved into straight-to-audio dramatization in August when it launched the 14-part sci-fi podcast “Steal the Stars,” a full-cast drama that’s part love story, part alien encounter. “Steal the Stars” by Mac Rogers is produced by Tor Labs, part of Macmillan’s sci-fi/horror/fantasy imprint, Tor Books. On Tuesday, a week after the free podcast ended, it was published as a book by Nat Cassidy, based on Rogers’ podcast.

Later this fall, Macmillan will launch a true crime podcast, “Case Closed,” beginning with a book published by St. Martin’s three years ago, “Crazy For You” by Michael Fleeman. The book covered the 2010 slaying of Atlanta businessman Rusty Sneiderman, and the podcast will include new developments in the case.

Best-selling authors and genre titles — sci-fi, fantasy, romance, crime — are leading the charge into straight-to-audio for most publishers. But even these may have more in common with podcasts than audiobooks.

Christopher Lynch, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, says that while he expects to see more straight-to-audio, he doesn’t expect book-length offerings.

“I’m thinking of things that are one, two, three hours long,” Lynch said. “If it’s in straight-to-audio, it will be an author people recognize. We’ve seen that in the past. People pay for that.” For instance, three years ago Simon & Schuster published an hour-and-20-minute audio production of Stephen King’s “Drunken Fireworks.”

Self-help could be another strong candidate for audio-only projects, he said. “Tony Robbins was selling audio and video programs for years.”

“For us, the biggest question (is) how do we talk to our writers and their agents about doing this without taking them away from their day jobs,” Lynch said.

Jenni Laidman is a freelancer.

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