THIS TYPE CAN TALK Audio book pioneer takes on a multimedia challenge


GRAND HAVEN, Mich. -- It's one thing to market an audio tape, a video tape or a compact disc. There are millions of tape recorders, VCRs and compact disc players in this world.

But it takes real courage to manufacture software when you don't know if people will buy the hardware that runs it. That's the risk being taken by R. Michael Snodgrass.

Mr. Snodgrass, 42, is the president and founder of Brilliance Electronic Publishing, a tiny company tucked away in an industrial park in this west Michigan town. For eight years, Brilliance has produced unabridged audio versions of novels and business books for sale in bookstores at prices ranging from $17.95 to $29.95 apiece.

Now Mr. Snodgrass' company is putting novels and business books on tiny versions of the compact disc, which contains both sound and data. These electronic "Talking Type" books, will, for the moment, be playable only on the latest version of the Sony Data Discman, which is beginning to appear in stores.

"Frankly, I don't know about the appeal of this thing," he said. "It has yet to be determined. . . . It is a venture for us, a way to see the future."

The idea for his original business came to Mr. Snodgrass almost a decade ago when he was driving back and forth from Chicago, where he worked for a packaging company, to Grand Haven, where he kept a vacation home. He found himself wishing he had a book on tape that he could pop into the player during the long drive.

About eight years ago, he quit the packaging company, moved to Grand Haven permanently, and formed Brilliance. Brilliance manages to get up to 10 hours of audio on a single cassette by recording on only one stereo channel at a time; the listener follows along by adjusting the balance control on the cassette player.

Brilliance hires professional actors to read its books. While the actors are encouraged to use dramatic inflections, the tapes are generally devoid of music or sound effects. Thanks to this unadulterated treatment of their works, many authors ask that audio rights be sold to Brilliance, Mr. Snodgrass said.

Today, such audio books are common in bookstores. It wasn't always so.

"In the early days," he says, "we were creating a new product. People didn't understand. People thought we were creating tapes for blind people."

Finally, the product ended up where it belonged -- in bookstores, targeted at the average user, and Brilliance has seen its sales grow by an average of 40 percent per year.

Last year, however, Mr. Snodgrass, a computer enthusiast, became interested in the possibilities of compact disc technology as an alternative to audio tape. He began to read in trade publications about Sony's plans to offer a Data Discman with audio capabilities.

Working with Sony technicians, Brilliance programmers created a system for the Electronic Book that can accommodate five hours of audio accompanied by written text, on a single disc.

When the new machine hits the market, it will come bundled with a multimedia encyclopedia, a talking language translator and the Brilliance product -- an audio and text version of Ira Levin's short novel, "Sliver," all for a suggested retail price of about $500.

Mr. Snodgrass demonstrated the device in his office. You hear an actor's voice reading the text with dramatic flair through a speaker attached to the little Discman, and the words pop onto the backlighted screen.

He would not say how much his firm has invested in this project, though a Sony spokesman said it would typically cost from $50,000 to $100,000 to create software for the Data Discman.

Brilliance, meanwhile, is creating five more titles on Talking Type discs -- novels "Fugitive Nights" by Joseph Wambaugh, "Call of the Wild" by Jack London and "Wuthering Heights" by Emily

Bronte, and the business books "Managing for the Future" by Peter Drucker and "2020 Vision" by Stan Davis and Bill Davidson. All will sell for $34.95 to $39.95.

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