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Who Will Handsell Digital Audiobooks?

Handselling audiobooks has its own distinctive pleasures for booksellers, not the least of which is the chance to evangelize about a book you love as well as a narrator whose voice does the story justice. One of my favorite examples is Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, read by Jeremy Irons. After its release in the late 1990s, the audiobook quickly became a staff favorite and perennial bestseller at the bookstore where I worked, and remained so from the time of its early incarnation as boxed cassettes through the age of CDs.

But what about now? Who's handselling the digital edition of Lolita?

The future of audiobooks for indie bookstores is a cloudy one. In many ways, it is cloudier than that of e-books, which now at least have a viable option with Google.

It's not that indies aren't trying to work with what they've got. On the blog for Odyssey Books, South Hadley, Mass., Emily Crowe noted that she "lives for audiobooks" and offered "a few solid recommendations for GREAT audio performances that you can take to the bank. Check 'em out of your local library or pop in to your nearest brick & mortar bookstore to pick 'em up."

I share Emily's enthusiasm, and know from personal experience how easy it is to get a customer excited about a great audiobook. "You must listen to this" can be just as convincing as "You must read this" in a handselling conversation. But I also worry that indies could be eliminated from the retail audio equation as more and more customers walk or drive around with sophisticated audiobook downloading devices (smartphones, iPads, etc.) tucked discreetly in their pockets and purses.
"Our members have been reaching out to us more about digital audiobooks in the past six months," said Matt Supko, technology director for the American Booksellers Association. "We are still focused on e-books--improving the customer experience and helping our members be competitive in that digital space--but the interest in digital audio is definitely there and we are beginning to explore how we might add them for our IndieCommerce users."

Matt Norcross, owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., is a member of ABA's digital task force. For him, the importance of audiobooks is personal as well as professional: "I think I feel so strongly about digital audio because I'm dyslexic. Growing up I didn't have an instinctual love of reading; it was a very difficult and arduous thing for me. It wasn't until I was given the complete unabridged audio of the Chronicles of Narnia as a fourth grader that I began to understand reading could be for pleasure. I literally wore those tapes out while reading along the entire way."

Parents have spoken to him "with worry in their eyes about how their child is struggling with reading, and I always let them know what worked for me as a kid. And yes, there are many times I send a parent out of the store with not just a book but also the unabridged audio of that book."

Ultimately, it's this personal commitment that adds value to the exchange for both bookseller and customer. "At the end of the day, this is why I feel audiobooks are so important, but publishers need to know that if they aren't going to make a digital format available for me to sell, then all that passion I feel for audiobooks is going to be lost to them," he said.  

Norcross also observed that during the evolution of audiobooks from "from vinyl (yes, I remember children's books on vinyl) to cassette to CD, the previous format has gone extinct. You'll be hard-pressed to find a store with cassette audiobooks on their shelves. We're currently in transition to digital audiobooks, and in my opinion the only thing standing in the way is the fact that car manufacturers still put CD players in their cars. Once this stops, I believe the days of CD audiobooks will be numbered. I don't want to scramble to find a solution at that time; I want a solution now. Booksellers and publishers will need to work together to solve this problem, but thankfully both sides are more eager than ever to accomplish this."

I'd love to hear from other indie booksellers regarding the current state of audiobooks, as well as their hopes/expectations/fears for the future. And then there's that nagging question to consider: Who will handsell digital audiobooks?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1488.


Journey to a Time Before Talking Rings

Weena shows the Time Traveler boxes of golden rings.
"Are these the talking rings?" he asks.
"They speak?"
"Of what?"
"Things no one here understands."
Weena takes a ring from him, places it on its edge like a coin, and spins it on the smooth surface of a porcelain block. A disembodied voice fills the hall: "Whomsoever chances upon these rings will probably hear the last recorded voice of civilized man. This is the year 4829."

Talking rings were an imagined invention of the mid-20th century movie The Time Machine; they did not exist in the original 19th-century novella by H.G. Wells. But the future has arrived much faster than anticipated, as it often does. Even the concept of talking rings seems a bit antiquated to us. And by the time audiobook skull implants are perfected, earbuds will seem so early 21st century.

The annoying thing about the future is that it's generally... unforeseeable. Maybe that's why laughing nervously about the past has always been such a popular spectator sport for us. So let's continue our celebration of Audiobook Month with a glimpse back to one of the industry's unsung pioneers.

In the September 1953 issue of Harper's magazine, Frederick Lewis Allen profiled Raymond Tierstein--founder of the Audio Book Company--and noted that his "contribution is to make talking books 'practical,' by which is meant cheap and convenient. To demonstrate this, he produced another object, this time out of the black bag. It was an album of twenty-four little records weighing only half an ounce each."

Tierstein had been showing his invention to commercial book publishers "to see what they thought. Evidently, like birds by a snake, they were fascinated and horrified," Allen wrote. "There were those who looked upon Mr. 'T's gadget as a menace to book publishing, a rival to their established methods. There were those who took a very lofty tone and said, in effect, that such a gadget was just one more sop to the masses who were lazy enough about reading as it was. How, they wanted to know, could you ever hope to improve the reading habits of Americans if you gave them such an easy out as this?"

Some publishers were not quite so aghast, and even considered talking books "an interesting new medium of communication." Tierstein had hoped they might see the Audio Book Company as a kind of printer, and he "would have been happy to leave to the publisher the matters of editorial selection and such problems as who read what books into the microphone; he would merely take care of the manufacturing," Allen noted.

"Well," Tierstein said, "They talked and talked and talked, but each publishing house was so divided in its opinions that nothing ever happened. So we decided to go into the 'publishing business' ourselves."

The future of talking books was uncertain then, as now. Allen reassured his audience that regardless of whether the nascent technology turned out to be a legitimate field for traditional publishers, "it does seem to me that they need not fear them as competition. People who are avid readers are never going to be satisfied with anything that goes so slowly as being read aloud to; they never have been.... It seems improbable that any manufacturer would go to the expense and trouble of putting any really bad books on records; only a book of substance can stand the test of being read aloud, and it will be impossible to skim a talking book."

Using an early variation on the theme promoted by some current and optimistic analysts--that e-books will attract new readers--Allen observed that it was "hard to avoid the analogy with the effect of radio on the sales of recordings, though only time will tell if it is appropriate. You will recall that the record manufacturers were afraid that the radio would put them out of business. Instead the habit of listening to music on the radio ultimately increased the sale of recordings and also the attendance at concerts. There are many people who like to listen but dislike to read. Isn't it possible that the book publishers might legitimately provide books for listeners? Might they not, in the long run, increase the sale of books and revive the now dying delights of reading aloud?"

Welcome to the ever-evolving world of talking rings, where the future may be unpredictable but the roots are ancient. "Like to listen to a little bit of The Iliad?" Tierstein asked at one point during his interview. "You know it was meant to be spoken in the first place."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1482.


Listening to the Sound of Books

I've always loved the sound of books. When people read aloud, I instinctively close my eyes and listen, unless I'm driving my car with an audiobook playing. Close listening is akin to close reading for me. One human being shares a story with another. The allure might have something to do with childhood memories of my mother reading the Oz books to us. Perhaps it is a far more ancient rite, since we were telling each other stories thousands of years before Gutenberg.

On the train home from BookExpo America last week, I was listening, appropriately enough, to the end of Graham Greene's novel Stamboul Train. Amtrak's Empire service from Penn Station to Albany is considerably less intriguing than the Orient Express, but the sound of Michael Maloney's voice effectively transported me away from all that.
Next up in my audiobook queue is Life by Keith Richards, which was named Audiobook of the Year at last week's Audies (check out the other category winners here). It seems like an odd but somehow perfect transition from Graham Greene, and I can't wait to hear the narration by Richards, Johnny Depp and Joe Hurley. If you try sometimes, you get what you need to listen to.

During BEA I attended the Audiobook and Author Tea, sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association. I'm not sure what I expected, but the event--hosted by Star Jones and featuring Tony Horwitz, Karin Slaughter and Brad Meltzer--turned out to be one of the real highlights of the show for me.

In her opening remarks, Jones said that an audiobook was "the reason I wrote my first piece of fiction." On a long flight, she had been listening to The Devil Wears Prada and recalled thinking, "I can't wait till someone actually records my audiobook." As it turned out, however, she eventually narrated Satan's Sisters (Brilliance) herself. "I had a ball reading the sexy parts because I would never use this language myself," she said.

When the conversation turned to working with narrators, Meltzer said, "I have my audiobook narrator with me." He introduced Scott Brick, who stepped up to the podium and delivered the opening lines of The Inner Circle (Hachette Audio), after which Meltzer asked, "Now does that make me sound tough or what?" He also noted that he doesn't interfere with Brick's approach to his novels because audiobook narration "is an art and I don't want to mess with the artist."

Narrating is "a lot harder than it sounds," quipped Horwitz, whose next book is Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (Macmillan Audio, October). And Slaughter, author most recently of Fallen (AudioGO), confessed that while listening to one of her books being read, she discovered "there were things in the story that I didn’t know were there" and wrote her narrator a fan letter. The person reading a book aloud always matters, especially to the authors who wrote those words.

When I reached the end of Stamboul Train last Friday--somewhere between the Rhinecliff and Hudson stations--I emerged reluctantly from my obsession with foreign intrigue during the 1930s and started thinking about the more mundane and domestic, yet mysterious in its own way, fate of audiobooks in the 21st century.

I worry about them. Maybe I shouldn't, but I do. At the retail level, I've watched as audiobooks followed a curious path, evolving from those bulky boxes of frightfully expensive, unabridged audiobook cassettes in the mid-1990s to the more affordable cassettes--and then CDs--of the past decade. And I have witnessed retail prices plummeting from the $100-plus range to the sub-$40 level over the same time period, though the number of customer complaints about the high cost of audiobooks failed to descend on a comparable curve.

Now digital audiobooks are gaining ground. Although easy to access and reasonably priced for consumers, availability is limited for retailers compared to previous audiobook incarnations. Indie booksellers are currently exploring ways to find their place in the digital audio-realm, which is inhabited by a temptingly upscale demographic.

According to the APA, 21% of audiobook listeners have completed post-graduate work or hold a doctoral degree, twice as many as non-listeners; listeners have a higher estimated median income ($56,000) than non-listeners ($43,000); and audiobook listeners are more voracious readers of print books than non-listeners, with frequent listeners (four or more audiobooks per year) reading a median of 15 books in that period, compared to six books read by people who don’t listen to audiobooks.

June is audiobook month. There's no more appropriate time to explore this corner of the book trade. During the next couple of weeks, we'll talk with some people and listen to what they have to say about audiobooks now. Listening is good.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1477.


My Official BEA 2011 Key Word Is 'Reimagine'

It's the easiest trick in the book to leave BEA each year filled with bright-eyed confidence. This trade show has always been an incubator for optimism, however short-lived it might be once we all return from Oz to the less colorful realities of our day-to-day book business grind.

Was this year's BEA a little different? My answer is a qualified yes. What I found unusual and encouraging was the general, if wisely guarded, sense of optimism so many people brought with them to Oz.

This was particularly apparent in casual, off-the-record conversations I had with indie booksellers and indie publishers. A recurring theme was the modest success they've experienced during the past couple of years as they adapt to the changing marketplace. Instead of curling up in a ball, they are actively searching for new methods and strategies to move forward, even as they hold on to many of the irresistible aspects of the book world that seduced them into this crazy business in the first place.

Over the past two decades when I attended this show, I often emerged from the experience with a key word floating in my otherwise foggy post-show brain. This word would manifest itself gradually, and represented an overall sense of my experience that particular year. Sometimes the word was not a good one.

This year my BEA key word is "reimagine." The first clue that it would join the pantheon came early, though I didn't know it at the time. One of the first events I attended during ABA's Day of Education was a panel titled "Reimagining Your Store," moderated by ABA's Len Vlahos and featuring panelists Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., and Jonah Zimiles, owner of Words bookstore, Maplewood, N.J.

Vlahos began by acknowledging the unsettled times we are experiencing in this industry, but also observed that these challenges are helping to reframe a primary question: "What is a bookstore?" And, more specifically, they have inspired many booksellers to "re-imagine your space" and adapt.

"We are constantly reimagining right now," said Robinson. Village Books has 10,000 square feet to fill. The ongoing challenge is how best to utilize floor space wisely, showcasing a more tightly disciplined book inventory without fostering "empty shelf" syndrome in his customers' perception.

He cited as examples of this strategy his ongoing and profitable consignment deal with publisher Chelsea Green, as well as the creation of a dedicated space to display the shop's Espresso Book Machine ("You can walk all around the machine."), surrounded by bookshelves featuring titles Village Books has published.

Robinson's reimagined floor space also includes a more recent partnership with a local indie Apple computer dealer that built an attractive kiosk within the bookstore. The retailer staffs it "like a genius bar at Apple" and they demonstrate devices like the iPad or iPod Touch while--not coincidentally--showing customers how they can conveniently order e-books through... the Village Books website. "It allows us to get into a little bit more of a conversation with people, too, and the Apple dealer still thinks it's a good crossover," said Robinson.

Zimiles offered what might be considered the reimagining mission statement: "Each of us really needs to be very flexible going forward and nimble in our ability to address changing trends. A shrinking market may in fact be a terrific opportunity for us, the little guys."

If reimagining had only been the title of a panel on the first day of the show, it would never have had a shot at becoming my BEA 2011 key word. But I kept hearing it again and again this week, often cleverly disguised behind similes and metaphors, yet clear and unmistakeable nevertheless.

Reimagine everything.

At one of the Insight Stage events, Bloomsbury's George Gibson noted that the editing process has been called a "form of creative destruction," which sounded like reimagining to me. He was speaking with one of his authors, Dava Sobel, whose new book (A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos) is about a man who, it might be said (by me, at least), reimagined the universe. We have an easier task. Although the book business may seem as complicated as heliocentric cosmology sometimes, I can say with a measure of confidence that it is not.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1473.


'Stop, Look and Listen' to the Past at BEA

When some of us gather in New York next week for BookExpo America, we'll once again discuss the future of reading and its potential effects on books (print and digital), bookstores (chain and indie; online and bricks & mortar), publishers, writers, readers and anyone or anything else connected to our wordy world. We will, for the most part, be anxiously, if politely, asking each other: What's going to happen to us?

It's a natural question, since we live in the future most of the time. Even when we talk about the current nature of things, it's hard not to frame these discussions around what might be coming next and next and next, as we glance warily in all directions like a nervous flock of birds, ready to fly at the least provocation.

And while I enjoy this flight toward the future most of the time, it was the past that caught me by surprise earlier this week as I worked on my BEA schedule and finalized travel arrangements.

Quite by chance, I came across a Boston Globe article about author and naturalist Will Curtis, who "died in his sleep April 18 at his home in Woodstock, Vt., where he had moved with Jane Curtis, his wife and writing partner, in the late 1990s after selling their farm in neighboring Hartland. He was 93, and his health had declined in the past few years."

Who was Will Curtis? If the name seems familiar at all, it's probably because you listened to "The Nature of Things," a daily series about his experiences in and observations of the natural world that aired on Vermont Public Radio and was nationally syndicated during the 1980s and 1990s. Curtis had an on-air voice that informed as well as comforted; he sounded like a man in no particular hurry, attuned to the seasons and his surroundings.

Curtis was also an author. In addition to books co-written with Jane, he collected some of his essays in Will Curtis, and this is the Nature of Things (Countryman Press, 1984) and The Second Nature of Things (Ecco Press, 1992). And he was a bookseller, running Woodstock's Yankee Bookshop during the 1960s. In his preface to The Second Nature of Things, he wrote about the genesis of his radio career:

It was on our dairy farm where my real interest in nature began. Much of my time was spent in the fields plowing, planting, haying, and, in the early spring, in the sugarbush gathering sap buckets. Now and then, I would stop, look, and listen. An amazing series of natural events evolved around me. My evenings were often spent reading magazines and books on nature, trying to learn about what I had seen in the fields and woods during the day.

After our herd of Jersey cattle had been sold, Jane and I found ourselves the owners of a bookstore. The object of a bookstore is, of course, to sell books. To help in this we went on the air with reviews on local radio stations.

I met Will and Jane Curtis in 1992, shortly after The Second Nature of Things was published. That was also my first year as a bookseller at the Northshire Bookstore, and the event marked my shaky debut hosting and introducing an author at a reading.

Will and Jane arrived early and we grabbed a bite to eat at the Quality Restaurant. For some reason, I still remember that he ordered fried chicken. More importantly, I recall how easy it was to work with him; how much less scary the evening turned out to be because of this quiet, intelligent and humble man. I have a copy of the book, which he signed: "To Bob. With deep appreciation. Will"

A writer died last month and I didn't even know it happened. I feel bad about that.

"Persons to whom the woods are unfamiliar suppose that they see a dying year in the autumn woods. But the woods do not share their secrets with just everyone," Curtis once wrote. "They seem particularly to have deceived poets. For autumn in the woods is not a death stage but a change in life-style. It is a change less profound than the sleep which we mammals accept familiarly and therefore without alarm. The emerging naked limbs may be stark to those not in the know. But they are just a yearly exercise in woodland draftsmanship, a sort of black, geometric architecture puncturing the often deep blue sky."

Next week at BEA, we will talk about the future of our industry, but I suspect that occasionally I'll also heed a nature-of-books version of Will Curtis's wise counsel. Surrounded by visions of the future, I will "stop, look and listen" to a valuable past that is represented there as well... if we're paying attention.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1468.