Talkin’ to their Generation: Audio books take off with iPod-toting tikes

The headphone wearing tweens and kids are not only hitting on-line sites to build their music libraries, but also to stock their virtual audio-book shelves
February 1, 2006

The headphone wearing tweens and kids are not only hitting on-line sites to build their music libraries, but also to stock their virtual audio-book shelves

Long considered print’s poor relation in publishing circles, audio books have started lighting up on-line sales. Thanks to the digital revolution, downloadable audio books are flying off sites such as Apple’s iTunes and Mediabuy, and kids and young adult titles are leading the recent surge.

‘We’re seeing nice growth in all of our content, but we know we’re definitely selling a lot more kids titles,’ says Beth Anderson, senior VP and publisher at e-tailer Audible, which is also the lone supplier of spoken word content to iTunes. To meet the demand, the company added 300 kids titles to the site last year alone, bringing its total up to 1,300.

‘What’s very surprising is how quickly this is catching on,’ Tim Ditlow, publisher of Random House’s Listening Library audio-book division says. He adds when he was promoting digital at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair as recently as two years ago, it wasn’t on most agents’ radar.

Random House experienced exponential growth in this area since launching the division in the fall of 2003. ‘It’s been startling, the number of people gravitating toward children’s audio,’ Ditlow says. The division now sees tens of thousands of downloads each year and its Listening Library currently has 300 titles, with 160 more slated to go on-line for 2006. YA titles take up the majority of the list, mirroring the technology’s penetration, which tends to be less prevalent in the under-eight demo. However, Random House recently picked up 60 out-of-print kids recordings from now defunct label Rabbit Ears. The collection features classic stories such as The Velveteen Rabbit, which is voiced by celebrities including Meryl Streep and Elvis Costello.

Not one to be left behind, Scholastic is jumping into the fray this June with its own line of audio books, marking the first time the pubco has produced audio for the mass market. New department head Jennifer Feldman says the increase in kids using MP3 players was a big impetus to enter the market, especially since schools are starting to use the technology. This is the first year she’s planning to rollout 18 of Scholastic’s top titles for kids from age three all the way up to 16, including Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell and Revenge of the Shadow King co-authored by Derek Benz and John S. Lewis.

Since most of the download sites work on a non-exclusive basis, Scholastic is busy signing up with as many distributors as it can, including, iTunes and Mediabay. Feldman is currently renegotiating old rights agreements to cover digital audio, and says Scholastic now seeks those rights in all new deals.

The performance of its ink-and-paper counterpart remains the chief factor in an audio-book’s sales numbers. Fantasy books, such as Christopher Paolini’s Eragon and of course the ubiquitous Harry Potter series, are still tops, as are the works of Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) and Louis Sachar (Holes). Anderson says movie releases will also drive sales. In fact, at press time, seven of the top 10 sellers on were C.S. Lewis’s Narnia titles. While that’s a bit of an anomaly, she says that at least a couple of kid or YA titles are always in the top 10.

Choosing which titles make for good audio books is not always about singling out the bestsellers. Feldman notes younger kids’ books are often a difficult fit for the format because the text usually refers to illustrations that the listener can’t see. And because YA titles are generally recorded unabridged, audio versions can’t have overly complicated plots or a lot of flashbacks that would make listeners lose the thread of the story. offers two ways to buy books on its site – an à la carte model offering titles priced 30% cheaper than the CD versions, and a subscription model where subscribers receive a certain amount of credit on the site for a monthly or yearly fee. Members can also get an additional 30% off à la carte purchases. Audible picks up the bulk of its titles through straight forward licensing deals, buying the rights to sell the recording using its technology.

Random House takes a slightly different approach, setting a list price for all of its titles to ensure authors receive a set royalty each time a book gets downloaded. The price depends on a number of factors including book length, the popularity of the book or author, and whether or not the recording features a celebrity voice.

Pure digital content is much faster and cheaper to create – once a producer has the master recording finished and checked for quality, it’s ready to roll. A traditional audio publisher, on the other hand, would then need to duplicate CDs, create packaging and ship product to warehouses and retailers. Anderson says she can finish a master at 10 a.m. and sell downloads that same afternoon. Additionally, working with on-line digital copies eliminates the inventory risk incurred with selling print editions, allowing on-line audio-book publishers to keep a large backlist and carry several different versions of any given book.

The digital realm also opens up a new world of marketing possibilities, including linking up with partner sites and technology producers. Random House and Apple teamed up to create a special edition Harry Potter iPod (US$548) that came preloaded with all six audio books in the series (totaling more than 100 hours of content). Last summer, Random House released a one minute audio teaser before the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released and Amazon’s server was instantly taxed with more than one million hits.

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