Audiobooks are going Hollywood
Audible.com has persuaded stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson to lend their voices to classic novels for the popular media format.
When it came to reading a book out loud, Dustin Hoffman was a bit rusty. The last time he had done something similar was in New York City in the late 1960s, right after filming The Graduate." A local radio station had recruited 30 or so people, including Hoffman, to read War and Peace" on air, around the clock, until it was done.
That was the only other time I had done something like that, and it was wonderful," recalls Hoffman, explaining why he recently agreed to perform the novel Being There" by Jerzy Kosinski, a Polish writer and an old, now-deceased friend, for Audible.com, as part of the audiobook company's new A-List Collection," which was launched Thursday.
Hoffman is part of an all-star cast of actors who have signed on with the 17-year-old Amazon-owned company to bring classic novels to life for a fast-growing population of audiobook fans worldwide. Other participants include Samuel L. Jacksonperforming A Rage in Harlem" by Chester Himes; Susan Sarandon performing The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers; Kate Winslet performing Therese Raquin" by Émile Zola; Nicole Kidman performing To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf; and many more. Jackson, Sarandon and Winslet's efforts are part of the initial release, along with Anne Hathaway's performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Additions to the A-List" series will roll out on a regular basis indefinitely.
The high-powered nature of the celebrities involved makes this one of Audible.com's most high-profile projects. The idea was conceived by the company thanks to the success of one-off readings by famous actors in the past, including Kenneth Branagh's performance of Heart of Darkness." The push behind it was bolstered by healthy growth in the audiobook market, a $1-billion industry, according to Audio Publishers Assn., the trade group that tracks sales and advocates for audiobook publishers.
The APA has 68 publisher members, including such independent companies as AudioGo, Blackstone, Brilliance and Tantor audio. The total number of audiobooks published annually doubled from 3,073 in 2007 to 6,200 in 2010. And although downloads have grown 300% by dollar volume in the last five years, the CD format still represents the largest single source of dollars, although it declined slightly in 2010 to 58% of revenue (down from 65%).
Audible.com does not release its sales numbers publicly, but founder and Chief Executive Donald Katz says the company's member base has grown well over 40% annually for the past seven or eight years and that its customers are in the millionsa number that he expects to grow, thanks to the A-List Collection."
I knew the program was a success because a couple of months ago when the recording started I was at an event with Annette Bening and she said, 'I hear you're signing up all my friends and not me,'" Katz says. And then she went in and did one" ("Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf). The actors usually choose a book from a list provided by the company.
Jackson's performance of the classic 1960s con novel A Rage in Harlem" runs nearly 51/2 hoursa midrange length (which explains why Audible.com books are popular with people who spend a lot of time in the car). Jackson says he finished the 151-page book in two days.