Speaking of Audio: The Freedom of Choice

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By Robin Whitten

What is the right mix of cassette and CD audiobooks?

Audio customers are usually set in their listening patterns, and habits are slow to change. However, as audio publishers review their 2003 numbers, sales of CDs seem to have reached "the tipping point." Just three years ago, publishers were testing the demand for CDs, but the result of offering customers a choice of formats has been dramatic. According to Scott Matthews, vice president and publisher of Random House Adult Audio and Large Print, CD sales now account for 55 percent of total sales.

In addition, in 2003, when James Patterson's audiobooks were published in both CD and cassette formats, Patterson's CD sales increased 30 percent, while sales of his titles on cassette stayed level.

However, not all customers, and definitely not all potential customers, are ready to convert to the CD option. Freedom of choice remains important. At audio-only bookstores, CD demand may be highest. Jimmy Belson of Jimmy B's Audiobooks and www.audiobooks.com said that CD requests beat cassettes 10 to 1, but, he cautioned, he would never consider dropping the cassette option.

Since 2001, I've tracked changes in CD and cassette formats in this BTW column. The proportions of availability and sales have changed, but, for bookstores, the answer ultimately comes back to the store's customers. You know your customers. Do they drive mostly late-model cars? These vehicles will tend to have CD players only. Do they use public transportation or listen while exercising? Portable cassette players are getting scarce, so it's likely these listeners will want CDs. But low-tech fans will probably stay with their cassette players.

To get a clearer picture of your customers' audio needs, consider conducting an informal poll as they make a purchase. Most listeners will be happy to give you information that will guide your format choices.

In the end, audio listening is about choice. A customer selects Elmore Leonard's Mr. Paradise in audio format because he listens on his daily commute. The customer chooses the CD version because he listens in the car, and that's the vehicle's media player. Every customer has a similar checklist of choices. So, booksellers, just keep those choices available!

So many choices, so little time ... here are some personal picks:

2004 Grammy Winner for Spoken Word
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken (HighBridge, CD and Cassette)

2004 Grammy Finalist for Spoken Word
Fear Itself, Walter Mosley (Audio Renaissance, CD and Cassette)

Book Sense Bestsellers on Audio
The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (HighBridge, CD and Cassette)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon (Recorded Books, CD and Cassette)

Count Sales and Carbs at the Same Time
The Atkins Essentials, Robert C. Atkins, M.D. (Harper, CD and Cassette)
The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom, Dr. Phil McGraw (Simon & Schuster, CD and Cassette)

Audie Awards Finalists
Still Life With Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Time Warner, CD and Cassette)
The Last Detective, Robert Crais (Brilliance, CD and Cassette)
(A complete list of the Audio Publishers Association's 2004 Audie Awards Finalists will be available on February 19 at www.audiopub.org.)

Robin Whitten is the editor and founder of AudioFile magazine, the source for comprehensive reviews, news, interviews, and comments on audiobooks (www.audiofilemagazine.com).

Comments and suggestions for future "Speaking of Audio" columns may be e-mailed to Robin@audiofilemagazine.com.