Speaking of Audio: Selling Unabridged Audio -- The Complete Audiobook

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By Robin Whitten

The unabridged audiobook is easy for booksellers to understand: "Audiobooks the way books should be -- complete." Independent booksellers, once slow to embrace audiobooks precisely because titles were abridged, are in many cases welcoming the trend by audio publishers to offer more titles unabridged.

On the publishers' lists, unabridged titles now often vie for top spots with their abridged cousins. Eleven titles in the Book Sense hardcover fiction Bestsellers List top 15 (January 17, 2002), are available as audiobooks. Seven of those are available unabridged (eight, if you count the selection of Jackie Kennedy's poems). Isabel Allende's Portrait in Sepia, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, and John Grisham's Skipping Christmas are available only unabridged; the other titles each are available in three options -- unabridged, abridged, or in CD format.

Two distinct groups of consumers -- one for unabridged, the other for abridged -- exist for all three formats. "CD customers" also exist, though their purchases are often driven more by hardware concerns, particularly by the player installed in their vehicles.

Price and level of interest are determining factors in selling unabridged audiobooks. Customers new to listening, to sampling, or to giving a gift are often steered to abridged titles. Bruce Nagel, a merchandiser for Ingram Books, suggests abridged audio as an excellent way to sample an author's work.

Conversely, customers familiar with an author are less willing to settle for an abridged work. Authors reading their own works -- usually the abridgments -- can offer compelling reasons for the personalized version. But, a reader who loves Carl Hiaasen may be seriously disappointed with the abridged version of Basket Case. Fans know what they are missing, and subplots and characterization often fall by the wayside in an abridgment.

Bookseller Donna Gerardo of Books Etc. in Portland, Maine, finds that customers who are "into whatever they are reading" are the best prospects for unabridged. They are purists. For instance, Gerardo has no trouble selling the long, unabridged Tolkien novels. Tolkien fans know what they want.

In children's books, Harry Potter paved the way for extended listening. Parents are often willing to make the investment of time and money when they realize it can be shared entertainment. Can anyone take an entire family to the movies for less than the price of an audiobook? Gerardo notes that parents expect children's books to be complete and unabridged.

Price can be a deterrent with unabridged audios, but booksellers' handselling can pay off. The prices of unabridged audios are often $30 to $50, well above the hardcover. If you're not a listener yourself and if you've never heard someone rave about audiobooks, it's hard to understand, but audiobooks can become a serious habit. Listening to a book as opposed to reading it in print is often a specific choice. And, getting it unabridged is another level of commitment by the customer. Many listeners are willing to make the significant time commitments, and, when they do, they often resolve to make the purchases as well.

Reading groups can be an audience for unabridged audios. Beth Henkes, backlist buyer at University Bookstore in Bellevue, Washington, recommends that the group assign the audio version of a title during the holiday season. The convenience of doing errands or traveling and still getting the next book read appeals to group members. Henkes also notes the availability of unabridged audio versions when she works with book clubs. To mitigate expense, Henkes tells customers to pass the audiobook around, or to share with a relative after the first listener is finished. Most public libraries would also be thrilled to receive unabridged audiobook donations.

Here, as is the case with audio in general, taking the time to cross-promote the audiobooks with the hardcover title display can increase sales. Henkes also recommends gaining some knowledge regarding the actors who narrate unabridged audiobooks. "I tend to latch on to the reader to help me sell," she said in a recent interview. Taking time to acquaint yourself with certain readers gives an edge to a bookseller's suggestion. Customers respond well to personal recommendations of this unbrowsable format. Henkes takes an audio to listen to each weekend. "It helps me as a print buyer," she said, "I get to know another book, and to know the audiobook."

Robin Whitten is editor and founder of AudioFile: The Audiobook Review. Bimonthly issues cover audiobook news, features, and reviews. Check it out at www.audiofilemagazine.com. Comments and questions welcome at [email protected].