There are lots of words to describe sales conferences—“exciting” usually isn’t one of them. But that is exactly how CEO Rich Freese described Recorded Books recent sales conference, concluded last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., and this time the word might just fit. As the Public Library Association meeting kicks off this week in Philadelphia, Recorded Books hits the show floor having made significant progress toward an ambitious goal: with its OneClick Digital platform, rolled out late in 2011, the company has expanded from a large, well-regarded audiobook publisher to a “one-stop shopping” experience for audiobooks in the library market, as well as a digital aggregator and resource provider.
Since the launch of OneClick Digital last year, Freese told PW, the company has partnered with roughly 25 audio publishing partners to sell their audiobooks to libraries on the platform, including major houses like Random House and Macmillan, and the sales conference in Scottsdale was the first time these new publisher partners presented their lists to Recorded Books reps. “It really was invigorating,” Freese said. “I can candidly say we now offer the largest collection of audiobooks available today.” Indeed, since the launch of OneClick Digital just months ago, the number of titles Recorded Books offers to libraries has gone from about 9,000 to over 25,000. The company’s offerings also include high-demand, patron-focused digital resources for music, magazines (through a partnership with Zinio), language learning, and law.
The digital transition has brought no small amount of disruption for publishers, Freese acknowledged—but also opportunity. With an established brand in the library market, Recorded Books has invested millions of dollars, and Freese said the company will invest more in the coming years into expanding its business, and seizing the opportunities digital offers. The net result for library customers, Freese said, will be less inefficiency in the library market and more resources and time for librarians to devote to serving patrons.
Transformations, of course, don’t happen overnight, and not without some tough decisions. Freese said Recorded Books underwent a “major cultural shift” in the last year, dividing the company into two parts: Recorded Books, the publisher, and RB Digital, the platform. In the process, the company “rethought its entire organization,” Freese explained. “There was a lot of talk about who we are, about branding, resources.”
The transformation also required “pruning some businesses and product lines, while growing others, and trading people with one set of skills for others,” added Recorded Books v-p of content Troy Juliar. Although the company had a foundation for success— a strong brand, editorial program, and sales team— to get where they needed to go they had to change the “DNA of the company,” Juliar said, by adding technology as a core competency. “All of us had to develop new skills,” he added, comparing the process to helping a boxer improve by developing his technique. “Now,” Juliar said, “we have a good left hook.”
The effort also included opening an IT office in Baltimore, Md., to compete for the top tech talent in the region. “If we wanted to be a leading digital services company, and we couldn’t find or get that talent to come to Prince Frederick [Md.], then we decided we had to open an office in a major metropolitan area,” Freese said, noting that the company had just two full-time developers on staff when he joined in May 2011. That number has jumped to 25—with more to come, as well as more sales reps to be hired in the coming months.
Still, it isn’t all about digital. Freese said Recorded Books remains a “physical goods” company, and will for the foreseeable future, primarily because that’s still the way most library patrons consume audiobooks. Until digital becomes the uniform standard, Recorded Books will continue to support a multitude of formats.
Recorded Books, the publisher, is also planning to grow. The company currently publishes about 700 audio titles a year, and plans to get that up to 1,000 in the coming years, Freese said, made possible by the company’s state-of-the-art studio above New York’s famous bookstore, the Strand.
A 30-year industry veteran, Freese said working on the transformation of Recorded Books “might be the greatest work” of his career. And on a broader note, despite simmering difficulties between libraries and publishers in the digital realm, Freese is confident things will improve. “At Recorded Books, we believe libraries create readers,” he said. “But there has been more change in the last three years of my career than in the previous 27, and there is more ahead. As long as everyone stays engaged, we’ll find a path.” —Andrew Albanese