`Walden' on the freeway via classic cassette

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Frank S. Kilpatrick commutes at least an hour every day between his home in Malibu, Calif., and his office in Pasadena, as president of Frank S. Kilpatrick & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in new ventures. He rarely has time to read classic literature. Business reading preempts most of his available reading time. But last week he found an answer: He ordered a cassette tape version of Thoreau's ``Walden'' to listen to while motoring around southern California.

Joggers and commuters are finding that the cassette-tape book industry is rapidly maturing. Cassettes based on a wide variety of business and fiction best sellers are now available, although ``two years ago no one ever considered this [books on cassette] an industry,'' says Jeffrey Hollender, publisher for Warner Audio in New York.

The selection of books on cassette tape was then very limited -- mostly renditions of the classics and instructional tapes.

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Most of the major book publishers were content to leave audio rights to cassette publishers, ignoring the small audio market.

But during the year, tall cassette racks sprang up right alongside the bookshelves in major bookstore chains, and cassette sales started to take up some of the slack in relatively flat book sales. Single cassette prices average $7.95, though multicassette packages range up to $19.95 and beyond.

This year many big book publishers, realizing the market potential of the 300 to 400 million cassette players now in use in cars, ``Walkman''-type setups, and home tape decks, are plunging in in an effort to play catch-up.

Cassette publishers expect the industry to exceed $100 million in sales this year. ``There are no official sales figures,'' one publisher says. ``I get this number from knowing our sales and those of the other major audio publishers.''

``Almost everyone has a pile of books that he just hasn't had time to read,'' says Grady Hesters, executive vice-president of Newman Communications Corporation, an audio cassette publisher headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M. ``There is a need for information and desire for entertainment that is just not satisfied by the limited time people have to read books.''

Four years ago, Newman Communications found it difficult to persuade bookstore chain managers even to stock audio books. Audio revenues were small, and there was some concern that cassettes would take sales from the paper copies, he says.

That hasn't happened.

``We see the commuter as our main consumer for books on cassette,'' says Joann Swenson, spokeswoman for B. Dalton, a nationwide bookstore chain headquartered in Minneapolis. A driver or jogger may be a reader who can't read at that specific time, she adds.

The bookstore's ``best tape buyers are also their best book buyers,'' confirms Mr. Hesters. Booksellers even report that some customers return to buy a book after listening to the corresponding cassette tape.

Bookstores welcome the additional profits from audios. ``Cassette tapes will be 4 or 5 percent of our business in the near future,'' says Harry Hoffman, president of Waldenbooks in Stamford, Conn.

Audio publishers, who have recorded and marketed foreign language or self-help tapes for years, claim a strong lead on the other market entrants.

Newman releases 20 to 30 titles a quarter, has a backlist of several hundred, and is starting to produce its own ``gourmet'' tapes. Included will be Richard Crenna's rendition of ``The Hunt for Red October,'' by Tom Clancy, and Jason Robards's reading of ``Ironweed Trilogy,'' by William Kennedy. Newman's sales have skyrocketed from $1.2 million in fiscal '83-84 to $7 million in fiscal '84-85, says executive producer Daniel Roth.

Warner Communications bought ``Network for Learning,'' an audio publishing house, getting what publisher Hollender calls a ``three- to four-year lead'' over other book publishers. Warner Audio Publishing has grown 700 percent this last year, he says, and adds that this is characteristic of the cassette-book industry's potential market growth.

Simon & Schuster's new audio and video division introduced its first six audio titles in September under the name ``Sound Ideas,'' and plans to release another six every other month, says Ellen Stolzman, vice-president of that division.

Books (usually abridged) are not just read onto the tapes. Many audios include lead-in music, dramatic readings, and panel discussions, thus earning the name audio ``production.''

Publishers are basing their cassettes mostly on best-selling books -- those with a good track record. Some tapes, however, are being released simultaneously with or ahead of their paper counterparts. For example, Warner Audio Publishing just released a cassette along with the hard-cover ``Re-inventing the Corporation,'' by John Naisbitt and Patricia Auburdene.

And ``News From Lake Woebegon,'' by Garrison Keillor, was a best-selling tape before it hit the best-seller lists as a hard-cover book.

The growing popularity of recorded books is causing literary agents to take a harder look at audio rights for best-selling books, too. Most agents are negotiating audio rights separately from hard-cover rights for the authors they represent.

Although audio advances are typically less than 5 percent of hard-cover advances, and compensation varies with copies sold, the David Niven tapes, recorded by the actor not long before his passing, have brought in royalties of more than $100,000, says Hesters.

Other authors have not done so well, but as tapes achieve wider distribution, audio rights might eventually add significantly to author revenue.

Books on cassette ``is really an infant business,'' says Aaron Priest, president of Aaron Priest Literary Agency in New York. ``No one can tell.''

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