Sounds Of Brilliance

September 29, 2006
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GRAND HAVEN — Eileen Hutton, the vice president and associate publisher of the No. 2 audio publisher in the nation, loves traffic jams. Her vanity license plate, "AUDIOBK," is a subtle reminder to any vehicle waiting behind her at the Grand Haven drawbridge that commuting can be more than sports jockeys and commercials.

Brilliance Audio is one of a handful of companies to find any joy in traffic congestion reports such as Texas A&M's annual Urban Mobility Study. The latest edition of the report found a dozen U.S. cities in which commuters spent more than an hour a week stuck in traffic. In Los Angeles, commuters lose nearly a full week each year to traffic delay.

"The situation is getting worse and worse, and that's fabulous for us," Hutton said. "When I see the numbers, I think, 'Yes, people are going to be miserable. They'll need an audio book.'"

The company has found that between 80 percent and 90 percent of audio book listening is done in an automobile. The longer people spend in their cars, the more opportunity they have to listen to an audio book.

For this and other reasons, the $870 million audio publishing industry continues to grow, flaunting stagnant sales in the print segment of the literary world. And Brilliance has outpaced them all, recording double-digit annual growth for several years running while capturing market share and authors from its East Coast competitors.

Last month, Brilliance signed blockbuster bestseller Danielle Steele to an eight-book contract — following on the heels of signing crime novelist Iris Johansen. Brilliance has wooed a lengthy list of bestselling authors away from the New York publishing houses: Nora Roberts, Terry Brooks, W.E.B. Griffin, Tami Hoag, J.D. Robb, Catherine Coulter, Tracie Peterson and a host of others.

"I had a lovely statement from John Saul," Hutton said, quoting the longtime bestselling novelist. "When an author asks another author who his audio publisher is, and he smiles, you know the answer is going to be Brilliance."

For 22 years, the Grand Haven firm has proven a disruptive force in the literary field. It was the first to publish an audio book as it is known today — a consumer product sold to the mass market in competition with hardcover books. For the better part of its history, it was the only publisher to issue unabridged audio editions, a niche that has quickly become the standard.

"The New York publishers thought we were a novelty," Hutton said. "They thought unabridged would never be more than a niche market, because no one wanted to pay that much for an audio book. Time proved us right and them wrong."

Brilliance also publishes abbreviated, abridged versions of its titles, but as part of a product mix that includes all or a combination of full-length and abridged offerings in CD, MP3-CD, cassette and digital download formats — distributed to libraries, books stores, mass market retailers, and via Brilliance's own online storefront, AudiobookStand.com.

Today a multimillion-dollar business, Brilliance sold 2 million units last year, every last one shipped from its headquarters at 1704 Eaton Drive.

"A lot of people are surprised when they find out we're in Grand Haven," said Michael Snodgrass, president and publisher. "This was just where we chose to live."

A Chicago native, Snodgrass relocated to Grand Haven with his new wife in 1984, impressed by its scenic beaches and charming lifestyle. The company was essentially born in Chicago, where Snodgrass conceived the idea during a conversation with his father. They had been discussing a magazine article suggesting that there were no new ideas to be had; innovation was found only in using pre-existing things in different ways, or making them better.

The younger Snodgrass used books to illustrate the point: These were available in hardcover, paperback and special leather-bound editions, but the only thing that couldn't be bought off the shelf was someone to read it to you. That's when the proverbial light bulb was lit. Within the year, Snodgrass had inked a distribution deal with the Waldenbooks chain.

Today, the company employs 120 fulltime employees at its Grand Haven facility. With the exception of mass CD pressing — which is outsourced to a clean room contract manufacturer — all of the company's production operations are conducted on site. Its distribution facility is the envy of the industry: Smaller and nimbler than its competitors, Brilliance has constant visibility of its inventory and is able to seamlessly manage store returns. This has enabled the firm to find additional penetration for returns, repackaging them with new price points for other market sectors.

Brilliance keeps many of its competitors' titles on hand, as well, selling titles from all publishers through its online channel. Of its titles, Brilliance has an active portfolio of roughly 1,000 audio books, and is releasing 10 to 15 new books each month.

The recording of these has made the company one of West Michigan's greatest assets to the local drama community. Brilliance employs an additional 50 to 100 freelance workers as narrators and directors for its productions. While the company attracts audio talent from across the country, a substantial portion of its cast and crew have historically come from West Michigan's theater community.

Brilliance is also one of the few outlets through which "books-on-tape" are still available, as practically every bookstore in the nation has abandoned the cassette format in favor of the CD. Ironically, the company is also leading the charge in adoption of next-generation audio media, offering content on MP3 and online download.

"It always surprises me how long it takes for consumers to change over," Snodgrass said. "We've already transitioned to the new media — this is the wave of the future."

The MP3-CD should make audio books much more attractive, as the full production can usually be fit on a single disc. Downloads offer an even greater advantage, removing the physical media entirely. Not just a matter of convenience, this would eliminate all manufacturing costs, keeping the price affordable. Currently, offerings range in price from $5 to $45.

In a current project, Brilliance is attempting to market a release written and scripted by company staffers, with no accompanying print publication on the market. Codenamed the Kain Project, this is the company's first try at content origination, and should come to market in 2007.

Hutton and Snodgrass expect an unparalleled opportunity for audio publishing in the coming generation. Currently, the demographic is older professionals, but with today's youth growing up with iPods and music downloads, it might be more comfortable listening to a book than reading one. Likewise, studies have shown that children achieve much higher reading comprehension scores if they listen to an audio recording of a text as they are reading it, giving parents and teachers a strong reason to introduce children to the medium.

Last year, Hutton and Snodgrass acquired joint ownership of the company from its investors. A librarian by trade, Hutton joined the company as an assistant staffer in 1989, eventually taking control of the editorial department, and then the company.    

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