Amazon Acquires Brilliance Audio Inc.

June 4, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND HAVEN — The news caught Susan Panasuk completely by surprise: Amazon.com has bought Brilliance Audio, a well-known company here and a key player in the business world of audio books bought by libraries.

“Brilliance has been very customer-friendly to libraries in the sense that we could get free replacements,” said Panasuk, audiovisual services manager at Herrick District Library in Holland.

“I think Amazon probably caters more to the individual retail market than to the library market,” said Panasuk. “As a librarian, that’s what I'm worried about. Brilliance has always given me real good customer service.”

Not to worry, said Brilliance Audio president and publisher Michael Snodgrass.

“There will be no change in Brilliance Audio, other than the opportunity to produce even more audio books than we are currently doing. Our free replacements to libraries, our sales reps, our customer service department — everything will remain the same,” said Snodgrass.

Snodgrass will remain with Brilliance Audio in his current role. Vice president Eileen Hutton will also continue at the company in her role, and the company will continue to be located in Grand Haven, where it was started by Snodgrass in 1984. It is said to be the largest independent publisher of audio books in the United States, up to its purchase by Amazon.com, and it is one of the larger employers in Grand Haven, with 120 employees. Terms of the sale to Amazon.com were not released.

Free replacement of damaged or lost CDs and tapes is an important matter to public libraries. Anyone in the habit of borrowing DVDs, CDs and tapes from libraries knows that over time, the electronic materials take a licking. According to Michele Cobb, president of the Audio Publishers Association, 52 percent of audio book listeners get them from the local library.

“In a library, many people use it, things happen … They get hard use,” said Panasuk, who added that libraries traditionally buy electronic editions with a guarantee of free replacement or at least minimal cost of replacement disks.

Snodgrass could not reveal what share library purchases represent in the total volume of audio books it sells, but said “They are a significant part of what we do.”

Resellers such as Amazon.com are also a major market for audio books, and Amazon.com has been doing business with Brilliance audio for years. Amazon.com announced in late May that it had acquired Brilliance Audio to enable it to increase the number of audio titles it publishes each year. Brilliance Audio has published more than 1,000 titles, and it has been adding a dozen or more new titles each month.

“Amazon prides itself on offering every book there is on its Web site,” said Snodgrass.

Although the retail giant has about 100,000 audio titles now (including virtually all of those produced by Brilliance), Amazon.com officials had identified audio books as a growth area, letting Brilliance know they would like to see more books recorded. Recording a book can be costly and takes time, requiring many hours in a studio and a team of people, including a “voice talent,” often with acting experience. Brilliance records in its Grand Haven studios and in other areas of the country.

“In discussions with me, (Amazon.com) decided they would buy the company and increase the number of books recorded,” Snodgrass said.

Early on, Brilliance took a chance by publishing unabridged audio versions of books on tape, when other companies were only producing abridged versions. Today, about 70 percent of audio books published are unabridged versions, according to APA, which estimated the size of the annual audio book market at about $800 million, as of 2004.

“Brilliance has built its business around best-seller fiction,” said Snodgrass. Fiction has always been in most demand, but the increasing popularity of recorded books for use in cars on long trips, during long commutes or while stuck in traffic jams, has also increased demand for other types of books. Many people also listen to audio books while exercising.

“One of the things that this transaction with Amazon will do is allow us to look at other genres (to record), such as business, self-help and children’s books,” said Snodgrass.

Amazon.com also wants to keep all audio books always “in print” via digital downloads over the Internet.

The Grand Rapids Public Library’s main facility has about 9,700 audio titles, with audio titles checked out about 59,000 times a year at the main branch.

“The bulk of it tends to be fiction, but we definitely have people asking for (non-fiction audio titles), and we have an active collection of non-fiction audio books,” said Marla Ehlers, reference and adult services coordinator at GRPL’s main branch. Non-fiction subjects include business management and motivational books, “and the Bible is always very popular,” she added.

Ehlers said GRPL has always purchased Brilliance Audio products because “they are a good-quality recording,” and the company has a large selection of titles. She said she has no qualms about the sale of the company to Amazon.com.

When a large company buys a smaller company, “you often wonder what’s going to happen to the little guy — but Brilliance isn’t such a little guy, and Amazon is dedicated to customer service, speaking from personal experience. They seem to take it very seriously,” said Ehlers.

Amazon.com is a Seattle-based Fortune 500 company that began business on the Web in 1995. Today, its Web site not only offers books and electronic media, but also new, refurbished and used items in categories including apparel, health and personal care, jewelry and watches, gourmet food, home and garden, toys and sporting goods, and more.     

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