Actors join the audiobook business
Tim Roth
Credit: Corbis Sygma

How about a half-hour of Drew Carey reading “Dirty Jokes and Beer” while you’re watching your clothes tumble dry? Or Blair Brown’s rendition of “The Client” on your morning commute? Maybe even a few laughs from Whoopi Goldberg’s latest view of the world, “Audiobook,” while you’re jogging? Fact is, celebs like Brad Pitt (“All the Pretty Horses”), Winona Ryder (“Diary of Anne Frank”) and Susan Sarandon (“The Firebird”) are lining up to be “the voice of” the latest best-sellers and other notable books. Even First Lady Hillary Clinton lent her pipes to an audio version of her own work, “It Takes a Village,” and she nabbed a Grammy in the process.

This Hollywood influx has brought heightened attention — and increased sales — to the audiobook genre, once perceived as being primarily for the sight-impaired. “Listeners who are unfamiliar with authors and their writings are attracted to audiobooks by celebrity performers they know,” says Seth D. Gershel, Senior Vice President and Publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio. This development helps explain why annual sales of audiobooks now approach $2 billion, with the number of units sold increasing by a healthy 12% this year. To court the growing audience of audiophiles, book retailers are installing listening stations that let customers check out their favorite authors’ (or Hollywood celebs’) work.

As celebrity readers increasingly lure consumers to books on tape, should traditional publishers worry that a “good read” will soon be replaced by a “good listen”? Understandably, audiobook leaders are optimistic. Gershel thinks audiobook sales will continue to rise until they equal sales for hardcovers. Judy McGwinn, director of Time Warner AudioBooks, thinks that “audiobooks have the potential to surpass the audience for hard cover books, just as video surpassed the audience for theatrical films. And for the same simple reason — convenience.”

But others aren’t so sure. “Audiobooks account for just 10% of total sales, and it will be a long time before they surpass hardcover books,” says Trudi Rosenblum, Audio Editor for Publishers Weekly. She adds that a celebrity reader alone doesn’t guarantee a good listen: “James Spader is a very good actor. But he read an audio [of a thriller] where he was describing a murder, and it sounded so dull, it wasn’t scary at all.”