Independent publisher Talking Book advances the audiobook industry

EARFUL: “In part because of smartphones and the recent excitement over podcasting, we’re in the one medium in publishing that is actually growing in sales,” says Ben Matchar, second from right. The editor-in-chief of local audiobook publisher Talking Book is pictured with, from left, Marcyanne Hanneman, Kris Hartrum, Dani Harris and David Burr. Photo by Cindy Kunst

In less than a year of operation, Talking Book — an independent audiobook publisher based in Asheville — has teamed up with indie publishing giant Melville House for the newly released Sophia by Michael Bible. The company has produced work for other rising literary stars, like Bud Smith (author of F 250 and Tollbooth) and Clancy Martin (author of How to Sell and Bad Sex), and such big-name collaborations are only increasing in regularity.

Editor-in-Chief Ben Matchar and Senior Editor Kris Hartrum formed the company in fall 2015. It’s their mission to push the status quo of the audiobook industry and explore the limits of how literature can be presented in light of recent technological advances in production and distribution.

“We’re part of something that’s really exploding right now,” says Matchar. “In part because of smartphones and the recent excitement over podcasting, we’re in the one medium in publishing that is actually growing in sales.” While 20,000 new audiobook titles were produced in 2013, the annual total grew to more than twice that in 2015.

Audiobooks have become a cash cow for large corporations like Amazon, but Talking Book represents a growing demographic of independent authors, publishers and literary fans who want to see more from the format than just popular titles. “It’s easy to get an audiobook of The Catcher in the Rye,” says Matchar. “But if you go down a level in popularity, often those books just haven’t been produced — niche classics like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea for example. The fact that doesn’t exist yet confirms that we’re still in the Wild West.”

Though Talking Book can’t single-handedly fill in the margins of narrative audio, it’s on the crest of the wave. In a recent partnership with Orison Books, an Asheville-based publisher, Talking Book helped give a new reach to Herman Melville’s letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne in a collection titled The Divine Magnet. The letters are beautiful, contemplative and brimming with Melville’s droll humor. Actor and comedian Jim Meskimen (perhaps best known for his role on ABC’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) performs the work. He brings the shared world of these authors to life with a delivery that is warm, conversational and filled with the passion that Melville’s transcendent prose suggests.

Talking Book approaches each project, whether historical or hot-off-the-press, with the same floor-to-ceiling approach and has developed some unique methods for producing and facilitating high-quality work within the tech-driven industry. For example, the company often supports authors in recording their own writing, even supplying them with a home studio kit in order to guide them remotely through the production process. “One of the reasons audiobooks are so exciting for us, as writers and lit fans, is that the spoken word was the first form of storytelling,” says Hartrum. “By helping authors to record their work efficiently, and in their ideal way, we’re opening up potential for new genres, new styles of delivery.”

Along with of this hands-on, collaborative approach, Talking Book takes a sympathetic position regarding rights. The company offers up to 75 percent in royalties to its clients. “We’re not just empowering authors on the creative end, but we’re also giving a higher percentage of royalties to the artists than most big-box publishing houses,” says Marcyanne Hannemann, the company’s junior editor. “This not only helps authors continue to do what they do, but fosters a relationship that focuses on literature rather than just numbers.”

In addition to bigger-budget projects, the company also maintains an energetic literary blog, which features a consistent stream of poetry, prose and other short-form work from its authors. The feed ranges in style from the baked-dry hilarity of Sam Pink’s social commentary to the blunt and insightful reflections of Tiffany Scandal, among other wild stylistic tangents.

The blog is not the only place where the Talking Book team lets its hair down. The company has achieved a more elegant distribution than the spurious attempts at social media “fun-zoning” that more rigid corporate PR teams often go for. Talking Book’s entire company presence, online and off, sets a tone that is jocular yet professional, employing colorful web design, multimedia collaborations and updates on the whereabouts of its team and collaborators. On top of being more engaging than the vanilla interfaces of most major publishers, Talking Book’s cooler aesthetic and personable feel reveal something more fundamental than good branding alone: This is a company run by people who love art and decided to make it their business.

As Hartrum puts it, “We’re an audiobook press with a personality.”

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About Alec Sturgis
Alec Sturgis is a composer, arts organizer and music journalist based in Asheville, NC. Along with his experiences in academic music, studying at the Conservatory at Baldwin-Wallace University, Sturgis also participated in the management of Asheville DIY art-space, Apothecary.

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