It's hard to beat thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver (The Bone Collector) in creating surprising plot twists. But audio-download company Audible adbl may have done that for his latest work, The Chopin Manuscript.
Audible says the novel— which Deaver describes as "The Day of the Jackal meets The Da Vinci Code" — will be the first major work of fiction created to be introduced only as an audio download.
In addition, it's the first project in which Audible also owns a piece of the ancillary rights, which could pay off if it becomes a printed book or film.
"This was a case where it didn't exist, and we felt it ought to exist," says Audible CEO Donald Katz, 55.
His company is the leading spoken-word audio-download service, with more than 40,000 narrated books, newspapers and magazines — many of which it records — as well as paid podcasts, lectures and performances.
Narrated by actor Alfred Molina, Chopin's first three chapters will be available on Audible.com on Sept. 25. It will add two chapters a week over the subsequent seven weeks.
The price: $19.95, with 20% off for pre-orders.
Katz, a former business journalist, hopes that the splashy release will reinforce an image for Audible as "the HBO of audio." The company he co-founded now is finding its footing following several unexpected turns in its 15-year history.
Chopin began as a fundraising project for a group called the International Thriller Writers (ITW).
Deaver agreed to write an opening chapter establishing the characters and the premise of the story. He passed it along to a "Murderers' Row" of 15 colleagues, including Lee Child (Bad Luck and Trouble), Joseph Finder (Power Play), Lisa Scottoline (Daddy's Girl) and Jim Fusilli (Hard Hard City).
Each wrote a successive chapter before sending it back to Deaver, who tied things up in the last two chapters.
Knowing this work would begin life as an audiobook affected the writing, Deaver says. Best for listeners, he says, "is pithy dialogue and descriptive passages, so when they're driving down I-95, they'll be able to picture this and it will stay with them. I found it a lot easier than writing a traditional, written novel. I'd definitely like to do a project again."
Molina also seemed to be the right narrator for a story that moves between Poland, Rome, Washington and Baltimore.
"He's urbane, yet he can give you the sense of grittiness that the story requires," says Fusilli, who edited the book. "He has a sense of elegance, but doesn't lose the tempo."
Although Chopin is for ITW, the authors stand to profit "if this were to become a new Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter," Deaver says.
The big payoff for Audible would come if it brings in new customers. In addition to boosting revenue, getting people comfortable with Audible's service makes it harder for potential rivals such as Amazon.com amzn to move in.
After the Internet bust of 2000, Audible sprang back to life in 2003: It struck a deal with Apple to be the exclusive audiobooks provider on iTunes, which serves millions of iPods and last year generated 24% of Audible's $82 million in revenue.
That "solved one of the biggest issues for us, which was the (lack of) availability of digital audio players to play our content," Katz says. "We had unbelievable growth."
But investors chafed beginning in 2005. After finally turning a profit in 2004, Audible went back into the red as it expanded into the U.K. and created joint ventures in Germany and France.
It also had to delay closing its books for 2005 after auditing firm KPMG cited "material weaknesses" in Audible's internal accounting for its retail promotions.
"The problem they had in the past is that they had a management team that couldn't shoot straight," says Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney. In addition, "They putzed around with a lot of pricing changes."
That changed beginning mid-2005 after Audible changed its CFO, COO and marketing team.
Now, "They're executing better" and have made user-friendly changes in Audible's software, which limits copying and where downloads can be played, Mahaney says. "They have a very nice ramp to profitability."
Although original content helps, Katz understands that no one can produce enough audiobooks to control the market. Unlike music, which is dominated by four companies, hundreds produce books, articles and performances buyers might want to hear.
Audible has partnerships with more than 470 companies — 64% of them for exclusive rights to audio material.
"It's our strategy to be good partners to people all around us on the value chain," he says.
His fascination with audiobooks grew out of his work in college with Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, years as a reporter for magazines including Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated and Worth, and the writing of business books, including The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears and Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World.
Audiobooks, he realized, "could be in a world where there were no package costs, you're never out of stock, there's no reason to go out of print, and no returns."
Now Katz wants to expand Audible's presence in education, for example with audio versions of textbooks and study guides.
He's also looking at how audiobooks can help people with learning disabilities. His oldest daughter, now a college student, has a language-processing disorder and "learned to read by listening," he says.