The Spoken Word With Audible Founder & CEO Donald Katz
By Taylor Smith
Thanks to Audible’s Donald Katz, the general population now has more time than ever to consume and enjoy books by creating a digital library on their mobile devices. A membership allows users access to more than 325,000 downloadable audiobooks, audio editions of periodicals and other programs. New members are also given complimentary subscriptions to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, making the inevitable commute or time spent at the gym, not only easier, but that much more enlightening. Below, Mr. Katz discusses his pre-Audible career as a journalist, love for Newark, and the company’s growing a-list collection of inspiring celebrity performances.
Tell us about your career as an author and journalist before founding Audible.
I was a professional writer for 20 years. At 23, I was writing from London for Rolling Stone and The New Republic—a precocious start to the writing life that included close interactions with prime ministers, soldiers and revolutionaries. I traveled from Northern Ireland during the Troubles to Ethiopia during the Red Terror, and in pursuit of narrative non-fiction’s ambition to transcend pyramidal newspaper reportage, I was able to ask people what it’s like to be willing to kill or to die for a cause.
I turned to book writing after several years writing long-form articles, and wrote books that explored the sociological, psychological and organizational complexities of the human enclosures that were some of the most successful corporations of the 20th century. My books on Sears and Nike were the result of a collective nine years of reporting inside the companies.
The book I’m most proud of, Home Fires, is the story of a real middle-class American family whose members’ lives touched on every major social, political and cultural movement and trend between the 40s and early 90s. Home Fires was recently republished and also came out for the first time on Audible. I was working on another book, about emergent technologies that would change the world of media, when I had what my wife calls a “nontoxic midlife crisis” and changed gears to pursue the idea that become Audible.com.
Many elements that make Audible a distinctive company that in many ways has a higher purpose draw upon the many things I learned and experienced as a writer. At its best, Audible is imbued with the élan I experienced during Rolling Stone’s first decade, a sensibility derived from the act of imprinting the culture with a new level of truth-telling and literary style.
Audible moved to Newark and services customers in pursuit of defining ourselves based on what a company can mean versus what it does alone, and this I also took away from my years studying organizations and their larger purposes.
When was Audible founded and where did the idea initially come from?
I believe there are invariably multiple genesis stories behind ideas that become large and successful enterprises. In Audible’s case, the founding vision—to unleash the power of the spoken word and bring it into the cultural mainstream alongside books, movies, film and music—was informed by the great writer Ralph Ellison. I was lucky to have Ralph as my teacher in college and mentor for years after that. Ralph’s understanding of the power of the American oral tradition—the way we bragged and sold and told stories around campfires and the sound of our lamenting in the fields—allowed me to understand how American oral culture defined how we wrote. Ralph Ellison allowed me to hear the music in language, which in turn led to the creation of Audible.
I never wrote that book about technology once Audible became an obsessive pursuit, but I did learn a great deal about emerging tech and I even changed my column in Esquire to a tech focus from my long stint as the business columnist. My college roommate had a doctorate in computer science and was working on super-computers, and he was there to help me imagine an era of digital distribution (versus my experience of many 12-city book tours and often finding no books in local stores). In 1994, I began telling people that in the future, we would have little solid state electronic devices in our pockets that would be packed with culture. I got the same “what the hell are you talking about?” reaction to this assertion from most people for years after Audible invented the first digital audio player. Audible was founded in 1995. In 1997, we created the world’s first commercially available portable digital audio player, four years before the launch of the iPod. It’s now in the Smithsonian.
If Ralph Ellison allowed me to appreciate the oral tradition at levels many literary types and professional writers did not, and Ed Lau—my college roommate—helped me understand digital signal processing and component miniaturization and the like; then my years making a living as a writer had also taught me that the one thing I couldn’t give my readers was time to read my quite long books. I became aware that more than 100 million Americans drive to work alone in the morning or get on an exercise bike every day, and during these times they can’t read or look at a screen. The number of millions of those commuters and exercises who are listening to Audible at any given time of the day on a global basis astounds me.
There is one more genesis factor, since you asked. My amazing teacher-daughter Chloe struggled with language-processing and reading challenges when she was young—as so many children do today—and listening to books in audio helped her break through this profound challenge and become an A student in college and a very successful adult. That Audible is used by so many parents, teachers and young people to learn and succeed is another entirely gratifying aspect of Audible’s success.
What devices can be used for listening to Audible?
You can play Audible on most Kindle devices and nearly every smartphone. The Audible App is available on the iOS, Android and Windows platforms.
How large is the Audible library and how often are new titles added?
Audible has more than 325,000 downloadable audiobooks, audio editions of periodicals and other programs. Audible is the largest producer of audiobooks in the world. Many of the titles are produced by Audible Studios, which has earned 135 Audie Finalist nominations over the last three years and won a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Album category.
This year, Audible launched Channels, an unlimited, on-demand service featuring a “best of” collection of news programs and compelling audio editions of magazines and newspaper articles, comedy shorts, lectures, short fiction and nonfiction, and other quality information and educational programming. This service is available free to Audible and Prime members and as a standalone service for $4.95/month.
How are literary classics given new life through Audible?
There was a time in audiobook production when narrators were told not to interpret or use nuanced performance to position great novels as scripts for gifted actors. We worked to change this by asking many of the world’s greatest actors to record classics. Colin Firth, Anne Hathaway, Dustin Hoffman and dozens of others have recorded for Audible. We have customers now who talk about Nicole Kidman’s interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse versus the brilliant British actress Juliet Stevenson’s interpretation of the same novel. We began to train rising young actors in the art of long form performance at Julliard, Yale, the Royal Academy in London and UCLA. The recent release of Rachel McAdams’s interpretation of Anne of Green Gables is an Audible best-seller with a 4.9 of 5 customer rating. All of this—alongside the application of user-friendly technology—is why we earn more than two hours of listening per day from many millions of customers.
Talk about Audible’s a-list collection. Do you have a favorite recent celebrity performance?
I was extremely impressed by Scarlett Johansson’s Audible production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I was also amazed by what Kate Winslet did with Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, one of the darkest tales of them all. The performance is mesmerizing.
When was Audible bought by Amazon and how has the company grown since then?
Audible was a NASDAQ company for more than nine years before being acquired by Amazon in 2008.
We remain an independent company with a “best of all worlds” access to Amazon’s customers. We work together to invent on behalf of our customers in advance of anyone asking. I often say that missionary entrepreneurs would be lucky to see their companies become an Amazon subsidiary. To answer your question: to say we have grown is to dwell in understatement by any historic comparison.
Why Newark as the company headquarters?
Our world HQ is in Newark by design. We decided to define key elements of the company’s purpose by coming to Newark to accelerate the comeback of a great American city and catalyze positive change in a city at a tipping point. As the fastest-growing private employer in Newark, we’ve created hundreds of jobs since we moved here in 2007 with 125 employees. We’re now close to 1,000 employees in Newark, one of 17 global centers where people work for Audible. We’re renovating a large historic church nearby and turning it into a tech cathedral. I have long believed that companies can have hearts and souls and missions that transcend financial success. This idea has pushed us as a company to think and act differently, and we have brought our entrepreneurial spirit to changing the status quo in Newark.
I had been deeply “Newarkized” for years through my involvement in North Star Academy, one of the first public charter schools in New Jersey, and the flagship and innovation center for the now 49 successful schools operated by Uncommon Schools. North Star students score much higher than the national average on PISA tests, even though most of their students come from a world without privilege. Forty percent of Newark students are in beat-the-odds schools. Newark’s institutions of higher education, like Rutgers-Newark, are educating thousands of aspirational young students, many of them the first in their families to go to college, and many of them fit the profile of people who can create hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth and opportunities in the city as entrepreneurs. Also, Newark sits on a hub of dark fiber that will unleash the city as an innovation center, and return to its roots as a seedbed of invention. The inventors of commercial plastic, the early fax machine and air conditioning put down roots in Newark and built their products here. This is where Thomas Edison set up shop. Newark Venture Partners, which launched recently and is housed in the building Audible shares with Rutgers Business School, is designed to reclaim Newark and New Jersey’s status as a seedbed for innovation.
We also employ many North Star Academy and Science Park High School students and alums currently in college as Audible interns and Audible Scholars. Our culture has soared by bringing in these amazing kids. Our employees also visit Newark schools to read with middle school students. Employees enjoy concerts and sports games at NJPAC and the Prudential Center. As thousands of places for young people to live and many more places to play come on line in the next year or two downtown (the hip Brooklyn, Manhattan and Jersey City bar—Barcade—is moving across the street from Audible), Newark, which is only 18 minutes from Manhattan from the train station two blocks from Audible, is well on its way to its comeback.
Describe the emerging tech scene in Newark?
I’ve been an early-stage investor for a long time, and there are few things as exciting as finding a small company that’s just an idea and watching that idea become real. And those early-stage tech companies grow jobs. Economists have shown they generate all kinds of economic activity in a city, creating service-level jobs as well as professional jobs. This observation led to the creation of Newark Venture Partners, which is halfway along its goal of raising $50 million. Newark Venture Partners is a place-based, socially focused fund that will not only measure success via strong returns to our investors; all of the investors are focused on the “other bottom line”—the generation of taxable revenue and jobs for the city. Deep economic analysis shows that in cities that thrive via innovation, high school graduates make more money than college graduates in cities focused on manufacturing.
Our accelerator has 13 companies—out of more than 500 companies that applied, including some from the Bay Area—that have been nurtured rent-free in a 25,000-square-foot space with lightning-fast Wi-Fi and ultra-high bandwidth access to the internet. It’s on the seventh floor of our building, and more than 200 Audible employees are signed up by their subject matter expertise to take the elevator down to the Newark Venture Partners Labs ultra-bandwidth accelerator to coach these stellar early stage companies in residence. And we’re hoping the winners stay in Newark, create jobs and taxable revenue here, and help develop the amenities and street-level destinations that will breathe life into the creative economy in Newark.
What does the future of Audible look like?
I am proud that Audible has activated the deep understanding of the character of human expression I gleaned from Ralph Ellison when I was in college. Many millions of people understand the power of listening to well-wrought words that are artfully performed.
Listening is indeed a viable way to read, and the learning values for developing learners are superior to textual composition. We have launched Audible Channels, a short form audio service focused on rising generations who tend to digest the world in ways that will not be served by long arc immersion, and we are designing the information, education and entertainment service with that future in mind. Most of the many millions of new habitual listeners who come to Audible’s service and integrate Audible into their daily lives had never heard an audiobook before. This is different from most businesses, which offer a better, faster, cheaper solution to things that already existed—Uber versus a taxis; or Amazon versus Sears (which I wrote a 600-page book about during career one).
The Audible experience is novel to most new listeners. So, our future involves embracing many more millions of listeners all over the world, and I hope that our pursuit of urban renaissance as part of who we are as a company can be part of my own legacy and perhaps an example other leaders can copy.