Interview with Donald Katz, CEO & Founder of Audible.com

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This interview has been drawn from the August issue of the American Reader, available here.

Audible is the world’s largest seller and producer of downloadable audiobooks and other spoken-word content; in June, a front-page New York Times article recognized Audible as “pushing the digital revolution in audiobooks.” I sat down with Audible CEO Donald Katz at their global headquarters in Newark, New Jersey. The lobby is a study in intersecting planes: after a long hallway, glass doors give way to multi-dimensional, primary-red walls, in whose many accordion folds are embedded occasional news tickers, light fixtures, and even seating. The red repeats itself below my feet, in the form of a long, bright runner. The main staircase, by contrast, is very white. It winds rectangularly upward. Small, spherical lights hang from straight wire, like makeshift stars. Indeed, their backdrop is a pale black wall. This aesthetic is not restricted to the lobby. Throughout the expansive offices, pseudo-futuristic angularity renders itself in a pop-primary palette. Kelly green chairs composed of deconstructed squares and metal. Mustard walls forming sudden angles. Many of the shared working spaces and conference rooms have glass walls; their transparent panes bear formulae and notes, scribbled in dry-erase marker by brainstorming employees.

Donald Katz works en plein air with his employees. When I met him in one of the glass conference rooms (this one overlooking a great deal of Mr. Katz’s beloved city of Newark), he was warm, gracious, and gregarious. He spoke with a great deal of excitement about his writing, his career, and the business he has built. He is a man very much at the cross-section of the prevailing publishing mythologies, but in his company, the Max-Perkins-three-martini-lunch era of publishing sits neatly with its recent digital re-becoming. Mr. Katz is an old soul in a new world—and he occupies that position with comfort and ease. Midway through the interview, he looked at me in wonder: “You’re not taking notes; how can you possibly remember everything I’ve said?” I pointed to the tablet on the table. It’d been on, and recording our conversation for an hour. He had only then become aware of its presence.
                                                                                                    —Uzoamaka Maduka

 

READER

You weren’t always a businessman/entrepreneur, correct? For many years, you worked as a writer of narrative nonfiction—?

 

KATZ

Absolutely. I was a writer for almost twenty years to the day, and then I had what my wife called a “nontoxic midlife crisis”; now it’s been seventeen years as a businessman. [Laughter]

Although—a couple of years ago, I won this Entrepreneur of the Year Award because of what I do at Audible; I had to address this big, black-tie event in Jersey, and my reaction then is my reaction now. I told them: “Look, I’m proud to be Entrepreneur of the Year, but for twenty years before I started Audible, I was a freelance writer. I think I knew everyone in America who supported themselves as narrative nonfiction writers. There is nothing more entrepreneurial than a writer who makes a living in the United States of America.”

 

READER

That’s fascinating. It’s true—you never really hear writers spoken about in those terms, and yet, for writers themselves, it’s an urgent and obvious aspect of their life and craft.

 

KATZ

Frankly, a lot of my passion for what I do—for Audible, for digital publishing—comes from that experience. It also comes from the fact that I know enough about economics to understand how broken publishing is as a business. You know something is wrong when a person can be number fifteen on the bestseller list and be on a twelve-city tour and on TV and have her book selling everywhere—and still be making not much more than a postal service employee.

 

READER

Well, let’s talk a bit about that experience first. How did you first become a professional writer?

 

KATZ

Well, the first place I wrote for was Rolling Stone, and I started writing for them when I was twenty-three.

 

READER

Twenty-three! That’s young. How did that come about?

 

KATZ

I had just finished my master’s, and I basically just wrote a letter to Rolling Stone suggesting that the last days of Franco, undertaken from the perspective of the ETA Basque underground, would make for a very interesting article. They thought I was an academic who could write a good letter, but really I was just a kid. And I got a telegram from [Rolling Stone editor in chief] Jann Wenner saying, “Go to Spain, we’ll pay you fifteen hundred dollars and expenses.”

So I went to Spain and had this fantastic experience, because—well, Franco just took forever to die. It was a huge joke—remember? On Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, it was a recurring joke: “…and Franco is still dead.” So I got to go back and forth between the Basque country and Madrid, hanging out with all these old World War II correspondents who had all gathered for Franco’s last hurrah. They taught me how to be a journalist on the fly: how to get credentials, how to get contacts, read the wire.

Eventually I go home, I write a story; it was six thousand words long and I was really proud of it, and they put it in the magazine with the lightest copyedit you’ve ever seen. And it comes out, and on the cover of Rolling Stone it says: “Donald R. Katz, ‘Dispatch from the Valley of the Fallen.’” I couldn’t believe it.

 

READER

Oh, wow—that’s amazing.

 

KATZ

It gets better. I go back and I’m still drifting after my master’s. And I get a call, and a guy says, “My name is Martin Peretz, I’m a professor at Harvard, and my family just bought the New Republic. I’m putting together a new slate of writers.” And he said—“you write like a dream. I would love to have you write. Would you do a story?” I was like, “Sure, let me consult my calendar”—and off I went.

In those days the New Republic was on newsprint, and they would put the big names of the key writers and journalists on the cover. Anyway, the piece comes out; I look at the cover, and it says: “Gertrude Himmelfarb”—the great historian—“John Kenneth Galbraith,” and then “Donald R. Katz.” I took it to the head of the London School of Economics, where I was in school at the time, and I said, “I’m outta here.” [Laughter]

 

READER

That’s interesting, because—this was what, the mid-seventies?—Rolling Stone and the New Republic were two very different publications.

 

KATZ

I actually remember feeling like I had to decide if I was gonna be a New Republic type of writer or be more of a storyteller type of writer at Rolling Stone. It was an easy choice though because I loved the challenge of explaining what was going on in the world by conveying—basically, what it felt like to experience it. 

Rolling Stone was really a cultural magazine, but a lot of us were able to write movingly, passionately…well, literarily, and put forth a movement-oriented perspective.

READER

So you went more with Rolling Stone? It must’ve been an amazing time to be

involved with the publication…

 

KATZ

It was! Being part of Rolling Stone in its first ten years is one of the most formative things that happened to me—culturally, intellectually, spiritually. The writing, the people, the sensibility, the times—it was just fantastic. We thought we were breaking literary and journalistic molds, imprinting the culture with something meaningfully different—the truth, as opposed to what was in the newspapers. [Laughs]

 

READER

Was it spurred on by a generational mistrust? An institutional mistrust?

 

KATZ

Well, I think that Rolling Stone represented an incredibly articulate worldview of a politicized generation that was also intellectually revved up—you had to be revved up because you had to win the arguments, and the arguments were taking place at every dinner table. Families were rifted apart; it was an intense time to grow up.

We genuinely believed that we could see the world more clearly than the generations above us. It was fairly easy to see that there was an emerging new world, based on this confluence of alternative culture, which had all sorts of characteristics to it—notably the incredible music and politics.

And of course hovering over that was an immoral war and the chance that you could die in it, which was real.

 

READER

What was the atmosphere at the magazine like? The people?

 

KATZ

Actually, when I was first starting out, I thought that if the editors ever saw me, they’d never take me seriously. I looked ridiculously young: I was twenty-three years old, but I looked like I was twelve. All my kids had the same affliction—when they were freshmen in college, they all looked like they were in eighth grade. So I would avoid the editors, and made sure I was on an assignment whenever they came to London. Finally, they said, “Look, you have to come back for our idea meeting.” (They would occasionally call in writers from everywhere for a meeting; it was a fantastic idea.) So I went to the meeting, and sure enough, they were flabbergasted: “You’re Don—?” [Laughs]

 

READER

So, once you finally came out of hiding, and got to spend some time with the editorial staff—? 

 

KATZ

Rolling Stone was very egalitarian: you had to be a really good writer, but you didn’t have to come from the Harvard Crimson. Over time, the Harvard Crimson guys did move in. But we would tap the underground papers; we looked for people who had the literary and intellectual latitude (that’s the word we’d always use) not to be just a reporter.

 

READER

What did it mean to be more than “just” a reporter?

 

KATZ

At Rolling Stone, we thought we were breaking literary and journalistic molds, we thought we were fearlessly telling the truth, and we were also sometimes getting into things that you wouldn’t be getting into if you weren’t working for this particular magazine. So I ended up covering the Red Terror in Ethiopia. I was literally the only American journalist on the ground during the intensity of the Red Terror.

We were all practitioners of New Journalism—which was still unnamed, at the time. The idea was that you would spend all the time you needed with your subjects, with people…until they revealed themselves. How could you get inside the heads of the people you’re writing about in real historical circumstances, and make that come alive? Make that unfold, as in a novel? It was incredibly challenging to do. There was a great deal of work that went into making sure that these stories “held up,” that they had narrative structures, that they gave way to an emotionally charged reading experience—and that, along with all this, they were also true.

 

READER

And it was mainly the political backdrop that gave rise to this sort of journalism?

 

KATZ

It was also the technology—in our case, the tape recorder. It’s interesting how profoundly technology changes everything, how it changes things as fundamental as reading and writing. That’s one thing that gets lost in the noise of publishing culture; it’s one of the things that people don’t stand back and try to “get.” The New Journalists were enabled by the tape recorder, because you had to contend with a person’s real voice. I think it made our articles longer. It also allowed for the transcript to sit as a body of research. I was based in England and most of the reporters there were working-class—the vast majority of the reporters were tradesmen. But my friends, like the late Christopher Hitchens and Martin Walker and Anthony Holden, could afford tape recorders, and these people became well-known writers. Most reporters took shorthand, were trained to use shorthand: with shorthand, you just get the facts and put them down. This gives rise, naturally, to a pyramidal journalism…

 

READER

And so liberation from shorthand—via the tape recorder—opened up new journalistic possibilities?

 

KATZ

Absolutely.

 

READER

It’s an interesting point, especially given the clamor of the last decade regarding the rise of e-books and the death of print, which seems strangely ahistorical. As if we’ve forgotten that technological change has always been around, and always driven new forms of writing.

 

KATZ

Well, I started realizing that technology was affecting writing in a profound way in the early eighties, as we moved from the typewriter to the Selectric to the first PC. And I’ve never done the analysis, but I bet that you could see actual prose characteristics change as we moved from the plume pen to the fountain pen. The automation element did change things, as did the fact that you could correct on the Selectric so easily, as opposed to the older way. And making corrections became progressively easier as the technology advanced. I talk to writers all the time about the huge jump in relative word productivity that came along with this.

No question, these sorts of technology-driven changes have always been going on. And then later, we got to a period where new technology changed the way in which professional creative work got into the hands of consumers—which is what I figured out with Audible way, way too early, and we almost went out of business a hundred times.

 

READER

Ah, that’s reassuring. [Laughter]

 

KATZ

Well, it’s hard to start new things, and timing is everything. And right now, because of new technologies, reading itself is becoming a different experience, and so we’re exploring how this might result in characteristic intellectual and learning changes. It’s extremely complicated. And meanwhile, journalistic coverage of the publishing industry is almost too silly. You know, I recently saw a New York Times editor at an event. He said to me, “Why don’t you come in and talk to my staff [about the state of publishing]?” And I told him: “I don’t even know where to start. You cover what’s happening—this total reorganization of how creative output is distributed and received—from the perspective of twelve martini-drinking old publishing executives at a lunch. It’s like covering what’s happening in American education through the eyes of the teacher’s union—oh yeah,” I said, “you do that too.” [Laughter]

 

READER

That’s interesting, especially because this contemporary publishing conversation seems to bring a variety of scapegoats to market, one of which is just technology itself. Another scapegoat is the generation of which I am a member; you know, we supposedly eat tweets. As a subsidiary of Amazon, you are certainly on the block as well.

 

KATZ

The easy thing is to demonize. It’s a predictable reactionary strategy with a historical track record. In general, all of the changes media have undergone had their source in “disruptive” technologies, invented and developed outside of the standing, “traditional” business.

For example, there was a very substantial, very hidebound, old-world, aristocratic industry called “the music business” at the turn of the century. It was the sheet music business and they owned the world and everybody who was considered important—which is everybody who was rich, because they had a piano and would buy this sheet music and play it in their homes, in their parlors. But then Edison came along, and with Edison came a crazy idea: not only to record the music, but to sell it, too. There was tremendous resistance.

The paperback book was invented in the twenties, and the publishing industry resisted it for years. Paperbacks and their publishers were demonized: How dare you denigrate this perfect, elite artifact called a “book” by printing it with a soft cover? 

Between 1970 and 1973, the movie industry was dying, the theater business was dying, and the economics in Hollywood were falling apart. In that period, the movie industry pooled its resources and hired the best lawyers in the world to try to sue out of existence two things: the first was the Betamax, invented by Sony, because the lawyers claimed, “It’s not a movie if it’s playing on this thing because it’s on a tape in this little box”; and the second was pay-cable television. And it actually went to the Supreme Court, and the judges said, “It’s still a movie. The way you play it is not actually dispositive of anything.”

Fast forward to the end of the twentieth century: a three billion-dollar movie industry had become a thirty billion-dollar industry, with every dollar of growth coming from that tape, which became the DVD, and the proliferation of pay cable—or at least, cable like HBO. This phenomenon repeats itself.

It’s the same thing with the distributors. For the longest time, book publishing was a small, elite industry. Then, after World War II, with the rise of the middle class, there was this huge desire across Europe and the US to read. But when the book clubs were invented, they were completely demonized.

And then came the discounters, people like the Haft family out of Washington, these drugstore guys—and they were completely demonized—and then the Riggios, these two brothers from Queens who invented something called Barnes & Noble, a chain store. The stuff I heard literary establishment folks say about them—you wouldn’t believe how beneath contempt they held these guys. And of course, what did the Riggio brothers do? They mass-ified the business, they turned it into a bigger market, they built these beautiful stores that were—let’s face it—pantheons to literariness.

 

READER

But the mention of Barnes & Noble brings up an important point—the arguments against it have enjoyed a great deal of traction. One comes across many tirades penned by people who consider Amazon, Audible—the digitization of reading and writing that you all represent—as a bad thing for books, and for book culture.

 

KATZ

The New York Times covers publishing as if publishing is the writing industry—when, in fact, it is an intermediary system that is supposed to connect the two primary elements, the writer and reader.

All people do is demonize the distributors. I’m less demonized because I came out of their world—I get a pass, a little bit. But this blowback is from literary culture; the customers, on the other hand, love it. Amazon is just trying to serve the customer, and they really would like to connect the professional creative class to the customer in a more important way.

 

READER

How do you mean?

 

KATZ

Well, one example. My friend David Blum, who was my former editor at Esquire—he had this idea two years ago for something like a Kindle magazine. So we packaged it, took it to Jeff Bezos and worked on it, and now it’s something called Kindle Singles.

The idea was that the magazines, basically because of their own problems, had killed the seven to twelve thousand-word article, particularly the narrative nonfiction article, which was my bread-and-butter and David’s bread-and-butter and all my friends’ bread-and-butter. It’s a great art form; you can do amazing things in ten thousand words that you can’t with twenty-five hundred.          

But over time, I saw the standard assignment drop from ten thousand, to eight, to seventy-five hundred words. Then Tina Brown came along, and she changed the payment structure a lot—we started to get paid a lot more as freelance writers, but the word count kept dropping. Features began to be thirty-five hundred, twenty-five hundred-word pieces.

I remember a Rolling Stone cover story I did about Jane Fonda, when the standard feature was still ten, eight thousand-words. For the article, I spent four weeks hanging out with Jane Fonda; I went to her ranch; I saw her creative process, how she went about things in her life. There was nobody watching me. But eventually, it had pretty much become that, if you were going to write an article about Jane Fonda—Jane Fonda is here, the flack is here, you’re in a hotel room and you get half an hour. Well, of course you’re only going to write a twenty-five hundred-word piece.

So we launch Kindle Singles and sure enough people start writing ten or twelve thousand-word narrative nonfiction stories again. Some big names came in—John Krakauer did one—but there were also younger writers coming in who were fantastic. They were just great storytellers, and I wondered: How had the muscle for this sort of writing not atrophied? After all, there was supposedly no market for it. How could you practice? How could you even aspire to it if you’re young? 

 

READER

Absolutely. And yet there are so many young people I know who have a backlog of essays—narrative nonfiction, straight nonfiction, critical theory. They keep them in their desks or on their desktops…stashing it away like a young novelist stashes away her first novel. Because it’s just as wild now to believe you’ll find a home for your long essay straight out of college as it is to believe you’ll find a publisher for your novel. Wilder, even, since the former sometimes requires the latter…

 

KATZ

Well, Amazon in a rare moment gave up the numbers, and one guy made $87,000, another guy $62,000, another person made $45,000. It’s those kinds of numbers; I remember when Norman Mailer got $50,000, I topped out at $30,000. But these guys writing for Kindle Singles are getting more just through individuals choosing to buy their prose outside of the context of a magazine.

 

READER

To bring it back to conversation about demonizing distributors—it’s interesting because what you’re describing here isn’t just a new distribution business, but something different: it’s the merger of distributor and publisher. It’s presumably why the industry is so terrified of Amazon. Barnes & Noble publishes a few titles, but they’re all reprints and they’re physical books so the traditional manufacturers are still involved. But Kindle Singles is something entirely different. There’s something of this fusion of distributor and publisher with Audible, too, isn’t there? You do “create” your own material, do you not?

 

KATZ

Actually, we’re by far the largest producer of audiobooks. We made more audiobooks in November than we’ll get from Random House and Simon & Schuster in the entire year.

 

READER

Wow. I mean, I’m sure the publishing houses love that. [Laughter]

 

KATZ

Well, the audiobook business should never have been stuck in the publishing industry. It had nothing to do with the industry’s distribution methods. When I was starting Audible, there was always just one little shelf in the back of a bookstore with about 150 audiobooks on it—and they all cost too much anyway. Also there was the basic fact that books, because of their beauty and their design characteristics, are profound, emotionally freighted artifacts; you can put them on your shelf, your table, and remind yourself of who you are. But who would put a set of tapes they just listen to on their coffee table?

Tapes, CDs—they were an inappropriate medium for audiobooks in the first place. They were expensive and bulky; they froze in the winter and melted in the summer. There was nowhere to put them in your home—no one ever put them on their bookshelf. And unlike music tapes or CDs, which you can play over and over again, audiobooks had little recurrent play value at all.

Plus, the market was tiny, and whenever the publishers gained traction with a group of people that wanted to listen to audiobooks, they would start raising prices. Audiobooks went from $19.95 to $40.00, and industry executives called that “growth.” And guess what? You’ll still actually hear nine out of ten publishing executives—not the younger CEOs, not the Markus Dohles or Brian Murrays, but the older guard—talk about the profitability of a CD or a book, and how they maintain it even though they don’t sell any. You raise prices and screw the consumer year after year—the unit volume goes down, the unit price goes up, and you call that “growth”? This is unsustainable in any economic model.

It’s interesting—we have millions of customers now, who on average download eighteen to nineteen books a year.

 

READER

That’s fascinating. But like you said—this all has to do with the distribution side of it. How did you decide to begin producing audiobooks yourself?

 

KATZ

Well, after a certain point, we were just growing too fast, and the publishing industry couldn’t keep up with what we were doing. I mean, I used to go into a publishing house and literally place my wallet on the desk of the CEO and say to him, “I’m running out of mysteries, I’m running out of sci-fi, I’m running out of literary fiction. I’m going to lose the customers: I need more.” Anyway, we couldn’t get enough content from the publishing houses and finally, a few years ago, we said, “We’re done; we’re going into the business ourselves.” So we made this automated self-service platform called ACX, Audiobook Creation Exchange. It’s a digital automated rights marketplace where authors and actors can meet, hold auditions, and produce audiobooks remotely.

There’s a whole community of actors that has completely woken up to us: we’re a huge employer, and we’re training people at Tisch and Yale and USC and UCLA. There are over ten thousand people on the ACX registry now—producers and actors. Most of them now have their own studios at home. We’ve totally transformed the model for acting careers and we’ve created this platform to make it happen. If you want work 24/7 as an actor through Audible, you can have it. We have narrators that are making six figures a year just through audio recording because they’re so good at this particular kind of long-form acting.

We have big names, too—last year, we had Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Dustin Hoffman, Claire Danes, and others. Kate Winslet did Zola and I sold a gazillion of them and I’m thinking, “Who reads Zola?” People do. [Laughter]

Working with these actors, you really see why they get paid so much. Their decisions are so sophisticated. You don’t have to go into a falsetto because it’s a woman’s voice. Some people can keep forty and fifty characters in their head—a dramaturge would say it’s too hard, but our actors can do this stuff.

It’s not for everyone, though. I usually say that for actors, audiobooks are like long-distance running, whereas movies are like sprints. In film, it’s all in the take; it’s all intense, contained, close-up stuff. Audiobooks are a different challenge. How can you maintain this sort of performance—fifty characters, et cetera—for fifteen hours?  It requires a specific kind of understanding, although their interpretations are all very different.

 

READER

You know, it should be an obvious decision to work on audiobooks with professional actors—and to work seriously with actors, both established and unknown—but it’s actually rather remarkable. I mean, in the “attending a reading” culture in the cities and small towns, it’s always about having the writer of the work…read his or her work. But you don’t have the authors record their works…

 

KATZ

Authors—as readers, they’re often dead in the water.

 

READER

I was talking about this with a friend last night, about the experience of going to fiction and poetry readings here in New York City, and in other places we’ve lived. Poetry readings in particular—are you familiar with the phenomenon of the “poet’s voice,” that horrible sing-song monotone poets put on when they read their work in public? It displays such a poverty of interpretation, imagination, craft. But the thing that’s most disturbing about this voice is that you cannot hear the poem through it: as a listener, I often actually lose the meaning of what is being read. I can say, without exaggeration, that because of that voice I sometimes actually will not even know what the poet is saying, let alone to speak of beginning to access its meaning or peculiar force. And this is the case with dead-in-the-water fiction readings, too. One realizes that bad acting is an interpretation as well…just an unfortunate one.

 

KATZ

I think that’s right. Actually, there was a period in audiobook production when the narrators were told not to interpret. They were told that it was the author’s game—“Don’t get involved.” But we said, “We want you to add an interpretive layer.” Nothing over-the-top, of course—just in the way an actor will do Shakespeare, and make it his own. It takes thought to refract the text of a great book through the lens of performance, and over time, we have pushed up the quality and the character of the interpretations.

 

READER

Speaking of which, where is the author in all of this? Do they ever have the opportunity to collaborate with the actors, et cetera?

           

KATZ

Well, there’s a breed of self-empowered authors coming out of your generation now, and some of them are becoming really successful without a publishing house. And there are also some midlist authors who are a little older—the $6,000-a-year people—who are waking up and saying, “I don’t get anything out of my publishing house,” and they’re starting to employ their own methodologies for promoting their books.

By and large, though, authors still allow the audio right to be bundled into a traditional book contract. That’s what happens—the publishing houses bundle it all up, and then they may not actually make the audiobook: they sit on the audio right. This is going on all of the time. The agents need to pull the audio right back. You know, the ultimate right that was pulled back was the movie right. The movie right theoretically would be bundled into the book contract, too, but back in the forties—largely in reaction to the utter contempt that the elitist publishing industry had for these people out in California—agents began to make concerted efforts to hold onto the movie right. Of course, it’s never going back to the houses; its potential value is too great. We’re trying to say that the same should happen for the audio right.

I went into the Authors Guild at one point and looked around and thought: We all grew up together; these are all people my age, and we all came up through the magazine business together. I said to them, “We need to understand that we’re the last generation of writers that can think of themselves as Victorian gentlepeople, living above the marketplace. It doesn’t work. And ceding ninety percent of the fruits of our labor financially to two intermediaries who—let’s face it—are comprised of great people who love books, but don’t do much for many of us; it doesn’t make sense.” So they say, “What do you mean they don’t do anything?” I said, “Okay, let’s go down the scorecard.”

When we came up, the publishing industry had the best PR in all of media. I grew up with Dick Cavett; he had on three authors a night. Every book tour I went on, I was on the Today Show. David Halberstam—he was a little older than I was, and was very generous to me—he said to a group of us once, “Guys”—we were all Rolling Stone guys—“you’re all much better writers than me, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer; we just got to go on television.” I said, “We’re not better than Norman Mailer!” [Laughter] The “better” part’s not true, but the other part is: those writers became famous because of the media. Today though, there’s no PR for books anymore; it’s over. Okay, you get an ad in the paper—but there’s no real money for marketing anymore.

Now, that Wolfe-Talese generation also had the best editors in the world; so did we, coming up. I had the editor of Philip Roth and Milan Kundera, and he was a genius and it made me feel like I was special. Today—sure, there are some good editors and some young up-and-coming editors, but they have to wade through a lot more business stuff to do their jobs.

More importantly, overall, there’s no editorial help for authors in a lot of publishing houses. A lot of the financially successful authors who publish with big houses personally hire freelance editors to come in and work with them. I remember working with this writer on her backlisted audio—she was a major seller for her publishing house, a phenomenon of sorts—we offered her a copy-editor at one point, and she was tearfully grateful. No one was helping her at all.

           

READER

Oh, wow. I mean—what happened to the editors? It used to be that there was a sort of mythos around these big houses—

 

KATZ

Yeah—Max Perkins…

 

READER

Yeah, the Max Perkins. Where are the Max Perkins now?

 

KATZ

From my perspective, a lot of the great editors left awhile back when the publishing houses tried to turn them into bad businesspeople. A lot of them actually became agents in order to be closer to the authors, and what actually happened was that industry’s filter mechanism—its process for selecting manuscripts, for signing writers—moved out of the publishing houses with them. In fact, I had this debate the other day with a publishing house CEO who was ragging on agents. But what I said to him was, “You can rag on them all you want, but it’s the agents that present you with a hundred possible manuscripts instead of a thousand.” The houses used to have a core of recent, you know, Radcliffe graduates who would sort through manuscripts, try to discover gems. But now that much of that work has passed entirely to the agents.

                       

READER

It’s interesting. Given the current state of the publishing industry, I do wonder if all this noise about various scapegoats—technology, distributors, even readers—doesn’t misdirect people away from the most probable culprit: the big houses themselves. Isn’t the reason for the current “crisis” maybe just that a number of these houses are doing their jobs poorly?

 

KATZ

The publishing houses are basically in four different businesses now. First, there’s the business of superstar service. It’s a very difficult business: essentially, the more superstars like Jim Patterson sell, the higher their effective royalty becomes—to the point that even their high sales rates can’t justify it financially. So, to fund this first business, they have their second business: the midlist and the backlist, which is completely different from superstar service. And the midlist and backlist could be managed over time to a great profit, which could then be invested elsewhere.

So they’ve got these two businesses, and then they also have two others: the digital publishing business and the physical distribution business, which—again—have completely different dynamics from one another. Now, the smart thing to do is to focus on just one of them. You have to pick a lane.

READER

Which is what you’ve done with Audible, it would seem. To that end, I’d like to ask you—why audiobooks? Why did you pick that particular lane?

 

KATZ

Exploring audio was interesting to me because my literary mentor was Ralph Ellison, who really woke me up to the powerful influence of oral and vernacular culture on American literature.

 

READER

Oh. That’s not a bad one.

 

KATZ

He was my teacher, my friend—an absolute heavy-duty intellectual. When I was his student in college in ’70, ’74, people with an African-American liberation sensibility would criticize him because he wasn’t willing to say that Invisible Man was a clarion call. He basically insisted it was about America itself; he was a huge lover of what it meant to be American in all ways.

Ralph believed that no literature—including the classical Greeks’—had ever been more richly informed by vernacular culture than American literature was. I sometimes like to tell people—see that name? [Points to placard beside the doorframe, which reads “Stephen Crane”] That guy, Stephen Crane? He was writing at the same time as Henry James. One wrote like a Brit and one wrote like an American because he listened. Stephen Crane wrote like an American because he listened: he picked up the street, the soldiers. For Ralph, it was how people bragged and sold and lamented in the fields and lied—this whole polyglot way of trying to communicate—that led to the American sensibility in American literature.

So I was never snobby about sound, about the aural quality of well-composed works.

 

READER

You know, this accepted snobbery, this derision of digital publishing—it’s funny for me. Growing up as I did with digital technology—not as sophisticated as what we have now, but with digital technology all the same—I never felt like there was a natural enmity between digital and print; I never saw them as being at loggerheads. I always used them both; they were totally and naturally integrated. And then there seemed to be a narrative that descended upon culture when I was in college and held sway: that there was this terrible symbolic, cultural, emotional battle going on between print and digital, and that one needed to choose sides. I still haven’t been able to buy it.

 

KATZ

You shouldn’t buy it. I don’t think how well-composed words get in your head should be a matter of religiosity. If it comes through your ears, it comes through your eyes, it comes through digital, it comes through paper—who cares? If you stop caring about it, then you can ask the next question: How is it best done? And once you ask that, you ask the next question: Are you helping intermediate between good writing and readers? Because if you’re not in the middle helping and you get paid to sit there, you’re abusing the privileges, as my mother used to say. [Laughter]

The fact that everybody is tearing their hair out about Amazon and the future of books and making these moralistic statements—I mean, when the iceman disappeared, I’m not so sure that people were standing up in the New York Times to say that some great tragedy has occurred and that the inventor of the refrigerator ought to be shot. [Laughter]

 

READER

So, this brings up a good point. It’s strange that your own venture should be demonized—that it should be seen as part of this digital movement that is taking things away, bringing unwelcome change, or breaking down traditional modes of engaging with literature and writing. After all, it is also very much a return to an oral storytelling culture. In that case—I mean, who could possibly be the iceman you’re replacing? [Laughter]

 

KATZ

And let me tell you something: oral culture predated written culture by a whole lot! And you know, the joy I felt when I used to jog listening to audiobooks—it recalled the almost primordial pleasure of being read to as a child. Honestly, I think authors will begin writing for the oral format again because millions of people like that experience, which does recall those pleasures of being read to. It’s very nice to be read to. The sound of our language is beautiful, and to have it professionally intoned and interpreted—it’s just another interesting intellectual dimension of longer storytelling.

Being read to is really just another way of experiencing a book. I don’t think there should be any book today that doesn’t exist in an audio version—especially not when there are so many millions of people, all around the world, who enjoy experiencing books in this way.

 

READER

Exactly. And I’d think that there’d be a place for audiobooks regardless of whether the marketplace was populated with print books or e-readers, or both of them. There are people who are auditory learners—who just take in information or stories better by listening rather than reading.

 

KATZ

Actually, we’re working right now on an immersion reading program: users can sync the text and audio on the device, so you can read a story and listen to it being read simultaneously. I can see it developing into a tremendous learning product. Frankly, reading is not being threatened by the “Twitter-ization” of culture so much as it is by the fact that it’s just getting harder for kids to learn how to read. When you look at the industry of helping people to read, you see that there are three groups: the disabled reader is in a small circle in the middle, and concentrically much larger is the struggling reader, and then beyond that is the resistant reader.

 

READER

Well, there’s also an overlap between the struggling reader and the resistant reader, which is especially important and has everything to do with the deteriorating education system.

 

KATZ

Exactly. There are awful statistics about people who grow up in poverty: their word deficits—there are thousands and thousands and thousands of words that a rich fifth grader knows that a fifth grader from a poor family doesn’t. The US National Institute of Health is now saying that ten to fifteen percent of developing readers have perceptual and linguistic handicaps.

My oldest daughter had language processing challenges when she was a kid, a dyslexia-like learning problem, and she learned to read by taking these big, fat Library of Congress tape machines and a paperback and then synchronizing: listening and reading at the same time. And she eventually compensated and became a fantastic student—an A student. She’s just finished a dual master’s at Bank Street, and she’s a teacher in the city. This is very different from the outcome we were told to expect, and audio played into that in a powerful way. That’s actually one of the genesis stories of Audible—my daughter’s story. I mean—I’ve wanted to invent immersion reading for seventeen years.

 

READER

Speaking of education, I know that Audible offers a number of important titles for free—for example, the 9/11 Commission Report. I’m wondering: Do you feel there is a civic duty inherent to the act of reading?

 

KATZ

That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I have a good über-answer. You know, our offices are in Newark, and when we decided to move there, we said that we’d try to play, live, eat, and serve in Newark—we’d try to be as involved in the Newark renaissance as we could. So, I mean—for example, the only way to be an intern at Audible is to be a kid from inner-city Newark. They have to go through HR, they have to go through the training systems, they have to have real jobs, and a lot of them are public charter school kids. There’s probably nineteen or twenty of them here working now. They can go on to become “Audible scholars” in college, and we supply them with ATM cards and mentorship, and they’ve all got guaranteed jobs waiting for them here when they graduate. 

 

READER

Can we get an ATM card? [Laughter]

 

KATZ

It’s not unlimited, unfortunately. In terms of magazines, I think the best writers should be fully subsidized so that they can write full time. And you know, whenever I go to one of those billionaire fests that my wife and I are invited to, I say to people: “There are only so many sports teams. If you’re a nerd or you’re a culture hound, you need to buy a magazine and you need to support it.”

 

READER

Hm. I think that’s a strong note to end on. [Laughter]