From niche to net – e-nnovation for audio books

Bolinda Audio Books has fought hard to become Australia’s leading audio book company, with sales this financial year of more than $15 million. By EMILY ROSS

By Emily Ross

Rebecca Walshe Bolinda Audio

Bolinda Audio Books has fought hard to become Australia’s leading audio book company, with sales this financial year of more than $15 million.

Audio book publisher Rebecca Walshe is not afraid to think big. She has taken a product only marketed to the visually impaired and created new streams of business, including offshore and online markets, as well as finding ways to sell to truckies on long-haul routes such as across the Nullarbor Plain.

The key to expanding the market for her business, Bolinda Audio Books, beyond bookstores and libraries has been building relationships with new distributors and through the company’s own online store, which was set up 12 years ago.

To reach her truckies, for example, Walshe tracked down distributors who do deliveries to remote truck stops. The unorthodox plan has worked a treat, and Walshe receives letters from truckies who now won’t consider an eight-hour drive without an audio book. “We’re going to have the best-read truck drivers in the world,” she says.

Persistently chipping away is something Walshe has become very good at. She joined Bolinda, which was owned by her parents and sold audio books and large print books to libraries, while still at university and became marketing director in 1995.

Now she is chief executive, and co-owner with her parents, in the venture. When Walshe first started in the business, Bolinda was only producing 12 audio titles per year. Today it produces 120 titles per year.

The past three years have seen Bolinda’s turnover increase 50% per year, up to an estimated $15 million in 2007-08. (Walshe won’t reveal exact figures.) Bolinda has 20 employees plus a team of contractors.

The meeting room at Bolinda overlooks a double-storey warehouse in the back streets of an industrial part of the Melbourne suburb of Tullamarine. Around 80,000 signature green audio books and large print books sit waiting to be dispatched.

The company has ambitious plans to build a digital platform in a joint venture with a German company that Walshe can’t name for confidentiality reasons. The project is on track to launch in September 2008. “With digital , we hope to take turnover to $60 million in five to six years,” she says. “One day we won’t have a warehouse at all. The future is digital.”

As far as Walshe is concerned, her market is people “who never have time to read”. It’s big market, and includes commuters, truck drivers, SMEs who love listening to business books, kids on road trips as well as young adults. All these different categories of audio book buyers come from different consumer groups. “We have to try and segment our publishing program, and have strategies for each channel.”

To build Bolinda’s reputation in the notoriously insular Australian publishing world, Walshe has built “a strong circle of relationships” with influential literary agents (rather than the big publishing companies) to secure audio rights to new works. Previously most authors happily signed over audio rights to their book publisher.

Early in Walshe’s tenure, it was a struggle to convince book retailers to even stock Bolinda audio titles. Audio books that were available were expensive and often unpopular titles in cumbersome cassette form.

One of the big breakthroughs for Bolinda was realising that “the brand looked completely wrong”. Three years ago, Walshe hired a design firm to completely revamp the brand and “how the product looked and felt”. Now a strong lime green (for prosperity) features on all Bolinda audio books. The brand overhaul cost an estimated $600,000. “We knew if we were going to be successful, we had to do it,” she says. “When you put it all together it makes the business look bigger than we really are. It enabled us to punch above our weight; it enabled us to get into bookstores in a way we hadn’t before.”

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Around 40% of Bolinda sales come from offshore or online sales. There are Bolinda representatives in the United States and Britain. It is not hard to see why Walshe is chasing offshore growth. In the US, the Audio Publishers Association estimates that audio book sales in 2007 were $923 million, up 5% on the previous year. “We are spending heaps of time in our cars,” says Walshe. “Why can’t the audio industry quadruple?”

Bolinda is close to finishing building a download solution that will enable library members to borrow digital audio books online as well as downloading through the Bolinda site. Libraries pay for the content and would pay a royalty to authors of the audio books. This model has global application potential.

As well as partnering with a German company, Bolinda is collaborating with an institute for copyright protection. “One of the most important things for authors and for us is that the content is protected,” says Walshe. She is aware that people copy audio books and post them on the internet, but luckily audio books tend to be much longer than a music CD (often around six hours long as opposed to 45 minutes) so Walshe is hoping most consumers won’t be bothered going through time-consuming illicit downloads.

However, for Bolinda’s own digital site that is being constructed, Walshe is still trying to work out a solid pricing model to encourage customers to buy the authentic digital version of the book, for sound quality, convenience and value for money. Typically iTunes sells audio books for 30% less than the cover price in bookstores. Walshe is aiming for a price point lower than iTunes.

“That is what we are thinking about, knowing that we are going to be competing with Amazon because they are going to own that space, the e-book space.” Walshe’s belief in segmentation strategies has worked in the past and she believes it will work in the future, confident that there is room for specialist audio book stores rather than just the Amazons of this world. “With Amazon I can go there to buy an audio book, but I can also buy a washing machine,” she says. “I actually don’t like that experience.”

The biggest threat for Bolinda, according to Walshe, is not digital pirates but large powerful publishers who will want audio rights and could start using audio books to market the books they print. “Our whole industry and our whole turnover is probably the size of one publisher’s advertising budget,” says Walshe. The relationships she has built with authors such as Bryce Courtenay (all his titles are available through Bolinda), Matthew Reilly and Morris Gleitzman will become even more valuable in the future.

To help the family business stay on track, Bolinda has set up a board, with assistance from The Executive Connection network. Independent director Harvey Martin and CEO Essentials Grant Monro assist with business plan implementation “and help us as a family communicate”, says Walshe. Walshe has also been working on a complete succession plan for the business (her parents are in their 60s). “It’s been crazy,” she says.

Walshe keeps a wish list of the actors she would love to read the audio books Bolinda publishes. She nearly snared Geoffrey Rush recently to read Bolinda’s latest audio book, Tim Winton’s Breath. Unfortunately the actor had to pull out due to a film schedule.

Never one to give up, she keeps chipping away at deals hoping to lure the likes of Kylie Minogue, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman to her purpose-built recording studio. “Getting big names, it comes back to what they want to read,” she says. Rest assured, Walshe will keep trying to catch the big fish.

The Bolinda strategy

  • Understand the different segments of your market and create specific marketing plans for each niche area.
  • Invest in branding.
  • Educate, educate, educate – clients and customers need to understand the value of your product.
  • Don’t hold too much stock. Have a just-in-time manufacturing plan.
  • Persistence pays.
  • Build networks in the industry.
  • Find new ways to distribute product.
  • Embrace technology.


Disclosure: The author has two audio books published by Bolinda Audio Books.


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