Audio book publisher Karel Černošek: selling literature as the spoken word

Karel Černošek

This week’s edition of One on One features one of the joint founders of the biggest Czech publishing house for audio books, Tympanum. The company publishes dozens of titles, not just in Czech but also in Slovak. While still a relatively new phenomenon, Karel Černošek says audio books are beginning to carve out a place for themselves on the market. Chris Johnstone caught up with him recently at a café in the centre of Prague to talk about selling literature as the spoken word.

Karel Černošek
Karel Černošek is very much making a business out of a pleasure. He started out with no background in publishing and just a love of the spoken word. I asked him about the company’s beginnings.

“We started four years ago, myself and a schoolmate at the time were both studying architecture. And when we were working on our school projects we really liked to listen to audio books and the spoken word. After a while we exhausted everything we could get at that time. So we decided that the next audio book we would record ourselves. It was just a crazy idea. At the beginning we looked around and noticed there were not many publishers doing these audio books but we knew that they were very popular abroad. So we thought ‛Let’s start publishing, let’s start a small company and let’s try it.’ So that is how we started. Plus, just shortly before I went to Ireland for one year to work. It was in 2004 and I noticed that audio books were very popular there. So I thought: ‘This is something that is lacking here. Let’s offer that to our people here.’ Both of us were also big fans of the spoken word.”

How have things progressed in the meantime and where have you got to now?

“It has been a pretty big journey after four years. It was not easy to start. It was very hard to be honest. We had some ideals but we were very naive about how it all worked because we had no experience in publishing. So we learnt a lot. We learnt that it was not possible to publish audio books on MP3 CDs. We thought that would have been the ideal format but then noticed that people were not buying them because they were probably not equipped to listen to them. We saw then that we had to change our strategy and go back to the traditional format of audio CD’s. We later offered Internet downloads. From the very beginning we thought that the Internet was going to be a big thing for audio books because we all saw a future in the Internet. Because it is in audio format we thought that this is easy to share and easy to download. So we thought it would be the most popular way to get audio books. But after a while we learnt that that might be true but only in the future and not here in this country. Here, everybody is used to getting everything on the Internet but they are used to getting it free. No-one is used to paying for anything. So I think that will last for a few years and then these people will learn that you can get everything on the Internet but some things you have to pay for. You have at least to donate some money because if you don’t there is no chance for new products and then the business ends quickly.”

How many titles have you got now and what are the most popular?

The Four Agreements
“So far we have over 60 titles. Among the most popular ones the best seller is a Mexican author Don Miguel Ruiz. His book ‘The Four Agreements’ is quite an interesting book. We know why it became a big seller because it was narrated by a famous Czech Jaroslav Dušek who did a theatre performance based on that book. And ‘The Four Agreements’ is a kind of spiritual or motivational literature it’s not beletrie, it is not fiction. This is a different type of literature which is probably very suited to audio formats and for audio books because it is something you are going to listen to many times. If you listen to a novel, say ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway, which we have also recorded, you listen to it once and that’s it. So that it probably why this is one of the most popular books that we have. There are others, such as ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ by the French author Jean Giono. It was narrated by another famous Czech actor Marek Eben. So I think it is also popular because of the actor and he also recorded the music which he composed with his brothers, the brothers Eben. So it was done very nicely and is a very popular title.”

What are the biggest problems with these audio books? Is it technical? Is it getting the rights for the authors? Is it recruiting the actors? Or are there so many problems combined?

“The biggest problem is probably to teach people that there are audio books and that it is great to listen to them. Here, many people do not have an idea what audio books are. So we had to do a lot of work from the very beginning on promoting and marketing to make people understand the advantage of audio books. We all have classical books. We all love them and have them on our shelves. But audio books are something very new here. The biggest problem was to convince people to listen to them and also book sellers because they usually did not have any special place for them. They usually kept them behind the counter not in a special display area so it was hard to get to them. Trying to convince booksellers to give over some special place to audio books was very difficult and hard.”

You use sound effects and music as well? It is not just the spoken word is it?

It’s not. And I think that this is because of the good tradition of Český Rozhlas because people here are quite spoilt in a good way. They were getting very fine reading done by Czech Radio and always nicely decorated with music and nice sound effects. So we keep going in that tradition set by Czech Radio. We wanted to do this in that way. The classic audio book from the US and Britain is simple reading of text. We wanted to add music and sound effects and make it as pleasant as possible.

What is the target audience for these books? Is it old people, young people or the middle aged, or a combination of these?

“We are targeting all groups. You find young people are very busy. They like literature, they like books, but they are very busy and do not have time to read. For these people audio books are great because you can listen to the audio book when you are driving. You can put it onto your Ipod or I phone and can listen to it when you are walking or doing fitness. So it saves you time. These are busy people who are mostly young. We are targeting these people first of all. But, of course, there are many elderly people who have sight problems and there are people who are blind. Many people in this country have lost their sight. So for them audio books are essential. They are the only way of getting literature, So we are targeting them as well. But we all like to listen and rest our eyes and maybe get the story not through the eyes but through the ears. So let’s explore the imagination through a different channel.”

How do you see the market developing in 10 to 15 years? Will audio books be just part of the bookshop or a large part of it and can it coexist with normal books?

“I really hope we will get very rich. No, of course, this is not a business where you can get rich, it is very interesting work. Audio books are growing. They are getting more and more popular. So I really hope it will continue to grow and people will get used to them. And this is also in line with modern trends, when people have no time to read and everything is faster. At that point audio books are offering something good. Also I believe that the Internet will in the future become an important medium for audio books as well. Then you will not have to go to the bookstore, you just click and you have the audio book right in your computer or I pod. That is what is great about digital media, it is so easy to store. So I really think there is a chance for growth in this market and in the market for e-books, all that. Definitely, the book market is going to change rapidly in a few years.”