The Cure for Common Traffic

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photo by Ezra Marcos

Craig Black spent his early marketing career days driving from one mall to the next on U.S. freeways. Simultaneously, he was experiencing what he describes as a personal renaissance, voraciously devouring books while he sat in traffic. After three minor car accidents, a friend gave him an audiobook, and Black’s life changed.

Frustrated that he was wasting his life away in traffic, in 1987 he and his wife, Michelle, began to search for a spot to relocate and start their audiobook company, Blackstone Audio. Bainbridge Island and Ashland were the two finalists. The Blacks showed pictures of each place to family members, and Craig’s parents were charmed by Ashland. Since the Blacks were starting a family, as well as a business, both the young couple and his parents relocated to Ashland. Over the years, waves of extended family members would follow.

“Ashland made sense because of the support for the arts in town and the strong base of actors available for narration,” said Black, now 62. That year, he sent letters to every publishing house he found—from Penguin Books to Simon & Schuster—expressing his interest in recording their books on audio. The only initial response came from a small company called Regnery Gateway Publishing, but it put their business on the map.

The Blacks slowly built up clientele, specializing in political modern and public domain classics. “There were really only two other small companies doing audiobooks at the time, so there was massive potential for growth, and I was driven and innovative,” he said. Black recalled a New Yorker review of his business tactics saying something to the effect of, “Black pays no concessions to conventional marketing wisdom”—a backhanded compliment that he embraced.

“Retirement is highly overrated,”

With the advent of the internet, the success of the business was all but sealed. Blackstone now has its entire 10,000+ titles available for purchase through its retail arm, downpour.com, as well as over 20,000 titles from other publishers. Blackstone audiobooks are also sold on major umbrella sites such as Amazon and Audible.

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photo by Ezra Marcos

Nearly all of the staff is based in Ashland, from narrators and audio engineers to graphic designers, digital tagging experts and copy editors. A small team of three acquisitions specialists in New York City are a human bridge to the publishing mecca. They have daily meetings with publishers and literary agencies, pouring through stacks of manuscripts about nine months before a book’s release.

In 2012, Black was ready to retire. AudioGo, a London-based audio company that had recently acquired BBC Audio, bought a majority share in Blackstone Audio and took over operations. Black settled into a board role and retirement, but within months, it became apparent that there were some financial problems within the newly combined company.

Before AudioGo liquidation began, Black shifted into high gear, knowing that if the company was thrown into receivership, it would mean the immediate expiration of all contracts and the demise of Blackstone. Persuading AudioGo’s primary lender, Royal Bank of Scotland, to sell him back the company, Black came out of retirement after just ten months. “Retirement is highly overrated,” he said. As a bonus, AudioGo’s Rhode Island branch was included in the deal, so he ended up with a company that was forty percent larger than the one he sold.

In 2014, the company will have its biggest year, releasing 700 audiobooks. “I don’t see that trajectory slowing for next year,” said Black.

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