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On the right frequency

March 20, 2009

It seems a bit incongruous that Nicolas Soames—soft-spoken, erudite, impeccably dressed and, well, a publisher—holds a third degree, or dan, black belt in judo, and that the sport is still one of his passions. His other big love, classical music, sits a bit more easily; after all, he founded Naxos AudioBooks in 1994 with Klaus Heymann, owner of the budget classical label Naxos.

"I do have cauliflower ears," he says, turning his head to show them off. "I call it beauty and the beast. I like to think I am this caring, sensitive, arty soul, but then there's this other side."

He says he has long been attracted to niche areas, and being an audiobook publisher is nothing if not niche. Before setting up Naxos he was able to write about both his passions as a freelance journalist. For a long time he was "Fleet Street's only judo reporter" and would cover world championships and Olympic games for a number of national papers, writing under a variety of pseudonyms. Before Naxos, he had two publishing ventures, both still going today. In 1989, he founded the specialist judo imprint Ippon Books; in 1992, he and his sister Victoria Soames started Clarinet Classics, which specialises in clarinet music titles. He has given up his stake in both of those businesses to concentrate on Naxos, but recently he became chairman of Windhorse Publications, an indie specialist in Buddhist books. He also oversees Naxos Books, a list of classical musical books started in 2004.

Loud and clear

As a music journalist, he was an editor for Music Week and he wrote for a slew of papers and magazines. It was at a dinner party in Cannes when he spoke to Heymann about doing audiobooks. He says: "In a 10-minute discussion at the end of a long evening, I said I was going to do audiobooks of Homer, Dante and Milton. He said: ‘Let's do it together', and we formed the company then and there. I didn't see him again for a year and by that time I had produced a number of titles."

Soames says the key to Naxos' success is that it is a marketable niche. "It was classic literature with classical music. When we started I wanted to be very, very clear about what we were doing and how we would present ourselves to the trade."

The company is a 50/50 joint venture between Soames and Heymann. It has six full-time employees, but Soames is able to tap into the worldwide distribution prowess of Naxos' Hong Kong-based music label. He also uses an army of freelance abridgers, engineers, producers and readers to produce about 40 titles a year.

The bulk of the publishing programme is still classics. This month, for example, sees the release of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, an ambitious 60-CD project, 10 years in the making. [To see all Arthur Conan Doyle  AudioBook titles click here and scroll down the page – Ed.] Naxos has recently expanded its children's output with its Junior Classics and Young Adult Classics lists. Yet Naxos is growing with its move into contemporary fiction. There are big names on the list—Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Rose Tremain's The Road Home, Anne Enright's The Gathering, and four of Haruki Murakami's titles—which have not been released in audio by the author's print publishers. This may be, in part, because the agenting community are thinking of audio more: "When agents used to sell a book, they often just bundled audio rights with print rights. Now they are thinking: ‘Wait a minute, spoken-word rights might not be best served by this publisher because it doesn't make a priority of audio.'"

Butting heads

Making a priority of audio is what has been vexing publishers for some time, which Soames believes is beginning to change. He stresses that Nielsen BookScan figures which have valued the audio market at about £75m for the past couple of years do not tell the whole story as the data misses out on the education sector, downloads and speciality shops.

"There are an increasing number of people that are listening to audio, there is no doubt of that," he insists. "There is no question that this is helped by the downloads. It is still a small part of even audio, maybe only 10%, but growing. There is a concern that CD sales will fall off, but having worked in music I know it is not as fast as people think. I have faith that CD sales will still be there for a good five years."

Soames has butted heads with download leaders Audible for a few years, notably for its growing influence: "They are a big, self-sustaining download market, and they do a great service. Still, I am concerned that they have a dominant place and that is not good for the industry."

His music industry background has convinced him of the necessity for publishers to get rid of digital rights management (Naxos has never had DRM). And as the digital market grows, pricing and publishers' relationships with retailers must change: "Downloads should be cheaper because you are not warehousing stock somewhere. And this is something retailers have to take on when they are looking for discounts and terms. We should not be basing terms on what has always worked for the physical industry."

Ultimately, the cutting-edge nature of digitisation is what is going to drive the market: "Audiobooks are no longer a sleepy business in the dusty part of the bookshop, or in a forgotten back room in the big publishers. We are fashionable, we are sharp, and we turning out a great product."


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