Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Blackstone Audio, operating out of Ashland, Oregon, was started in 1987, and Haila Williams has been there for the past 16 years, opening a New York branch office in 2010.  Ten years ago she took Chris Knopf’s first thriller, The Last Refuge (which went on to be a PW Best Book of 2006), and has been generous with taking innumerable titles from us ever since, increasing the audience for these artists’ works.  Once she arrived in New York we’ve seen her there, and out in Sag Harbor as well. She has a special sensitivity for quality fiction and, having seen some of her paintings, a special quality as an artist plus a good sense of humor in describing her journey. We both wanted to be visual artists: Haila studying at Indiana University and elsewhere, my being an art major at Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art. Instead, our most significant careers are in the book business—Haila in audio, myself in book publishing—and we have much in common. With this, let me turn you over to my friend Haila, who has this to add:  “I’d say we have a mutual admiration for each other,” to which I say “Amen!”

I wanted to be an artist. I was a Fine Arts major at Indiana University, Ringling School of Art, and Harrington Institute of Design in Chicago. I graduated fairly well versed in the arts, with the exception of one—the art of making a living.

Because I couldn’t support myself as an artist, I chose creative jobs—interior designer, caterer, restaurant cook, astrologer, general contractor, and marketing consultant.  So when I answered an ad in the paper to be a part-time copywriter for Blackstone Audio, it was just to have a paycheck so I could continue to be a member of an art gallery.

I learned the business as assistant to Craig Black, the founder of Blackstone Audio. There were only about thirty people there then and many of them were related to Craig. It was the direct opposite of the corporate environment—everybody wore jeans or shorts, there were a couple of cats that lounged on the desk, and a dog that may or may not have been part wolf. Craig’s kids sometimes visited and placed stickers on everyone. Over time the company grew to be the largest independently owned audio publisher in the US, with Craig’s nephew Josh Stanton as CEO.

I’m now one of three full-time acquisition editors. I license all genres based on submittals from agents or publishers. The great advantage of being an audio editor is  that anything I review has already been deemed publishable. We publish over a hundred books per month so I get several submissions on a daily basis. For nonfiction, I look for a new perspective, a lively writing style, clarity, and solid author credentials.  When it comes to fiction, I want to have a sense of trust in the writer’s observations and command of style so I can relax and go on the ride, as opposed to being a distant observer, noting plot devices. I look for an authentic voice and originality —something that makes a particular manuscript stand out among the hundred other ones on my desk. If I can describe a book in one sentence and make you want to read it, then there’s likely a great hook.

The only downside to this job is walking into a bookstore and feeling the pang of remorse for missing a good one or wanting to read books off my list without feeling guilty. One day I will return to reading without caring whether the audio will sell or not.

I’m extremely grateful for my life in audio publishing. It’s a little ironic that someone who wanted to be a visual artist ended up in an area of publishing that was started for the blind, but what I learned is that it’s
all art.  Life is art. I love the relationships I’ve made with my co-workers, the narrators, the rights agents, the publishers, the studio engineers, the sales people, and of course, the authors. All of us working to bring the work to the art and art to the work.

COMING UP: Chris Knopf, who has spent decades in advertising and promotion. will address the issues of how to call attention to  books.

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  1. I love the irony of that! But yes, it's all art. Not sure about the art of making a living though - maybe that one ought to be classified as magic.

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