LOS ANGELES — When it came to reading a book out loud, Dustin Hoffman was a bit rusty. The last time he had done something similar was in New York City in the late 1960s, right after filming "The Graduate." A local radio station had recruited 30 or so people, including Hoffman, to read "War and Peace" on air, around the clock, until it was done.
"That was the only other time I had done something like that, and it was wonderful," recalls Hoffman, explaining why he recently agreed to perform the novel "Being There" by Jerzy Kosinski, a Polish writer and an old, now-deceased friend, for Audible.com as part of the audiobook company's new "A-List Collection," which was launched Thursday.
Hoffman is part of an all-star cast of actors who have signed on with the 17-year-old Amazon-owned company to bring classic novels to life for a fast-growing population of audiobook fans worldwide. Other participants include Samuel L. Jackson performing "A Rage in Harlem" by Chester Himes; Susan Sarandon performing "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers; Kate Winslet performing "Therese Raquin" by Emile Zola; Nicole Kidman performing "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf; and many more.
Jackson, Sarandon and Winslet's efforts are part of the initial release, along with Anne Hathaway's performance of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Additions to the "A-List" series will roll out on a regular basis indefinitely.
The high-powered nature of the celebrities involved makes this one of Audible.com's most high-profile projects. The idea was conceived by the company thanks to the success of one-off readings by famous actors in the past, including Kenneth Branagh's performance of "Heart of Darkness."
The push behind it was bolstered by healthy growth in the audiobook market, a $1-billion industry, according to Audio Publishers Association, the trade group that tracks sales and advocates for audiobook publishers.
The APA has 68 publisher members, including such independent companies as AudioGo, Blackstone, Brilliance and Tantor audio. The total number of audiobooks published annually doubled from 3,073 in 2007 to 6,200 in 2010. And although downloads have grown 300 percent by dollar volume in the last five years, the CD format still represents the largest single source of dollars, although it declined slightly in 2010 to 58 percent of revenue (down from 65 percent).
Audible.com does not release its sales numbers publicly, but founder and Chief Executive Donald Katz says the company's member base has grown well over 40 percent annually for the past seven or eight years and that its customers are in the millions — a number that he expects to grow, thanks to the "A-List Collection."
"I knew the program was a success because a couple of months ago when the recording started, I was at an event with Annette Bening, and she said, 'I hear you're signing up all my friends and not me,'" Katz says. "And then she went in and did one" ("Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf). The actors usually choose a book from a list provided by the company.
Jackson's performance of the classic 1960s novel "A Rage in Harlem" runs nearly 5½ hours — a midrange length (which explains why Audible.com books are popular with people who spend a lot of time in the car).
Jackson says he finished the 151-page book in two days.
"They were fascinated by the fact that I got through it so fast," says Jackson, who portrayed Himes in a play at Rutgers University years ago. "I was excited to get Chester Himes' work into the world so that people would know him as a writer and see how he described Harlem."
Jackson, who spent a great deal of time reading alone as an only child — calling it his "major escape" — says the experience of reading an audiobook is quite different from that of performing in a film or doing a voice for animation.
"I'm not so sure I got directed as opposed to them allowing me to go into the booth and have as much fun as I could finding the characters and their voices," says Jackson.
Hoffman agrees, adding that reading an audiobook is "a specific kind of talent."
"I don't think I'm good at it. I don't think it comes easily," says Hoffman, who had to stop reading after three hours each day because the task of visualizing the story a step ahead of vocalizing it made him tired. "With acting, you're working off of other people. With this, it's very different."
Plus "Being There" is "written in an almost skeletal way," says Hoffman. "It's lean and almost like a prose poem … and nothing like Jerzy himself, who was a rapid-fire speaker in life — he never paused, there were no periods or commas."
Katz isn't worried about Hoffman's performance, however, which he says is one of many that make listeners realize "why our great actors are our great actors."
"I think they're seeing that they really get to exercise different muscles as actors, and they get a lot of creative control," says Katz. "They're effectively more like the director and actor in that booth, and they're making all sorts of sophisticated decisions, so it's challenging to them."
It's also rewarding to think of spreading knowledge through the ancient art of storytelling, says Jackson.
Reading helps you "explore the world of the mind in a specific way," he says. "I'm always pleased to do that, and I've always fancied myself a storyteller, so this is right down the sightline of what I think is important and viable about passing on literature."
The cost is $14.95 per book, and customers can listen on their computer or download it to any Apple listening device, such as an iPod or iPhone. The books can also be burned to CD via iTunes.
To expand its inventory, Audible.com maintains offices in Germany, France, the U.K. and Japan and also hosts seminars at prominent drama schools across the country, including Juilliard, NYU's Tisch and UCLA, aimed at training actors to perform on audiobooks.
"I've been consistently told that this is one of the only growth markets in the acting business," says Katz. "When it's done right, there is a subtle take on voices — you hear great phrasing, like great singers — all of this to bring words on paper to life, which is what actors do with scripts."
Except that with scripts, actors can sometimes change a word here and there. Not so with audiobooks, says Hoffman, whose director would have him read a passage again if "I said one word that was off, or pluralized a singular. He caught it, and he was looking at each word. He had done his homework — so had I — but he was smarter than me."
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