Gary Challender is a lifesaver, and has the testimonials to prove it.
Not bad for a guy who spends most of his time with his nose in novels.
Thirty-three years ago, Challender, then an insurance broker, began a new chapter in his career: Books in Motion, a Spokane Valley audiobook publisher.
Back then there were only two other companies in America producing audiobooks. Today there are more than 600.
Yet Books in Motion keeps rolling along, releasing 10 new titles a month.
And those testimonials? They’re from grateful customers – particularly truckers – who stayed awake on long drives with the aid of his audiobooks.
During a recent interview, Challender looked back on his storied career.
S-R: Were you an enthusiastic reader growing up?
Challender: I certainly was. My favorite book in grade school was “The Biography of a Grizzly.” I read it three times.
S-R: What was your first career?
Challender: I worked for an insurance company, then became a brokerage manager for another. Later I started my own agency – United Insurance Services – and traveled all over Eastern Washington. It was a trip to the Tri-Cities that got me into the audiobook business. I was listening to (public radio’s) Dick Estell read on the air. That half-hour he read went by so fast, I figured if I had audiobooks to listen to, my trips would go a lot quicker.
S-R: Were others skeptical of your business plan?
Challender: Oh, yeah. They thought I was nuts. Even the guy doing the recording was laughing at us.
S-R: What was that first book you recorded?
Challender: “War Against the Mafia,” Book One of The Executioner Series, by Don Pendleton. We did it just for me, because I wanted to listen to it while on a trip. We weren’t a business then.
S-R: Who read it?
Challender: Gene Engene, the drama instructor out at Eastern (Washington University).
S-R: Why did you choose him?
Challender: I didn’t. The studio I hired chose him. Since then, he’s recorded 400 or 500 books for us, and was rated one of the best readers in the country by both the L.A. Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
S-R: And soon after those first books, you launched the business?
Challender: Yes. We started out recording self-help books such as how to become a millionaire, although, honestly, most of them didn’t make any sense to me. They were mostly hype.
S-R: What were the early years like?
Challender: There was no market at all for audiobooks. After three years, we were broke. Then we lit on doing “The Closers,” about closing sales. Ben Gay III was selling the book in Entrepreneur magazine, so I wrote him a letter and convinced him he needed to add an audio version. He liked the idea, sold tons of them and suddenly we had $40,000 in the bank.
S-R: When did you get into fiction?
Challender: In 1988, when we published M. Lehman’s “Texans on the Powder.”
S-R: What genres are hot today?
Challender: Sci-fi fantasy is the big draw. Mysteries are always popular. And we’re getting more into Christian fiction.
S-R: Are there things you won’t publish?
Challender: Well, X-rated books, for one. Our books are mostly G-rated. And we’re finding that customers don’t want all the profanity, so we might change the F word to “frigging” or something like that, if it doesn’t ruin the story.
S-R: How do authors react?
Challender: They go along with it. Some even (edit out the profanity) for us.
S-R: Which books lend themselves to audio treatment?
Challender: Customers have taught us that the simpler the story, the better the audiobook.
S-R: Who’s your favorite reader?
Challender: Gene Engene. He interprets the sentence ideally, changing his voice to match what’s being said. When the action picks up, so does his pace, and he can handle every voice you could possibly imagine.
S-R: Do some books demand more than one reader?
Challender: They could, but we don’t go that route. We did one book with dual readers. Our customers didn’t like it, and neither did we.
S-R: Do readers read a book before recording it?
Challender: Some do – they take it home, read it and write notes in the margins. But others, like Gene, just come in, pick up a book and start reading.
S-R: Are your professional readers typically actors?
Challender: Yes. This is just some extra money, and they like to get their name out there.
S-R: How long is the audio version of a typical book?
Challender: Twelve hours.
S-R: How long does it take to record?
Challender: About 20 hours. Everything is recorded on a computer, and if the reader makes a mistake, the engineer wipes out the mistake and they pick up from there.
S-R: How much are readers paid?
Challender: Between $50 and $65 by the finished hour. Mistakes are on their time.
S-R: How much do audio rights cost?
Challender: We paid $500 for the first books we recorded in 1980. But prices have gone up. We recorded (Seattle mystery writer) J.A. Jance until she became a New York Times best-seller and her advance got up to $20,000.
S-R: Do you also pay royalties?
Challender: Generally an author gets 10 percent of sales.
S-R: Which books caught on better than you would have predicted?
Challender: The Left Behind Series was a big surprise. We took that on when the first book came out, just because we thought it would be a good recording. We’ve gone on to do the entire series, and sold tens of thousands of copies.
S-R: How has the business evolved?
Challender: Originally we recorded on reel-to-reel and produced everything on cassette. At one time we rented books in 600 truck stops, and would get 10 to 20 rentals out of cassettes before they went bad. Then CDs came along, and we only got three rentals before they went bad, so we had to cancel that program. But now we’re downloading books all over the world.
S-R: How much does it cost customers to download a book?
Challender: Fifteen dollars, unless they’re in our club. Then it’s $12.
S-R: Do authors send you their books and say please record this?
Challender: All the time. We get hundreds each year.
S-R: How do you decide which to publish?
Challender: I don’t read them all the way through. If the first few chapters don’t hook me, forget it. But if they hook me, I keep reading. Once I picked up an unpublished manuscript by (western author) Gary McCarthy, and I couldn’t put it down. I sat here until well after closing time to finish it. It went on to win a Spur Award for best western audiobook in the country.
S-R: Do you get feedback from authors about the audio version of their books?
Challender: Yes. Jance is a good example. When Gene Engene recorded the first book in her J. P. Beaumont Series, she immediately got back to me and said, “It made the hair on my neck stand up, it was so scary, because my character sounded just like I imagined him.”
S-R: Your job demands you read books all day. Can you still read for enjoyment?
S-R: What do you plan to read next?
Challender: I have about 10 books waiting on my (office) desk – really good ones, including some of the books Don Pendleton wrote early on, before he wrote The Executioner Series. His widow sent them to us a couple of days ago, thinking we might want to record them, as well. Getting to read books like that is what makes this job so much fun.