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Blackstone is a garage-to-empire success story

The voice is deep. Alpha male. Manly and gritty.

“Hello, and thank you for calling. ...”

The greeting and on-hold prompts recorded by Malcolm Hillgartner, a much-acclaimed narrator of more than 200 audiobooks, is just what you might expect to hear when calling Blackstone Audio, one of the largest independent audiobook publishers in the world.

Blackstone is one of those garage-to-empire stories.

In 1987, Craig and Michelle Black started producing books on tape, working out of their Ashland home. With a pool of actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it seemed like a good place to set up shop.

Today, their business has morphed into a company that offers an amalgam of publishing services worldwide as a manufacturer of audiobooks in CD and MP3 formats, print books, and e-books.

“Starting out with only five employees, we now have over 200,” said Anne Fonteneau, chief sales officer for Blackstone Publishing, which was launched in 2015, devoted to print and e-books. The company incorporated as Blackstone Audio, but now does business as Blackstone Publishing.

In 2017, Blackstone Audio acquired Audio Editions, a direct-to-consumer audiobook retailer with more than 50,000 titles. The two companies were merged under Blackstone Publishing.

Blackstone’s e-commerce websites, Downpour.com and AudioEditions.com, sell and distribute their own products, as well as those from all the major publishers.

The company also sells through more than 35 digital partners in both the trade and library markets — with companies such as Audible, Amazon, Apple, Nook, GooglePlay, OverDrive and many more.

“And we sell at brick-and-mortar retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Target, and Costco; and to numerous independent bookstores, libraries, the military and through other distributors,” Fonteneau said.

Blackstone changed operations dramatically to address COVID-19 safety. Travel was halted immediately, and operations were swiftly shifted to allow most employees — including narrators — to work from home.

“Currently, our only in-office workforce includes minimal essential support staff and our manufacturing and shipping staff,” Fonteneau said.

Work areas have been modified to allow for safe distances, masks are required, and CDC and state guidelines are followed closely. The company has not made any staffing changes related to the pandemic.

“We have added several OSF company members to our roster of narrators,” Fonteneau said. “Blackstone’s narrator talent comes from all over the country, as well as Canada, the U.K. and Australia, many from voice-over or theater backgrounds.”

Among them are luminaries Michael Madsen, Sandra Oh, Natalie Portman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, William H. Macy, Jason Alexander, Amy Irving, Bronson Pinchot, Val Kilmer and Stacy Keach, to name a few.

Blackstone headquarters is in Ashland. It also has an office and studios in New York City, staff in Portland and sales staff scattered across the country.

The company has four recording studios in Ashland and two in midtown Manhattan. In addition, Blackstone maintains a network of affiliate studios across the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Some narrators work out of their own professional home studios.

Equipment in the studios varies. Generally, there is an industrial-grade isolation booth, a high-quality condenser microphone, a preamp/audio interface, and a Mac computer.

The pandemic has enhanced interest in digital formats, resulting in increased sales for Blackstone in the trade and library markets.

“The categories we see trending up are family-friendly titles, bestsellers, meditation and spirituality, as well as young adult and middle grade titles,” Fonteneau said.

Blackstone continues on a growth trajectory in both audio and print sales, as well as through acquisitions and by making exclusive deals. For instance, it has an arrangement with Maryland-based Recorded Books to manufacture and distribute its catalog of audiobook CDs in North America.

“All Recorded Books’ library customers have migrated to Blackstone for physical audio content,” Fonteneau said. “And Recorded Books formally assigned physical audio business to Blackstone Audio as of Oct. 1, 2020.”

Blackstone has its own CD manufacturing facility in Ashland, which runs 16 to 24 hours a day, every day.

“Because we make our own CDs and MP3 CDs, we can fill orders we get with on-demand manufacturing,” Fonteneau said. “We never run out of stock, and we fill every order we get — even orders for just one audiobook.”

Due to that ability, Blackstone now manufactures, sells, warehouses, ships and provides customer service for many other audiobook publishers. They include Hachette Audio, Harper Audio, Harlequin, Disney Press, Simon & Schuster, Brilliance Audio, Houghton Mifflin, Scholastic and more.

“Our most recent and exciting initiative is print-on-demand (POD),” Fonteneau said. “Starting June 1, Blackstone will be printing all hardcover, trade, and mass-market paperback books in house on our new press.”

The book POD installation will allow for great flexibility and improve print book turnaround time on order fulfillment.

“Starting solely with Blackstone’s print catalog, we will look to expand to POD for other publishers in the near future,” she said. “Our overall goal is to publish groundbreaking books, both fiction and nonfiction, by the most talented writers.”

Blackstone works with many bestselling and award-winning authors, as well as debuting new, talented voices. It is a traditional publishing house and does not offer self-publishing services.

The installation of the new printer and related equipment required an investment in the millions of dollars. It gives Blackstone the ability to use specialty papers and print features with embossment, foils and varnish.

A future plan of note: Blackstone is looking to move into TV and film.

Fonteneau said the reason Blackstone has become a trusted global brand is its dedication to superior content, award-winning narrators and eye-catching packaging. That, “and an unparalleled flexibility that comes from managing everything in house,” she said.

The company’s recent installation confirms Blackstone’s commitment to operating in Ashland.

“It’s a beautiful and unique place to live and work,” Fonteneau said. “Located on the I-5 corridor with good access to high-speed internet make Ashland a more appealing locale for a large company than a typical town of this size.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Author Meg Gardiner, fourth from left, enjoys a pre-pandemic launch party in Blackstone’s New York City office for her new book, “The Dark Corners of the Night.” Company officials celebrating with her, from left, are Mandy Earles, Hannah Ohlmann, Lauren Maturo, (Gardiner), Addi Black, Bryan Barney, Jeff Yamaguchi and Haila Williams. Courtesy photo
New York Times bestselling author Neil deGrasse Tyson reads his “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” in a Blackstone Audio recording studio in 2017. Courtesy photo