Blackstone Publishing: A Page Turner
by Cynthia Scherr
Traffic snakes along at 5 mph, horns honk, the smell of asphalt and exhaust mix in the air. Ever found a traffic jam inspiring? Craig Black, founder of Blackstone Publishing, did. Thirsty to continue his education, Craig started reading classic literature and history in his 30s while driving L.A. freeways. After several fender benders, (distracted driving is not new), Craig thought there must be a better way.
Southern Oregon Entrepreneur to Entrepreneur (E2E) visited Blackstone Publishing recently to hear how Craig solved the problem of reading while driving. Heather Johnson, CFO of Blackstone, shared the company’s history during a tour of its labyrinthine headquarters that includes office, studios, manufacturing, and warehouse space.
Craig and his wife, Michelle, left Los Angeles for Ashland, Oregon, and started working out of their garage in 1987 to produce “books on tape,” with books whose rights were easy to obtain. At first, customers were harder to find. Craig learned quickly that not everyone wanted to redeem their time in the car with learning. People were more interested in entertainment. Plus, books on cassette tapes were expensive to produce so the purchase price was high. Blackstone overcame the price hurdle by renting audio books to individuals and selling them to libraries.
Ashland’s ready supply of narration talent from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) made it an ideal location to launch the business. The company maintains a strong relationship with OSF and produces a multi-cast recording of one OSF play a year. An aspiring writer from E2E asked Heather how many authors narrate their own work. “They all want to, but only about 1% have the talent to pull it off.”
Entrepreneurs always want to hear—and share—their high drama stories. Blackstone has one. In 2012, Craig and Michelle sold a majority of the business to British investors. Within 10 months, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Blacks re-purchased the company at a fraction of the original sale price and gained another company the investors owned in the transaction.
Blackstone recovered spectacularly from the ill-fated sale and grew to 200 employees, 180 of whom are in Ashland. The company works with best-selling authors like Shelley Shepard Gray, Nicholas Sansbury Smith, Catherine Ryan Howard, and Cory Doctorow. Locations in Ashland, Portland, New York and remote workers throughout the U.S. produce over 1300 titles a year on media ranging from print to digital downloads.
The advent of CDs and downloadable files made recorded books accessible to people all over the world. Most are sold through Blackstone’s site Downpour.com and other major audiobook sites. In Craig’s words, “audiobooks are the sexiest part of the publishing industry.”
And why “Blackstone”? The Blacks didn’t quite remember its namesake Victorian literary publication, Blackwell’s, accurately. It was clear to E2E that the business would smell as sweet by any name.