RBmedia starts new chapter with Audiobooks.com

By Laura Pavin – Crain’s Washington D.C.

RBmedia’s digital media distribution technology | Photo courtesy of RBmedia

Through the acquisition of Audiobooks.com, Landover, Md.-based RBmedia says it can reach more consumers than any other competitor operating in the realm of spoken audio content and digital media distribution.

Alongside the acquisition, RBmedia announced its own launch last month, with a portfolio that includes 700,000 audiobooks, eMagazines, courses, comics and games, among other types of digital content titles. Its acquisition of the app-based subscription service was made for an undisclosed amount.

“With RBmedia, we’ve really formed a global leader in two different areas: Spoken audio content and digital media distribution technology,” said John Shea, chief product and marketing officer of the company.

Bankrolled by Shamrock Capital Advisors, a private equity firm out of Los Angeles that invests heavily in media and entertainment, RBmedia was molded from eight different companies in publishing and digital media distribution. The publishing arm includes audiobook publishers Christian Audio, HighBridge, Recorded Books,Tantor Media, the U.K.’s W.F. Howes and Australia’s WaveSound. The distribution arm is made up of Audiobooks.com and RBdigital.

Prior to the Audiobooks.com acquisition, the company — which was then simply known as Recorded Books, a name that is now limited to one of RBmedia’s six publishers — primarily relied on its RBdigital platform to distribute its content to more than 10,000 libraries, where patrons use their library card numbers for access to audiobooks, eMagzines, movies and more. It also partners with consumer digital resellers like Amazon’s Audible to push out its content.

Audiobooks.com takes RBmedia’s distribution to a new level, in that it gives subscribers access to more than 100,000 audiobooks through its free app, as well as through Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, tvOS, Sonos and infotainment systems in GM, Jaguar and Land Rover cars.

“It’s that ultimate next step of being a consumer-based business,” said Mike LaSalle, a partner at Shamrock, RBmedia’s majority shareholder.

LaSalle said the the company’s rebranding to RBmedia was intended to align with Shamrock’s overarching vision for it to be the largest publisher, owner and distributor of this type of digital media.

“No other business has this complete, holistic view of the marketplace that we have,” LaSalle said.

While it competes with major players like Audible on the audio distribution side, and a plethora of different companies on the publishing side, he said, RBmedia isn’t currently going head-to-head with any other company that does both.

Michele Cobb, executive director of the nonprofit trade organization Audio Publishers Association, said that RBmedia was unique in this way.

“There are other independent audio publishers that publish a lot of titles — for example, Blackstone Audio has Downpour.com, which is a consumer download vehicle — but none of them have a digital platform piece in the library space,” Cobb said.

RBmedia CEO Tom MacIsaac, who joined the company last year, said that he and Shamrock were attracted to it for the same reason: The growth of spoken word audio consumption.

“Consumers are increasingly listening to things other than music, and that’s driven largely by the growth of podcasts,” MacIsaac said.  “We look at them as training wheels for audiobooks.”

As consumers get used to this short-form content, MacIsaac said, they’ll more readily make the leap to more long-form audio content.

Data from Pew Research Center shows that 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older last year said they had listened to a podcast in the last month, which is 9 percent higher than 2013’s share. The share of people who had ever listened to a podcast was double that of 2008’s 18 percent.

The APA estimates that U.S. audiobook sales in 2015 were more than $1.77 billion, up 20.7 percent from 2014. It was the second consecutive year that audiobook sales expanded by 20 percent.

“Between 2011 and 2015, the audiobook industry grew each year in four out of five of those years, and the percentage growth of sales was in the double digits,” Cobb noted. “We’re still collecting data for 2016, but all indicators are that it again saw significant growth numbers.”

MacIsaac expects the trend to continue, especially as a growing number of people adopt voice-controlled devices and platforms like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, and grow accustomed to absorbing content through the ear, which frees them up in a way that written content does not allow for.

“The growth of podcasts and connected home platforms are creating great opportunities for the expansion of spoken word content,” MacIsaac said.

RBmedia’s leadership projects that the company will grow by more than 30 percent annually. MacIsaac confirmed that the company’s revenue is already north of $100 million, and that it’s profitable.

The company is in the process of building out its new corporate headquarters in Landover, and expects to add 30 to 40 new employees in the next year. RBmedia currently employs about 400 employees, most of which are in Maryland. In addition to Landover, the company has offices in Prince Frederick and Hanover.

MacIsaac said the new office will give RBmedia better access to the D.C. metropolitan area’s talent pool, as it’s looking to hire people with more product technology experience. Employees are expected to move into the building this June.