Audiobooks are gaining luster with A-list stars
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.

"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 the late Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski, a friend, for Audible.com, as part of the audiobook company's new A-List Collection. The collection was launched in mid-March.

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. Jacksonperforming "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. Additions will roll out regularly.

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. The push behind it was bolstered by healthy growth in the audiobook market, a $1-billion industry, according to trade group Audio Publishers Association.

The total number of audiobooks published annually doubled to 6,200 in 2010 from 3,073 in 2007.

Audible.com does not release its sales numbers, but founder and CEO Donald Katz says the company's member base has grown well over 40 percent annually for the last seven or eight years.

The actors usually choose a book from a list provided by the company.

Jackson's performance of the classic 1960s con novel "A Rage in Harlem" runs nearly 51/2 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 author 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 says the experience of reading an audiobook is quite different from 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.

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.

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. Audible.com maintains offices in Germany, France, the U.K. and Japan, and also hosts seminars at prominent drama schools across the country.

jgelt@tribune.com