Heard Any Good Books Lately?

To hone your leadership skills or sales tactics, just hit the `play' button

Speaking from his car phone, Jim C. Suttles says, "My whole day is a commute." As a national marketing rep with Partners Title Co., a 45-employee mortgage title company in Houston, he spends much of his time visiting clients. But the hours en route aren't wasted. Suttles hones his professional skills listening to taped versions of best-selling business books. "It's a great way to stay up on things," he says.

Suttles is not the only one keeping up by keeping his ears open. Audiobooks are a $2 billion business, up from $250 million a decade ago. And while books on tape used to be mostly fiction, today there's a substantial selection of business titles. "It's an incredible growth area," says Anne Gaudinier, executive editor of the HarperAudio division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc. Of the 63,000 books available, the Audio Publishers Assn. estimates that 25% to 30% are business-related. Some are instructional, teaching sales techniques or leadership skills. Others entertain and inspire, such as Ben & Jerry's Double Dip. Biographies of entrepreneurs such as Sam Walton are also popular.

PEP TALKS. Tapes are the only way R. Jeff Sayers, the time-pressed owner of a fledgling pizzeria chain in Austin, Tex., can finish a book. He recently enjoyed Pour Your Heart Into It by Starbucks Corp. CEO Howard Schultz. Sayers identified with the author's early struggles and was reassured by his ability to overcome. "It's good to hear a success story and know it's possible to make it," says Sayers, who bought copies of the tape for his managers. J. Michael Savage, an audiobook fan and partner at the law firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale, even keeps a minilibrary of tapes in his office, from which clients and employees of the Birmingham (Ala.) firm are welcome to borrow.

Besides saving time, audiobooks can offer another advantage over paper ones. Many business book authors are also professional speakers and record their own work. Hearing The Pursuit of Wow! from Tom Peters may be more inspirational than reading it. "Certain speech patterns can excite people and make them more likely to attend to the material than they would otherwise," explains Robert D. Sherwood, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt University. At Heller Audiobooks in Manhattan, a lot of the customers are Wall Street types who listen to motivational audiobooks to "get pumped up" before the morning bell, says owner Robert L. Heller.

There is one potential drawback, though. Most audiobooks are heavily edited to keep down prices and listening times, so taped versions may not be as complete as printed books. An unabridged reading of James B. Stewart's Den of Thieves, for example, costs $104 and is 19.5 hours long. The abridged version is a more reasonable 3 hours and $16.00--about average in price and length. At the low end, a one-hour abridged tape of The Way of Real Wealth by Mark Waldman is just $5.50. For the truly time-pressed, $135 a year buys taped synopses of two titles per month from Audio-Tech Business Book Summaries Inc. in Chicago (800 308-TALK).

CHEESES AND BOOKS. Audiobooks are widely available, and a growing number of retailers also rent them, for about $4 per week. Clubs such as Columbia House Co. (800 965-9665) and Audio Book Club Inc. give discounts of 15% to 70% to members who commit to buy a set number of titles. Road warriors can even stop at outlets of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc., which have carried audiobooks--popular with truckers--since 1993. Cracker Barrel books can be returned for a refund, minus $3 for each week that the customer has kept the tape, at any of the chain's 330 outlets in 34 states.

No matter where you get your hands on them, business audiobooks can be a great investment. Suttles calls the tapes "career development made easy." That's enough to make any entrepreneur all ears.

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