Audiobooks: The happy medium of spoken-word literature

I used to think you could only enjoy a book by reading it. Listening can be just as good

Audiobooks: their intimacy is one of their most compelling traits in an age where our attention is drawn to just about anything else. Illustration: iStock/Getty

Audiobooks: their intimacy is one of their most compelling traits in an age where our attention is drawn to just about anything else. Illustration: iStock/Getty

 

Way back in 2000, Stephen King was, among other things, advocating the case for the audiobook in his book On Writing. I know this because I listened to it recently, a book I would never have thought to have bought was downloaded in an instant and finished within a week.

King is a passionate advocate of audiobooks, railing against the perceived bias many have towards the written word. On Writing was released at a time when audiobooks were housed on clunky CDs or cassettes; it has taken the supersonic surge in technology to bring us back to every story’s original form – the spoken word.

With podcasts whetting the appetite, audiobooks have exploded in popularity, doubling in size over the past five years. Publishers are increasingly paying heavy attention to the medium with HarperCollins, for example, employing a Total Audio practice – matching every print narrative edition with an audio edition. This will surely become standard practice as the sector continues to enjoy near double-digit growth in the US and the UK.

Audio, I discovered, was not a substitute for reading; it was a powerful accompaniment

Amazon’s Audible predictably towers over any other competitor with the now standard, dizzying stats to support its case; on any given day, an average Audible user listens to upwards of two hours of content and this behemoth is also responsible for over 2 billion hours of content downloaded by its users every year. Audible, in the words of Jeff Bezos, “makes it possible for you to read when your eyes are busy”.

This vehicle for growth, however, comes at a cost with a report last year by research service Enders dubbing Audible a “frenemy” for simultaneously breathing new life into the medium while at the same time putting huge pressure on audio producers with its “aggressive” bidding for audio rights. Audible, in the report’s words, “is more directly threatening to publishers in audio than Amazon publishing is in written books”.

Still, despite the double-edged sword influence of Amazon, the audio boom shows no sign of slowing down. Michelle Cobb of the US Audio Publishers Association recently told the London Book Fair that in 2013-2017, the number of audio titles released annually doubled to 46,000 and that 54 per cent of audiobook users were between 18 and 44, an age profile ripe for further growth.

For this reader, it was an extension of a commute that opened my ears to audiobooks. Radio would normally be the natural companion, but the onslaught of Brexit and Donald Trump necessitated a more relaxed listening experience such as 1984 or The Road.

I had always been suspicious of the medium, taking myself far too seriously as a reader and believing that only through putting in the work and scanning every word does the story seep in. Once the surface of that particularly flimsy argument was pierced, this reader started to listen and to really hear.

Rachel Kushner: her narration of her book The Mars Room added another layer to a superlative novel. Photograph: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty
Rachel Kushner: her narration of her book The Mars Room added another layer to a superlative novel. Photograph: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty

Non-fiction seemed the best place to start, something of a natural progression from a podcast. Marie Colvin’s heroics in war reporting, the death of democracy and the financial crash of 2009 are now indelibly etched in my memory as my first foray into audiobooks.

The hesitancy to extend this to fiction was broken by Rachel Kushner narrating her own The Mars Room and here the dam burst. Kushner’s rhythm added another layer to a superlative novel, and this had the effect of making me want to read her earlier work. Audio, I discovered, was not a substitute for reading; it was a powerful accompaniment.

It’s not a process limited to traditional readers, as Fionnuala Barrett, senior audio editor with HarperCollins, tells me: “Audiobooks reach a different audience from print books; audio listeners are much more likely than print readers to be young, male and/or BAME. There are a few reasons for this.

A single voice speaking into your ear brings a reader back into the very genesis of human story telling

“Such listeners tend to be early adopters to new technology. Some of them may not think of themselves as book buyers or might be put off by a traditional bookstore setting; with audiobooks they can easily get access to the content they want. But on the flip side there are voracious readers who use audiobooks to read more, to fit in even more book time to a busy day.”

The intimacy of an audiobook is one of its most compelling traits, in an age where our attention is drawn to just about anything else, a single voice speaking into your ear brings a reader back into the very genesis of human story telling.

“Even something like listening at different speeds suits different audiences. Some people just want it to be an informational, transactional process and then some like it to be a more meditative experience.”

Audio’s traditional place within the publishing industry was as an accompaniment or even as a mere afterthought to the book but it seems to now exist in a happy medium where it is growing at an enormous rate. This growth, however, seems to be supplementing and not threatening traditional book sales which have enjoyed four consecutive years of growth in Ireland.

Brid Brennan: her reading of Milkman strikes exactly the right pitch for a unique voice. Photograph: David M Benet/Getty
Brid Brennan: her reading of Milkman strikes exactly the right pitch for a unique voice. Photograph: David M Benet/Getty

Audio isn’t taking away from any reading time but merely allowing you to read when it wouldn’t be practical to carry a book. This may have made life easier for the heroine of Milkman – Anna Burns’ Man Booker winning novel – who has a penchant for reading while walking. Milkman is a great example of a vivid experience in both print and audio where Brid Brennan’s performance strikes the exact right pitch for a unique voice.

The process behind finding that voice for both the reader and writer can be a difficult one. Authors can insist on narrating themselves or leave the process entirely up to an actor.

The level of collaboration is up to the actor as Fionnuala Barrett explains: “It’s different for every book; for a non-fiction work, especially one drawing on the author’s lived experience, then the gold standard would be for the author to voice their own audiobook.

“An author might not be Stephen Fry when it comes to delivery but their connection to the material totally outweighs that, and in any case there would be a producer there to help them give the best possible reading.

“For a novel, where you have a range of characters, various accents, settings and so on, I would generally cast an experienced voice actor, or cast of actors, to bring that to life.

The level of detail and preparation from the narrator can take you aback: how to keep the plot twist hidden, or how to differentiate a cast of characters, for 10 or more hours

“Audiobooks are at a transition point; they’re growing enormously in popularity yet for many first-time authors, when they’re writing and imagining the publication of their book, they’re thinking about their hardback, so it can be something of a culture shock when they see the work that goes into their audiobook,” says Barrett.

A typical day’s work has a couple of boxes to tick. Recording costs are considerable, so the day is busy: publishers would hope to record the equivalent of a hundred print pages in one eight-hour recording day (with enough breaks to preserve the voice).

“When voiced by an actor, authors are always welcome to attend the recording of their audiobook, and generally they are awestruck by the process and the thought that goes into a recording.

“The level of detail and preparation from the narrator can take you aback: you might expect them to have checked on pronunciations, but a narrator also needs to have planned how to keep the plot twist hidden from the listener, or how to differentiate a cast of characters, for 10 or more hours. A talented narrator can bring out another level to the work,” explains Barrett.

Anakana Schofield recently wrapped up the audio production of her forthcoming novel Bina in Canada and can testify to the mark it can leave on an author.

Anakana Schofield: the writer found the audio production of her novel Bina a very intense process. Photograph: Awakening/Getty
Anakana Schofield: the writer found the audio production of her novel Bina a very intense process. Photograph: Awakening/Getty

“I was fortunate to have some vocal training and to have some experience with radio which was helpful, but the detail is amazing. You can get fatigued quickly and that can resonate in your voice. You would never consider things like not being able to have dairy products because they coat your throat and affect your tenor. The producer can hear absolutely everything.

“It’s a very intense process, I went straight into four hours recording a day and then five hours. I was fortunate to have such a good director.

“I must be honest, it’s a very hard process, much harder than I thought it would be. My books are different, and every author has their peculiarities, but my work is very voice driven anyway. I’m not fixated on things like location, my work can be a bit strange and the only thing I initially wanted was a veto over the narrator – I couldn’t get that so they ended up asking me!”

Fiction and especially experimental fiction can pose a huge challenge. Max Porter’s Lanny – the follow-up to the much-heralded Grief Is A Thing With Feathers – tells its story through four main characters but the voice of a village is also scrawled across the page. Fragments of sentences intertwine with each other as we hear snatches from villagers throughout the novel. Capturing this on the audiobook was a huge challenge as Cherry Cookson, audio producer of the book, explains: “For Lanny we had a read through with Max to fine tune things and to work out the different voices, Max is very unpretentious about his writing, he was so encouraging.

“There was a certain pressure with this because the material is so wonderful and you can only ruin great material, so I was nervous despite 30 years of experience. I firmly believe Max will be a Ted Hughes type figure, so I was eager to do the work justice.

“It was a challenge given how multi-voiced it is, we had a long conversation about casting and, ultimately, we had four actors to play all these parts in the book. I ended up playing some of the voices myself.”

We’ve had a number of authors who’ve read their own work who’ve burst into tears reading. There’s an intensity about it, especially in autobiographies

Nicholas Jones is the founder and owner of the influential Strathmore Publishing, an audiobook production company. He’s witnessed first hand how the process of recording can affect an author.

“We’ve had a number of authors who’ve read their own work who’ve burst into tears reading. There’s an intensity about it, especially in autobiographies, the intimacy of a studio highlights something, that emotional intensity comes across to the listener.”

While that intensity brings a power to the listener, it must also be managed from the author’s point of view, the intimate setting of a studio must be isolated in an author’s mind.

“We had to point out to Tony Blair, for example, that he wasn’t addressing the Labour party conference, he was addressing the reader. It’s intimate, even the most polished performer must learn that. We try to get across that you’re telling a story, we’re just recording it.”

When this balance is found, it comes across as easy to the listener and can leave a profound effect on the author.

“You write a book and develop a character over years so reading the book so intensely for five hours a day, I found I was with her in a different way, I was genuinely moved. I learned so much from the process, I would liken it to a marathon, that sense of fulfilment” says Schofield.

Jones labels the audiobook as the Fourth Format and it’s a title that will only gain traction as the medium continues to grow. The traditional image of a writer huddled over a screen alone with thoughts only for the words in print may evolve. The age-old adage of read your work aloud may also mean to think about the audio title.

“I won’t ever write with audio strictly in mind, but it may evolve the novel in a different way. Literature always shifts and we’re living in a much bigger oral culture; there’s something of an inevitable circular revision to the spoken word,” says Schofield.

As Nicholas points out, in 1661, French author Cyrano de Bergerac in his Voyage to the Moon first described a device we all know now to be the audiobook as an invention that allowed people to “Read as soon as Speak, they are never without Lectures, in their Chambers, their Walks, the Town, or Travelling; they may have in their Pockets, or at their Girdles, Thirty of these Books.”

It’s been written for hundreds of years and now, we are truly beginning to hear.

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