‘Your throat hurts. Your brain hurts’: The secret life of the audiobook star

Audiobook narrators talk tricky accents, lonely shifts and tackling 100 pages a day

Tania Rodrigues and Clare Corbett, who have narrated hundreds of audiobooks. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian

Tania Rodrigues and Clare Corbett, who have narrated hundreds of audiobooks. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian

 

Bill Bryson is sitting before a lectern in Audible’s London headquarters, narrating his latest book, a disquisition on human biology called The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Seen through the window of the recording booth, Bryson’s face is largely obscured by the microphone in front of him, but his voice is clear and measured. On the other side of the glass, Bryson’s producer follows the text on an iPad, adding cryptic marks to the margins with a stylus.

Bryson makes steady progress until he runs into the word glomerulonephritis, which he can’t get his tongue around. He backs up to the beginning of the sentence, as if preparing to charge at a thicket, but when he reaches the word it defeats him again. “F***ing hell,” he says, under his breath.

Bryson’s audiobook experience goes back 20 years, when he was living in New Hampshire and the nearest recording studio was in the neighbouring state of Vermont. “Now I’ve probably worked with five or six producers,” he says, “and they’re all really kind, and they’re always very encouraging, but I can’t help feel that I should be better at this, that I should be able to pronounce the words in my own book.”

Does he not realise by now that when he commits a word like glomerulonephritis to print, he will eventually have to record it? “You would think so, but no,” he says. “You know what it’s like when you’re writing – you don’t think about anything, really, except trying to get words right to yourself on the page.”

Bill Bryson at the Audible studio: ‘I can’t help feel I should be able to pronounce the words in my own book.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian
Bill Bryson at the Audible studio: ‘I can’t help feel I should be able to pronounce the words in my own book.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian

In the two decades since Bryson recorded his first narration, the audiobook market has grown from a publishing-industry side hustle into a huge global business. In the United States, audiobook downloads generate revenue of close to $1 billion a year, and in the UK the audiobook market rose to £69 million in 2018, an increase of 43 per cent on the previous year.

This growth has largely been driven by the rise of Audible, the Amazon-owned platform that dominates the digital audiobook market through its subscription streaming service, although there are other players, including Storytel, which operates largely in Scandinavian countries. In the 1990s, before the iPod was launched, Audible was selling a proprietary digital media player that held about two hours of audio downloaded from its online library. Today, Audible’s catalogue contains more than 400,000 titles; in 2018 its members downloaded nearly three billion hours of content.

But while technology has transformed the industry, it still relies on an army of audiobook narrators to meet the demand. “I’m so impressed with professional readers,” says Bryson, “the Martin Jarvises of this world, or people like Stephen Fry, who can really bring extra dimensions to it.”

The real professionals, however, are people you might not have heard of. In the US, an 81-year-old actor named George Guidall is considered narration’s undisputed heavyweight champion: his baritone voice has graced more than 1,300 audiobook recordings, including works by Dostoevsky, Jonathan Franzen and Stephen King. Some of the biggest British voices in audiobooks belong to faces you might not recognise but may well have seen – on stage, on Coronation Street or in any number of Carry On films.

NARRATION MAY SOUND like an easy way to make money – you just sit there and read – but I can assure you it isn’t. I narrated my own audiobook in 2014, an experience that I described at the time as being akin to an exorcism: three long days in a dark room, tripping through the minefield of my own words. All I could think was: If I’d known I was going to have to say this whole book out loud, I would have written a better one. Or maybe I wouldn’t have written one at all.

I’ve done two more audiobooks since – most recently, last spring – with the gently increasing confidence that comes of never, ever listening back to previous recordings. The first time, I agreed to the challenge only because I was assured it was not unusual for a first-person nonfiction book to be read by its inexperienced author. But I never met anyone else like that in my three days at the studio. I met only professionals.

Clare Corbett isn’t sure, but she thinks she has narrated about 300 audiobooks since she left drama school to join the BBC’s Radio Drama Company. “That started my passion for radio, and for mic stuff,” she says. “Then I went into TV and theatre, and [audiobooks] just carried alongside it, beautifully.”

Any movement in the booth creates extraneous noise: fabric rustling, chair creaking, foot tapping. Before the iPad, even the turning of pages was an editing headache

She was one of three narrators of The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (the book itself features alternating narrations), which won an Audie award for best audiobook in 2016. More recently she narrated Flights, the International Book Prize winner by the Polish author – and now Nobel laureate – Olga Tokarczuk. “Approaching that was very difficult,” says Corbett. “There was Russian and Polish language in it, and Russian, Polish and Croatian pronunciations.” In the end, she contacted some other women from her local area who spoke the languages and could guide her through the pronunciations. “I’m meeting my community at the same time,” she says.

Most professional readers are also trained actors – as early as 2013, Audible’s founder Donald Katz was claiming his company was probably the largest single employer of actors in the New York area – but narration comes with its own peculiar constraints. “What’s different is, you’ve got to stay still,” says Corbett. “When I first started I was very animated. I was told to stop.” Any movement in the booth creates extraneous noise: fabric rustling, chair creaking, foot tapping. Before the introduction of the iPad, even the turning of pages was an editing headache.

Beyond keeping still, there are other considerations. “If you’re narrating in the first person, I find it’s much more like doing TV or theatre,” says Corbett. “You can enter into it as if you are that character.” If, however, the book has a neutral, third-person narrator and several speaking characters, reading becomes a complex mix of acting and storytelling, requiring tremendous concentration and plenty of preparation. “If you’re a good actor it doesn’t always mean you’re going to be a good narrator,” Corbett says.

Finty Williams, who has been reading audiobooks for almost 20 years, agrees that narration is a discipline distinct from acting. “It’s to do with rhythm, and understanding how we naturally speak,” she says. “When we get to the middle of a paragraph we speak slightly quicker, and then we tend to slow down.” Experience helps, but she’s not sure it can be taught. “It’s a knack,” she says. “It’s a knack that my mother doesn’t have.”

This box arrived at the stage door; it was the paperback version of the book, which was about 800 pages long. It had Latin in it. And German and Spanish and Medieval French

If her eyes contain a flicker of irony as she says this, it’s because her mother is Judi Dench. “The only audiobook she ever did she had to leave after the first day, because she couldn’t string two sentences together,” says Williams. “It’s about the only thing she can’t do.”

I meet Williams a few days after her run in Night of the Iguana in London’s West End. Like a lot of readers, she combines audiobook narration with acting work, although not, if she can help it, at the same time. “I did do one, when I was doing a show in town,” she says. “This box arrived at the stage door; it was the paperback version of the book, which was about 800 pages long.” The book – Citadel, by Kate Mosse – is actually 976 pages in paperback. “It had Latin in it,” says Williams. “And German and Spanish and Medieval French. So I spent a whole day doing that, and then I went to the theatre, did the play and went home. I woke up the next morning and burst into tears and said, ‘Please don’t send me back!’ But we did get it finished.”

Finty Williams: ‘At drama school I was told I didn’t have a voice for radio.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian
Finty Williams: ‘At drama school I was told I didn’t have a voice for radio.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian

Some drama schools offer audiobook workshops, but most narrators had to develop their own techniques as they went along. Jim Dale, the veteran stage actor and star of 10 Carry On films, began his narration career at the deep end, in 1999. “The audiobook company were looking for an actor, preferably an English actor, who would be capable of creating voices for at least 30 different characters,” he says, speaking on the phone from New York. The book was the first in the Harry Potter series, and Dale went on to narrate all seven instalments, winning two spoken-word Grammys. (Stephen Fry narrates the books in the UK, also in multiple voices, but the US audio rights are held separately.)

On his first day, however, Dale struggled. “It was very unnerving,” he says. “After fluffing just the title a few times, I recorded the first 10 pages, and after a coffee break the editor said, ‘We have to ask you to record the first sentence again.’” When he heard the playback, Dale was mortified by how it sounded. “I said, ‘Please can we record all 10 pages again?’ They said no – there’s no time.”

Dale learned something important that day: audiobook recording runs to a tight schedule. “In film and television you can have 10, 20 takes,” he says. “In audiobook recording it’s take one – you keep recording until you make a mistake.” Good narrators inhabit characters and engage listeners, but they also get through 100 pages of text a day.

Dale developed his own system for keeping track of different voices. “When I come across a new character, I tend to record their first sentence on a small tape recorder. Then I make a note of it on a pad, together with the number of the page and the name of the character, so that when I’m recording and I get to that new character, I stop everything and I play the tape back.” The final Harry Potter book had 143 characters; the voices, says Dale, were drawn from his past, from old radio comedians to his Scottish aunt. Dobbie he recalled from a crowded department-store lift. “I heard this little voice behind me saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, could you take your bum out of my face?’”

Other readers have their own version of Dale’s system. “For fiction, I’ll mark up all the characters’ speeches, so it becomes like a script for me,” says Tania Rodrigues, who is the voice of, among other books, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. (Her TV credits include EastEnders, Doctors and Holby City.) “I colour-code them, so when you’ve got conversations you know who’s speaking when.”

One of the things I’ve been learning is when not to disturb the listener by putting too much of my own imposition on something. I’d never randomly give someone an accent

It transpires that Rodrigues and I have met once before, when I was doing my first audiobook and she was narrating a popular fantasy-fiction-book series. She spoke about the challenges of maintaining the narrative drive while keeping the characters’ voices distinct; I told her I couldn’t even do my own voice.

Rodrigues says that, over 17 years of narration, she has learned to remember “the fact that you are literally in someone’s ear. You don’t have to do any kind of crazy projection.” As a performance, Rodrigues says an audiobook is “actually quite a treat, because you get to play all the parts. You get to be cast as characters you’d never normally get cast as.” At the same time, a certain restraint is key. “One of the things I’ve been learning is when not to disturb the listener by putting too much of my own imposition on something. I’d never randomly give someone a Birmingham accent if it wasn’t in there.”

Corbett also admits to treading very carefully around accents. “Most of them I can do, but Geordie is always one I have to make sure I get right, because there are lots of Geordies out there who’ll say, ‘That’s not how you do it.’ I’m from Bristol originally, so sometimes I get Bristolian books.”

The pairing of narrator and text is a very specific kind of casting. “The most fun bit of my job is getting to cast things, and there are lots of considerations,” says Fionnuala Barrett, editorial director of audio at HarperCollins. Research suggests that for newcomers to audiobooks, the quality of the narration is central to the success of their first experience. “If that is not the voice of Lizzie Bennet as far as you’re concerned, you’ll just throw in the towel,” Barrett says. The right narrator, on the other hand, can lead a listener to other authors. “There are definitely people with a following.” She mentions Cathleen McCarron, who read the bestseller Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and is currently one of Audible’s highest-rated narrators.

A wall of fame at Audible’s studio in London. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian
A wall of fame at Audible’s studio in London. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/Guardian

Patch McQuaid, who founded iD Audio 20 years ago and produces audiobooks for big publishers, including HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, says that casting often comes down to the quality of the voice itself. “Some people just sound good,” he says. “They have the right lilt and cadence, and all that stuff.” Williams, who graces several top-10 lists of audiobook narrators, is pleased to hear that her voice has been described as “lightly gravelled”. “Like a driveway!” she says. “Ironically, at drama school I was told I didn’t have a voice conducive for radio.”

Audiobook narration may sound effortless when you listen to it on headphones in the park, but sitting in a booth watching Olivia Dowd read The Lost Ones by Anita Frank, it suddenly seems nothing short of extraordinary. Dowd, who this year played Macbeth in the British National Youth Theatre’s gender-fluid Shakespeare adaptation, shifts seamlessly from one character to another, and then back to a more understated narrative voice, with barely a mistake in a whole chapter – she stops only to check the pronunciation of “antimacassar”. I notice her text is unannotated. How does she keep track? “You just sort of remember: oh, this bit’s coming up,” she says. “You’re always scanning ahead, like you might do if you’re skim-reading.”

‘We got to page 380, and it mentions the fact that he’s got this terrible stutter.’ The actor hadn’t read the book in advance

Most narrators spend at least as long in preparation as they will in the studio: it’s in their interest, because they get paid per recorded hour. But not everyone is so conscientious. McQuaid once got a call from one of his engineers several days into a session. “He said, ‘We just got to page 380, and it mentions the fact that he’s got this terrible stutter.’ The actor hadn’t read it [in advance]. Everybody’s got a story like that.”

He’s right: everybody I speak to does have a story like that, tales in which Australian or Irish accents weren’t revealed until the final chapter, or place names were mispronounced repeatedly over hundreds of pages. One mentioned a well-known actor who turned up to the studio on the first morning, clapped his hands together and said, “So! What are we reading today?”

Sometimes, for reasons of authenticity, the best person to narrate a book is its author, although authenticity is itself a slippery notion. Dani Dyer is the only imaginable narrator for her book What Would Dani Do? My Guide to Living Your Best Life, even if she didn’t actually write it. (In the print version she thanks the ghostwriter.) Generally, though, the author’s familiarity with the text is considered a plus: if she isn’t prepared, who is? Unique among narrators, authors can adjust the text there and then. “That’s the only person you need to consult,” says Barrett. “If you just can’t get ‘necessitous’ out, and the author’s happy with it, you can go for ‘needy’.”

But an untrained reader is a risk, and, in my experience, no one ever asks you if you might struggle. They find that out within an hour of you showing up for the gig. “To be honest, it’s not even an hour in,” says McQuaid, who shepherded me through my inaugural narration. “It’s 25 seconds in.” He tells me a story about John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine and a highly regarded public speaker. “He came in to do a short book,” he says. “He started, and about four lines down – after he’d done them 10 times – he just put it down and said, ‘Shall we get some other c*** to do this?’”

THE AUDIOBOOK HAS a history that predates even the technology to make it possible. In The Untold Story of the Talking Book, the author Matthew Rubery points out that 19th-century utopian literature repeatedly described a future in which books recorded on wax cylinders would save mankind from the drudgery – and eye strain – of reading.

An 1894 article in Scribner’s magazine, entitled The End of Books, envisaged wearable phonographic devices with tubes connected to the listener’s ears, and predicted that “authors who are not sensitive to vocal harmonies, or who lack the flexibility of voice necessary to a fine utterance, will avail themselves of the services of hired actors or singers to warehouse their work”.

It was not until the 1930s that the British charity the Royal National Institute for the Blind began producing book-length narrations on shellac discs, predominantly for soldiers who were blinded during the first World War. From its inception, the talking book faced a lot of the same questions over its relationship to text that audiobooks do today. Does listening to a book count as reading it? How should narration best serve the written word? Is it documentation, recitation or performance? “Back in the 30s and 40s, stylistically you’ll find that it’s a really dry read,” says Daryl Chapman, the charity’s studio manager. “There’s very little characterisation from the narrator.”

Finty Williams says that until you’ve voiced an audiobook you can’t understand ‘how poleaxed you feel by the end of the day. Your throat hurts. Your back hurts. Your legs hurt. Your brain hurts’

Rodrigues recorded her first book – Brick Lane, by Monica Ali – for the RNIB in 2003. “At that time they were pretty much the only people doing audiobooks, and the books used to come on actual cassette tapes,” she says. In the US, unabridged recordings had already found a market: bored long-haul commuters. But in the UK most publishers assumed it wasn’t something the non-visually impaired public would be interested in. “The analogy that people would use is, the market for this is somebody who is driving along the M4 motorway,” says Chapman. “When he puts in his cassette in London, he wants the story to be finished by the time he gets out in Swindon.”

According to Barrett, the last decade’s audiobook explosion has been largely driven by tech-adopting young men, not traditionally a big demographic for publishers. “Maybe they don’t see themselves as book buyers, so they wouldn’t be in Waterstones necessarily, but they would be browsing through the app store.” She mentions Ant Middleton, the former soldier and presenter of SAS: Who Dare Wins, whose self-narrated audiobooks are big sellers. “It’s clear that Ant really spoke to that audience in particular.”

Audiobooks may constitute a publishing revolution, but they remain a low-margin product, with a large chunk of the profits going to Audible. “People do slag them off, including me,” says McQuaid. “But without them this wouldn’t have happened.” On top of its profit share, Audible is increasingly securing audiobook rights directly from authors (as it has done with Bill Bryson’s audiobook outside the US) and producing its own recordings.

Andrew Scott is one of the stars Audible is pairing with popular classics; the Irish actor is reading Beatrix Potter. Photograph: Aaron Richter/New York Times
Andrew Scott is one of the stars Audible is pairing with popular classics. Photograph: Aaron Richter/New York Times

One of the major trends is the casting of big names, even multiple big names, to read fiction. The audiobook of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo has a star-studded cast of 166 voices, including those of Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore and the author himself. Audible is now pairing stars with popular classics – Andrew Scott reading Beatrix Potter, Rosamund Pike doing Pride and Prejudice – and publishers are following suit.

“If you’re casting them for the right reasons, then a big name is brilliant,” says Barrett, who got Kenneth Branagh to narrate Murder on the Orient Express. “He was the new Poirot. He was director of the film. Those were good reasons, and he did a fantastic job.”

But a celebrity narrator can present as many challenges as a first-time author. “I have had other experiences,” says Barrett, “where wiser heads such as mine did not prevail, and we went with a starrier casting.” She will not be drawn further. “You have to live with your recording for a long time,” is all she says.

Above all, a celebrity may not be prepared for what an exhausting experience recording is. Williams says that until you’ve voiced an audiobook you can’t understand “how utterly poleaxed you feel by the end of the day. Your throat hurts. Your back hurts. Your legs hurt. Your brain hurts.” Everyone I speak to agrees that it’s also a lonely business, listening to your own voice all day, with only the occasional interruption from someone telling you you’ve made a mistake. Everyone, that is, except Bryson.

“I’d say it’s exactly the opposite,” he says, smiling. “Writing is the really lonely bit… This is getting me out in the world. You get up to make a cup of tea and there’s people all around. When I come in in the morning, it feels like I have a job to go to.” – Guardian

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