Audiobooks: Trickier Than You Might Think

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For all intents and purposes, I live in my car. Two weeks (or more) out of every month, I spend more time in my car than I do my home. The overarching constant of the situation is my ever-present hunger for entertainment, which I feed through regular meals of audiobooks. (I mean, one can only admire the landscape, tally-up roadkill, or shriek obscenities at other drivers for so long…) I listen to well over 200 audiobooks every year, and have made my way through, oh, around 1,000 since I began listening in earnest.

Humans are storytellers and story-absorbers. We love a good story, well-told, which is exactly what I find pleasurable about audiobooks. Listening to a good audiobook, fiction or non, is nothing more—or less—than listening to a good story.

Narrating a book is hard work. Doing it well is really hard. The job requires a skillset that is both similar and different from other kinds of performance. Narration isn’t acting. It involves aspects of that craft (proficient diction, accent preparation, breath control, even a sort of narrative scansion) but other aspects (body work, moment-to-moment listening, etc.) rarely come into play. Narration is also different from other types of voiceover work, mostly because voiceovers are often recorded in sequences of substantially shorter duration—perhaps a few lines of dialogue for a cartoon or video game, or a descriptive tag at the end of a commercial. Compare that to audiobooks, which can run 40, 50, and even 90 hours.

Book narration is an art form all its own.

First, Some History

It was Thomas Edison who first realized the possibilities of recording books for later playback. When he unveiled the phonograph in 1877, he specifically emphasized that the device could play “phonographic books” for the blind. Edison’s idea was sound, but sadly, the technology available at the time was not up to the task—cylinders held only about 4 minutes of material, and the original Vitaphone records that debuted in 1926 held around 10 minutes per side—so recording an entire book was all kinds of unrealistic. (Storing your copy of War and Peace would pretty much have required a Quonset hut.)

RCA Victor produced long-playing (LP) “platters” in 1931, but they were delicate and the fidelity was dicey. Still, these LPs were pressed (heh…) into service as “talking books.” In 1932, the American Foundation for the Blind, working in concert with the Library of Congress, set about providing recorded books (and record players) to blind and partially-sighted Americans. And that’s where things stayed until 1948, when scientists affiliated with the CBS Laboratories perfected a vinyl record that was more durable and could hold 20 minutes of material per side. A few years later, in 1952, Caedmon Records released what is widely considered to be the first “true” audiobook: a collection of poems written and read by Dylan Thomas.

For the next several decades technological advances continued to improve the audiobook experience, though the visually disabled continued to be the primary audience. That began to change, though, in the 1980s, with the arrival of cassette tapes. Cassettes could hold hours of content, and with the advent of in-car players and other portable devices (remember the Walkman?), listeners could take their books with them wherever they went. At the same time, publishing titans such as Warner Books and Random House identified audiobooks as an untapped market stream, while Time-Life Books and the Book-of-the-Month Club added audiobooks to their mail-order catalogues. By the end of the decade audiobooks accounted for over $200 million in annual sales.

Over the last quarter-century, audiobooks have steadily increased in both popularity and profitability, and are now a major part of the publishing industry, with $1.6 billion in annual sales. Websites like Audio Creation Exchange (ACX) connect writers and narrators, and LibriVox offers free public domain audiobooks narrated by volunteers. In 1996, the Audio Publishers Association launched the Audie Awards, which has since become one of the more prestigious honors in publishing. There is even a school, the Deyan Institute of Vocal Artistry and Technology, which opened in 2014 specifically to offer training in all facets of audiobook narration, production, and marketing.

The Good, the Bad, and the Slurry

The remainder of this epistle is devoted to my thoughts (unsolicited advice, annoying commentary, whatever) on the act of narrating a book. I have formed a number of opinions over the years, and I’m rarely reluctant about sharing. (Ask anyone.)

My intention is to point out a few things that might aid in the creation of a quality listening experience, and to point out a few other things that might help a narrator avoid driving a listener to dig and jab at his ears with a meat thermometer.

Non-Fiction: Reading Is Fundamental

The big thing to remember about reading non-fiction is this: Just read the goddamn thing. Don’t attempt to punch-up the gravitas by adopting a “dramatic” tone. If the book is well-written, it arrived in your hands with all of the gravitas it needs, and a mediocre volume is going to remain mediocre no matter how hard you try to help. Not only that, but gratuitous vocal histrionics can, instead of knocking the dents out of a middling tome, actually shine an even brighter light on its shortcomings. Just read the thing. Please.

Non-Fiction: Accents are a Death Trap

Accents are often a special pet peeve of mine. Too many are done poorly, and too many are unnecessary, especially in non-fiction. Truth be told, I don’t think accents should ever be used when reading non-fiction. I find them distracting, and when they suck they become both distracting and severely exasperating.

For example, I recently listened to a book on the history of vodka in Russia. The narrator, whom I shall not name, had a pleasing voice and a relaxed style. Until, that is, he came to a quotation, at which point he would launch into a ridiculous, over-the-top, Russian accent straight out of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I wanted to hear the quoted material, but all I could focus on was that dreadful accent. It finally got so bad that, if the quote was lengthy, I just hit fast-forward.

Using accents is especially tricky when the person being quoted has a distinctive voice that is familiar to your listeners. Don’t even try it. Not even if your imitation chops put you right up there with Rich Little and Kevin Pollak. Two reasons. First, if your impersonation is impeccable, it will detach listeners from the story as they marvel at your mad skills. And second, if your impersonation is shitty, it will detach listeners from the story as they marvel at your mad shittiness.

Another example: The aforementioned book on vodka contained quotes from Humphrey Bogart and Bill Clinton. Voices don’t come more distinctive or familiar. Impersonators have been dining out on those guys for decades.

Unsurprisingly, when the narrator arrived at the quotes he careened completely off the rails. For all the work he had apparently put into his cheesy Russian accent, his Bogart and Clinton both sounded wholly unrehearsed, appallingly lazy, and nothing even remotely like either man. He opted for this weird sort of generic non-accent that yanked me, yet again, out of the story and into an ill-tempered reflection upon narrators.

When it comes to accents in non-fiction books, what I am saying is this: Don’t. Listeners want to hear the story and the facts. The only person interested in your facility (or lack thereof) with dialects is you.

Fiction: For God’s Sake, Stop Acting!

I noted above that non-fiction narrators were better off simply reading the words, instead of attempting to impose additional layers of drama, or pathos, or whatever, to the prose. The same idea is applicable to fiction narration as well—up to a point.

This will probably blow your mind, but a novel is not a play. In a play, pretty much all you have to work with is dialogue, so all sorts of disparate elements—staging, costuming, interactions between actors/characters, etc.—are joined together into a coherent whole.

A novelist, on the other hand, does all of that work him/herself. The novelist describes the locales, the physical attributes of the characters, as well as their inner lives, writes all of the dialogue, distributes the plot points, and is otherwise in charge of the whole shebang. In this situation, you are a narrator, not an actor. You are not creating a character, assembling an inner monologue, crafting an original interpretation 1, or doing a solo performance about multiple personality disorder. You are reading narrative prose. Your job is to serve those words. Period.

Indeed. But when does reading end and acting begin? Yeah, that’s the thorny bit, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. I can say this, though: the dividing line between acting and reading is the same line that separates the excessive from the subtle.

Let’s come at the question from a different angle in the next section.

Fiction: Ladies, Gentlemen, and Others

Yeah, I’m back on accents again. But they’re important, dammit. As a narrator, all you’ve got to work with is your voice.

The average novel is populated with numerous characters—women and men, children, natives of many nations and regions, animals, deities, and little purple blobs from across time and space. Average listeners will have a better time if they can easily tell who is speaking from one moment to the next. If they suddenly can’t tell who is talking—the Detective, the Lion Tamer, or the Zombie Stripper—they might lose the thread, miss some vital clue, or at the very least become cross, and they will consider it a courtesy if you take steps to prevent that sort of thing.

Does that mean, however, that each and every character must have her/his/its very own unambiguous rhythm, accent or dialect?  Jesus, I hope not. The amount of work involved in such a project would be staggering.2 A somewhat less laborious, and way less nerve-wracking, course of action is, I think, to differentiate between characters via subtle shifts in tone, pitch and rhythm, and then approximating that combination each time a given character returns to the story. Many of my favorite recordings (see below) utilize this strategy to excellent effect.

And one more thing before moving on. If you are a man, and the job demands that you read dialogue for a female character, do not—ever—read her in a falsetto. Sweet shit, that’s obnoxious. It explodes the narrative flow, destroys the credibility of the character, disrespects the writer’s work, and makes the reader look like an imbecile. And yet it happens more often than you’d think possible.

Fiction and Non-Fiction: Don’t Put the “Mis” in “Mispronounce”

This final bit is about pronunciation. When you are familiarizing yourself with a book, and you encounter a word that you are even remotely unsure of how to pronounce, stop what you are doing and figure it out. Like bad accents, mispronounced words are damn distracting.

Common trouble areas include: technological and scientific terminology, military nomenclature, the names of lesser-known historical figures, phrases in foreign languages, archaic words, and invented fantasy and sci-fi expressions. Talk to the author if you can, consult a dictionary, perform Google searches, do anything necessary to get the words right.

And That is That

I’m done. A few thoughts from me, a devoted listener, to you, a narrator.

A Short List of Stuff I Like

Yeah, okay. I wasn’t as done as I said I was.

What follows is a selection of audiobooks that I have found thoroughly enjoyable—some because they were excellent books to begin with, others because of the combination of quality books and adroit narrators, and a rare few are examples of skillful narrators actually overcoming the limitations of the source material. I enthusiastically recommend them all.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
By William Shirer
Narrated by Grover Gardener

The Harry Potter series
By J.K. Rowling
Narrated by Jim Dale

The Kate Shugak mysteries
By Dana Stabenow
Narrated by Margurite Gavin

The Water is Wide
By Pat Conroy
Narrated by Dan John Miller

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood
By Mark Harris
The Robert A. Heinlein catalogue
By Robert A. Heinlein
Narrated by Lloyd James

I Married a Communist
By Phillip Roth
American Pastoral
By Phillip Roth
Narrated by Ron Silver

The Imogene Duckworthy mysteries
By Kaye George
Narrated by Veronica Newton

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
By Virginia Morell
Narrated by Kirsten Potter

To Kill a Mockingbird
By Harper Lee
By Stephen King
Narrated by Sissy Spacek

When the Game was Ours
By Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Jackie MacMullan
Narrated by Dick Hill

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson
Narrated By Edward Herrmann

The Travis McGee series
By John D. MacDonald
Narrated by Robert Petkoff

Nature’s Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About
Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves
By Menno Schilthuizen
Narrated by Steven Menasche

Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?
By Marion Meade
Narrated By Grace Conlin

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
By Mary Roach
Narrated By Sandra Burr

A Walk in the Woods
By Bill Bryson
Narrated by Bill Bryson

The Puppet Maker’s Bones
By Alisa Tangredi
Narrated By William Salyers

And lastly, my two all-time favorites:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Stephen Chbosky
Narrated by Noah Galvin

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
By Douglas Adams
Narrated by Douglas Adams


1 Can you imagine? Disparate narrators vying to create new and novel interpretations of, say, The Firm? Or some goddamn Janet Evanovich romance? An interesting notion, maybe, but let’s not go there. Seriously, let’s not.

2 The only narrator I’ve ever heard who managed the feat is Jim Dale, who did the Harry Potter series, and he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for the 146 separate voices he created for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The dude is unreal. Oh, and he was awarded the MBE—Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—in 2003 by Queen Elizabeth, for his efforts in promoting English literature. There is only one Jim Dale.

2 Responses to "Audiobooks: Trickier Than You Might Think"
  1. Shannon Parks says:

    This is an excellent article on the art of audiobook narration, and thank you very much for including Kate Shugak mysteries o your short list !!! All the best, Marguerite Gavin. (Aka Shannon Parks)

    • Richard English says:

      I enjoy your work very much. Thanks for the nice comments on mine. Keep me in the loop on your upcoming projects.

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