This article was first published as 'Talking to Yourself' in the Publisher's Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily, 15 October 2015.
“Would you like to see what goes into the making of an audio book?” I once asked an editor who had come along to chaperone a high-profile author visiting our studio when his book was being recorded. “No. I’d better get back to the office. After all, it’s only someone reading a book out loud.”
Well, yes... in the sense that Simon Russell Beale only has to say the right words in the right order to play his acclaimed Macbeth or Lear. What about interpretation, characterisation, consistency, engagement, involvement, vitality, sincerity, clarity, conviction, subtlety, enthusiasm...?
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
If listeners are going to invest 10 or 15 hours listening to an audiobook, then the production team owes it to them to invest attention to detail. Our role as a production company is to select a reader, and then support that reader so that between us we achieve a recording that expresses as closely as possible our perception of the author’s intentions. In the case of non-fiction, that means ensuring the logical flow of the explanation or argument, and in the case of fiction it means ensuring that the sound-pictures are well drawn, with every character distinct and appropriately voiced.
The listener should be immersed in the ideas or the story, and any distractions by jerky reading or wrong pronunciations are a failure on the reader’s and producer’s part. Listeners do notice. Here are a couple of extracts from recent reviews I found on the Audible website: “The reader’s voice and characterisation were at complete odds with the story”, and, “The downright errors annoy, such as saying ‘first’ instead of ‘fist’, and ‘word’ instead of ‘Lord’.”
Recording an audiobook well, as opposed to merely mechanically, is as much a performance as a stage play or a film. It has elements of both forms. Analogous to a film, there are the three stages: pre-production (casting, research), principal photography (recording), post-production (editing, checking, correcting, mastering). And analogous to learning the lines before playing a part on stage, an audiobook reader needs to work thoroughly through the book, marking and annotating so that no time is lost in the studio settling matters that could have been decided or researched beforehand, and so that he or she knows how to stress sentences and can consistently produce characterisations.
No actor would contemplate going on stage unrehearsed, yet on several occasions over the years we have had well known readers arrive clearly having not read the book and relying entirely on the producer in the studio (good thing there is one!) to provide all the background knowledge and shape the performance. (“Right, what are we doing today?” said a television star bounding breezily into our green room one morning a few years ago.)
The reader of an audiobook has to be utterly in sympathy with what he or she is reading. Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty (1909–2001) wrote in her autobiography, “Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers–to read as listeners– and with all writers, to write as listeners.”
I think that encapsulates what a really good audiobook should achieve–we provide a physical embodiment of that internal voice for listeners. Sometimes, a well-informed interpretation can even enhance understanding and offer more to the listener than the reading of the printed book would have done.
CASTING IS CRUCIAL
If this is to have any chance of happening, of course, the casting is crucial. I have noticed some odd casting decisions over the years, such as female readers for a biography of Thomas Hardy and for the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, or the consequences of a publisher or agent insisting that a book be read by a high-profile, but unsuitable, reader.
Authors reading their own works can also find the process helps them refine the text. A couple of months ago business psychologist Tony Crabbe (www.tonycrabbe.com) was in our studio reading his book Busy (Piatkus in UK, Grand Central in the US), about dealing with the deluge of information we all receive since the internet has become a normal part of business life.
A TEST OF CLARITY
At the end of three days of intensive work, he told me that he hadn’t anticipated how it would be both enjoyable and enlightening; it had been valuable for him to experience how the act of reading a book aloud really tests the clarity of the writing. Of course, he said, a publisher’s editor will make comments, but that usually means working through a list of points on paper rather than getting immediate feedback from the producer on each individual idea or the expression of that idea.
There is now a move, encouraged by Audible with their ACX and by companies like Bee Audio, towards audiobooks being recorded in home studios by one person. If we go down that route, we risk losing all the polish that comes from having a sympathetically critical listener, and the benefits of co-operation with the print production process. Can a solo reader also pay due attention to the technical quality of a recording while concentrating on the performance? Talking to yourself and a computer in a padded room is not the way. Audiobook production needs a team to achieve consistently good results.