QUARTERLY BLOG: HEARD AND NOT SEEN

The second half of 2017 has been some of the busiest months that Strathmore has seen. Not only have we upped the quantity of spoken word that we are producing, but the diversity of it as well – from nursery rhymes to apps to medical instruction videos. And, of course, our production of good old-fashioned audiobooks is flourishing as well. In fact, this trend can be seen throughout the audio publishing industry as a whole (up 28.2% year on year). People seem keener than ever to get their ears around a good story, and this raises an interesting question – what are the benefits of listening to a book over reading it?

To my mind, the most obvious example of this is Brian Blessed. Allow me to elaborate: in 2017 we welcomed back national treasure Brian Blessed for the recording of his most recent memoir, The Panther in My Kitchen. As you would expect, the book contains a number of bombastic anecdotes written in Brian’s distinct and engaging style. But it’s one thing to read a book in his voice and quite another to hear it. In fact, in the prologue to Panther, Brian asks his reader/listener to imagine he is sitting in an armchair opposite them, regaling them with stories. Arguably, the audiobook comes as close to that scenario as possible.

Many authors aim to build a relationship with their readers, and audiobooks can provide them with a way to speak directly to their audience. Towards the end of the year we produced The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge by Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns – it presents the case for sobriety with a number of personal experiences shared by the two authors who, in the audio edition, were able to relay them in person. Concidentally, while we were recording The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge, Mindful Drinking by Rosamund Dean was being recorded in our second studio.

The growing trend of books by Vloggers is another that can benefit from direct communication with their listeners. At Strathmore, we can claim some experience in this area, having produced two of Carrie Hope-Fletcher’s books (All That I Know Now and On The Other Side) as well as Doing It by Hannah Witton, and Feel Good 101 by Emma Blackery. As Emma’s audience are used to her talking directly to them, the audiobook of Feel Good 101 stands as a bridge between book and vlog. Add to this the inclusion of an exclusive interview with Emma and a selection of her ‘outtakes’ from the recording session, and you have a level of audience connection that is unique to the audiobook medium.

Sometimes an audiobook can provide forms of engagement beyond the narration. In 2017 Strathmore produced a number of children’s books that take full advantage of music and sound effects, including the third instalment in Julia Donaldson’s Ladybird series, What The Ladybird Heard On Holiday. Working up into the YA age group, we are very proud of our work on (AudioFile Earphone Award Winning) Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend. For this title, Strathmore enlisted the services of long time collaborator Iain Carnegie to write a fully orchestrated score for the book. Combined with excellent narration from Gemma Whelan, and the audiobook provides a whole new auditory experience for the listener.

Translating text to audio contains its own challenges, which we are eager to find creative solutions for. For example, in September, we produced the audiobook of the first novel by actor/model Cara Delavigne: Mirror Mirror. The story follows protagonist Red, who struggles with the various challenges of growing up whilst coping with the disappearance of a friend. The twist of the book is that Red, who the reader has been led to believe is male, turns out to be female. Easy enough to write, but how do you pull off the same reveal with a narrator? By casting very carefully. After listening to samples from various talented readers (both male and female), Orion and Strathmore finally settled on Rosie Jones who managed to straddle that fine line between impression and performance. The final result may appear effortless, but is the culmination of a lot of work both in front of and behind the mic.

Casting is a crucially important aspect of audiobook production, and matching a voice to text presents a number of possible challenges. In many instances, the task is to avoid a challenge to expectations that breaks the listener’s immersion, whilst still presenting a fresh interpretation of the text (Nic Jones has posted an article on this blog that delves into the topic in more detail). In 2017 we produced a full set of audiobooks for the entire Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter and read, on-and-off over a 6 month period, by Samuel West. Sam had the unenviable task of competing with not only with forty-odd years of reader expectation of how the characters should sound, but also the fondly-remembered performances of John Thaw, Kevin Whately, etc. Suffice it to say that he achieved all that and more, and has been gathering praise in the comment sections of the books’ Audible pages.

Finally, it is sometimes that case that casting involves finding not one suitable narrator for an audiobook, but a number of them. At Strathmore, we are no strangers to multi-cast recordings, but in October we undertook one of our most complex productions – A Poem for Every Day of the Year. This collection, compiled by Allie Esiri, involved five different narrators (Helena Bonham-Carter and Simon Russell-Beale do the bulk), reading 366 poems (leap year included) from all over the world. Selecting which reader was most suited to which poems proved a mammoth task, but one that yielded a wonderful final product of which we are very proud.

As we start the new year, it is worth considering the unique value of our medium. Audiobooks can allow listeners to spend time in the company of familiar personalities, whilst giving authors the opportunity to connect with their audience. They can provide additional tools for storytelling with music and sound effects, to help engage a younger audience. And for those of us who work to produce audiobooks, they provide many creative challenges in how to transform text into audio. We look forward to more in 2018.

Billy Godfrey

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