MUSINGS TO OUR EARS
Once a niche market for publishers, audiobooks are flying off virtual bookshelves and into our headphones — with help from celebrity narrators, writes
After years on publishing’s periphery, talking books are now speaking volumes. And the biggest names in entertainment are lining up to lend their voices to the cause. Music fans can enjoy Johnny Depp reading Keith Richards’s autobiography or listen to artists such as Bruce Springsteen narrate their own memoirs. High-profile stars increasingly are providing audio as well as text — who better than Patti Smith to tell us in her own voice the story of her extraordinary life?
Meanwhile, literary-minded listeners can, without laying an eye on a single word, indulge in classic and contemporary fiction voiced by actors of the stature of Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Kate Winslet, Maggie Gyllenhaal, William McInnes and Rachel McAdams.
Once a niche market catering mainly for readers with visual impairment, talking books — now more widely known as audiobooks — are very much part of the consumer mainstream. According to the news site Good eReader, last year 43,000 audiobooks were released worldwide, up from 36,000 the previous year and 20,000 in 2013.
The expansion in the range and increased availability of audiobooks in the digital era has created new opportunities in the arts sector, for writers and voice artists through to publishers, producers, sound engineers and academics.
The surge in audiobooks, liberated from the practical constraints of physical media, is being felt as much in Australia as anywhere else. It is two years since the well-established local division of Audible, the world’s largest publisher of audiobooks, commenced operations here.
Audible Australia uses the Risk Sound/ Soundfirm studio complex in Melbourne, along with an impressive facility in Sydney. When Review visits, the studio is a hive of activity and Fiona Macleod is standing, headphones on, poised at the microphone, ready to bring the printed word to life. The actress reads from a sheet of bulldog-clipped paper covered in enlarged print. She has been engaged for 70 hours to record three “foodie fiction” novels by Brisbane-based author Josephine Moon: The Tea Chest, The Chocolate Promise and The Beekeeper’s Secret.
The Audible studio operates seven days a week, partly due to the strong demand for new content, and also because the recording of an unabridged audiobook takes considerable time to complete. Even with the benefit of modern digital recording technology, which enables instant seamless editing of individual words and sounds, making an audiobook is a time-consuming process. According to Maryanne Plazzer, a producer at Risk Sound, the average recording is done on a 1:2 ratio so that one hour of finished audio takes about two hours to record. There are about 9200 words spoken in one hour of audio.
Plazzer believes “the key to making a good audiobook is for the narrator to have a relatable voice that connects with the story, matched with good technical reading skills and enunciation. When this process is executed well then the magic happens, and the story comes alive.”
Sometimes the author may turn out to be the best person to read their own book aloud. Among the most popular Aus- tralian titles are books read by their own nonactor authors such as David Hunt, Lee Lin Chin and Clementine Ford, along with recordings made by seasoned professionals such as Magda Szubanski and David Tredinnick. Plazzer says big-name screen actors often sought out for promotional reasons aren’t always the best fit for audiobooks. “Not all actors have the time to fine-tune their narration skills, nor are they accustomed to reading aloud for long periods of time. Some are so used to ad libbing that they find it hard to stick to the words on the page.” In addition to casting narrators, Plazzer gets involved in pronunciation research, making calls to town halls and police stations to check place names. Accuracy as well as precision is vital — the subconscious substitution of a different word to the one used by the author must be corrected even though it might have been a better editorial choice. Narrators are sometimes chosen in part because they can do convincing accents needed for characters in the book. A parent juggling young children with a full-time career, Macleod sees audiobooks from the perspective of a consumer as well as that of a creator. “In the midst of a busy life, I find audiobooks and podcasts are great for engaging my brain at times, rather than listening to music all of the time,” she says. “I do love having the luxury of sitting down and reading a book as part of my work.”
To observe Macleod at work in the studio reading Moon’s fiction is to see an accomplished voice actress in her element. Her eyes dance across the page, and her face runs the full gamut of emotion. Due to the sheer number of words that need to be spoken and with limited time to rehearse, Macleod says that the performance largely has to be given in the moment, based on sight reading.
“As a voice artist, you have to trust that the author is good. It is great to be able to bring their world to life. As the stories are revealed to me I really enjoy animating them.”
Macleod says Moon has a warm and engaging approach to storytelling that suits “a voice with a smile in it”. She aims to render the prose accurately in a tone that reflects the mood of the chapter, while also registering various characters in passages of dialogue, paying attention to age, gender and nationality.
Macleod insists her reading of a book should not be seen as the universal one. “I think people can still use their imaginations even when they’re listening. They are still not seeing.”
Without warning, Review is invited to say a few words into the microphone. Hearing one’s voice as others will hear it, in real time, is an exacting experience. Immediately one becomes aware of the need to concentrate and think ahead, as well as technical issues in both writing and speaking such as punctuation, pacing and breathing. An audio rendering of the written word brings out colours and inflections in the text that the reader’s eyes may glide over