Audiobook Highlights

Anyone can read a book aloud using their normal voice. But one of the pleasures, and challenges, of audiobook narration is coming up with distinctive voices for each character—what Dickens called “doing the Police in different voices.” When done right, these voices enliven the narrative and make it easier for audiences to follow since they can instantly tell who’s speaking. Skilled voice actors convey enormous amounts of information through speech.

Crafting unique voices is especially impressive when one considers just how many characters there are in some of our most beloved novels. The Dickens novel quoted above has at least 36, at a conservative estimate, and others more than that. The Harry Potter books forced Jim Dale to come up with 134 different voices, I’m told, and A Game of Thrones took 224 (though complaints about characters switching accents midway through the books suggest there may be a ceiling). How do narrators keep all these voices straight?

 

Tania Rodrigues narrating

Tania Rodrigues (front) and Clare Corbett in the studio. Credit: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian.

Every narrator has their preferred system. Still, most make extensive notes before entering the studio. (Narrators have all heard about unprepared readers learning about a character’s foreign accent on p. 632.) Doing your homework ensures that characters speak in an appropriate accent. “I’d never randomly give someone a Birmingham accent if it wasn’t in there,” says Tania Rodrigues, who has narrated works by Kiran Desai, David Mitchell, Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson, and numerous others. Like many narrators, she turns the novel into a script: “For fiction, I’ll mark up all the characters’ speeches, so it becomes like a script for me.” Overlaying the script with colored highlights makes it is easy to tell at a glance who is speaking. “I colour code them so when you’ve got conversations you know who’s speaking when,” explains Tania. The pages of her script are certainly more dazzling than the average book’s pages. So what does an audiobook narrator’s script actually look like?

Here’s a case where showing is definitely better than telling. Tania has generously agreed to share one of her scripts with the Audiobook History blog. See for yourself how a veteran narrator navigates her way through a crowded cast of characters in the following excerpt taken from Judith Eagle’s The Secret Starling:

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Highlighted pages from Judith Eagle’s The Secret Starling. Reprinted with kind permission from Judith Eagle and Tania Rodrigues.

 

Credit: The quotations above were taken from Tim Dowling, “‘Your Throat Hurts. Your Brain Hurts’: The Secret Life of the Audiobook Star,” Guardian (November 16, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/16/throat-hurts-brain-hurts-secret-life-of-audiobook-stars-tim-dowling?CMP=share_btn_tw.

The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks

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“The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks” was the topic of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR this week. The show featured an entertaining and wide-ranging discussion of the format from its origins as talking books for the blind in the 1930s to today’s synthetic voices used on ereaders such as the Kindle. Curiously, the program begins with a clip from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a talking book made in Britain rather than America (which began making talking books a year ahead of Britain). I presume this is because the clip is easily available on the RNIB’s website. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has always been reluctant to make its recordings available to the public because of copyright restrictions.

The program featured four contributors including Michele Cobb (President of the Audio Publishers Association and VP at AudioGO), Peter Osnos (founder and editor-at-large of Public Affairs Books and author of the Atlantic piece “The Coming Audiobooks Boom”), John Schwartz (national correspondent for the NYTimes, where he has written several features on audiobooks), and Katherine Kellgren (an award-winning audiobooks narrator). All four contributors admirably challenged conventional thinking about audiobooks. For example, several of the contributors disputed the claim that listening to a book is not the same as reading by citing their own audio encounters. Osnos pointed out that listening allows you to concentrate in a way that’s not as easy to do with the page or screen, both of which present the temptation to skim. The contributors also delved into the question of what makes a good—and bad—narrator.

A few other points that stood out: Robert Caro’s recent bio of Lyndon B. Johnson is nearly 33 hours long (!); publishers now ensure that audiobooks and print books are published at the same time; and audiobooks are great for people with disabilities and children learning to read. Osnos also mentioned that he’s trying to persuade university presses to publish more books in audio formats. This is a problem with which I’ve made little headway in my own conversations with editors.

There are superb clips on the show’s website, too, from Harry Potter (read by Jim Dale), The Great Gatsby (read by Frank Muller), and Angela’s Ashes (read by Frank McCourt himself). Worth a listen.

Here’s a link to the show’s website and broadcast: “The Growing Popularity of Audiobooks.”