Technology has offered publishers many different ways to tell stories, present ideas and capture imaginations. While many readers love the feel (and even the smell!) of a physical book, others prefer the convenience of carrying a whole library on their Kindle or smartphone. And an increasing number of people are listening to audiobooks, which offer a different and unique storytelling experience.
From the choice of narrator – whether that’s the comforting familiarity of listening to a well-known actor, or the immersion created by a cast of multiple different voices – to the use of music and sound effects, we can bring stories to life in new ways for people who might not think of themselves as a traditional reader.
Audiobooks are one of the fastest-growing markets within the publishing industry, spurred on by the current audio renaissance which has also seen the popularity of podcasts skyrocket. In 2019 audiobook downloads grew by a whopping 39%, according to the Publishers Association; building on the steady, significant growth of the previous few years. More and more media outlets are reviewing audiobooks independently of their physical book counterparts, and there are also awards which specifically celebrate innovative and best-in-class audiobooks.
At Penguin Random House UK we make a huge range of audiobooks and have done for a long time: the earliest recordings in our catalogue go back to 1987.
So, where do audiobooks fit into the publishing process and what role might an author play in creating them?
Publishing your audiobook
We publish the majority of our books as audiobooks, and strive to publish as many books as we can into audio. Sometimes a book may not be compatible with the audio format, for instance if it is photographic or very visual – but we are increasingly experimenting in creating audio editions for all kinds of texts. For example, we created an audiobook version of Charlie Mackesy’s bestselling The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse – find out more about how we worked with Charlie to record it here.
We aim to publish all of our audiobooks at the same time as the print and ebooks are released, so that listeners excited about a book don’t have to wait to get hold of it in this format.
Choosing a narrator
Choosing the narrator for an audiobook is one of the most important decisions our audio team will make, and will involve significant research and discussion.
Many readers like the intimacy of having an author’s words read to them by the author themselves. For some authors, narrating the audiobook is a natural fit: they might already have experience in recording through TV, radio or podcasts; or they might be a non-fiction writer considered an expert in their field whose voice listeners want to hear.
But the voice of the author might not always be the right voice for the story. Moreover, some authors might not be comfortable reading their stories aloud, or to go through the intense and time-consuming process of recording an audiobook. The team thinks long and hard about how to bring each story to life through the spoken word, and which voices are needed.
Either way, any choices we make about the production of an audiobook will always be a collaboration with the author, and we will usually have a good discussion with them before beginning the casting process.
Sam Halstead, editorial director for Penguin Random House Audio, talks through the process:
"Everything begins with the text. The single most important thing before casting is to have an understanding of what the author wants the reader to feel when they hear their words, as in essence that is what informs how it should be performed.
"The first questions to consider are things like; whether the text is first or third person, whether the narrator needs to be male or female, should there be more than one voice if the perspective in the text shifts, if there is a particular accent or dialect that the text requires, and do we need an older or younger tone of voice? We will also consider whether the author themselves might be a good choice to narrate.
"Then there are really practical things like whether there are accents or tricky pronunciations within the text; we need to be sure that any potential narrators are comfortable pronouncing them. If a recurring character in the book speaks in a Glaswegian dialect but the actor isn’t comfortable with that accent for instance, the recording could be really difficult to perform effectively and it could jar for listeners. Language skills are also important in some texts: if part of a book is set in Denmark for example and there are lots of character and place names to contend with, perhaps the actor best placed to narrate would be a Danish speaker.
"Whatever the answer to all of those questions, ultimately we find narrators who will shine a light on the story. We’ll do whatever is right for each particular book.
What do we look for in a narrator?
Sam continues: "First and foremost, we want somebody with a great voice that will draw listeners in. Recording audiobooks isn’t an easy business though, so aside from a great voice we also need an actor who is prepared and willing to put the work in to prepare ahead of time and really get into the nuts and bolts of the book. They’ll be living with every word of the text, often for many days in studio, so need a good understanding of the text to be able to comfortably perform the words in the style the book most needs, and the commitment to maintain consistency in that performance over many hours.
“The right voice, tone and production approach can vastly vary from book to book, but what you always need no matter which book, is someone willing to get stuck in and completely immersed in the author’s words – both in studio and also in the preparation beforehand."
The process for recording and producing an audiobook
The production of an audiobook is an intense, creative and focused process. Many of our audiobooks are recorded in-house in one of our dedicated, state-of-the-art studios, managed by our expert production team. For those books that we can’t record in house we have a network of industry-leading studios, producers and sound engineers who we work closely with, and who share our expectations for high quality audio production
Sam explains: “The first stage is casting, and our audio editor will read each book before pulling together a shortlist of potential narrators ready for discussion with the author. Once a narrator is chosen and booked in for the recording, they will be paired with a producer/director who will work with them on the book and direct the performance in studio, as well as picking up on any misreads or noises that may creep in. Both narrator and producer need to know the text inside out ahead of the recording to be ready for any surprises in the text, any tricky pronunciations, and character accents. They may liaise with the author as part of this preparation to ensure everything is performed just as intended.
"The recording time can vary greatly depending on the length of the book but on average these are around four full days in studio, but can last much longer. For example, something like War and Peace – which we’ve recently recorded as part of our Penguin Classics in audio project – was a recording that took many weeks (and many more in preparation). It would be impossible to read any book in one take, so there is then a lot of skilled editing work that takes place once the recording is complete to remove any misreads and tidy up any noises in the background that may have crept in. We also allow time for each recording to be proof-listened to make sure listeners are experiencing the best quality audiobook possible. The whole process really is a team effort!"
For more information on how we record audiobooks, watch this video.
Illustration: Mike Ellis for Penguin