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We’re all too familiar with the age-old saying “so many books, so little time.” And so, many of us listen to audiobooks to make time for reading. But time is oh so precious, and we don’t want to end up with a bad audiobook and a terrible listening experience.
So what really separates a great audiobook from something that is so-so? What makes you pick up something, get overjoyed by it, and then recommend it to your friends or colleagues? Is there a standard formula that goes into the production of audiobooks? Is it all subjective? Is it true that audiobook narrators can make or break the story?
I asked professionals who are directly related to the art of audiobook production what they think makes a great audiobook. Being a former audiobook producer and a reviewer for AudioFile Magazine myself — though I’m on an extended hiatus — I am also going to share what I think.
According to AudioFile, the only magazine in the publishing industry that reviews audiobooks rigorously, the following are the criteria to be considered for an Earphones Award or a starred review. When I was actively reviewing, I was not given descriptions of these criteria, and the explanations below are based from my own experience.
Does the narrator understand the characters completely? How about when they give voice to male or female characters? Does it sound … awkward? Do they sound dead? Unconvincing? Boring? These are what’s at stake in mastering vocal characterizations for audiobook narration.
“Great audiobooks are narrated by sensitive readers. When a narrator taps into the energy flowing through the words and rides that momentum through every shift and turn of the text, the result is a dynamic and natural performance. Imogen Church reading Good Me Bad Me comes to mind, or Jeremy Irons’ narration of Lolita,” award-winning narrator Michael Crouch tells me. Crouch has already recorded over 250 audiobooks, including the best-selling young adult titles Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and They Both Die at the End. He has recently been included among AudioFile’s Golden Voice, a lifetime achievement award for narrators, and has won both Audie Awards and Earphones Awards.
Almeda Beynon, who works as an audiobook producer at HarperAudio, the audiobook division of HarperCollins, agrees that having the right narrator is important.
“At the end of the day, a ‘great’ audiobook is one that people want to listen to. Each project is unique in its needs, but narrator performance and engagement is key. There are plenty of times I’m not even interested in listening to a book, but I hear the delivery of the first line and it hooks me. If it seems like the narrator is all in, then I find the audience can’t help but listen,” she says.
Narrative Voice and Style
This mostly depends on the narrator, and of course, listeners perceive them differently. Some listeners have their own preferences when it comes to voice and style, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to casting a narrator.
The most important thing is whether the narrative voice and style of the author matches the narrator’s. Is the narrator too perky? Too somber? Does it feel like their voice feels unsuitable for the general vibe of the book? Do they have a great voice, but are not the right fit?
“I think great audiobooks happen when the narrator has a deep connection to material. Whether that’s the journey of the main character, the relationships explored in the book, or a profound interest in or passion for the themes and topics of the book. When the narrator is emotionally connected to the material, it makes all the difference,” says narrator Soneela Nankani, whose audiobook credits include The Trouble with Hating You and The City of Brass. Nankani has recorded over 300 titles and has also been honored as AudioFile’s Golden Voice.
For Tiffany Frarey, an audiobook producer at Simon & Schuster Audio, casting and making sure the voice of the book is right, is only half the battle.
“You don’t want an actor to come in and completely overpower the book, and not suit the tone of the book itself,” she says.
Frarey adds, “Pacing and making everything sound like a natural flow — nothing forced — that is a team effort between the reader, producer/director, and engineer. Obviously, if something is author read, there are only so many factors a producer/director can aid with.”
Performance over Text
When it comes to audiobooks, does the text or the story matter? What if the performance is great, but the book is not? Does that make for a great audiobook? I beg to differ with this criterion because for me, the story also plays part in the overall package. At the end of the day, a listener wants to be treated with a great story.
Award-winning narrator Emily Woo Zeller, who has also been inducted as AudioFile’s Golden Voice and has narrated books like Last Night at the Telegraph Club and The Leavers, somewhat has the same opinion. “A great audiobook starts with a great book, and travels through a narrator who can ignite that author’s words with truth and life, and brings the listener in for the journey,” she says.
For Frarey, instead of performance, it helps if the author narrating their book is comfortable and trusts the producer or director during the entire recording process.
“They need to know [that] audiobook listening is a very one-on-one thing; they aren’t performing to a crowd or giving a TED talk. They are in the car with you, telling their story. Or sitting next to you at a bar, on the train, etc.,” she says.
Perhaps great audiobooks win prestigious awards.
“The underlying content is excellent … All elements have been integrated to provide a compelling listening experience,” the Audie Awards writes in their list of criteria: Performance, Production, Direction, and Content/Overall.
Appropriateness for Audio
Believe it or not, there are books that are not fit for audio consumption, and there are also others more suitable for this kind of medium. Per my experience, the genres that work well for audio are mostly fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, and romance. On the other hand, nonfiction books don’t usually translate well into audio, but it really depends on the material.
Frarey agrees with me.
“Some books obviously lend themselves better to the audio form than others, right off the bat,” she said.
During my stint as an audiobook producer, I made the difficult decision of choosing which books to record for audio because not everything in my catalog made the cut. And audiobook production is costly.
Enhancement of the Text
Does the audiobook version enhance the print? Does it elevate the source material? Does it stand on its own? Are there bonus materials in the audiobook version that are not in the print? Is the audiobook better than its print counterpart?
The Audie Awards recommends that the “material lends itself to audio presentation” and that the “presentation enhances the text.”
For Frarey, a good audiobook takes the listener into the book and not out of the story, elevating the overall storytelling experience. “Make time pass without noticing you’ve just been read to for five hours straight. That’s the goal.”
Though the art of audiobook production is both science and art, it appears that there are some standards that the audiobook publishing industry follows. It seems they agree on some aspect on what makes a great work of audiobook.
So where does this leave us?
If you’re an author or a publisher, the aforementioned criteria are the things you should be striving for. If you’re a listener, however, those are the boxes you might be ticking in order to have a great listening experience. At the end of the day, no one wants to put their brain through a cheese grater with a bad book, or in this case, a bad audiobook.