Heard any good books recently?

Heard any good books recently?

It’s a booming multibillion-pound market attracting Hollywood stars and with its own answer to the Oscars. Maddy Fletcher reports on the unstoppable march of the audiobook.

When Zadie Smith was writing her latest novel, The Fraud, she made the main character Scottish. This was all fine, until she had to record the audiobook. The 48-year-old author, who has narrated all her work to date, realised she was terrible at doing a Scottish accent. Her publisher, Penguin, hired a professional coach for her (the same one who had worked on Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film). The finished result, Smith told an interviewer, ‘is not good – but it is passable’. She added: ‘I apologise to Scotland.’

Professional accent coaches might seem absurd, but audiobooks are big business. Last year, sales increased by 25 per cent and the market was valued at more than £1.2 billion; it’s estimated that by 2030 it will be worth £28 billion. Two months ago, the major book publishers all signed limited streaming deals with Spotify, giving the platform access to a catalogue of 150,000 audiobooks.

Even celebrities are cashing in – in August, Meryl Streep recorded the audio for Ann Patchett’s novel Tom Lake. However, the booming industry has also created a hierarchy of professional narrators known only for their voices. Take Simon Vance, who moved from England to the US with his wife in 2006. He’d worked as a newsreader for the BBC and, through a friend of a friend, got a job narrating audiobooks. Now arguably the best-known reader in the industry, the 67-year-old has received 50 nominations for The Audies, an Oscars-style audiobooks awards ceremony – more than any other male narrator. He’s recorded more than 1,000 titles, including Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall and rock autobiographies by Eric Clapton, Bernie Taupin and Rod Stewart, who was so pleased with Vance he took him to supper then flew him to his concert in Las Vegas.

Vance thinks he was lucky with timing:

‘I caught the wave.’ He’s modest but also, partly, correct. In 2008, Audible – the world’s biggest audiobook producer – was bought by Amazon for £150 million. The once tiny industry exploded. ‘They wanted to make audiobooks of just about everything.’

This had its problems. Amazon employed small producers who hired inexperienced narrators, which made for bad audiobooks. Also, narrators were paid for each hour they spent in the studio. ‘The system didn’t work,’ says Vance. While he can record around 10,000 words in an hour – about 100 pages a day – depending on the text, ‘A lousy narrator, who took four hours to record one hour of narration, got paid more than a good narrator who did it in two.’ Now, voice actors are paid per finished hour of work. The wage used to be £30-£40 an hour; today it’s around £140-£160. As for the problem of bad narrators? ‘The cream rose to the top’.

If £160 sounds like a lot for 60 minutes, recording an audiobook requires hours, possibly days, of research. Actress and narrator Fiona Hardingham has been in the business since 2009, when she moved from London to LA. She’s since been nominated for four Audies and recorded 350 novels, from Dickens to Sophie Kinsella. ‘When I get a title, I read it through,’ says Hardingham. ‘I highlight it and make notes of all the characters: their quirks, their idiosyncrasies, their accents.’ Narrating is a tricky balance between knowing a text very well but also managing to ‘find surprise’ in it. ‘You still have to discover the book with the audience,’ she says.

A-listers like Meryl Streep are getting in on the act, while Zadie Smith is among the novelists who have narrated their own audiobooks

But you can’t just blind read as you go along. ‘The fear of god’ says Hardingham, would be to record a whole book in an English accent then realise that a character was actually Italian. Hardingham has come close once, recording the first instalment in a series of novels. In it was a French cameo character, and she voiced the accent accordingly. When book two came out several years later, the character had been made Russian-French, ‘Which is, in itself, so hilarious to get into the mouth’, she says, demonstrating her best hybrid Russian-French accent. Strangely, it works. (Accents can be pesky. Vance struggles with Geordie.

‘I probably drift into Birmingham or something. It’s like when you’re doing Welsh, and you end up sounding like you’re from India.’)

Hardingham records mostly from home, self-editing as she reads. In her garage she has a small booth, with cladding – it beats her first home studio, which shared a wall with her neighbour’s bathroom. ‘Every time they had a shower I had to stop recording – and they were a very good singer.’

Noisy neighbours aside, recording at home may be less embarrassing than in a studio. Author Marian Keyes once said there was a sex scene she dreaded narrating from her novel Again, Rachel. ‘I did it with Roy the sound engineer. I was f*****g mortified.’ Hardingham is diplomatic: sex scenes are fine for her, but she’d rather narrate a thriller than a bodice-ripper. Once a sound engineer, on hearing her record a particularly sexy scene, said: ‘I’m really sorry you’re doing this title.’ What was she doing that was so awkward? ‘It was sort of’ – Hardingham pauses, thinking about how to phrase this – ‘moaning.’ Preserving the vocal cords is something of an extreme sport. Hardingham warms up with humming and does rigorous face, mouth and tongue stretches. (‘You look a bit like a loony.’) She also drinks cups and cups of hot lemon and honey as well as a herbal tea called Throat Coat. ‘It’s a secret within the industry, but everyone should know about it!’

In January, The Guardian reported how Apple had quietly released a series of audiobooks recorded by artificial intelligence. The panicky headline wondered if this was ‘the death of the narrator’. Vance isn’t too worried. Currently, all audiobooks – the highest and the lowest sellers – are read by humans, some better than others. ‘I think AI will take over the lowest-selling books because, in some ways, AI is better than a bad narrator. A bad narrator can sometimes be very distracting. AI is built in such a way that it’s not distracting.’

Still – and apologies to the robots – AI is boring. ‘It can send you to sleep,’ says Hardingham. ‘I don’t think it can engage you in the same way a human narrator can.’

Take the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. ‘I love his writing,’ says Vance, ‘but, boy, does he go on sometimes. To be able to lift a long paragraph, and to know which bits to emphasise and which bits not to, is a skill that is only learned over time.’ And to learn that skill requires human instinct.

Early in Vance’s career, he narrated David Copperfield. Published in 1850, the novel is 768 pages long; Vance’s final recording lasts 33 hours and 54 minutes. In response, an American author, Orson Scott Card, wrote, in an opinion piece in a local newspaper, that he’d never ‘got’ Dickens until he listened to it. For Vance, that’s the purpose of audiobook narrators: ‘Texts can be difficult. Not everybody reads well, whether it’s dyslexia or it’s just hard. We’re the gap between author and listener. We are storytellers.’

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