How are readers chosen for audiobooks? Once I proposed to the APA that we produce a documentary on how audiobooks are made, using actors with drama and humor to tell the story. The idea got shot down by the board as being cost prohibitive. So here’s the next best thing: two veteran producers, Dennis Kao and Linda Ross of Warner Audio (now Hachette Audio) discussed it with me.
JONATHAN LOWE: When they hand you two a print manuscript to produce as an audiobook, what do you do first? Walk us through the procedure.
DENNIS KAO: I like to take the manuscript home, away from ringing phones, then lie on my couch and read. The book will usually tell me how it should be produced. . . what the tone should be, who’s point of view is it told from, what type of music should be used, who should we cast, etc. Then I write down my ideas and discuss them with my boss, Maja (Thomas), who will have her own ideas. As does Linda.
LINDA ROSS: When the manuscript comes in, the first thing I do is send it off to an abridger, and I get a word count to determine if we’ve assigned an appropriate length for the format. I then get a feel for the style and tone of the book, which dictates the mood of the production. As I’m reading, I’m taking note of musical ideas and other creative production ideas, like should we have more than one voice, and will we want sound effects? It’s also often a technical process, with copyright issues, and how a certain idea will translate to audio. My brain is working on many levels, but there are usually a couple of nights that I’ll go through a few cups of tea, and be up into the wee hours of the morning in the quiet of my bedroom, just enjoying the book as a consumer might.
LOWE: How do you go about choosing a reader? What are the criteria for matching reader to book?
KAO: Choosing a reader for a project isn’t a cut and dried process. If it’s a non-celeb actor, we’ll usually have them audition with copy from the book, but for a celeb actor, we generally can’t get them to audition so we try to get samples of their previous voiceover work, and if none are available, we look at their resumes, rent their movies or watch their reels. Experience in theater tends to be a good indicator that they can do this type of work. There is always a little bit of uncertainty, however. I’ll often be on pins and needles during the first day of a celeb recording, waiting for that first update from the director. 85% of the time it will go great, 10% of the time it’ll be “not bad”, and 4% of the time you’ll get the “it’ll edit together.” Once or twice a year we’ll have to let the actor go after the first day and re-cast.
LOWE: I’d love to be a fly on the wall when that happens.
ROSS: Agents are now pretty informed on what it takes to be good at this. I often rely on their honesty with me as to an actor’s abilities and range, but it’s a small community, and so we know who has read before, and we do our research. Generally, matching reader to book is fun. Our whole team puts in suggestions for celebrities at our staff meetings, and we all keep up on movies and TV and theatre to track anyone who we think will be ‘castable’ for a book. The tone of the writing lets us know what ‘type’ to go for. Cary Elwes for Patterson’s “Jester” was a perfect fit. So was Dennis Boutsikaris for Anita Shreves’ “All He Ever Wanted.” It’s more than ‘does this person have a good voice.’ The reader has to tell the story like it’s their own, and has to disappear and let the story become the star.
LOWE: What about series? Any examples where readers prefer only certain authors, or celebrities agree to read a certain book because they loved it so much?
KAO: Celeb actors definitely like books written by authors they like or respect. Timing is also important. If you’re lucky, you can get actors between TV shows and movies and theater runs. This was the case with Christina Ricci and Don Cheadle. But celeb or no celeb, we’ll only continue a series with an actor if we feel they’re the right actor. We went through a few people before we decided Len Cariou was the perfect Harry Bosch for Michael Connelly.
ROSS: I think that John Travolta read “Propeller One-Way Night Coach” because of his interest in flying. When I was a freelancer, I recorded Elizabeth Montgomery, before she passed away, reading an A.N. Roquelaire book, which was a pseudonym Anne Rice was using. Montgomery was a big fan and wanted to do it. Derek Jacobi is reading for us now in England. With the series, we’ll only continue with a reader in a series if we like the results. Sometimes authors fall for our narrators too, and that leads us to continue casting them. For example, we love Ron McLarty and so does David Baldacci.
LOWE: McLarty is great. Working with narrators like that must make your job a kick. But, considering all these factors, how smooth does the machine operate?
KAO: It’s really a lot of fun, but sometimes it can be tough. I have to read almost every night, and since projects are often due at the end of the month, you can find yourself pretty busy certain times. But there are so few jobs where you learn so much about so many topics, and my colleagues are all very creative and we feed off one another. Plus, at the end of the day you have the product sitting on your desk and you can say “I made that.” I have a friend who is a securities analyst and making good money but is going back to architectural school for this very reason. There is a certain satisfaction in producing something tangible.
ROSS: You know, our whole team is always agreeing how lucky we all are. We’re consistently juggling 5 to 10 productions at a time that are all in various stages, and tracking down talent, studios, agents, authors, and lots of people to get the best production done in a short amount of time. I always joke that I should be the most well adjusted person on the planet for all the self help books I’ve produced. But there have been times where I’ve sauntered in to the office with red eyes and wrinkled clothes because I slept at the studio finishing a mix so that we meet our deadline. It’s a very tangible thing at the end of the day, it’s true, and we’re proud of that.
LOWE: Speaking of tangibility, James Patterson told me he’s a huge fan of audiobooks, and wants the medium to grow and evolve. What new technologies are on the horizon at Hachette? What do you see happening soon in terms of effects, formats, etc?
KAO: Well, this is an interesting topic. The industry is certainly not mature, but our business is really providing content, not developing technology. Who can say what technology people will be using in 10 years? I wouldn’t put money down that the CD will still be around. That said, technology will never change the fact that you need a good story and good performances that will stimulate your imagination and move you emotionally. A good audiobook makes you forget you’re listening to an audiobook. Harry Potter probably could have been recorded on a Walkman at the intersection of Wilshire and the 405, and still have been a great listen.
ROSS: The Audiobooks biz employs a very innovative bunch, with so many far reaching and ambitious folks that generally just love story-telling and love books. So, as there are lots of ways to tell a story, there are an increasing number of ways to receive the contents of a book, too.
LOWE: You do abridged and unabridged versions of audiobooks. What has been your experience with authors about abridgments? Do they generally approve the edits without much fuss, or do some take a hands-on approach?
KAO: I’ve never had a problem, actually. Some authors are more hands-on then others. Generally they’ll give me a few scenes to put back into abridgments, or tell me that certain optionals should be taken out only as a last resort. No one has ever asked me not to abridge their book. Maybe they’ve already had that conversation with their editors or agents or Maja, I don’t know.
ROSS: Most authors end up pretty pleased with what can be a shocking experience for a any writer, especially a first time author. Authors are prepared for their work to be abridged, and some do take a more hands on approach, where others leave it entirely up to us.
Occasionally they want us to work in their favorite scene that may have been cut, or they might want a little more of one thing or another. I can’t ever remember a time where I’ve had to scrap an abridgment and start over, but I’ve heard stories. And I’ve certainly had to put out a few fires. There are a few tough authors out there, but most roll with the punches and appreciate the challenge and skill it takes to keep their main story intact while sometimes cutting as much of half of it out!
LOWE: Women readers are going to want me to ask you about romance author Nicholas Sparks. What do you know about him, and how did a former Dukes of Hazard star come to narrate “The Wedding” for you?
KAO: Nicholas Sparks is one of the nicest people on earth. It’s refreshing to meet successful, powerful people that don’t seem to know it. I don’t remember how Tom Wopat was cast. You’ll have to ask Linda about that one.
ROSS: I’ll tell you, I went to Scott Linder of Buchwald to give me some ideas when I was casting “The Wedding” and he said “what about Tom Wopat?” I’d heard Tom before read more action-oriented material, and though I love his voice, I thought Scott was half kidding. Well he was not, and he said “trust me”, and I did, and he was right. The old Duke of Hazard himself, Tom Wopat was a sure match for “The Wedding.” Way beyond his “Dukes” days, Tom Wopat is a Tony award-nominated performer, and he has got some incredible chops. I have both Scott Linder and John Wager, the director/producer to thank for a great program! That’s one where I got to sit back and relax.