Some Writers Should Be Seen and Not Heard

Authors often like to talk about finding their literary voices, which generally means they haven't sold anything yet. This post, however is about writers who actually have sold a book, want to voice the audiobook edition -- and shouldn't.

Take the case of Harlan Coben, he of the delightfully entertaining Myron Bolitar crime-solving series and stand-alones such as Stay Close, Caught and Hold Tight. His audio publishers have used a variety of talented narrators: Steven Weber, Dylan Baker, Carrington MacDuffie, and the melodramatic Scott Brick, among others. For a while the Bolitar series used Jonathan Marosz, who was spot-on for Coben's cheeky, irreverent Myron. Unfortunately for Coben and readers, Marosz was not available for the 2006 recording of Promise Me, so the author stepped in to do the narration at the publisher's urging. Not a good idea.

Coben is a talented, expressive writer. As a narrator, he's unexpressive and deadly. Thankfully, someone realized their mistake and Coben's voice has not been heard from since.

How important is the narrator in terms of audio sales? "Audiobook listeners make their buying decisions based on the narrator," Ana Maria Allessi, VP at Harper Audio Publishers tells me. If that's so, "This is a tricky area for publishers. How do you tell a best selling author, who may have narrator approval, 'Uh, we don't think you should be the voice for your very own, very personal book.'"

When faced with this dilemma, Allessi goes into vivid detail about how the book recording process works and the considerable stamina needed. She tells would be narrators about being sequestered behind two tightly closed doors in a teeny-tiny room with no air conditioning -- too noisy -- on your feet and using your voice for many hours. How many? For a professional narrator, the general ratio of recording time to finished book is generally about three-to-one, So if the final edited book is 10 hours in length, you'll be in the room for 30 hours. But, "If you're doing a 10-hour book and you're an amateur," says Jerry Maybrook of Los Angeles's production studio The Media Staff, "you'll be stuck in a closed box for 50 hours -- over six 8-hour days! And narrators are paid for the final edited length -- NOT for time spent recording." When they hear this, many writers take a pass, says Harper's Allessi.

Kay Weiss, a producer at Minneapolis's Highbridge Audio tells me, "We actually had a case once where the author started reading the fiction project for a day or so, and then decided it was just too difficult. He ended up backing out of the agreement to read, and we started over with a professional."

Too bad nobody told all this to Joel Stein, Time Magazine writer and author-narrator of his non-fiction Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity from Hachette. It's probably very clever and funny but hard to tell because it's all concealed by Mr. Stein's rapid, atonal narration.

What makes an effective audiobook narration is somewhat elusive. Media Staff's Maybrook calls it good story-telling, like ghost stories told around the campfire.

Narrating is less than full-blown acting and more than your everyday conversation. "It's a different skill." says 25-year veteran producer-director Linda Korn, who has more than 1,200 audiobooks to her credit. "With fiction, you're painting a picture with words. You want the narrators voice to be secondary, to get out of the way, to disappear. An actor, on the other hand, is trained to be very present. The wrong reader can do a lot of damage."

"You have to understand the music of the writing," says the multi-faceted actress and author Marilu Henner, whose latest, Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future, is one of four of her books she's recorded for Simon & Shuster and HarperCollins. "It's like playing an instrument more that it is acting. You have to know where the accent is in the sentence and which word is important. Verbs are probably the most significent thing." She's won the audiobook industry's Audie Award for her narration and talks about the different rhythms and musical movements in an audiobook. "A list of tips in a how-to-book has a different rhythm than a dream-like memory, or a funny story or a sexy sequence."Makes sense -- unless, of course, you're musically tone deaf.

So, Ms. or Mr. Writer, you may be hot stuff on the best-seller lists with approval over who does your audiobook narration, but do yourself a favor: if the producer starts talking about difficulties of audiobook recording, they're probably telling you to keep your voice on the page, not on the CD.