Close to 20 years ago, I took a job in a special library about an hour from my home. Long story short, the job was not what was it described as and it turned out to be a bad fit. I did learn a few things and one was the great pleasure of audio books. My drive was a mix of a major American mid-western city and interstates. I quickly passed through top 40 radio and talk radio. One day on a whim, I stopped by the local public library and picked up a mystery book on tape (an actual cassette tape, just to show how times have changed) and things have never been the same since. That daily two-hour commute with my audio books became one of the few high points of my dreary day; I loved it and looked forward to the commute. That time took me away because it and entertained and educated.
Today, I have a job I enjoy and I still listen to audio books. The difference is that I also have the great pleasure of reviewing some for Library Journal, so I never know what I will get, but a great editor usually sends me numerous wonderful titles. I have seen the industry go from cheap plastic cassettes to compact Discs to download.
Several aspects must come together for a good book to make a good audio book, but I will focus on narration. Narration is as critical to an audio as acting is to a movie. I have listened to wonderful books narrated by their authors that were almost ruined by their poor narration, and some books that were narrated by academy award winners and those that have won the coveted Audie, (The Audie Awards recognizes distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association), that made a mediocre book into an emotional experience. Narrating a book well takes skill.
A narrator, also known as a voice actor, does so much more than just reading the book aloud. They must read the book several times to get into both the author's head and those of the characters to full understand the piece. They take notes and understand pronunciations and the points of view and emotions. The voice actor brings the story to life without bringing attention to themselves and if they are successful, the listener forgets the narrator. This takes talent.
Several aspects go into a quality narration:
Pacing - the pace of the speech needs to follow the story and the level of action involved. Reading a fight scene too slowly or a romantic passage too quickly can and will ruin it. It needs to be appropriate for the action.
Accent - An Englishman doing his best but still butchering an American accent is just plain wrong and beyond distracting. It will spoil the entire performance. It goes well beyond irritating or annoying. An author spends countless hours pouring their hearts out into the written word; a skilled narrator is a necessity to do it justice. This goes for any accent. Some of the best voice actors are North American or British, but their characters can be from anywhere and be any nationality. This takes practice and skill. I have quite several well-received audio books that were bestsellers because of a poor narrator.
Gender voices - Same issue as nationality if done poorly. A falsetto just won't cut it when a man is playing a woman or vice versa. It is so easy to turn a serious work into a bit of a joke with the male female voice dynamic. Some of the better titles have both men and women voice actors.
Ability of convey mood - To convincingly transmit mood via a narration is acting, but only with pacing, tone and inflection as their tools. When a listener can sense the acid in a character's voice and forget about the actual narrator, the narration is successful.