Try to conjure the most intimidating sentence you might hear as a rookie author about to record your first audiobook. You’re settling into the unfamiliar studio, fussing with your water, cough drops and script. How about the director telling you, “Oh, I just finished recording Margaret Atwood’s audiobook yesterday.”
Atwood’s Burning Questions: Essays & Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 is one of the biggest publications this year – in terms of anticipation, attention, sales and sheer heft. The audiobook is also an enormous endeavour: More than 60 pieces were narrated by 37 people in five countries over six time zones around the world – all during a pandemic. Voices include award-winning actors and writers, including Ann Dowd, Esi Edugyan and Omar El Akkad.
“We’ve done multi-voice projects before but never quite on this scale,” says Sonia Vaillant, who produced the audiobook for Penguin Random House Canada. “It was a really happy passion project.”
The rookie author in the above scenario is me. Recently, I recorded the audiobook for my memoir, Kiss the Red Stairs: The Holocaust, Once Removed. The scale of my production was much smaller compared to Burning Questions, but still I saw firsthand the process – which deepened my appreciation of the art form. People, I have found, can indeed be very passionate about audiobooks. Writing this story, I heard more than one user describe themselves as “obsessed.”
Beyond passion, audiobooks are big business. More Canadians are seeking them out, making audiobooks one of the fastest growing segments of not just the publishing industry, but the overall media and entertainment market. A 2020 BookNet Canada study found that 37 per cent of Canadians are listeners; audiobook purchases had increased 34 per cent since 2018; and that nearly a quarter of users listen daily. In the U.S., the world’s largest audiobook market, a 2019 Deloitte study noted that audiobook download revenues grew by double-digits in almost every year since 2013, with nearly 40-per-cent growth in 2018, and had a higher percentage growth in revenues than printed books or e-books in the first half of 2019.
At those rates, audiobook revenues are on a trajectory to pass e-book sales by about 2025, says study co-author Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media & telecommunications research for Deloitte Canada. And listeners are young, paving the way for more growth. According to the Audio Publishers Association, 56 per cent of U.S. audiobook listeners are younger than 45.
“I think a lot of that has to do with younger people having less media phobia. Any kind of media is fine,” says Robin Whitten, editor and founder of AudioFile Magazine, which reviews and writes about audiobooks. “They’re not going to say, oh I really should read that with my eyes, because that’s better.”
It’s not generally a one-or-the-other prospect. BookNet found that many listeners use audiobooks as a complement or supplement to physical books – not a total replacement. And that sometimes, they’ll listen to the audiobook after reading the physical or e-book.
Audiobooks offer an added artistic element: the actual sound of the written words, spoken possibly by the person who wrote them, but more frequently by a professional reader.
“It’s kind of like sitting around the fire and having somebody telling the story in a great old-fashioned way,” says Beverley Cooper, the director of the Atwood audiobook project (and mine). “It’s like somebody’s whispering in your ear and telling you a story.”
A lot of people listen to audiobooks while commuting. So with the pandemic came concern that work-from-home could devastate audiobook sales, says Stewart. In fact, sales grew. “That is exactly backwards to what everybody in the world, including me, thought was going to happen,” he says.
More than half of respondents to a 2021 Rakuten Kobo research study said they listened to more audiobooks than in the previous year, due to COVID and their discovery of the format’s convenience.
We weren’t driving to work, but we were taking long walks. If we lived alone, we craved company. If we didn’t, perhaps there was a desire to drown out the sound of ever-present co-habitants. And we were looking for ways to be entertained away from screens.
For the concentration-challenged – a growing cohort, it seemed, as the pandemic hit – a good audiobook can take a listener deeply and quickly into a story. No need to sit there with the book, reading the same sentence multiple times as your thoughts drift off. Pandemic or not, listening while folding laundry or washing dishes can make the chore less tedious. And they can be a good distraction from the horrors of the world, an immersion into something else.
Stewart has found a synergy between the growth in audiobooks and the growth in podcasting, which market research company Insider Intelligencer has predicted will be a US$94.88-billion industry by 2028.
“The more we audiobook, the more we podcast and vice versa. Our ears are becoming more and more used to it,” Stewart says. Technology is a major driver: smartphones – and now smart speakers and wireless headphones – have made it easier than ever to listen.
BookNet found that the top methods of obtaining audiobooks are YouTube, Audible and the public library.
Audible – the dominant listening service, owned by Amazon – has played a big role in the growing sector, along with other platforms that offer audiobooks on demand by subscription or sale. Library use (through the platform OverDrive) is growing dramatically. BookNet found an increase in 32 per cent in digital library audiobook circulation from 2018 to 2019.
Penguin Random House Canada (which was responsible for the Atwood audiobook), went from producing 19 originals when the department began partway through 2017, to 120 last year, and a projected 140 original audiobooks this year. “We started off by doing select titles,” says Ann Jansen, who heads the program. “And then we started doing pretty much everything that was narrative, aimed at adults.”
Which is how I found myself in a studio in Vancouver sitting across the glass from an engineer, listening to instructions in my headphones from Cooper, my director, from her home office in Toronto. The line I probably heard most was: “Can you slow it down a little bit?”
It’s not a given that an author will record their own book – although it is more common for non-fiction than fiction titles.
If the author isn’t narrating, they will generally have input in the casting process. “We always start with a call to talk [about] the voices of the book, the tone of the book; if there are any characters, how they imagine them sounding in their head,” Vaillant says. If possible, she’ll go with the author’s first choice. “It’s literally the voice of their book.”
Some fiction writers do record their own work. Sheila Heti’s new novel Pure Colour is a meditation on grief, love and climate change. Read by Heti, the poetic, sometimes funny and often devastating prose lifts off the page in a voice that feels exactly right – the drama, the light.
Heti also narrated her previous novel, Motherhood. Initially she wanted someone else to read it, but changed her mind when she listened to the samples provided. “It just didn’t sound like my book. The sentences weren’t being read the way that I heard them.” She was previously unhappy she was not chosen to narrate her 2012 breakout autofiction novel, How Should a Person Be? “I still want to re-record it so it’s in my voice,” she says.
Author André Alexis has recorded several of his books, a process he loves. “I wonder whether listening to the sound of my voice isn’t closer to the thing that first influenced me to write, which is listening to my father tell my stories,” he says.
With non-fiction, especially memoir, the listener may want to hear the voice of the author. This is particularly true for well-known people – say Seth Rogen recording Yearbook or Sarah Polley reading Run Towards the Danger. Barack Obama’s A Promised Land and Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey ranked in Canada’s top five audiobooks sold in 2021, according to Kobo.
Hearing the author’s own voice can enhance the experience of a non-celebrity memoir, too.
Sumaiya Matin asked to do the narration herself for her memoir The Shaytan Bride: A Bangladeshi Canadian Memoir of Desire and Faith. “It was such a personal and intimate story and I couldn’t think of anyone else reading it.”
I too felt like it made sense to record my own book. It helped that I had years of radio experience, but the team had some concerns – one in particular: for my emotional wellbeing. Was I really sure I wanted to do it, they asked. The content can be pretty gruelling, they pointed out.
I balked at these worries. I wrote it, I told them cavalierly. What could be harder than that?
Well, they weren’t wrong. It’s one thing to work for years on a book, slowly, picking away at the sentences. It’s quite another to spend hours a day, three weeks in a row, reading out loud every horrible thing I had written: my mother’s imprisonment at Auschwitz, my father’s near-execution during the Second World War, my grandparents’ gas-chamber deaths. Even more mundane griefs – the deaths of friends, a divorce, a missing cat – stirred emotions I wasn’t expecting.
I asked Matin about handling that. Her book has difficult details as well – how she went from her life in Canada to the shock of a return to Bangladesh, where she faced the prospect of a coerced arranged marriage. “If I started to notice sensations in my body, or my chest was tightening, my body was talking to me,” she told me. Self-care included supportive chats with the sound engineers and taking walks outside the downtown Toronto studio.
Your physical endurance will also be tested. Your throat will dry up during this oration marathon, your back might seize up, your feet might swell if you choose to stand.
After my first day, I splurged on cough drops so expensive I thought the price tag was a mistake. I drank pots of chamomile tea. Green tea did the trick for Matin. For Heti, apples were a saviour in the studio. “I would speak and my voice would be crisp like an apple, crisp and clear. It was just an amazing trick,” says Heti, who actually hates apples, but was willing to eat them for the cause. (The apples worked for me too.)
Recording an audiobook is a humbling experience in other ways; at least it was for me. I started to hate myself for the long, long sentences I had written, with their parenthetical thoughts and so many words. I wondered if recording an audiobook might affect the way an author writes. Would I keep my sentences shorter, next time around?
Worse, I found mistakes. In one chapter, I used the word “grandmother” when I meant my great-grandmother.
Awful, but apparently not unusual.
“I have never worked on a book where the reader didn’t find a mistake,” Cooper tried to console me in the session.
Vaillant concurred in how common it is to find mistakes at this very late stage in the publishing process. Even if the producer, director and performer have all read the script multiple times, she says, sometimes they only notice the errors in the studio. “I know the editors and authors always feel that as well. ‘I’ve been working on this book for four years. How did I miss this?’”
In my case, I was able to fix these mistakes for the audiobook (and the e-book), but it was too late for the print version. (Ugh.)
Another key team member is the engineer, who made notes about these changes, while recording and listening for audio problems – tummy rumbles, burps, clothing noise. The studio we used is near several very high-end car dealerships and sometimes we would have to re-record because the sound of a revving Lamborghini could be heard faintly in the background.
The director listens for narration quality, to make sure the words are read as they appear – and also for pronunciation. There’s a lot of preparation. For Atwood’s book, Cooper figures she looked up more than 700 terms: names, historic events, pronunciations, definitions. “She had some big thoughts in there and big 10-dollar words,” Cooper says.
In my case, I missed flagging a few pronunciations in advance, so Cooper worked her magic on the fly. At one point, she figured out how to say the name of a German town by watching an ice bucket challenge video on YouTube.
Alexis got stuck on some Polish and Hungarian he had written in his novel Fifteen Dogs, where the canine protagonists gain human consciousness – and one of the dogs overhears these other languages in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood. The engineer called a friend who spoke Polish, who then referred them to someone else who spoke Hungarian. They recorded the passages over the phone and Alexis listened to the audio repeatedly before he read the words on tape.
The method generally used in Canada is roll record – you just keep going, mistakes and all, and it’s fixed in editing. After editing, the audio is sent off to “quality control” (QC). Any problems identified are fixed at a subsequent session. I use my hands a lot when I talk and many of my re-takes were the result of the noise from me banging the music stand holding my script. That then goes back to QC, with another session scheduled to fix stuff. And then you’re done. Once edited, your audiobook is ready on publication day for readers to download.
There are fans who will choose audiobooks not just based on the content, but the narrator – some of whom attract a following. For Alexis, an audiobook is of immediate interest if it’s narrated by Ian McKellan, Mark Rylance or Patrick Stewart.
Other celebrity actors who have dabbled – or made regular work of – narrating audiobooks include Colin Firth and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Juliet Stevenson has made a career of it, recording books by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and many others. Musician Janis Ian, after recording her own memoir, took on other projects – from science fiction to Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
There are names – or voices – that are famous in audiobook circles. Like Jim Dale, who narrates the Harry Potter series (Stephen Fry does the UK books; there has been some hot debate over who does the better job).
For working actors, narration may pay less than film or TV, but it’s a good source of income – especially during a pandemic. It’s also fulfilling. “If you are someone who loves books, it can be really satisfying creatively to tell a beautiful story from start to finish, from everyone in the story’s perspective,” says Toronto-based actor Athena Karkanis (Manifest), who has recorded several audiobooks, including the Joanne Kilbourne mystery series by Gail Bowen. “You get to tell this beautiful story entirely and you get to play all the characters, which you don’t get to do on camera.”
Narrating audiobooks is a true art form, says Whitten of AudioFile Magazine, who was motivated to start her publication in part because she felt it deserved critical analysis. “The performance that a narrator brings is like a music performance,” she says. “Like any kind of a creative interpretation, it should be reviewed.”
Sometimes actors will get recognized for their audiobook voice work – officially, with an Audie Award, or out in the world, by a fan.
For Karkanis, it was a family member. Her brother-in-law downloaded B.C. writer Cedar Bowers’s novel Astra but had to stop listening when he heard Karkanis narrating – a surprise. And too distracting, he told her.
For Burning Questions, Atwood herself narrates the introduction and one essay. She says she did not consider doing the whole book. “Oh I couldn’t have, no. My voice would have given out,” she said in an interview shortly after its publication. “Also it would have been boring; come on, let’s face it.” For the reader, she meant. “With a book of this kind, it’s much more interesting to match pieces up with other voices.”
If a large part of producing audiobooks is matchmaking (narrator to book), this project features some particularly inspired matches.
Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, reads three essays, including pieces about Atwood writing that book and its sequel, The Testaments. Megan Follows, who played Anne Shirley on TV, narrates an essay about the dark side of Anne of Green Gables. Marie Henein, the Toronto lawyer probably best known for defending Jian Ghomeshi in court, reads Atwood’s controversial essay Am I A Bad Feminist?
A piece on Frozen in Time, about the Franklin expedition, is read by Oscar-nominated Irish actor Ciaran Hinds – who played Sir John Franklin in the series The Terror.
Atwood’s essay on Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen is read by Highway himself, one of her suggested pairings.
She narrates Polonia – an essay about giving advice – leaning into her trademark wit, even just from the way she says “cheese” – or in her recitation of Polonius’s famous advice speech to Laertes from Hamlet (“neither a borrower nor a lender be”).
Walking around listening to Burning Questions on my headphones, I found I would become attached to a reader, then bereft when a new person entered my ears with the next essay. But soon enraptured with the next reader. And so on.
I had already read the book in print, but new things jumped out at me as I listened. In the 2018 introduction to Oryx and Crake, Atwood writes about how those two names, said aloud, can sound like a bullfrog. “Try pronouncing it three times, thus: Oryx oryx oryx. Crake crake crake. You see?” she writes.
With the audiobook version – read by Georgia Toews (actor, writer and daughter of Miriam Toews) – you don’t just see. You can actually hear.
We asked some of the people we spoke to for this story to recommend an audiobook or two.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, narrated by Alan Rickman
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, narrated by Ian McKellen
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot books, narrated by David Suchet (very soothing while doing dishes, she reports)
The Misewa Saga by David A. Robertson, narrated by Brefny Caribou
Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, narrated by Tagaq, with throat singing
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, narrated by Gabra Zackman
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, narrated by Laverne Cox
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, narrated by Rachel McAdams
Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese, narrated by Monique Mojica, J.D. Nicholsen, Benjamin Blais, Wesley French and Douglas Hughes
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, full cast recording
Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone (Outlander, Book 9) by Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter
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