We’re talking a lot about blind characters this week, but we also think it’s very important to talk about blind readers; although audiobooks aren’t the only option for blind readers, they’re an essential part of making reading as accessible as possible. Thus, we’re very excited to sit down with two Penguin Random House Audio employees—marketing manager Jennifer Rubins and head of production Dan Zitt—and talk about the behind-the-scenes process of audiobooks.
Kody Keplinger: Let’s start at the beginning of the process. How do you decide which books to publish? Are there certain elements that make for a good audiobook?
Dan Zitt: All kinds of stories can make for a great audiobook. Penguin Random House Audio produces nearly 800 audiobooks a year from a huge range of genres, from history and biography to memoir, thrillers, sci-fi, and YA. Nearly all genres translate well to a listening experience, with a few exceptions like heavily illustrated cookbooks or gift books.
Kody: Can you walk us through the process? How do you choose narrators? How long does it take to record and produce an audiobook?
Dan: When we cast, we are looking for a skilled storyteller for the book, and we always start with the author, sending them samples of some narrators we think might work well for the book. We talk to them about how they imagine the book sounding and then match the book with an actor who has an appropriate voice and skills needed to handle the text. For example, can this actor convincingly convey a French accent, or how authentic does the actor sound to voicing a first person account from a young woman’s point of view? We don’t take a cookie cutter approach to the casting process—the goal is to always to serve the author’s work.
Once the book is cast, we schedule the recording session, which typically takes place two to three months before the book goes on sale, once the final manuscript is ready. Depending on the length of the book, it can take several full eight-hour days in the studio for the narrator. A director is also in the studio to help guide the recording, confirming pronunciation, maintaining consistency with names, voices and accents, and giving feedback on the narrator’s performance. We typically spend three hours in the studio for every finished hour, so a twelve-hour audiobook would usually take 36 hours, or four days, to complete.
After the recording is finished and we’ve edited and mastered the audio files, we put each audiobook through a quality control process where a technician goes through the recording line by line to catch any missed words or mistakes. If we need to make any fixes, we bring the narrator back into the studio for a pickup session to make sure we’ve got everything right.
Kody: As a blind person, I’d say 90% of my reading is consumed via audiobook. Do you find that a large number of your customers are blind/visually impaired or have reading disorders?
Jennifer Rubins: It’s inspiring that audiobooks are enjoyed by such a wide range of customers for a variety of reasons. And yes, that certainly includes a large number of readers who are visually impaired or who have reading disorders. The profound effect that audiobooks have on those who might otherwise miss out on the pleasures and necessities of reading cannot be underestimated.
Because audiobooks enhance the reading experience for so many people, not only the visually impaired, they also serve as a great equalizer and way to connect with others. In fact, 30% of people are auditory learners, and so for this significant group, audiobooks are the best way to comprehend a story. Studies have also shown that struggling readers can listen to a book two grade levels above their reading level which helps them keep pace with their peers.
We also hear from people who love audiobooks because it allows them to read while they commute, craft, or do chores, and from families who want to enjoy story time together as they travel in the car. If anything, the audience for audiobooks only continues to grow and it’s wonderful that they serve so many different types of listeners.
Kody: Do you actively think about disabled readers when producing and marketing audiobooks? If so, in what way?
Jennifer: The goal with every audiobook is to create the best possible adaptation using the author’s original text. This means that ANY listener can enjoy the audio and consider it a true reading experience.
Audiobooks play a critical role in the lives of disabled readers and therefore, we recognize that audiobooks are a vital part of the diversity conversation when it comes to literature. We recently launched HearDiversity.com as a way to shed light on the importance of stocking audiobook collections with diverse stories, including those with themes of ability and disability. It’s so important for everyone to feel included—not only in their ability to read by having access to the audio format, but also by hearing themselves represented within the stories we tell. And knowing that others will have a chance to hear about their experiences, too.
Kody: What makes marketing an audiobook different from marketing a hardcover? How do you go about reaching a target audience?
Jennifer: We have a lot of fun finding new ways to connect with listeners. And because there are many different aspects to audiobooks, from the initial announcement of an author’s book, to the casting of a narrator, to how and where the audio format can be enjoyed, our marketing can vary in its approach. And in that way, our audience varies, too. But what is universal is our innate human connection to aural storytelling. So sharing in that simple joy of being read to is a wonderful place to start, especially when it comes to “kidlit”! Some of our marketing, especially in schools and libraries, focuses on how audiobooks can impact literacy, as well as how audiobooks can bring a book to life in magical new ways. Thanks to audiobooks, young listeners are introduced to accents, vocabulary, and pronunciations they may have never heard before; a narrator, full cast, or sometimes even an author reading his or her own work, brings an authenticity to the story that turns reading into a truly memorable listening experience.
Kody: What are your goals/hopes for the audiobook market over the next ten years?
Jennifer: More listeners! The audiobook format has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, but many avid readers still haven’t tried an audiobook. Many of our efforts are focused on getting new listeners to try audiobooks, in particular encouraging more kids and families to listen, which can be both a great way to share a story as a family as well as support kids’ reading skills.