Audiobooks and the difference between books and stories
Audiobooks are my new object of affection. Now that I have a commute, I can make the ride feel more productive when I listen to a book on the way to my office. And I already have my favorite narrators. Barbara Rosenblat is Amelia Peabody in my mind’s ear, and Charlotte Kane, who narrates Shelly Laurenston’s Pride series, has become inextricably associated with those books for me, so much so that they have become my “comfort listen.” In fact, when I checked out the first book of Laurenston’s new series, The Unleashing, I was disappointed because it seemed to have a new narrator. So I pre-ordered the Kindle version and whined to a friend who also loves Laurenston’s books. When my friend told me the new narrator (Johanna Parker) sounded a lot like Charlotte Kane, I did about five seconds of digging before I discovered that Kane is Parker’s pseudonym. Hallelujah! I immediately bought the Audible version of The Unleashing and read/listened to the book at the same time.
I actually had no idea that audiobook narrators had pseudonyms, but given the extent to which I grow to associate a voice with an author or character, it makes sense. Apparently the concept originated with book publishers who wanted to brand their audiobook performances.
My discovery about Parker and Kane led to an interesting conversation on Twitter about the relationship between narrator and book. Because it’s a rather unique relationship. Unlike a stage play or screenplay for a movie or television show, books are not written explicitly (or perhaps even incidentally) for audio narration. And we’re not just talking narration in the way that a digital device may “speak,” but a full-blown adaptation of the written text such that the reader experiences the words through an interpreter of sorts
For non-fiction, my attachment is not as fierce, but for a genre like Romance, which necessitates a certain intimacy between characters, and between characters and reader, I am much a much pickier reader-listener. When I tried another Laurenston books with a male narrator, for example, had that been my first experience with her books, I probably would not have picked another up. By contrast, I found the audio performance of The Unleashing more enjoyable than reading the book myself. The way Kane/Parker performed those characters brought them to life in a way that allowed me to enjoy parts of the book that bored me when I read them myself. This may have something to do with the fact that I already trusted the narrator, but I also think that a good performance (however that translates to an individual reader) can make a book substantially more enjoyable (and vice versa). I see different things when I’m listening. I focus on different aspects of the story and on different lines of dialogue and descriptions. I can even receive characters in a new way, for better or worse. I just don’t eye-read and ear-read the same way.
In fact, one of the things I love about the Kindle/Audible partnership (yes, I’m the person who buys the discounted audio version of many of my Kindle books), because it gives me more options in how I can experience a book. I don’t want to listen to everything in audio, and some audio performances just don’t live up to my personal experience of the book, unmediated by a third-party narrator. And then there are those books like The Goblin Emperor, where the narration keeps me from stumbling over some of the Elvish and Goblin words, which makes for a smoother reading experience. Is that good? I’m not sure. Is it more enjoyable? Sometimes.
The unique connection between story and narration is exemplified by the new Audible original audio dramas. I purchased Jeffrey Deaver’s The Starling to better understand what Audible was creating, and the experience was impressive. Sound effects, multiple narrators, music, and impressive production values made The Starling a true dramatic performance, a radio drama, essentially, being pitched to book lovers who enjoyed having books adapted to audio. And I am coming to understand why Audible would be so anxious to make this kind of investment.
Harlequin’s recent announcement that they are creating an audiobook imprint reflects the rapidly growing market for both adapted and original audio content. This growth seems to defy research that suggests high levels of mind-wadering and boredom associated with audiobooks. Audible enjoys a 30% boost in membership each year, and according to the AAP, audiobooks are growing more rapidly than any other format. Unlike other book formats, audio can draw “readers” from audiences outside traditional book readers. Which is the niche I see so-called original content filling, especially when it’s decked out with all sorts of fancy background effects and extensive casts.
And it’s also a great example of how audiobooks call attention to the difference between book and story.
When digital books started to make their presence known as a legitimate format, the book became as much a symbol and an idea as an actual form. Because above all, book is synonymous with form and format, whether that be paper, digital, or audio. Otherwise, all stories could be designated as books, when stories both pre-date the form we identify as book and extend far beyond that form. Audiobooks are easily categorized as books when they are adapted from that form, but what about these original audio dramas, which are more story than book?
Listening to The Starling, for example, was more like listening to a radio drama or a movie without the picture. If audiobooks were introduced for the first time today, after the advent of digital books and reading devices, after the rise of the tablet and the smartphone, and streaming services like Netflix, would we automatically register audiobooks as books, or would we be looking at the way that story can, but does not always have to, intersect with book?
For whatever reason, audiobooks have not caused the same shockwaves among booklovers who are concerned about the future of traditional publishing and paper books. And yet, audiobooks place a mediating voice between text and reader, a voice that can be crucial to the reader’s experience of the book. I’m not saying that publishers and authors don’t take the performance aspect of the audiobook seriously, but I do wonder, as audiobooks continue to grow, if we will see a greater diversity of voice performers enter the field, and how, if at all, reader response will drive that selection process. Even though the narrator is not a content creator, she/he is a creative partner in the execution of the story, and that is a crucial role. As audiobooks continue to grow, and as they push the boundaries of how story is presented and experienced, I think there are going to be many opportunities to expand and diversify the way stories are presented.
Right now, people experience stories in myriad ways – through video and RPG gaming; through films, television, and stage performances; through serial fiction, graphic novels, short and long-term writing on venues like Medium, Wattpad, and other platforms; and through poetry, song, and various forms of performance and studio art. Story is everywhere, and when people talk about the future of books and the competition posed by other entertainment industries, story is central to all of these competing forms of entertainment. And I’d say that the burgeoning audiobook business is a good sign for the future of books, in general especially if we continue to let the concept of the book expand to accommodate these new ways of containing, presenting, and “reading” stories.
Will Romance be leading that charge? Speaking of which, are there certain genres that are easier or more enjoyable to listen to, and how crucial is the narrator in the experience of an audiobook? Are there authors you will “read” only in audio, or never in audio? And what’s your favorite audiobook of all time and why?