Jilly: Picking Your Brains on Audiobooks

Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or dislike about them?

I adore fiction, but my medium of choice is the written word. Dead tree or e-book, either works for me. I just love the way reading loads a story directly from the page into my brain, allowing me to imagine and interpret the author’s words in the way that’s most personally powerful to me.

I enjoy visual media like movies, TV, and the theater, but I’d choose a book over any of them, any day. My subconscious clearly wants to be the sole interpreter of the story. I guess it’s no surprise that I’ve never even thought of listening to an audiobook.

That may have to change. I’m planning to publish my debut novel, The Seeds of Power, later this year, followed by other stories in the same world and series. I’ll start with e-books and print, but then I think I should add audiobooks. Partly because people who know more than I say that audio is a fast-growing sector, less crowded and thus offering more discoverability to a new author. Mostly, if I’m honest, because it would be something new to learn and I think it would be cool 😉 .

Inevitably, there’s a downside. One reason audio is less crowded is that the cost of creation is higher—somehow (either upfront or through royalties) the author has to pay for a narrator and production costs. To do it right is an expensive business. So if I’m going to invest in e-books, it seems to me I should understand what makes a good one.

I have questions. SO many questions.

  • Do you read, or listen, or both?
  • What influences your decision? If you prefer audiobooks, do you use them to help pass the time when you’re engaged in some other task, like a workout, or a long drive, or a commute, or a house full of laundry?
  • Do you listen to the same authors you read? The same books, even?
  • Do you mind that it takes longer to listen to an audiobook than to read the book?
  • How do you feel about the pricing of audiobooks?
  • How do you assess the quality of the narrator?
  • Do you prefer a male or female narrator?
  • Would you try an audiobook by a new-to-you author because you like the narrator?
  • In your opinion, what makes a successful audiobook?

I have a couple of long journeys planned over the summer. I’m thinking I should listen to a few books, just to get a feeling for how the whole audiobook experience works. Are there any tips or tricks you’d care to pass on to make sure my experience is a positive one?

I bet there are a whole lot more questions I didn’t even think to ask.

Any insights or advice or recommendations you’re prepared to offer would be most gratefully received!

22 thoughts on “Jilly: Picking Your Brains on Audiobooks

  1. I just listened to my first audiobook a few weeks ago, not being a fan of having someone else interpret a story for me (perhaps I wasn’t read to enough as a child). I only listened to the book because (a) it came free with the eBook I bought and (b) because the book had a number of foreign words in it and I wanted to hear how to correctly pronounce them (rather than just guessing).

    I can’t say I’m a convert, but listening to the book left my hands and eyes free to be doing something else, which was nice, and it was convenient to listen (with the book on the timer setting) as I was falling asleep. I know many folks who swear by audiobooks for travel and long commutes and I can see the benefit there. I did find it difficult on occasion to know which character was talking, even though the narrator used slightly different voices for each of them. I kept thinking what I really would have liked is for there to have been different people for each character (like a radio play), though that would be prohibitively expensive, I’m guessing.

    I’m not to familiar with the pricing of audiobooks, but unless it was a book I loved, I probably wouldn’t be willing to pay more than what I’d pay for an eBook or actual dead-tree version.

    It may be that some books work better in audio format than others. I just listened to (courtesy of my local library), Dear Committee Members, which was a novel, told in the form of letters. The story had only a single voice, so there was no confusion about who was “talking”. It worked really well as an audiobook and the voice (male) really worked well with the story, though I think I still would rather have just read the physical book.

    As for male vs female, I would expect the narrator to be of the same gender of the main / POV character. If a story switches back and further between POV characters though, I really don’t know how that would work.

    I’ve listened to several audiobook snippets in the last few days and some worked for me while some didn’t. I’m not sure I can explain the difference though. One used a voice for a secondary character that just grated, so It spoiled the whole narration I for me. I will say, I’m a sucker for a slight British accent, though that wouldn’t be appropriate for all stories.

    • Elizabeth, as someone who listens to a lot of books, it can be easy to get lost as to who is talking when the voice actor doesn’t use distinctive accents/inflection for a book’s characters. Sian Phillips, who read Sprig Muslin by Heyer, doesn’t have quite the difference in inflection/tone/accent with her characters and I found myself getting lost. Sometimes it’s just finding the right book and narrator. And yes, there are definitely narrators that grate on my nerves. See below! 🙂 I hope you’re able to find some books you enjoy, though, as it would make your commute, which I know to be long, a good way to catch up on story. Happy story searching!

    • That’s really interesting and helpful, Elizabeth–thank you! The Alexis books have one female POV character, which I guess might make it easier/clearer for the listener. The Seeds of Power has two POV characters, alternating heroine and hero. They are only the leads for one book, but they show up as important secondary characters in the Alexis book.

      Which brings me to something I hadn’t thought of in this context–planning narration for the whole series when I work on the first audiobook. I considered series branding carefully when I worked on the cover design (coming soon!) but hadn’t considered that the same should apply to audiobooks. Doh. If I give Christal a slight British accent (and I LOVE that you enjoy that) then I’ll have to do the same with Alexis. And various series characters appear in TSOP as well as the Alexis books, so whoever voices them in Christal’s book will set them up for future narrators. Hm. Even more to think about here than I realised. Thanks again!

  2. OH-EM-GEE! I love LOVE *LOVE* Audiobooks! I listen to them all the time! To answer your questions above:
    –I read and listen. I don’t have a preference for either one, but I definitely have a few narrators whose voices grate on my nerves and no matter what book they’re reading, I can’t listen to them (Kate Reading is an example, and she reads for Loretta Chase, so I’m screwed there)
    –I use audiobooks because they’re surprisingly like TV, except without the pictures. Some of the good narrators can conjure up a different voice for every character, and after awhile, you’re so into the story, and so able to tell who the characters are by the reader’s voice, that the “he said” and “she said” fades into the background, almost like it isn’t there. I listen in the car, on walks, when doing mundane tasks around the house, or when I’m working in the yard. Basically any time that doesn’t require concentration. And there are a couple faves I have that I listen and re-listen to, usually right before bed (so if I fall asleep, I don’t miss much of the story…Audible does have a sleep timer, BTW!).
    –If I’ve read a book, I generally don’t listen to it, except for Georgette Heyer (and that’s because some of the voice actors are so good).
    –The time thing doesn’t bother me at all. Again, a good voice actor will make it seem like the time is whizzing by. Plus, an added benefit has been me taking another lap around the neighborhood because I want to keep listening.
    –Pricing…I have the subscription plan, one credit for $15/month. Doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t think I would buy them as much if I didn’t have the subscription…$34 for an audiobook is pricey. And I do not participate in the Romance program that Audible has, in part because not everything I download is romance. I tend to listen to non-fiction/memoir more through Audible (like Trevor Noah or David Sedaris) or other fiction (like Ken Follett). I do believe you get a discount on the books you download if you exceed your subscription plan, but I admit I’m behind on mine, because I’ve been doing a lot of re-listening.
    –As for the narrator, from a listening standpoint, I ALWAYS listen to a sample before I download. Again, there are a couple narrators that grate on my nerves (Sian Phillips is another, but she reads Heyer, so I put up with it…Rosalyn Landor is pretty good, but I don’t think she has much variety in her vocal cast of characters, so to speak. I’ll listen to her, but she’s not a favorite). Whether male or female doesn’t bother me, but I do not like having a man and a woman read two different POVs. I’d rather have a single narrator for the whole book.
    –I have searched for books based on narrator. It’s been mostly good. Again, when you like the voice, the book could be kinda crappy and it’s okay. At least for me. LOL!
    –To me, a successful audiobook is one where a wide cast of characters is easily discernible by the voice actor’s inflection, accent, and tone. If you want some good examples, I suggest “Sylvester” by Georgette Heyer, read by Nicholas Rowe, or “The Unknown Ajax” read by Daniel Philpot. I know you’re already familiar with the stories, but listen to how the actors do such a good job giving each character a distinctive voice. It’s really amazing, particularly in Ajax (which, coincidentally, I’m listening to at night again). I also don’t like it when the sound is off. I downloaded one book that had two voice actors (a guy and a girl/dual POV book) and the girl was much harder to hear than the guy. I’m not sure if that’s why I don’t like dual POV books, but I’m not willing to burn a credit to give it a try again (unless someone has a kick-ass recommendation for me).

    My friend Jenn recently had her books recorded and aside from the fact that her narrator just won an award for another book she recorded, Jenn says that most of her action is coming from audio right now. Jenn is doing a royalty split with her voice actor (and the voice actor sought Jenn out, not the other way around).

    When I was at the conference in Cali, I attended a workshop on Audible. Took lots of good notes. I’ll be sure to pass them on to you, and I’m sure there will be something Audible-related when you attend RWA in NYC. You should check it out if you can.

    Good luck! This is exciting! I will say that as a listener, I would expect characters in a fantasy novel to have some sort of European/British accent. Think LOTR or GOT. An American accent is so pedestrian. 🙂

    • This is great stuff, Justine, thank you very much! I would love to see your workshop notes and will definitely be looking out for Audible workshops at RWA. I’m so happy that you would expect the characters in a fantasy to have some kind of British accent. That makes life easier for me 🙂

      As you know, I LOVE Unknown Ajax, so that would be the perfect book to start my audiobook education. Do you have any recommendations for especially good female narrators? I know Renee Raudman is much-loved by Ilona Andrews fans, and she’s also narrated a couple of Jeffe Kennedy fantasies, so I guess she’d be another good place to start. Also if you’ve ever tried a series with the same narrator and have thoughts on that, I’d love to hear ’em.

      Fair warning–I am SO going to pick your brains when the time comes 😉

      • Pick all you want. I’m actually looking forward to the audio book portion of the process because I love the format so much. I completely forgot about listening to audiotapes when I would drive back and forth between home and college (that was 25 years ago…and a 10-hour drive each way, but like Jeanne said, it did make the time go by, and I almost never got distracted).

        There are thousands of voice actors out there, and Jenn said listening to them all was a real drag…she had in her head how her MC should sound, but finding the right voice was hard. I think she put her book out for bid, and that’s how she ended up with her actor, Chelsea Stephens. I can pass you Jenn’s info when the time comes, too, because she’s already done all this. And yes, as Jeanne mentioned, you do have to listen to the whole thing once it’s done, but in Jenn’s case, her actor read the first chapter, I think, and anything that had a new character (needing a new voice) to get all the voices nailed before she started, and was able to iron out some of those details before the real recording began.

        For female narrators (again, more Georgette Heyer, sorry!), you can try Phyllida Nash. She’s read a couple Heyer books and I believe I downloaded one other book she read (but honestly I’m not sure I’ve listened to it yet). You can try “The Foundling” for her. I also listened to a Heyer book many years ago read by Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who played Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the A&E version of P&P, so of course that was divine. In skimming through my other audiobooks, I enjoyed Jayne Patterson, who read The Fever Tree, and Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren, both of whom read Orphan Train. Eve Matheson is another good one (reading Lady of Quality). They might be out of our price league to hire, but you can at least find voices you DON’T like.

        • Thanks again, Justine! I’ll check out these narrators. I’m sure they’ll be budget-busters, but at least I’ll get an idea of how a top-notch audiobook narrator might approach a novel. If they’re books I know well (like Heyer) then I guess/hope it will be easier to get a feel for how closely they capture my interpretation of the story and characters, and where they diverge, and what some of the potential pitfalls might be. It will be a while before audiobooks reach my to-do list, but I’d rather think about my preferences now than have to start from scratch (say) next year.

        • I have a feeling that hiring a voice actor is going to be a bit like hiring a cover designer — you’ll need to find someone who does good work in your field, and then trust that the person can find the voices in your work. If they have a fanbase, then they can bring that fanbase to your book through their own marketing efforts.

          I’m just going to place this here because I don’t want to forget: one important reason for audiobooks is accessibility. Blind readers will have special criteria that may translate to an easier listening experience for sighted readers (who don’t always dwell on certain things, but might notice them subconsciously).

          But I might be behind the times on this; maybe a good text-to-voice program is better than a bad narrator.

        • I hope hiring a voice actor is like hiring a cover designer, because so far I’ve been thrilled with the way my cover design experience has worked out (watch this space!).

          I actually hired the designer to create an author brand for me, before I started work on the covers (watch this space again). It took us perhaps a month of back-and-forth for me to figure out what I wanted and for them to express it in a way that felt right to me. I was a bit embarrassed as I kept saying no, not that, not yet, nearly, I preferred the previous one, or none of those but what about this? I must say, they were super-patient and I hope they were as thrilled with the outcome as I was. Told you that to say after all the author brand back-and-forth, they took my cover design brief and hit it out of the park on the first try. It was way better than anything I could have imagined–I’d have put far too much stuff on there. I made one tiny change (can we lose the ear-rings?), and that was all.

          So I guess even if I find the perfect narrator first time, there will be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing at the beginning. Hoping that doesn’t go wrong (per Jeanne’s comment, below), and then with luck and a following wind things will settle into a pattern.

          Your comment about blind readers reminded me that one of my friends volunteers with a not-for-profit that records books for visually impaired readers. Not sure if they’re public domain books, or if they get the author’s consent. My friend turned out to have a great voice and has been doing a lot of reading/recording. Must ask her for tips, hints and words of wisdom.

  3. I probably dislike audio books as much as Justine likes them. I’ve listened to two, and I’ll never listen to another one unless I go blind and have no other way to enjoy fiction. Part of it that, like Elizabeth, is that I don’t want anyone else to interpret for me how someone sounds. (I often don’t much like television or film adaptations, either.) There is no occasion, where, if it were possible to listen to a story, I wouldn’t rather read it.

    And on a physical note, I loathe having earbuds in my ears. So that’s out. And listening to books in the car? I prefer singing with the radio.

    • I completely understand, Kay. I’ve always felt much the same, but it seems there are many enthusiastic listener-readers out there. I suppose if I still had to jostle my way to work on a tube or train for a couple of hours every day (singing not an option) I might have tried audio books before now. Anyhoo, once I get these books out into the world (please let it be soon!), I’d like to give myself a chance to reach as wide an audience as possible, and after ebooks and print, audio seems the obvious next step.

      I already made a note to pick Justine’s brains, not yours, when I eventually get to work on this project 😉 .

      • I wonder if you’d be willing to write a novella or two (or the scripts) for a local college or university radio show? Just as an experiment in how the whole thing is done. You might find voice actors that you really like, and they would get really good scripts and original content in return.

        I know that the BBC has done some brilliant adaptations of books — Good Omens was a radiio show before it was a mini-series, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a beloved radio program, I understand. I don’t know what the amateurs are like, and what outlets they have before they “make it” at the Beeb.

  4. My husband and I listened to books-on-tape when we drove out to Yellowstone (1600 miles one-way) and the time we traced the journey of my heroine-on-the-run, which started in Portland, OR (2380 miles from my house) and ended in Atlanta, GA. Having stories told to us as we drove and drove and drove really helped pass the time.

    One of our favorites was Garrison Keillor (before his fall from grace). As others have pointed out, a great voice makes a world of difference..If you ever get a chance to listen to the audio recording of his short story, “The Babe,” do so. It is brilliant.

    The biggest drawback for me is that I’m a bit ADD, and when my attention wanders, audiobooks keep going. Whereas, when you’re reading and you stop focusing, you also stop reading.

    Since then, I’ve only listened to a couple of audiobooks, One was Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer. It has two main characters, one female, one male. They were voiced by a woman and a man, respectively. I thought it worked exceptionally well, and I know Julie was pleased.

    I’ve done a bit of research into audiobooks and the amount of work for the author is scary. You must listen to the draft recordings and identify mispronunciations and failures to appropriately convey the text. Aside from the fact that my ADD makes this sound like a monumental task, and not one I’d excel at, I gather that author/actor relationships sometimes rupture over interpretation.

    So, at this point, I’m actually glad the cost is prohibitive.

    • Your road trips sound awesome!

      I take your points about the workload and the investment. I’ll be interested to read Justine’s workshop notes and to see what other tips I can glean at Nationals. Then I’ll keep listening but otherwise will put it on the ‘must cogitate’ list. I know we’re barely into June, but there’s no space left on this year’s ‘to do’ list!

    • I love Keillor, even if he turned out to be another creepy old man. His work really speaks to the humanity of people, and I’ve cried more than once to his audio recordings (even though I’m not really a crier-because-of-fictional-situations kind of person).

      It makes me wonder, are good people even capable of creating great art? Does an artist have to be flawed and broken and whatever in order to create stuff that really touches our hearts? What if most artistic joy is really some desperate slob groping for happiness in any way s/he can?

      But then again, where do we draw the line? Is it OK to enjoy the work of child molesters and cannibal/murderers? Or are we only allowed to enjoy the work of people who only torture themselves?

      Whoa . . . that turned dark quickly. Sorry to go off-topic like that.

  5. I used to listen to podcasts quite a bit while I was driving in the country — they were finite, and usually done by the end of my trip, so I didn’t have to remember things. I had a tough time listening while driving in the city, because I find it VERY hard to multi-task like that — listening, driving and imagining.

    I have a hard time with books in the car. I’ve only tried to listen to a couple, and both were children’s books. Strega Nona was great! But something about the other one . . . hard to hear over car noise, and it was a long book, and just too much boring stuff.

    I think this can be a huge problem with novels: too much boring stuff. You can skim when you are reading, but when you are driving, you wind up thinking about the countryside and other personal thoughts, and it’s easy to miss the spot where the narrative picks up again. (And with my car stereo system, it’s very difficult to “rewind” back a few seconds. While driving, I can go back to the beginning of the track, or soldier on.)

    I don’t know. I think I like being in charge of the story when I read books, and I love relinquishing almost all control when I watch a story with visuals. My mother was a good and interesting reader when I was a child, and was always willing to answer questions, or go back if I had questions. None of the audiobooks seem like they could measure up to Mom.

    • Oh! I hadn’t thought about having to listen to the boring bits. I skip and skim all the time. (Reminded of Elmore Leonard’s rule–try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip).

      I doubt any audiobook could measure up to Mom, but I wonder if this is question-and-answer engagement is something a smart speaker might do one day? I’m not a fan (I loathe the idea of voluntarily bugging my own home) but many people love them, and given the pace at which AI seems to be developing, an artificially intelligent narrator might be a possibility.

  6. My husband finally convinced me to take the dive into audio books last year. I’m so glad he did. I often listen to books when I would have otherwise watched TV, like while I’m knitting or folding laundry. I also like to set a time and listen at bedtime or in the car. They are just so convenient.
    I do still love a physical book, but I’ve faced some medical challenges that have made it difficult for me to focus on the written word, or I get interrupted so many times that I just end up ready the same paragraph over and over again. I do think that I get more from a physical book–if I have the opportunity to read un-distracted.

    • That’s interesting food for thought, Candace, thank you! I like the idea of setting a timer and listening at bedtime, and maybe when I’m in the kitchen cooking would be another possibility. And I imagine a whole host of medical-related challenges where the audio format would be a significant benefit.

      Do you have any recommendations? Genres or authors or narrators that you particularly like to listen to?

      • I do a lot of histories. I’ve been really hooked on the Romanovs and Queen Victoria lately. I’m limited to what is available from my library offers, but I’m about ready to get an Amazon subscription.

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