When Jen announced this year’s Audiobook Week, I immediately knew one thing: I would use it to learn more about the audiobook industry. I love audiobooks, but my knowledge of how a book made it from print to audio was minimal. As I became a more vocal advocate of audiobooks on Twitter, I started following and chatting with people who worked in the audiobook industry. I think perhaps the first person was Tanya Perez (@dogearedcopy). I asked her if she would be willing to be interviewed for Audiobook Week. What I didn’t know at that time was that she is married to Grover Gardner (@GroverGardner), a fantastic audiobook narrator and Studio Director for Blackstone Audio. I swear I live under a boulder sometimes. When Tanya suggested that I interview them both, I was on top of the world.
When I got the interview answers yesterday, I was deep into Grover’s narration of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I had hoped to finish it and review it along with the interview. I’m only a little over half way finished at this point. I can say that I’m loving every minute of it. I had forgotten how wonderfully snarky and hilarious Mark Twain was. I would highly suggest a listen. I will admit to fast forwarding through the more academic portions of the long Introduction. I would have skipped it entirely in print, so this is no reflection on the audiobook whatsoever.
While I can’t publish a review today, but I must let you know that Grover is doing a fantastic job of celebrating audiobooks on his blog for June is Audiobook Month. I have loved each and every post he’s published this month. It’s a must read for audiobook fans.
Without anything more from me, here is my discussion with Grover Gardner and Tanya Perez!
Interview with Grover Gardner and Tanya Perez
Grover and Tanya, thank you for agreeing to talk with me about audiobooks. Since I’ve grown to love them so much, I want to learn more about the industry and I couldn’t ask for two more knowledgeable people to interview about one of my favorite topics.
Literate Housewife: First of all, I’ve got to ask. Did audiobooks bring the two of you together?
Grover Gardner: No, we met in the theatre. Tanya was a technician and I was an actor. We were doing a show we both hated, and were so bored we decided to start going out.
Tanya: Okay, that and I didn’t want to go home and change into a costume for a Heaven & Hell Halloween Party. Grover provided a much more pleasant alternative in going out to drink Scotch. So, yeah, boredom and laziness. The rest is history 🙂
LH: How did each of you first get involved in the audiobook industry? Did you set out to make this part of your career or were you surprised by audiobooks?
Grover: I’d pretty much always wanted to do it. I was a voracious reader in high school and thought that reading books out loud would be fun. I studied to be an actor but also worked a fair amount in radio early on. When I learned that the Library of Congress had a whole program devoted to recording great books, I found a way to audition and that’s what started it all. Eventually the acting tapered off and audiobooks took over.
LH: How have your careers progressed? What has been the highlight for you?
Grover: While I was at the Library of Congress, I was asked to record for Flo Gibson’s new company. She recorded her own books but also contracted with Books On Tape to record books for them. That jump-started my commercial career.
I was pretty much a “house narrator” for Books On Tape until they were bought by Random House in 2000. They stopped using home narrators at that point, having built a studio in Los Angeles, so I had to re-invent myself as a genuine free-lancer. I was already working for Blackstone during that time, but I had to branch out and develop new clients. A lot of companies were reluctant to use home narrators at that point, but I did pretty well until Blackstone offered me a position in 2007.
Tanya: I’ve been exploring my world through audiobooks for over sixteen years! It all started when the narrator, Grover Gardner, asked me to proof his work on Umberto Ecco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Proofing an audiobook means to check the audio for misreads (both text deviations and egregious misinterpretations) and for noise anomalies. In addition, I also started monitoring at Grover’s home studio. Monitoring was the name given to studio engineers in those days. The monitor kept the narrator on track, cued up the tape for re-reads, and ran the recording equipment. I proofed and monitored for Grover and for other narrators, eventually started my own business, Dog Eared Copy, Inc. to research and proof audiobooks. When Grover took on the responsibilities of Studio Director at Blackstone Audio, Inc. and moved us to Southern Oregon, I continued to do some freelance proofing and research until being brought into Blackstone myself. I was a Blackstone proofer for a couple more years, gradually moving into the studio and adding a lot more admin work into the mix. These days, my business card reads “Studio Services” which is a rather euphemistic way of saying I help with studio productions. And stuff.
LH: Grover, you have not only served as the Studio Director for Blackstone Audio, but you continued to work there as a narrator as well. How do you decide which books you record? Would it feel strange now to “simply just be a narrator?”
Grover: I really only take on books that I feel very right for. When I scan the incoming manuscripts, I’ll ocassionally hit on one that speaks to me, and those are the ones I do. I don’t have much interest in doing everything, and a lot of books I’m not right for, even though they look interesting. So while I reserve some very good books for myself, I don’t skim all the cream off the top.
It would probably be hard to be “just a narrator” again, though it would invovle a lot less stress and bother. It’s a good position to be in but I also think I do it pretty well, having a good ear for casting and the ability, after 750+ books, to grasp the essence of a book while skimming it.
LH: “Schoolhouse Rock” has a song about how a bill becomes law. What kind of song would they make about books becoming an audiobooks? Okay, you don’t have to respond in lyrics if you’d rather not! 🙂
Grover: I’m just a book
Yes, I’m only a book
And I’m sitting on a Kindle or a Nook,
Well it’s a long, long journey to the studio
Will I end up with Blackstone or AudioGo?
And I’ll sit here and wait
While people fight and debate
Over who gets to make all the dough.
LH: I’m curious to know how a company like Blackstone Audio develops its library. Since it’s not affiliated with any one publisher, what is the process for obtaining the rights to produce an audiobook?
Grover: We’ve got acquisitions people in New York who scan the lists, meet with publishers and agents, and try to buy the best books they can for us. It’s an arduous process, and it’s getting tougher as more companies hold onto the audio rights.
LH: Once you are tapped to produce an audiobook, how is the narrator(s) selected? How much input, if any, does the author or the book’s print publisher have in the process? Does it depend on the book? How much of an impact does a narrator’s feedback from readers or from the press have on your decisions, especially if it’s been unfavorable?
Grover: I read or skim the book (depending on how complex it is) and try to hear the voice that best for translating it into audio. I look through our stable of regular narrators and see who comes the closest, and if nothing comes up I may have to find a new reader. I try to sync the books with what I know of the narrators’ interests and passions. We try to avoid contracts that call for author approvals. That sounds terrible, but it vastly complicates the process. It’s more and more common for authors to seek approval of the narrator, and it’s perfectly understandable, and usually it works out pretty well, but sometimes they hear a voice in their heads that doesn’t exist in reality, and that can make it very difficult to come with someone they like.
Reviews, customer feedback and online comments are very important, though you have to weigh them carefully and look for an aggregate opinion, not jump out of your chair every time someone has a negative response. But I scan Audible constantly to see what people are saying about our products.
LH: Some narrators work from their home while others work at the studio. How are those arrangements worked out? Is any one manner of recording preferable to the other? Do you ever require a narrator to come to the studio? If so, what about the project would prompt you to make that request?
Grover: There are plusses and minuses to both approaches. You deal with them because you want access to the broadest narrator pool possible, not just who happens to be available locally. Sometimes I will send a home narrator to the studio for a very difficult project, but usually we just work it out depending on who’s best for the book.
LH: I’ve bought audiobooks I thought I would enjoy because I loved the actor narrating the book. Often in that situation, I’ve been disappointed. I’ve found as a reader that acting skills on screen do not necessarily translate well to audiobook narrating. What qualities have you found to be essential in a narrator in order to deliver a quality audiobook performance?
Grover: You have to be highly literate, an excellent cold-reader and an experienced actor. Stage actors make the best narrators because they have strong voices, they are generally well-read, they deal with literate material, they are accustomed to playing multiple roles and transforming themselves into different people at the drop of a hat. They also understand subtext, which enables them to delve deeply into the characters and dialogue. Some people who are not necessarily involved with the theater still have these instincts, but in my experience stage actors have the best shot at fulfilling the requirements.
LH: When recording in the studio, how many people does it take to get the job done? What are each of the people’s roles in the project? When a narrator works from home, how does your process differ?
Grover: In the studio you have the narrator and an experienced engineer who’s familiar with the audiobook process. You might have a director for a difficult project. The finished recording is sent to a editor for processing, and then a proofer, who listens along with the text and notes any mistakes. The corrections are done and the editor puts everything together and finalizes the recording. Home narrators are just people who are comfortable doing two things at once, pushing a few buttons while they read. At Blackstone the rest of the process is the same whether it’s done in the studio or at home.
LH: Tanya, I hear so much about Studio A from you on Twitter. Tell me a little bit about what goes on there. What does it look like? What is the funniest thing that ever happened in Studio A? Have you ever dabbled in narrating?
Tanya: Once the recording light goes on, the narrator, the book and I are all in our own little world. Some narrators ask me not to read the manuscript ahead of time so they can tell me the story and see my reactions through the glass. Other narrators want me to read the MS ahead of time so I can give a little directorial advice. You ask me what the studio looks like and these are links to two shots which are on the Blackstone Facebook page: with Grover & with a view of the sound booth; but I know what you’re really asking! The walls happen to be a deep light-plum color!
The funniest thing that ever happened in the studio happened fairly recently. I had a narrator who was giving a very nuanced reading (meaning s/he was speaking low into the mic.) I was riding the gain (which means I had my hand on the volume knob to make sure her/his levels were good.) If you look in the second shot, you can see the equipment to the right of the chair in the black rack. It’s actually kinda far away from the chair. How far away? Far enough away, that at one point I fell out of my chair! Yep, that’s me, grace personified!
I’m not interested in being a narrator myself. I’ve always been more of a backstage hand. When I was in theatre, I was a lighting technician. I would rather wear black than be in the limelight.
LH: Moreso than print books, audiobooks often bring tears to my eyes. As narrators and those who work in the studio, do you have similar reactions? How do you handle those emotions and still get your work accomplished? Are they the same techniques you use when a book makes you laugh out loud?
Grover: I love books that make me cry or laugh out loud. The problem is you have to control that in the booth, otherwise you’re “commenting” on the material instead of letting the listener have their own reactions. So when you react strongly to a book it’s important to make sure you don’t do the reacting for the listener.
Tanya: Um, hello? Waiting for Columbus? A Happy Marriage? For Waiting for Columbus, Grover wanted to take a certain passage over again because he felt that he was too emotive. Problem is, is that it is a very powerful passage and when he went back in to do the retake, the retake sounded fake or insincere. The original take stands. And for a A Happy Marriage, even though Grover dialed way back and walked the non-maudlin line, we still went through Kleenex boxes. I actually prefer it when the narrator feels the story and delivers a sympathetic reading. If I wanted neutral, I would have my e-reader voice it instead.
LH: Once an audiobook has been recorded, who takes over? What is the process between the completed recording and getting the books out to those of us who love them? How are release dates determined? Is there a typical timeframe between obtaining the rights and making the audiobook available?
LH: Who would you say is the unsung hero of audiobooks?
Grover: The proofers and editors. They have the hardest job of all, and they’re like meter maids, everyone hates them. They have to check and recheck everything, they sit there and listen while you make a hash of something then they pull your butt out of the fire.
Tanya: Blackstone Audio employs something like one-hundred-and-twenty people. And each one of them has something to do with bringing out each title to market, on time. For new titles, the audio is usually a simultaneous release with the print edition. For the backlist titles, there are staff members who decide when the title is to be released. The time frame varies from acquisition to market. I think the proofers are the unsung heroes of te audiobook industry. They spend hours and hours researching, going over the recordings, looking for misreads, mispronunciations and noise anomalies. Blackstone Audio has a deep QC department and it’s exasperating when I see a review for mispronunciations when, in fact I know the reviewer is wrong.
LH: While on a trip last month, I so wanted to sell a woman the audiobook version of a mass market paperback she was buying and lamented that airports didn’t have stores selling audiobooks. I was promptly reminded that the future is digital. When people are traveling they want their entertainment on their MP3 player or phone. Other than making selections available on Audible, how is the audiobook industry responding to the digital revolution?
Grover: Very, very carefully. It’s not just digital audio but digital publishing that is turning everything upside-down. The two issues are merging quickly. People are looking into apps, hybrid books (audio and text combined) and all sorts of thing to make the pricing structures and production costs come together somehow. It’s going to be an interesting decade ahead.
LH: Where do you see audiobooks headed over the next five years?
Grover: See above.
LH: Purely hypothetical question here: Do you ever see there being a job in audiobooks that would allow the person to, say, live in Roanoke, VA? Didn’t think so. 🙂 Anyway, in all seriousness, what advice would you give those looking to make a career in audiobooks?
Grover: There are lots of potentially off-site tasks involved, including narration, proofing and editing. As more people turn to home narrators, they in turn need more services and support.
As for a career in audiobooks, set up a home studio, make a demo and start peddling.
LH: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us on The Literate Housewife Review today. It’s my honor to share this with my readers.