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‘I can write the words. He supplies the melody’: The harmonious bond between authors and audiobook narrators

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Jonathan Maberry, a fiercely prolific author of often frightening novels, hears voices rattling in his head. Specifically, one voice, that of actor Ray Porter, who narrates his audiobooks. A five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, Maberry would “imagine how Ray would inflect certain things, and I started to write toward his performance.” Be it horror, thrillers, science fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, almost three dozen novels since 2006 — this is not a typo, and excludes anthologies, short stories and comics — Porter, without contributing a word, has helped Maberry accomplish the goal of most writers: selling more books. Says Maberry, “We’re very much a team.”

An exceptionally busy team. In November alone, Porter recorded three new Maberry titles. They also shared Thanksgiving together. “He’s a brother,” says Porter, who has narrated “The Big Sleep” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory.” At one book signing, Maberry stepped aside and let Porter read. Why not? Porter’s the professional performer, the guy with the voice.

Audiobooks were once clunky and overwhelming, a failed tech experiment, encumbered by multiple discs or cassettes. To cut costs and shelf space, audiobooks were sliced, too, abridged into versions that rendered some authors apoplectic. “It was a great trial by fire,” says Dan Zitt, senior vice president of content production for Penguin Random House Audio Group.

Smartphones changed everything. Once audiobooks slipped into a listener’s pocket, they became ubiquitous, allowing fans to “read” while cooking, hiking, gardening, cleaning. Says urban fantasy author Kevin Hearne, “Audiobooks have made traffic and workouts more bearable.”

Growth in audiobook sales and volume has been seismic. The Association of American Publishers reported a 37 percent increase in downloaded audio sales during the first 11 months of 2018. Audiobook sales were an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, according to the Audio Publishers Association, with 46,000 new titles released.

We like to hear stories. Fiction accounts for more than two-thirds of all audiobook sales. Members of Amazon’s Audible, with a library of more than 475,000 titles, listen to an average of 17 books each year. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Authors are delighted to find readers who might not read their books in conventional form. A listener is a reader. A sale is a sale.

“I’m thrilled if people listen to my books, especially if I have great narrators,” says best-selling author Chris Bohjalian. “I really agonize over my sentences. I care deeply about my dialogue. Whenever I’ve listened to my books on audio, I’ve been thrilled.”

Simon & Schuster plans to release 500 titles this year, an increase of 25 percent. In 2018, Penguin Random House Audio published 1,465 titles, almost triple its list four years earlier, maintaining 15 recording studios (10 in Los Angeles, the rest in Manhattan) and a dozen audio producers on staff. “It’s rare for an author and narrator to go beyond a professional relationship,” Zitt says. When it happens, the bond can be intense.

Writing is mostly a solitary endeavor. The same holds true for top narrators. Many of them maintain home studios, and spend hours alone in padded rooms. The general rule is that two hours of recording yields an hour of finished audio. (For neophyte narrators, including authors, it can require three.) Says veteran narrator Luke Daniels: “It is taxing. You’ve been sitting and talking for hours. Your voice is tired. Your brain is mush. Your mouth is tired.”

“Writing is about one thing: control,” says thriller author Brad Meltzer. “Here is this universe where I control everything. I decide who lives and who dies, whether the book will have a happy ending or not.”

A professional narrator, a partner in the production of his books, would yield a larger audience — as long as he agreed to cede some of that control. His publisher presented sound clips of 10 potential narrators, but “no one could make me happy.” Meltzer couldn’t tolerate some candidates for longer than two minutes.

Then, he heard the euphonious tones of Scott Brick. “This is it. This is the guy. He sounded like I wish I sounded like if I had a great baritone,” Meltzer recalls. Brick has been Meltzer’s guy ever since. “It’s like Bernie Taupin and Elton John. I can write the words. He supplies the melody.”

Brick is a rock star in the audiobook firmament, the industry’s Tom Hanks. He’s been at it for two decades and records 50 books a year: Pat Conroy, John Grisham, Ron Chernow, Clive Cussler. He just picked up Lee Child, a prize assignment, after the retirement of the Jack Reacher author’s longtime narrator, Dick Hill. Audiobook narrators don’t make more money recording top authors. They get paid more once they’re in great demand.

Many authors Brick’s never met, barely hears from, but he and Meltzer formed a bond. Brick asked the author why he changed narrators in one book. Meltzer told him, “I wanted to hear how different you would make the character.” He’s cognizant that Brick helped increase sales.

“Books are the original podcasts,” Meltzer says. “In our busy world, you need Scott to take you there, to lead the way.” He’s happy to share. The author has recommended Brick to his best-selling friends David Baldacci and Nelson DeMille. (And Maberry referred his narrator Porter to fellow authors Peter Clines and Scott Sigler.)

Hearne, the urban fantasy writer, who lives in Ottawa, didn’t speak to Michigan-based actor and narrator Daniels on their initial three or four books. Business was conducted through a director, common protocol in the industry.

Daniels has narrated 550 titles including CliffsNotes. There was a time when “you used CliffsNotes so you didn’t have to read the book,” Daniels says. “Now, you don’t even need to read the CliffsNotes.” He’s narrated books by Nora Roberts; they’ve never exchanged emails. But Hearne and Daniels eventually discussed projects, became friends and ultimately partners. Hearne chose to share profits of his self-published audio work with Daniels.

Which seemed only fair. “Luke became such a large part of my sales,” Hearne says. “Audio is now over half of what I do, outselling print and e-books combined.”

In return, Daniels is “very cognizant of not stepping on his toes. I respect that it’s his work. I check a lot with him on pronunciations,” he says. “The best thing you can do is stay out of the author’s way. It’s collaborative — but not. It’s my interpretation. I think that it’s hard for some authors to let go of that.”

Amy Ephron enlisted longtime friend Laraine Newman to narrate her trio of young adult magical mysteries. A member of “Saturday Night Live’s” original cast, Newman has become a prolific voice-over actor, especially of animation, but had never narrated books.

“Laraine knows my sometimes peculiar inflections. She’s such a brilliant sketch artist, and she did all the voices,” says Ephron. “I didn’t know I had this fantastical world in me. She has it in spades. It’s really been a gift for me.”

Ephron attended the recording, which audiobook publishers work assiduously to avoid, believing that writers will become another director, and production will be prolonged. She didn’t, and it wasn’t.

“I was really thrilled when Amy asked. It really is a labor of love. It doesn’t pay that much. It’s a lot of work,” Newman says. “Her writing is so much the way that Amy speaks. If anyone is qualified to do this, it’s me.”

Bohjalian has had multiple narrators for his bestsellers, including his daughter, actress Grace Experience. She’s voiced a cutter and pill popper in “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” and a sex slave in “The Guest Room.”

Closeness with his narrator is also a liability. Because she’s voiced his damaged characters, “I am unable to listen because I love my daughter so much,” Bohjalian says, “and it destroys me to hear her beautiful voice bringing those horrors to life.”

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