One of the most technically focused panels at Worldcon 75 was the audiobooks panel, “Audiobooks: What’s the Deal?”, chaired by multiple Hugo Awards winner Mary Robinette Kowal, and including author and narrative actor Yvette Keller, and voice actor John F. Wardale. In a panel structured around kickoff questions from a highly engaged audience, the debate ranged over the economics of audiobook publishing, how self-published authors can engage with the audiobook space, what books are best suited for audiobook presentation, and so on.
Some books, as Kowal remarks, just are not suited to be dramatically presented as audiobooks, with Wardale highlighting how challenging books with a strong physical element (e.g. maps) can be. (John Scalzi’s Redshirts, structured to look like page after page of he-said/she-said dialog, is one special example she cites that interferes with Amazon’s print-to-audio Whispersync feature, and creates big problems with too literal narration.) Keller adds, “most audiobooks are taking the place of sitting in front of your television and doing something else, while still consuming some form of media.” She highlights “good professional narrators doing non-fiction” as a way to instruct and inform listeners, versus the fiction focus of much audiobook publishing.
For authors, Kowal points out that most publishing contracts can include some clause about narrator approval, allowing writers to at least guide audiobook publishers towards the kind of voice they want – even if it’s just someone who sounds like George Clooney. That said, she added, the point of the narrator is to make the story accessible to the audience, not to get inside the author’s head, which can lead to some disagreement. Keller highlights the audio talent and services exchange ACX, owned by Audible, which “has made it hugely possible for people who have a solid background in narrating and editing … to jump in,” especially for self-published or indie-published authors. Kowal warns, though, that “every hour of audiobook you hear has three to four man-hours in it.”
Kowal notes that Amazon now owns both Audible and Brilliance, the two dominant audiobook players. This creates extra problems for authors, especially self-published ones, by restricting the changes authors can make to coordinate with Whispersync.
For budding narrators and authors who want to read their own books, Kowal warns that “it sounds like a great job because you’re thinking about reading books that you enjoy,” but the real acid test to see if you’re fitted to it is to buy a book with bad reviews in a genre you don’t like, “and read it in a closet, without moving.” Keller insists that “the skills and the passion … are really, really important ahead of the game.” Wardale maintains that the problem with text-to-speech is still the absence of intonation, with the computer not having any idea what it’s talking about. “We are not yet at the point where the computer can tell that kind of nuance from the book,” Kowal confirms, while acknowledging that “it serves a useful function” for purposes such as reading for the visually impaired.