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How audiobooks are made

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's time for our podcast corner, where we bring you a podcast we love from the NPR network. Today, we go to Chicago member station WBEZ to hear their podcast Nerdette. Their recent series Undercover looks at how a book comes to life from the blurbs on the cover to film adaptations, and this week's focus is audiobooks. Host Greta Johnsen picks it up from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NERDETTE")

GRETA JOHNSEN, BYLINE: Meet Sarah Jaffe. She's an executive producer at Penguin Random House Audio.

SARAH JAFFE: What that actually means is mostly - I think my 10-year-old self would be thrilled - I get paid to read books all day, talk to really brilliant authors and then do sort of the dream casting that I think we all do in our heads of like, OK, what kind of voice would I need to play this character? And then I get to find and hire that voice.

JOHNSEN: One of my favorite voices is this guy.

KEVIN R FREE: I am Kevin R. Free. I am a multi-hyphenate artist, and I suppose I'm on the Nerdette podcast because I am an audiobook narrator. That is the hat for which you are interviewing me.

JOHNSEN: Kevin has been wearing that hat since 2000. I love him because he narrates Martha Wells' "Murderbot Diaries"...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "ALL SYSTEMS RED")

FREE: (Reading) I could have pulled out at this point, sabotaged the hoppers and got my humans out of there, leaving the rogue unit stuck on the other side of an ocean. That would have been the smart thing to do. But I wanted to kill them.

JOHNSEN: ...Which is a much more delightful series than the title may suggest. It could be really easy to think of an audiobook as a person just reading stuff out loud. Anyone could do that, right? Actually, though, it takes a lot of artistry. For Kevin, it wasn't even a career path he had originally considered.

FREE: I grew up wanting to be an actor, and that meant theater and then eventually TV and then movies and then, you know, death.

JOHNSEN: It took him a while to fully embrace audiobook narration as the actual goal, but he says it's the only time he gets to use all of his talents as an actor.

FREE: You know, when I'm doing an audiobook, I get to play a leading man. It's exciting.

JOHNSEN: Another one of my favorite readers is Robin Miles.

ROBIN MILES: I'm your pretty much garden-variety actor. I went to conservatory to train, studied a little in England, which was really fun. And then I discovered audiobooks, and it pulled my focus (laughter).

JOHNSEN: Robin has range. I first heard her when she did the sci-fi series "The Broken Earth" trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. She's also known for narrating Isabel Wilkerson's nonfiction book "The Warmth Of Other Suns." You can also hear her doing fiction like "The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo" by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO")

MILES: (Reading) Evelyn Hugo is one of the biggest movie stars of all time. She doesn't even have to have something to say for people to listen. This could be a big cover for us, right? I mean, she's a living legend. Wasn't she married eight times or something? Seven, Frankie says. And, yes, this has huge potential, which is why I hope you'll bear with me through the next part of this.

JOHNSEN: Both Robin and Kevin said they don't read the book before agreeing to voice it, which, to me, feels like a big risk.

Do you ever regret that (laughter)?

FREE: You didn't hear it from me, but yes (laughter).

JOHNSEN: Got it. Yeah.

FREE: Wow. I'm just really giving you all the tea, all the secrets here.

JOHNSEN: They decide based on what they know - who the author is, the synopsis of the book, stuff like that.

FREE: So a lot of times, I don't know what the book is going to be about except for the description that is sent to me by a publisher.

JOHNSEN: If they accept the gig, then they start reading. Sometimes, Robin's husband helps her out with that part. He's Robin's production manager, and he's a super-fast reader. If she's tight on time, she has some tricks, too.

MILES: What I've discovered is that most mainstream books, right around page 80, you're going to find, like, the first significant incident.

JOHNSEN: As the narrators are reading, they are taking lots of notes. Some are probably pretty obvious - names they don't know how to pronounce, pivotal scenes with a big emotional moment, stuff like that. But what really blew my mind to think about was how narrators bring characters to life with different voices. Sometimes, it's obvious. Sometimes, the book mentions an accent specifically.

MILES: Like the pirates - good Lord.

(As pirate, vocalizing) - you know all that Cockney accent - right? - when all them pirates, right, yeah?

And it's just pounding on my vocal cords.

One book I did had the character - the actual human - like, Howlin' Wolf, the blues singer.

(As Howlin' Wolf) And basically, I mean, Howlin' Wolf basically sounds sort of like that.

You know - she says, and then coughs.

JOHNSEN: But sometimes a character's characteristics are a lot more subtle. For example, what might a really tall woman named Fran sound like? Robin has a whole process of figuring that out.

MILES: The other character's, like, 5-foot-3, so - and they're best friends. So every time she's with her best friend, she's looking down. So I just - I took my finger, and I said, well, what happens if I just tip my chin down and start talking from that position? And I moved my text down so that I could keep the physical position. And all of a sudden, when I did that, when I put my finger here and it compressed my voice box just a little bit, and then - and see what happens when I - right? - and I'm doing that right now, I'm compressing my voice. What you get - (vocalizing) - and that's Fran. And that's where she talks.

JOHNSEN: As Robin and Kevin mentioned, they're both professional actors. But sometimes there's another sort of person who narrates an audiobook - the author themself. With nonfiction, especially memoir, it's pretty common for the writer to be the narrator, whether or not they have a performance background.

MAEVE HIGGINS: I never thought about, like, somebody else narrating my - well, I mean, I would like to hear what Michael Fassbender would do with the text, you know, if he'd give kind of a - just kind of a muscular read of my work.

JOHNSEN: That is the delightful Maeve Higgins. She's a comedian. You might hear her sometimes on the NPR quiz show, Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me. She's also the author of two books - "Maeve In America" and "Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them" - and she narrated both of them.

HIGGINS: Because I'm a performer and a writer, it was kind of obvious for me. And also, you know, to be crass, Greta, you also get paid. It's, like, another way of getting paid because whoever narrates the audiobook, you know, it's a job. So if you do it, then you get the money.

JOHNSEN: What's less common, but still happens now and then, is for a fiction writer to narrate their own book. Mohsin Hamid is the author of five novels and a collection of essays, and he's narrated all of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "EXIT WEST")

MOHSIN HAMID: (Reading) In a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace - or at least not yet openly at war - a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her for many days.

JOHNSEN: He says narrating his own words made the most sense to him, too, but for a different reason than Maeve.

HAMID: I've probably spent more time in my study pacing around reading my manuscripts out loud than I do actually typing into my computer. You know, I'm a very oral, I guess, writer. I write through my ears. And so it was just natural, I guess, to go and record them.

JOHNSEN: Whether you're a professional actor or someone who talks to yourself in your study, the recording process itself is pretty similar. Based on how many pages the book is, you can figure out how long it'll take to record the text. Generally, it's about twice as long as the final product. That means if you're listening to a 10-hour audiobook, that probably took about 20 hours in the studio, though, of course, some narrators are faster than others. Once that voice or voices are hired and the studio time is booked, the narrators show up and just read. Just kidding. For the actors, there are definitely some vocal warm-ups involved.

FREE: In the morning, I do one that goes - I go low and very high. So I go (vocalizing) and open my throat. So I do that. That's one. This is very embarrassing to me (laughter).

MILES: (Vocalizing) - blowing up my lips, humming, using lots of vibrations. I beat on my chest like that. I also do a deep breathing exercise where I just go - hello - as long as I can. My voice goes (imitating drum) down into my body and gets supported by all the muscles between the ribs. And then I'm ready to go.

JOHNSEN: Maeve mentioned there are also some rules.

HIGGINS: You're not supposed to eat chocolate or, like, drink fizzy drinks or anything because it makes your voice go all (inaudible).

JOHNSEN: And then comes the reading. Even if a narrator is alone in a studio, usually at least one person is listening in by Zoom or something similar. That is the director. Their role is to help the narrator understand and interpret the text to really bring it to life. Here's Mohsin Hamid again.

HAMID: Director - you know, it's a bit like, I guess, a conductor in an orchestra - right? - who's sort of, as you're going, you know, telling you when to bring up the woodwinds and when to sort of reduce the strings.

JOHNSEN: Simone Barros is an audiobook director. She says her role is to be the eyes and ears for the producer. She also thinks of narrating as a sort of instrumentation.

SIMONE BARROS: I consider the audiobook an actor's medium because they sometimes are voicing several characters and all keeping those characters in a certain sound and tone and genre. And so for directing it, it's great to be a support to them and to catch all of the fine details that you're going to miss when you're in the moment, bringing a character to life.

JOHNSEN: Directing is all about being super present in the room during the recording, but also listening with fresh ears, as a listener would.

BARROS: I think there's room in audiobooks - and where the ones that sing are so strong is when the voice is really present and intimate with the listener. And then there's also rhythm that - when you're carried along with the book because the actor is really giving you a strong sense of thrust when the scenes are tense and have action in them or have, you know, an argument between them, when they follow that through in the rhythm and you can feel, through the punctuation of the words and the thrusting through from the words, that argument surrounds you or that action moment surrounds you.

JOHNSEN: And that's what a really beautiful audiobook can do. It really takes you places. So once the recording is done - once the narrator has gotten through the whole text and the director has helped them do it, often in full, eight-hour recording days at a studio - the audio goes off to editors. They're the ones who take that 20 hours of recording, which has good stuff in it, but maybe also some stumbles or stutters or bad pronunciations, and they take all that stuff out, so all you have left is the good stuff. A producer listens to a draft, makes sure all that audio is clean before it gets sent out to audiobook websites.

There's what's called a QC listen - QC stands for quality control - and it's something we do with podcasts, too, to make sure nothing is out of place and everything sounds how it's supposed to, a process I am very familiar with. The number of retakes I do per episode is a secret I will never tell. Also, I tell a lot of really bad jokes that don't make it into the show, which is probably for the best. But it's one thing to do that for a 30-minute podcast episode. It's a way different job for a 10-hour audiobook.

JAFFE: It's a lot.

BARROS: Oh yes, and it can be painful.

JOHNSEN: I have probably listened to hundreds of audiobooks and most of them sound absolutely perfect, but every now and then I'll hear something small, like a weird breath or a mispronunciation.

BARROS: Recently I listened to an audiobook that mispronounced a Chicago street. They said, Paulina, and it's supposed to be Paulina, which is one of those that - like, you know, it's a very specific Chicago thing. Like, I could totally understand not double-checking.

JAFFE: Well, first of all, I'll just say that you listing those things just raised my blood pressure, like...

BARROS: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

JAFFE: These are the things that keep me up at night.

JOHNSEN: It takes a village to get the audio version of a book out into the world. Everyone we talked to about making audiobooks had a certain reverence for the process, from the micro level with double-checking pronunciation, to a more 20,000-foot view reflecting on the importance of the medium. Here's producer Sarah Jaffe again.

JAFFE: So much of why we read is to be transported into someone else's life or someone else's way of viewing the world. And, you know, books are really magical in that, you know, someone makes some marks on a piece of paper, and it does that for you magically somehow. I think audio enhances that, and I think it brings the text to life in a way that's very visceral.

JOHNSEN: And Maeve Higgins totally agrees, from the point of view of someone who has narrated her own books, but also as a fan of audiobooks in general.

HIGGINS: When you write a book, you have to understand the main way that book is going to be received is by somebody alone - you know? - just one person in their head. It's such an internal thing that you trust. OK, I'm going to hand this over to you now, and then you can take it in and feel it however you want or reject it. And so I think having control over the audio, you know, sidesteps that a little bit, which is not a very pure way, and I still know lots of people who are like, oh, audiobooks are not the same as reading a book. But my poor brain, like, is so frazzled from the last, I don't know, just being alive. I'm happy for someone to take on a little bit of the labor.

JOHNSEN: Because in the end, what's better than having someone tell you a story?

DETROW: Greta Johnsen hosts the Nerdette podcast from WBEZ Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.