Audibooks are getting starrier – but not always to the benefit of the productions, Nicholas Jones argues
It used to be said of actors who didn't have matinée idol or screen-star looks that they had "a good face for radio". "A good face for audiobooks" might be expected to have a similar meaning, and indeed I wrote in this column a couple of years back about how not having to consider physical looks liberated the possible choice of readers, and how therefore audiobooks could be leaders in diversity of casting.
But this is not what has happened. A good face for audiobooks seems increasingly to be one that is already known from film or television. An article in the trade press earlier this year announcing a major audio project reported that: "Casting is currently underway, with the focus on 'strong new television acting talent'." Famous names will bring publicity and may capture the attention of new listeners, but I am worried lest marketing considerations play too large a part in casting. There is certainly an overlap of the skills needed, but it is by no means a given that a good television actor will be a compelling and effective reader of audiobooks. If you want a portrait in oils, you don't go to a watercolourist, or vice versa. Yes, there are certainly artists who do both to the highest standards, but the different skills required for each are not always found in the same person.
Doing the voices
Reading an audiobook and acting are closely aligned, but there is one fundamental difference. When the characters in a story are being played one-actor-one-part on stage or film, the responsibility for the overall vision of the production lies with the director, who gives notes to each actor to meld the individual performances towards a coherent whole. That remains true for a play on radio.
With an audiobook, responsibility shifts: performers who are going to create compelling listening in a single-voice reading have to have complete visions of the stories in their heads, and then "describe what they see". An experienced reader will make characterisation decisions when preparing so as to ensure that it is as clear as possible in any dialogue scenes which character is talking. The capacity to create and remember many voices during the course of three or four days' reading is one not given to all actors. There are some who are very good at taking notes from a director but apparently not capable of generating or remembering effective characterisations themselves.
Here at Strathmore we have sometimes had to coax performances out of actors a line at a time. One of these even won a best-reader prize, so the method can produce great results, but it takes at least three times as long as it should, and when increasingly studios and productions teams are paid by the finished hour that is not a fair distribution of cost and benefit.
The need for plot secrecy on high-profile titles like Game of Thrones means that screen actors are frequently given no more of the script than the pages they appear on. This leads to an expectation, particularly among younger actors who know no other way of working, that they are not responsible for characterisation and that there will always be somebody else on the production who knows what is required, or even that it is not necessary to have read the book in advance of the recording.
It's an exciting time to be in the business of creating and publishing audiobooks, but I do hope the marketing tail doesn't wag the storytelling dog. If listeners are going to spend 15 or 20 hours in an actor's company, that actor must be chosen because he or she has proven skills, and the right experience and vocal qualities for the characters in the book.
The priorities have certainly shifted. One audiobook reader recently told me that when she auditioned for the BBC Radio Repertory company some 20 years ago, there was a curtain between her and the judges. She joked that to her ears some radio castings now seem to be done more for the pictures that will appear on the BBC website programme pages than for voice.
A week later, we happened to record one of those mentioned as "fresh television talent". She has turned out undoubtedly to be both "oil painter" and "watercolourist", but we know from experience that not all actors are. Over lunch, astutely self-aware, she remarked: "When they first asked me to read an audiobook, it did bother me that they'd cast me because of how well known I am and not how well I can do the job."
We owe it to our listeners to cast for known skill, not just for fame.
Nicholas Jones founded Strathmore Publishing, an audio and printed book production house, in 1995 and has since produced more than 1,000 titles.
This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Book Fair Show Daily.