What Makes a Great Audiobook?
By Nuria B. Torres, Kathryn Alley, Sarunicka Satkuruparan and Cameron Phillips
We as a team have talked so much about our favourite audiobooks from various genres and also delved into discussing the more nitty-gritty when it comes to the medium itself. Strangely enough, what we have not talked about is what we think actually makes a great audiobook, so that’s exactly what we are going to do.
In my opinion, what makes a great audiobook are the vocal performances of the work. For me, the voice acting can make or break the book, even if the story being told is fantastic. That even applies to stories I know are fantastic. Now, I’m well aware that voice acting is a job, and performers might not be inherently interested in the lines they are reading, but in many cases, it is not difficult to hear when a performer is not enthused, which ruins the experience. Books are at their best when they are enjoyed by readers, and this is no different for audiobooks. When you listen to someone like Andy Serkis narrate Tolkien’s work, you know he is invested in the listener being immersed and experienced. The theatrical element performers can bring is also an underrated part of narration for me, especially books with poems or musical aspects to them. All in all, if the narrator is having fun, chances are so am I.
While I think it’s true that the narrators can make or break an audiobook, I believe that you can’t have a good audiobook without first having a good book. It is important to consider the pace, length and structure of a story before going for an audiobook format, as a great audiobook needs to stand up on its own rather than just being another version of its print counterpart. Does the presentation enhance the text? When I decide to listen to an audiobook, my goal is to dive into the story and forget I have been reading for five hours straight.
Pauses between paragraphs, dialogue and scenes are a good way to achieve this, as they help the reader better understand the story. At the same time, speeding up the pace during a thriller moment or slowing down to savour the romance is a great way to connect deeper to the characters and the story.
In terms of length of the story, I think it’s crucial for a great audiobook to have continuity, especially in a series. While it’s understandable that contracts, timing and negotiations are part of life, they can get in the way of keeping the same narrator throughout. And falling in love with an actor’s interpretation of your favourite characters, only to have them change in book three, is bound to give you whiplash. Not to mention, it can definitely spoil a good series.
When I reflect on my favourite audiobooks, I always return to the idea of conviction. It is crucial to have a solid foundation with the original story before structuring it in an audiobook format, but the delivery from the narrator may be even more powerful. As an author considers the best narrator for his or her work, they must discern a voice that will convey the same emotions and experiences as the author penned and felt while writing. Often, this is why I gravitate towards audiobooks that are narrated by the actual author. It’s incredibly moving to experience a meaningful listen in conjunction with the author’s voice. This is particularly true for certain genres, like memoir, where the personal experience depicted in the listen is profound and carries a certain weight that can only be voiced by someone who has experienced these joys, tragedies and relationships first-hand. While narration is certainly not for everyone, I think it is vital for all authors to consider the best medium of voice talent for their audiobook production that will both engage audiences and offer believable, brilliant conviction.
I couldn’t agree with the rest of the team more. I feel like it goes back to the belief I constantly bring up in these pieces, which is that a great audiobook is one which elevates the experience of consuming a story.
I think it’s interesting to consider how an audiobook production comes together much like the story itself. The right mix of a great foundation (which, as Nuria said, is a good story), narrators who deeply understand the characters and are able to translate the emotion and sentiment of a story, topped off with the coming together of the elements unique to audiobooks such as pace, casting and length. In most cases, this is reliant on the synergy created between the director, producer and narrator(s). A clarity on what the essence of the story is and an understanding of the characters, and their dynamics with each other, are all needed to create a mutual vision of the way the audiobook will turn out.