Can You Hear Me Now? An Author Talks Audiobooks

07/27/2011 03:12 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

Some argue there's no such thing as an audiobook. After all, a book is something you hold in your hands. Okay, maybe a book is also a file you download onto your preferred electronic reading device, but no matter the form, a book is still something you read. It has physical characteristics: a typefont, chapter headings, pages.

When a book is read to you, you're not actually reading, someone else is. Ergo, an "audiobook" is not really a book, it's a recorded listening experience.

Semantics aside, there's no denying that audiobooks are flourishing. The Audio Publishers Association reports that in 2009, consumers and libraries spent close to $1 billion on audiobooks. According to the association, "Audiobook listeners are affluent, well-educated, and avid" book readers. They are also more voracious than nonlisteners: "Frequent listeners of audiobooks... read a median of 15 books in the past year, compared to six books read by people who don't listen to audiobooks," reports a 2010 APA consumer survey.

I asked several bestselling thriller authors how their audio sales compare to print. Answers ranged from, "I'm not quite sure," to "I would guess it's fairly small," to "I don't have a clue. I suppose somewhere there is a royalty statement with that information, but it's deep in one of the piles of boxes from the big move this summer."

One of the few authors willing to venture a guess was Glenn Cooper, a thriller author with whom I share an audiobooks narrator: "I'd say that audio revenues are a de minimus portion of my publishing revenues, certainly less than 1%."

The Value of Audiobooks

If the percentage of audiobook sales in relation to print is so low, what's the advantage to an author of having his or her books in audio? "For me, audiobooks serve as teasers, or introductions to the series," explains Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling thriller author of the Jack Reacher series. "Many of my readers tell me they started with audio."

I "started" in audio a year after my debut novel came out in print. Freezing Point sold to as part of their "Breakout Thrillers" program -- a partnership with the International Thriller Writers in which bestselling authors recommend newer ones. In my case, New York Times bestselling author James Rollins gave Freezing Point a very generous endorsement:

James Rollins Recommends Freezing Point, by Karen Dionne

"I hate it when I read a book and go, 'Crap. I should have had that idea.' Wouldn't you know, that's exactly what happened when I picked up a copy of Karen Dionne's debut environmental thriller Freezing Point. I mean, microwaves and melting icecaps -- who wouldn't' want to read that? I know I did. So I started reading, thinking, 'I'll just check the book out and see if there's anything there.'

"Before I knew it, the pages were flying by. A mysterious virus killing off researchers. Hordes of man-eating rats. Explosions, fires, tidal waves. A greedy exec with a murderous love for power, environmentalists vs eco-terrorists -- it's all there. The scientific and ethical themes are fascinating, and the remoteness of the Antarctic is an ideal thriller settling. Karen's science is dead on, which puts the novel squarely within the realm of possibility and makes the storyline all the more chilling. I loved this book.

"So do what I did. Pick up a copy of Freezing Point for yourself, and see if you don't agree that Karen's a female Michael Crichton. Freezing Point is a terrific read. I highly recommend it."

Inside the Booth: Collaborating with a Narrator

The quality of an audiobook truly hinges on its narrator. The best narrators use their voice talents and training to deliver the feeling behind the author's intent. "I always like to have a conversation with the author if at all possible before I go in to record," says my audiobook narrator, Mark Boyett. "Often there are pronunciations to confirm, but I also like to give the author a chance to talk about his or her novel and express anything they'd like me to communicate as I narrate their book. After all, people are downloading the book to experience the author's work first and foremost, so my work needs to serve that end."

Still, an audiobook reading really is a performance, like a one-man play, and many audiobook narrators gain a loyal following. Listeners frequently make purchases not because they're a fan of the author, but because they love the narrator's work.

Boyett notes that he works to translate the excitement and flow of a story: "As I prepare the book, I'll make margin notes, sometimes about the mood of a scene, or the subtext of a character. Or I'll score sections with little notations that only make sense to me to remind myself to link up these words, or drive through this part, or make this paragraph start as a fresh new thought rather than a continuation of the previous one, and so on."

Charting a Course Through the Characters

Boyett has also developed techniques that make it easier for him to make the book come alive: "Colored markers are also important. In scenes where there are multiple characters, I assign each character a color and then dot each line they speak, so I can read right through, changing the voices as needed, without having to stop and figure out who's talking when. Luckily, in the event that a narrator needs a reminder about the voice he's using for a particular character, the engineer can go back and replay earlier clips as a refresher."

With that level of professionalism and attention to detail, us it any wonder I was delighted with the result? The emotion my narrator conveys through his voice adds a whole new dimension to my written words.

On Dec. 28, the print and audio versions of Boiling Point published simultaneously. Because Boiling Point brings back two characters from Freezing Point, Mark Boyett also narrates the new audiobook. I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy -- figuratively speaking -- to enjoy what turned out to be another outstanding "recorded listening experience."