Audiobook boom is good news for Canadian actors and listeners
Made-in-Canada audiobooks bringing Canadian voice to U.S.-dominated industry, as actors learn new skill
In a downtown Montreal recording studio, seasoned actor Tom McCamus, known for his work on stage and in films such as Room and The Sweet Hereafter, put on his headphones, stepped up to the microphone, and heaved a sigh.
He was gearing up to breathe new life into Michael Ondaatje's classic novel In the Skin of a Lion by turning it into an audiobook.
"It's the first time I've done it," an admittedly nervous McCamus said. "I called some friends who do [audiobooks] a lot and asked them and got some advice on what to do. I hope I do a good job for Michael."
The project is part of a boom in Canadian audiobook production led by Amazon-owned Audible. Eighty per cent of its newly commissioned audiobooks of Canadian novels are being produced in Canada, and the company has pledged $12 million over three years to develop new content.
- Audiobooks: resource for blind now popular storytelling form
- Atwood, Moss stage public reading for Audible.ca launch
In the Skin of a Lion is one of more than 50 audiobooks begun since Audible launched its Canadian website in mid-September to bolster its previous catalogue of around 100 Canadian titles.
The company has also partnered with Canada's richest literary award, the Scotiabank Giller prize, as a sponsor. This year, according to BookNet Canada, sales of five Giller-nominated novels went up 1,115 per cent after they made the Giller shortlist.
Audible's game plan is to use well-known Canadian actors to interpret classics of contemporary Canadian literature, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of audiobooks, particularly among young, university-educated women, and the nearly 20 per cent growth in sales over the past three years.
Add to that the estimated 35 titles being converted to audiobooks by Penguin Random House Canada's brand new in-house audiobooks production division, and you have plenty of new work for Canadian actors.
Even the prime minister has signed up, reading the foreword of his 2014 memoir Common Ground, while the bulk of rest of the book will be narrated by actor Colm Feore.
Learning new craft
This fall's surge in acting work is welcome, but it's also opened up an awareness that the art of reading an audiobook is a skill that needs nurturing.
That's where Braden Wright comes in.
The experienced voice actor first became interested in audiobooks while living in the United States two decades ago. He has been hosting training sessions for Toronto-based actors who want to learn the "acting acrobatics" that it takes to successfully read an audiobook.
"It's a one-person show," Wright said, with the narrator in most cases changing pitch and accents to bring to life all of the book's characters — male and female.
"The funniest misconception is that it's [simply] reading a book or that, 'I can read, I can do well' … when really there are things that are very specific about audiobook work."
One major difference is that, unlike most acting work, the narrator must remain somewhat in the background.
"There's a certain kind of neutrality that you have to do in reading the book, because you want the listener to create what's happening," McCamus said. "If I tell too much of the story through my own interpretation, then I get in their way."
'It's like a marathon'
Another requirement is stamina, since an average audiobook takes at least 20 hours to record with retakes.
"It's like a marathon," said Sarah Mennell, who was recently in studio to read Michael Redhill's Bellevue Square, rushing to get the Penguin Random House Canada audiobook ready in time for the Giller prize gala, an award that Redhill ultimately won.
"Halfway through, I think I'm not going to be able to finish this book, I'm not going to be able to finish this day, this hour."
Despite the long hours, Mennell appreciates the creativity involved, and she's building a bank of accents for future audiobooks gigs.
"I'm in the age range of my career where parts are declining," she said. "With audiobooks, I get to play all these different characters that I would not be able to play on film or television."
A starry world unto itself
It's not only Canadian actors opening up to a new world of audio opportunities, but also Hollywood stars.
Many, including Claire Danes, Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, have twigged to the acclaim that can come from reading into an audiobook fan's ear.
But there is already a star system in the audiobook world. Barbara Rosenblat may be familiar to Netflix fans as the actor who plays Miss Rosa in Orange is the New Black, but to book listeners, she's the Meryl Streep of audiobooks.
She has narrated more than 500 and she literally wrote the book on it. It's called Audiobook Narrator: The Art of Recording Audiobooks. (No, there's no audiobook version of it yet.)
While Mennell hasn't done nearly that many, she's already won praise for her read, from fans as well as the author whose vision she interpreted.
"She's really imbued the book with its tone, the tone that I wrote," Redhill told CBC.
"I've listened to her read the book, and I feel like I'm entering it from a different direction," the Giller prize winner added. "I can actually see and hear things in the storyline that I wasn't necessarily aware of, because she picked out things of her own."
Am I cheating when I listen to a book?
With the explosion in popularity of audiobooks and more people being introduced to the format, there's also the niggling question that keeps coming back to torment fans of the medium: Is listening to an audiobook in some way cheating?
Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia who studies the brain processes behind reading, hates the question but he'll gamely answer.
"The answer is a very clear no," he said emphatically. "Listening to an audiobook is not cheating.
"There's an enormous amount of overlap between the mental processes that you would engage to read a book on paper and listen to a book on audiotape."
He adds the caveat that the reader should be at least 11 years old, with their skill at decoding text already fully developed.
In some ways, audiobooks can actually be more difficult than reading an actual book, Willingham said, since the listener has to follow the pace of the narrator without the luxury of stopping and restarting.
Ultimately, Willingham insists that it's irrelevant how you get to the last page.
"The point of reading is to appreciate the narrative, appreciate the beauty of the language, and the particulars of how you got to that point of appreciation really doesn't matter so much."