The Sunday Magazine

More Canadians than ever are listening to books, not just reading them

Publishers are struggling to meet the burgeoning demand for audiobooks of Canadian titles. We speak with Ann Jansen, who left CBC Radio in 2017 to become the director of audiobook production at Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the country. And Canadian actors Braden Wright and Tess Degenstein share the challenges and joys of audiobook narration.
Braden Wright recording "The City Man" at Davidson Recording Studio in Toronto, September 2019. (Jim Davidson)

The growth story in the world of Canadian publishing has more to do with the spoken word than the printed word.

Audiobook production has increased around the world, and there has been a particular demand in this country for audio versions of titles by Canadian authors.

"It's definitely a moment for audiobooks and I think that's related to podcasts and podcast listening," said Ann Jansen, the director of audiobook production for Penguin Random House, the largest publishing house in Canada. "And my own individual theory is that we're so used to clicking around and getting a clip here and a clip there that to get into the long listen is really valuable and enjoyed."

Actor David Ferry in the Penguin Random House Canada studio in Toronto, recording Wayne Johnston’s novel “First Snow, Last Light.” (Penguin Random House Canada)

In conversation with Michael Enright, the host of The Sunday Edition, she said the ease of listening on a mobile device — instead of grappling with cassettes and CDs — has also made a difference, especially in our age of multitasking.

"Never forget you can also knit while listening to an audiobook, if that's what you'd like to do, or garden or walk the dog," Jansen said.

She says the growth in audiobook sales in the U.K. last year was 43 per cent, and there was a 25 per cent increase in the U.S. Recent statistics are not available in Canada because it is a nascent industry, however the growth of the audiobook division at Penguin Random House helps tell the story.

When Jansen left CBC Radio in 2017 to start the publisher's audiobook department, she was one of two people in that division, and they used outside studios for production. Since then, they have built an in-house studio; they recently hired their seventh full-time employee; and they are creating an audio version of every title that has a narrative drive or structure. Cookbooks, for example, are an exception.

"Right now, we're at about 90 per cent of print/ebooks being transformed into stories told with a human voice or voices," she said.

Sometimes, "it's really crystal clear that the author will be the right voice," Jansen said, particularly if that person is a celebrity with a natural ability to lift words off the page, such as comedian Rick Mercer or advertising guru Terry O'Reilly. Otherwise there is a search for a voice that matches the book.

Jansen says not every professional actor is a good narrator because reading an audio book requires "a different skill set."

She describes the production process as expensive, labour intensive and time consuming, starting with calls to a casting director and agents, salaries for the producer, director, engineer and editor, plus many hours of studio production with the narrator.

"They [narrators] have to have the ability to bring factual information into a lively space," Jansen explained. "And for fiction, they have to be able to create a world and, in many cases, become every character in that world."

Many Canadian actors are discovering that audiobook production is a new performance challenge as well as a new source of income.

Tess Degenstein (Danielle Tocker)

Tess Degenstein has just two audiobooks under her belt, and says she has fallen in love with this kind of voice work, even though it involves many hours in an isolated studio, instead of being on stage in front of an audience.

"I'm an avid reader," she said, "so the idea that I just get space to be alone and reading is a delight on its own. But then there's also something about the intimacy of the medium. It's really interesting in the way that you're speaking directly into your audience's ear which, as a performer, that's not something I necessarily get the opportunity to do all the time when I'm on a stage, and there's a bunch of ears that need my attention."

Braden Wright is a stage and film actor who has narrated dozens of audiobooks, ranging from novels to self-help books to literary classics.

"You have the pleasure of delving into another world. As an actor on a stage – or if you're doing a part on screen – you have one perspective," he said. "When you're doing a book, of course you get to do all the different parts."

A sample of Braden Wright reading from the audiobook of "The City Man" by Howard Akler.

Wright has set up his own studio in Alliston, Ontario, which allows him to be the director, engineer and editor, as well as narrator, taking a title through the entire audiobook production process.

Braden Wright (Submitted by Braden Wright)

Both actors say it is easy to underestimate the demands of audiobook narration.

"I found it so much more difficult than I ever anticipated," said Degenstein. "For me, it was a matter of muscle training, and muscles that I don't even think about, like the tiny articulations in my mouth that would start to get so tired by the end of a six-hour session."

Wright added that it is key for a narrator to be aware that the objective is not to play up the performance, it is "to be a conduit for the author's intent."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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