Monday, January 13, 2014

Reading books for a living

     Audible, the audio book company owned by Amazon, issued my 2008 recovery memoir, Drunkard, as an audio book this week, which drew my attention to the growing popularity of listening to recorded books. 
     To me, audio books are to written books as Tastykake pies are to real pie. That is, they belong to the realm of accommodations made for long car trips. Audio books are something to put on the CD player to lull the boys in the back seat into passivity and help the miles click past. I've only listened to one audio book outside an automobile and that was more than a dozen years ago: To Kill a Mockingbird. And that only happened because of a confluence of circumstances: a) the audio book company sent a box of tapes; b) I had never read the Harper Lee classic and c) Chicago picked it as the first book featured by its "One Book, One Chicago" reading program.
     The experience was wonderful. I would sit down on the train, become lost in the story and then, poof, we'd be at Union Station. One of my happiest summer 2001 memories, in the weeks leading up to 9/11, was lingering on the walk from the station to work, sitting in the warm September morning on a bench at Daley Plaza, stealing a few extra minutes to listen to the book read in a rich, Mississippi drawl by actress Roses Pritchard.
     Yet somehow, as pleasant as that was, I never sought out another audio book. Blame habit.
     When Audible contacted me, they asked who I'd recommend to read my book for them. They have quite an A-list of performers, Ethan Hawk, Nicole Kidman, Kenneth Branagh. I listened to a bunch, then picked Jeff Woodman, just because his voice sounded right, and he had done a number of best-sellers such as Life of Pi and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Maybe a bit of that mojo would rub off on me, maybe he could add some upmarket shine to my own little wheezing steam engine of a midlist career. (Not that it would affect me financially—Audible drives a hard bargain, and takes all profits for the next eight years in return for their lump payment. At least at my level—I'm sure Stephen King cut a better deal). In the weeks before he taped my book, Woodman phoned to go over the pronunciations — my hometown of Berea ("rhymes with Maria") the socialite Mary Cameron Frey (rhymes with "cry.")
    I was impressed with his preparation, and that a person could make a living reading books. Audio books are having a renaissance -- this is one creative field that technology is not killing, but supercharging. What loped along with cassette tapes, then DVDs has exploded with downloads. Audible alone recorded 10,000 titles in 2012. Woodman himself has done, what, 300?
     "I've done 400 plus," he said. "I lost track at some point, about 200." A few others have done more, but he's "at the high end of the output."
     Is it fun? As a guy who reads books out loud as entertainment, or did, when my kids would allow me, it seems a delightful way to make a living.
     "It's a chore, it's a lot of work," he said. "One thing people don't realize."
     At least fiction and memoirs are a chore. Self-help and instructional books? "That's gravy," he said.
     The difference is preparation. Self-help can be read cold. With books such as mine, with memoirs or fiction (I've heard it argued that those two categories are the same genre under different names) he has to read a book in its entirety first and make notes about developments with dialogue, character and action.
     "I read it to myself, start marking it up," Woodman said. "The manuscript is a mess by the time I'm done. Notes to myself about where this character is going, what you need to be thinking." Since moods and emotions change over the pages, an actor needs to set the stage if, oh, a character is going to be crying at the end of a chapter.
Jeff Woodman
    Not every professional book reader prepares this way. Woodman's rule about alway reading the book all the way through before recording came from a time when he wasn't able to read the passages he would be reading until the morning of the recording sessions, and it got him into trouble.
     "The plot hinged on whether a guy was named 'Werner' or 'Verner,'" he said. "We had discussed how heavy an accent to use, and didn't want to go the "Vee haff vays to make you talk,' route. In the end it was a plot point." They had chosen the wrong pronunciation, and had to go back and overdub -- something they do only in extreme circumstances, as studio time is expensive, and actors are paid by the finished product hour, so whether it takes three hours or 80 minutes to create an hour's finished product—which Woodman can do on a roll—the pay is the same, in his case from $225 to $350 per finished hour. (Top stars can command more, up to a six-figure salary for a big Hollywood name to read a best-seller).
     Though well-paid — Woodman got more to read Drunkard than Audible paid me for the rights to sell its sonic version  —audio books don't receive quite the notice that books themselves do, though he has had his share of praise. "Anyone who was beguiled reading John Berendt's  saga of venality and voodoo in Savanah will be bewitched listening to Jeff Woodman, who doesn't misplace a breath or a pause in 15 hours," People magazine wrote of his reading of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That said, audio book narrator is not a particularly bright star in the constellations of either literary or thespian fame.
    "Joseph Mankowitz said the playwright's wife is the lowest form of celebrity," Woodman said. "That's because in 1950 the audio book narrator hadn't been invented."
    Actually, it had. In 1932, the American Foundation for the Blind received a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation and began Talking Books, as a way for the blind to be read to. At the time, a 78 rpm record was heavy, fragile and played for about five minutes, which made them impractical for book purposes. You'd need dozens. It was technicians working for the AFB who developed the idea of 33 1/3 rpm records on a lighter, cheaper, less-fragile new material called "vinyl," as a way to make audio books more practical and affordable for the blind, and incidentally ushered in the era of long-playing records.
      They began recording passages from the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and works by Shakespeare.  The first living author to have her work recorded was, fittingly, Helen Keller, though she herself was against the idea of recording books for the blind, as a needless extravagance in the Depression, though she eventually changed her mind.
     The federal Works Progress Administration got involved, hiring actors who would later become well-known -- Lloyd Bridges recorded several books in the late 1930s. Authors also read their own works: Thomas Mann recorded Buddenbrooks in 1941; Harry S. Truman read his Year of Decision, in 1956. In 1970, Maya Angelou recorded I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Books on Tape was founded in 1975, Recorded Books in 1979, and in the 1980s the practice of listening to taped books, on Walkmans and car stereos, began to take hold.
    Woodman said that the skill needed to narrate  book is under-appreciated.
     "You can make or break a book by naration," he said, mentioning a celebrity, whom he didn't want to criticize by name, mangling a book. "Obviously he hadn't pre-read it," Woodman said. "Reading it cold, he didn't make any choices, so couldn't make a wrong one." The result was flat, uninteresting.  "You have to perform a book, it's a performance. If you don't bring that to it, you can kill the book. A good book needs a good narration and a bad book needs a great narration, you have to keep all these balls in the air. Which is really tough when you have bad writing."
     Woodman has turned jobs down -- the Left Behind series of fantasy Christian apocolyptic nuttery. And some books require work you wouldn't imagine. One Mississippi, by Mark Childres, is about a high school student who performs a musical called "Christ!" "The author had written these hysterically awful lyrics, and I had to write melodies for the audio books," Woodman said.
    I couldn't help but ask Woodman what it was like to read my memoir.
     "Doing Drunkard was a great deal of fun," he said. "I just found it was so full of humor, and that was my way into it. It's a pretty harrowing story, but becasue there was so much humor in it, that was one of the appealing things. The narrative voice had so much humor."
     Of course, the book he read was a little funnier than the published book. The palladins at Dutton had been concerned that the book was too funny -- this is rehab, gosh darn it, you're not supposed to laugh. So my editor took his cleaver to a few of my favorite lines, which Woodman gamely re-inserted into the text, at my request, adding the original ending, which was deemed too light to use and lopped off. So that's a bonus.
     Five years after its publication, I still hear quite frequently from people who read Drunkard and are moved, or are helped on their own paths, and I'm glad for that. All authors want is to have their stuff linger on, and I take the book being recorded as a flicker of life. I enjoyed meeting Woodman, a serious artist who also does live theater -- you can see him in "Hellman v. McCarthy," which runs from March 14 until April 13 at the Abingdon Theatre on West 36th Street in New York City.
    Perhaps unsurprisingly, Woodman doesn't listen to audiobooks himself, for recreation.
     "I get lost," he said. "I get distracted, all of a sudden I realize I have to back up. Besides it would be sort of a busman's holiday."
      Re-reading Drunkard isn't a party for me either. I haven't listened to the audio version yet — it's a harrowing enough story when it isn't your own life. But I imagine I will, sooner or later. 

You can listen to a sample of Jeff Woodman reading Drunkard by clicking here.


  1. I too was long a book snob -- words were meant to be read, with the tactile pleasure of holding a real book. But listening to morons on the radio during my daily drive to and from the Loop convinced me to try audiobooks. Glad I did. Some are outstanding works of theater -- The Screwtape Letters performed by John Cleese and Operation Shylock read by Ron Silver come to mind. Sure I sometimes lose the thread. Just rewind. Still prefer book books, but the audiobooks make me think I've created productive time on the highway. Congrats on the Audible deal.

  2. Bravo on your choice. I am a recent convert to audio books and enjoy them to and from work. Some are so riveting that I can't wait to get in car and plug in my Iphone.

  3. I actually discovered that it is legal to digitise old audio cassettes to MP3 if it is for your own personal use, so i spent the last 2 years doing this for all my audiobooks from the '70s, '80s and '90s that i had stored away. Not only am i relistening to these treasures, the space in my house has incrementally increased (as several shelves of audiobooks are now stored in an external hard drive of such a small size)

  4. No, there's nothing like a book or paper right in hand.

  5. My two favorite readers: the late Frank Muller, who read Elmore Leonard, Dickens, Wilde, Stephen King, and more; and Jim Dale, who read the Harry Potter books, replete with myriad identifiable voices. It got so that I would just look up Muller in the library, instead of the author. Very subtle vocal differentiation for him, while Dale is very expressive. Both great in their own way. Of course, I had been driving an hour each way for work back then.


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