Audio Book Narrators Matter

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of audio books. I’ve had the good fortune to listen to a series of recordings with excellent narrators. These include (for all but the first item, links go to iTunes so you can hear a sample) Tom Stechschulte reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (see the audio player at the bottom of the post), Steve Martin, David Rakoff and David Sedaris. I’ve probably only listened to 15 audiobooks in my whole life, so lately I’ve been making an accidental study of the form. My first conclusion: the narrator matters. A lot.

Just as the aesthetics of a book–its size, shape, typography, paper, etc–influence our reading, so too does the narrator influence our listening. In fact, I think the narrator’s impact is much broader. Consider what makes the aforementioned narrators great:

  • They have distinctive voices. Some have deep, resonant voices–voices made for radio, but all of them are recognizably specific. Stechschulte has a gravelly rasp, Martin’s voice is mellifluous and Sedaris seems to have a bit of a gay lisp.
  • They care about pronunciation. For me, hearing a word mispronounced in a professional recording is a bit like recognizing a location in a movie. It distracts me from the narrative.
  • They understand cadence, and adjust the pacing of their reading to reflect the story’s inertia.
  • If they do voice work, they do it well. This involves some degree of acting. If done poorly, or half-ass, it really ruins a recording. Done well, it can really elevate a book. Of course, this involves interpretation of the author’s words, but it’s a trade-off I happily make.
  • This is harder to evaluate, but they sound like they care about and are invested in the work.

This all came to mind because the narrator of the latest audio book I’m listening to is totally ordinary. It’s a business book, and narrated by the author (there’s no need to name and censure him for something outside his, uh, skill set). By ‘ordinary’, I just mean average. I’m sure, should we record an audio version of our book, we’ll do no better. It’s too bad that everybody can’t hire a narrator like Tom Stechschulte, but I expect that the economics of the publishing industry preclude that.


  1. I hope you’re checking out the emusic audiobook section; the books are $10 each.

    I bought “The Areas of my Expertise” by John Hodgman, but haven’t enjoyed it like I thought I would, despite my liking John Hodgman and finding him funny.

  2. Gillian: Actually, I thoroughly checked out eMusic, as (you know) I already had a music subscription there.

    Unfortunately, you have to get a different subscription, and different kinds of credits for the audio books. I can’t just apply a whack of my ‘music’ credits to getting an audio book.

  3. I’ve started listening to audiobooks before I sleep. I have to agree with your perceptions. I listened to the biography of Eric Clapton, and it was read by a British voice actor. I think that this was a good choice, because I would have been distracted by an American actor reading sentences like, “When I was living in London….”
    An excellent audio book was Katharine Graham’s “A personal history”. It was read by Graham herself. You can actually hear the emotion in her voice when she describes finding her dead husband’s body. In fact, the emotion is palpable in the entire book, and made it a much better story.

  4. I’m sold on listening books by the original author, although there are certainly exceptions. I want to hear what the author’s take whenever possible.

  5. On emusic: Well, sure, it’s all subscription stuff, but assuming you can find a book a month that you’re interested in, you’re probably only paying half what you would on iTunes. Of course, you can afford to pay full price, and I love emusic because I got in early with a cheap subscription, so I’m biased already.

    I just picked up “This is your Brain on Music” last week, but sadly the narrator isn’t the author. On the other hand, it’s non-fiction, so it shouldn’t matter as much.

  6. Gillan: I checked out eMusic’s audio books when they first announced the deal, and was somewhat disappointed. I just looked for the last five audio books I’ve listened to, and only one of them is on eMusic (I did find a Cormac McCarthy narrated by none other than Brad Pitt). I will remember to check there first before I buy them elsewhere.

    Matt: I used to use Audible before iTunes started selling audio books. I’m comfortable buying audio books from iTunes because I only want to listen to them once, so questions of DRM-related angst are strictly philosophical.

  7. I’ve listened to a *lot* of audiobooks (and my weblog has lots of how-tos and recommendations). There’s no question that, just like an actor selected for a role in a movie, the performer of the book matters, and professional voice performers almost always are far better than books read by amateurs, including the original author. (About the only exception to this is autobiographical material.)

    I’ve also tried all of the major downloadable audiobook services, and is the best, both in selection and in price. The iTunes Store is a better user experience than Audible’s web site, but you pay full retail for the privilege. If you’re looking for the best deal, the 2 credits per month plan at Audible is the way to go.

    As for eMusic’s audiobook service, it’s terrible. If you try it and judge downloadable audiobooks by how well eMusic does it, you’re going to be scarred for life. First of all, their selection is maybe 10-20% of Audible’s catalog. When you find something you want, where the book might come as two large tracks from Audible, or 4-5 tracks from iTunes, it’ll be 100+ tracks from eMusic. Managing that in iTunes is painful but doable; managing them on your iPod is a nightmare.

    But worst of all, after 9 months of eMusic service, 1/3 of the books I downloaded had at least one corrupt track. Not that big a deal with a music album; you report it, wait for them to fix it, and listen to the rest of the album in the meantime. With an audiobook, you’re _stuck_. You report it and wait, and hope they fix it. Unless you’re the type who likes to just skip ahead in a book (randomly), you’re going to have to stop listening to the book. I never waited for less than 3 days for an even partially useful response from eMusic, and one book, more than a year later, is still not fixed on their site. Unacceptable.

    eMusic may be a nice site for music, but it’s a distant also-ran in the audiobooks arena.

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