The Problem Nobody Tells You About Audiobooks

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The audiobook market is booming. It’s a multi-billion-pound industry that is showing no signs of slowing down. It still has a long way to catch up with print books in terms of market value, but it is beginning to carve a significant slice of the market for itself. One study for example, found that the number of audiobooks we listen to per annum increased from 6.8 to 8.1 last year.

Listening to audiobooks is a great way to access books you might not attempt to read in print. War and Peace? One of the most difficult tomes can be listened to with the masterful narration of Frederick Davidson, a man who was inducted into the “Golden Voice”, a kind of hall of fame for narrators.

Of course, audiobooks can also give you a different take on something you know and love. The Harry Potter audiobooks, for example, are narrated by Stephen Fry. Can you think of anything more perfect than Fry delivering JK Rowling’s prose on the wizarding world?

As you may have guessed by the last two examples, the role of the narrator is important – very important – in audiobooks. And it probably does not get the attention or discussion it deserves because, just as a good narrator can lift the experience of the audiobook, a bad one can ruin the greatest works of fiction.

 

Game of Thrones is an epic audio experience

Take, for example, everyone’s favourite epic fantasy – A Song of Ice and Fire, AKA A Game of Thrones. The official version is narrated by Roy Dotrice. If you are a fan of the GoT television series, you will know Dotrice as he played Hallyne the Pyromancer on screen. Dotrice, who died in 2017 aged 94, narrates all the Song of Ice and Fire audiobooks and even held the Guinness World Record for the highest number of characters in an audiobook.

It’s a tough job, and Dotrice was a fine actor. But his narration divides opinion. For some, he butchers it and is not able to deliver enough variation in the characters’ voices (teenage heroine Arya Stark voiced by a male in his late-80s, for example). Others wince at, for instance, the way he says the line “winter is coming”. You expect the delivery to have a sense of foreboding, whereas Dotrice says it matter-of-factly.

Others reckon Dotrice’s narration is spot on, and that is said to include George R.R. Martin. But if you don’t like it, audiobooks can feel expensive. The current price of each book narrated by Dotrice on Audible is just over £23. That’s almost £100 if you want to listen to the five books (although to be fair, there are ways to get it cheaper on Audible, through membership and the purchase of credits).

 

Changing narrators can anger the listener

But let’s say you love the narrator, as many listeners seem to with Peter Joyce. Joyce reads a less known, but just as venerated, fantasy series written by Raymond E. Feist. The books, based on Feist’s world of Midkemia and the adventures of the magician Pug, span several centuries and over 20 volumes.

In fact, Joyce narrates 23 of Feist’s Midkemia books on Audible, taking us from Pug’s days as an orphan keep boy to his final showdown with his destiny centuries later. Joyce does a brilliant job, recreating Feist’s epic works with incredible skill and attention to detail. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that Joyce narrates 23 books – there are 24 in the series.

Book 23, A Crown Imperilled, is narrated by someone else entirely – John Meagher. Peter Joyce returns to narrate the final book, Magician’s End. Leaving aside Meagher’s narration skills, can you imagine the irritation to find that book 23 of 24 suddenly has a different voice for all the characters? Imagine the second-to-last episode of The Sopranos suddenly replaced James Gandolfini? Fans were furious – you can check for yourself on Audible – and, as mentioned, it is not cheap to get through 20-odd books.

As we mentioned, narrating these epic books is not easy. Perhaps we expect too much given the technology we have at our disposal. Today, we expect instant gratification and perfection when something is delivered through technology. We assume Google will remember our passwords. If you log on to Netflix, you expect the tech to tell you exactly where you left off in a particular series. Even most online slots have a year long memory, meaning the game remembers your progress and any special challenges you have completed. The point is that we assume slick tech companies – and Audible and its competitors are slick tech – are going to deliver flawless experiences.

But audiobook narration, while facilitated through tech in its modern form, is still an old art. Like going to the theatre, you can find that a poor actor can butcher Shakespeare. You can turn up at the theatre believing you are going to see Ian McKellen or Dame Judi Dench, only to find that an understudy is in the role.

Most audiobooks allow you to listen to a sample first, and it is recommended that you do that before you make the purchase. As mentioned, they aren’t cheap. In addition, it’s worth reading the reviews. Even if you know the book inside out or it’s a classic, the reviews will often talk of the narrator and their limitations. It really can make the difference between a great listen and an awful one.

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