Authors Take a New Approach to Audio Books: Do It Yourself
When "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber," a madcap chronicle of a Hungarian hockey goalkeeper turned bank robber, was published two years ago, it was praised by numerous critics and became a finalist for an award given by the Mystery Writers Association of America. It attracted fans including the novelist Gary Shteyngart and the actor and artist Eric Bogosian.
But none of that seemed to matter when Julian Rubinstein, the book's author, approached his publisher, Little, Brown & Company, about doing an audio book. While growing in popularity, audio books remain resolutely mass-market-oriented, and Mr. Rubinstein's nonfiction book, which sold fewer than 15,000 hardcover copies, simply had not generated enough revenue to justify the costs of producing a recorded version.
For many authors that would have been that. Mr. Rubinstein, however, was unbowed. He enlisted the help of a friend and sound-studio operator, Joe Mendelson, and managed to recruit a cast of some of his well-known fans, including Messrs. Shteyngart and Bogosian, as well as the rocker Tommy Ramone and the comedian Demetri Martin, to perform as characters in the book. (MP3 clip.)
Everyone donated time, and Mr. Mendelson did all the editing free. So when Mr. Rubinstein went back to Hachette Audio, the division that produces audio books for Little, Brown, the company agreed to release a digital-download-only version — its first — of "Ballad." Late last month online retailers, including iTunes and Audible.com, began offering the 11½-hour download, along with a video clip of the real-life protagonist of the book, Attila Ambrus, reading an introduction from prison.
Mr. Rubinstein is one of a handful of authors taking a pro-active role in developing audio versions of their books. Thinking this medium could attract new readers, they are trying to create more than a straightforward spoken version of their work.
"I just think that this audio book is a lot more lively than most," said Mr. Rubinstein, who added that he has listened to only one or two books in this form. "If I knew of other audio books that were like this, I would be much more into it," he said.
The same impulse drove Greg Palast, an investigative journalist and author of "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" and "Armed Madhouse: Who's Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats, Bush Sinks, the Scheme to Steal '08, No Child's Behind Left, and Other Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Class War" (E. P. Dutton), which in hardcover will be No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction hardcover best-seller list on Sunday. For the audio version Mr. Palast has assembled a cast including the comedian and actress Janeane Garofalo, the television veteran Ed Asner and the punk rocker Jello Biafra, whose voices are heard in between Mr. Palast's narration.
Sarah Vowell, a contributing editor on public radio's "This American Life" program, recruited a group that included the novelist Stephen King, the actress Catherine Keener and the host of "The Daily Show", Jon Stewart, to read for the audio book of "Assassination Vacation," produced by Simon & Schuster Audio last year. (MP3 clip.)
"I wanted to think about making it a little more show biz," Ms. Vowell said. "I wouldn't necessarily use the word dulcet to describe my voice all the time, so I wanted other readers to break it up."
The vast majority of audio books — which themselves represent less than 10 percent of all books published — are read by single narrators, either the authors themselves or unknown performers recruited by the publisher. On occasion, celebrities read a book, but generally, said Chris Lynch, publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, they are difficult to attract, given typical pay rates of $4,000 to $6,000 for a six-hour audio book.
Those authors with boldface connections can spice up the audio versions of their books. Adriana Trigiani, the author of popular novels about Italian-Americans, asked Mario Cantone, a comedian and regular on "Sex and the City," to read the audio version of "Rococo," produced by Random House Audio last year. Ms. Trigiani, who knew Mr. Cantone from their days on the comedy circuit together, said Mr. Cantone had partly inspired the lead character in "Rococo," a New Jersey interior designer named Bartolomeo di Crespi.
Mr. Cantone even joined Ms. Trigiani for a few readings on her book tour. But he said he would not want to record another audio book, unless it was the sequel to "Rococo." "It's a lot of work," he said, "for that kind of money."
Indeed, those celebrities who perform on audio books see it mainly as a way to express their support for a friend or favorite author. Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, said he agreed to read the part of Osama bin Laden on Mr. Palast's "Armed Madhouse" because he wanted to help Mr. Palast get out his muckraking message about the Bush administration. (MP3 clip.)
Jello Biafra spent less than an hour in the studio. "I gave them different flavors of bin Laden," he said. "I cut the lines of a wicked cartoon villain, Snidely Whiplash-style, with a lot of ya ha ha ha has. Then I did it straight in my own voice, and then I did it in something akin to bin Laden's voice from what I've heard of his videos. I believe they chose the one closest to bin Laden's voice."
Mr. Shteyngart, author of "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and "Absurdistan," had given Mr. Rubinstein a blurb for the hardcover edition of "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber," and so was game to play a few characters on the audio book. But Mr. Shtenygart said he had nothing to do with the forthcoming audio versions of his own novels. "I'm not really a big audio fan," he said. "My iPod has cobwebs on it."
Using multiple voices on an audio book can add extra costs to the typical $15,000 to $20,000 production price tag, given extra studio time and editing costs. Mr. Palast said he had actually paid about $2,000 of his own money to book studio time.
For audio book publishers accustomed to single voices, the addition of a large cast can be daunting. With his first audio book, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," Mr. Palast said his producers at Penguin Audio resisted the idea of multiple readers.
"They were absolutely obstructive," Mr. Palast said. "Penguin just wanted me to read the whole book" by himself. Penguin representatives did not return calls seeking comment.
Audio books with large casts are likely to remain relatively rare. In most cases "we probably wouldn't do more than two readers, because of the cost," said Karen Cera, digital audio director of Hachette Audio. The company decided to do a digital-only version of "Ballad" because it could not justify the $3-apiece cost of producing CD's.
But with improvements in home recording tools, some more entrepreneurial authors may decide to record their own works. "The truth is, if you have a Mac at home and the software that comes with it, it doesn't cost much more for you to have a decent little recording set up," said Geoff Shandler, editor in chief of Little, Brown.
Whether celebrity readers actually drive sales is difficult to measure. Audio books tend to sell about 10 percent of what is sold in hardcover, publishers say.
Ms. Garofolo, who read the part of a Republican party spokeswoman on "Armed Madhouse," said she did it to support Mr. Palast's journalistic activism. But, she said, "I don't know that if I as a consumer would be motivated by who was reading the book."