by Amy Rubinate
There is an adage in the audiobook industry that the right narrator can make a bad book good, and a good book great. I like to expand on that by saying that the pairing of a great narrator and a great book is a kind of alchemy that creates a new art form all its own. Audiobooks bring a written story to life—not on page or stage or screen, but through the physical act of storytelling.
I use the word “alchemy” to describe the ideal marriage of narrator and story because according to Dictionary.com, alchemy is, “the medieval forerunner of chemistry, based on the supposed transformation of matter,” and, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” Both of these definitions are accurate when applied to audiobooks, because the story is transferred from person to person in a material way, from human voice to human ear, transforming the story.
Unlike reading a book, which is a solitary activity, the audiobook listener has a companion on their journey: the narrator. The narrator becomes a kind of human avatar for the characters in the book, literally breathing life into the story from mouth to microphone. Depending on where and how one listens, that voice is an intimate one, bringing the story into the listener’s car, home, or living room, and directly into their body through the sound waves transmitted from earphones or earbuds. So the audiobook form can bring an author’s story and ideas to the listener in a powerfully different way from the written word.
I’ll never forget listening to the audiobook of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, in which a group of characters are held hostage for an extended period of time. Over the course of the eleven hour and twenty-minute audiobook, I felt as if I were living that experience with them in real time, the deliberate pacing of the narration leading me through the steady heartbeat of their captive lives.
I had a similar experience listening to Corinne Duyvis’s YA novel, On the Edge of Gone, a dystopian novel in which Earth is decimated by a meteor, during my first month of quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic. Traveling with protagonist Denise through her newly dangerous hometown and hearing her fear and uncertainty amplified by the narrator’s pitch-perfect delivery, felt like an echo of my own concern for my family and community, and fear for my own survival. The listening experience, spread out over those first weeks of isolation, gave me a heightened sense of connection with the story and protagonist, and greater insight into my own experience.
From ancient times, both written and oral storytelling have provided an important function in society as a way of uniting people, sharing information, providing comfort, and promoting understanding. We are at a unique moment in time when a book’s audience can decide how to consume the story. Whether your readers pick up your book to be distracted, entertained, or enlightened, they can choose the medium that best meets their needs at any given time—and they can even flip back and forth between digital and audio during the course of consuming a book. As a writer, this gives you an opportunity to create a story that will be received in different ways. Understanding how audiobooks enhance the impact of your story enables you to better meet the myriad expectations of your audience, whether they are readers or listeners, or a hybrid of the two.
Do you have a favorite audiobook or audiobook listening experience? Share it with us in the comments below!
And if you’re new to audiobooks, here are a few audiobooks I helped create, whether behind the scenes or behind the microphone:
- Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, narrated by Bahni Turpin
- Freedom in Congo Square, by Carole Boston Weatherford, narrated by JD Jackson
- Roller Coaster, by Marla Frazee, narrated by Amy Rubinate
Upcoming: Articles 2 & 3 will feature Writing for Audio and The Business of Audiobooks.
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Amy Rubinate is the owner of audiobook production company Mosaic Audio and the founder of Ideal Audiobooks. She has cast and directed hundreds of narrators, authors and celebrities, narrated over 300 audiobooks, won AudioFile Earphones Awards, and was listed for Booklist Editor’s Choice Media, Top 10 Historical Fiction, Best Romance, and YALSA Amazing Audiobooks. She has been reviewed and featured in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal.
Images provided by the author.