The NAB Blog

Good, Better, Best

By Nicolas Soames

1 July 2010

An American friend rang me the other day, and we jawed on the phone for some time. He has been in audiobooks in prominent positions for many years and really knows the circuit, but now is working as a consultant and so can take an independent view on the field.

We discussed many subjects, and one in particular – classics on audiobook and their future. He suggested something rather astounding: that the future for recordings of literary classics was bleak.

This was for two reasons. One was that there are an increasingly number of people around the world happy to record the classics in their front room for the fun of it and put them on line either at very low cost or even free. These would simply undermine the situation of professional recordings sold at a commercial price.

Secondly, he said that the big download companies would, in the end, record the classics themselves and carry only their own on their sites.

Performance is CRUCIAL to audiobooks. I tremble when I think of audiobooks being ‘churned’ out by readers and producers…

Of course, the situation for copyright works – the new literature – is a totally different matter. Most agents will sell the audio rights on an exclusive basis. Only one audio publisher can record them.

Whoa, I said. Now we are moving into a world of serious assumptions and misconceptions that need to be nipped in the bud. These are based on the experiences of the book world, not the recorded world… i.e. the decades of experience of recorded music.

My whole view of audiobooks is that these are books in the first place, but also, very importantly, performances. Ask any audiobook afficionado and always the reader is flagged up as almost as important as the book itself. We may want to listen to War and Peace, but only if the reader really cooks it for us! Can you imagine over 60 hours in intimate contact with a reader who annoys you for some reason. It may be the timbre of the voice, it may be the interpretation, it may be one or two characters… but there is nothing for it other than reach for the stop button.

Performance is CRUCIAL to audiobooks. I tremble when I think of audiobooks being ‘churned’ out by readers and producers who just need to get the thing done in a certain amount of time. Of course we all make mistakes – the choice of reader may be at fault, a view of a character may be misjudged or simply wrong! There may be an editing mistake, or an outside noise.

But essentially, we aim for a thoughtful, engaged and exciting reading presented by someone who is as much an experienced performer as a concert pianist playing Chopin (we wouldn’t be happy listening to the Nocturnes played by Jimmy on his family upright!).

Let’s continue with the music analogy. There are currently at least 200 recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons out there. We have choice. Maybe too much choice! But we can have it on period instruments, or modern instruments playing in period style, or with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra if we want it.

That MUST apply to the literary classics. Only this week I had an email imploring us to re-record a classic (I can’t say which) with a particular reader who has excelled in recordings of that author. We have it already, but with someone else – a highly accomplished reader. But, for this correspondent, just not the right voice.

‘The recording you have will do, but it doesn’t have the maturity of presentation that xxxxx would bring to it , as you know!’ Here is a dedicated audiobook listener for whom importance really matters!

So we come back to our American friend and the plethora of readings of the classics and the growing number of amateur readers appearing on the internet. Now, this reminded me of my judo teacher, the great Katshuhiko Kashiwazaki. One evening, after a heavy day of training at his university near Tokyo, he explained the difference between amateur and professional in the judo world.

‘An amateur,’ he said, ‘can be very good.’ His performance in free-fighting will vary – sometimes it will be pretty poor, and sometimes quite good, even very good. The range of his standard can fluctuate, even on one day! At his best, he may even throw a professional once or twice. But the professional has a higher and much more stable standard. He will peak, but he won’t go below a certain level, because he is a professional.’

I would say exactly the same about the professional actor reading the classics. Not all great actors are great audiobook readers, of course, but it takes experience and talent to sustain a classic.

Which is how I arrived at the title of this particular blog.

Many people, even amateurs, can present a ‘good’ reading of a classic. I would rather have a ‘better’ reading of a great novel that has stood the test of time. But what I really want, when about to listen to Moby-Dick or Tristram Shandy or Sense and Sensibility is the ‘best’.

I am prepared to pay for that, to be enriched by a real performance, and not settle for ‘good enough’.

And that is why there always should be variety… and the retailers should serve that variety.

In fact, I feel that should also be true of works in copyright – why give audiobook rights away exclusively??

But that is another story!

Nicolas Soames

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