Too many authors spoil the story – The problem with audio books

Hello! I’m Lee, The Chimp’s other half, and I’ve been thinking about writing a guest post for some time. To give you some background, I’m not an author. I can think of nothing worse. I’m not even an avid reader. I just don’t find the time. When I do read, it’s predominantly non-fiction. I reckon for every fiction book I’ve ever read, I’ve read 50 non-fiction, probably more. So you’re likely thinking “OK, shut up buddy and put The Chimp back on”.

If you’re still reading, then I want to talk about audio books. You see, I went through a fairly lengthy period of listening to many audio books. Typically on my drive to and from work each day (90 minutes total). Occasionally when I was in bed too. Audible is a great service and I listened to around 20 or so audio books. I stopped after I read a book on holiday earlier this year. A book. OK, an e-book, but it involved reading, not listening. It was George Orwell’s 1984, and it was quite splendid. I could barely put it down.

Relevance check! – Listening to audio books made me aware that every book (read fiction from here) has 2 authors. The obvious one who builds a story, creates characters, the environment, etc. This is probably 85% (ouch!) of the writing. The second author is the reader who gives the story its visuals, finishes the personality of each character and gives characters a unique identity. If the primary author does a great job, the supporting author (you) reciprocates unconsciously and gives that instance of the completed book its delicious uniqueness.

When you listen to a book, something gets lost. I tried abridged and unabridged, but in my view audio books introduce a third author. The narrator has a style of reading that dilutes the “readers” creativity in writing the book. When I listen to books, I’m not as immersed in the story or the environment as I am when I read. It’s also much, much slower. When someone narrates a book my view is the story is consumed around 2-3 times slower than you can read. The narrators voice can also be a determining factor into how well the story works and the inflections in their words provide emphasis of their choosing, not yours. It certainly helps if the narrators are professional actors. Books narrated by the author (worst) or by a low budget professional narrator (better) provide the poorest experiences. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great example. I have heard two versions of this, but providing a very different experience of the story. One spoken entirely by Stephen Fry, who was very good as you can imagine. The other spoken by a cast of actors in a dramatised version which was better still, but these latter types of audio books are rare in my experience.

Non-fiction books work quite well in audio book format, but not technical books. Management, business, self-development, etc all work quite well.

Anyway, let me know your experiences of audio books or feel free to share recommendations for audio books that have worked for you.

Bye!

Note – These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chimp (PS. She made me say that)

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18 thoughts on “Too many authors spoil the story – The problem with audio books

  1. I listen in the car only (otherwise I fall asleep) and they provide a great distraction as I’m driving. But I think that the narrator can make or break the recording. I have listened to some books that the narrator has elevated the writing to a level that I doubt I could have enjoyed by reading the words. But I have also listened to some books where the narrator was not at all a good fit. Yes, they read the words as they were printed; however, there was no real life behind them. The narrator is vital to an audio book. By the way, I tend to listen to only the classics which are sometimes difficult to read due to the language usage.

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    1. Great point about the classics Pamela and think your summary of the narrator making or breaking an audio book to be spot on! Thanks for the feedback

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  2. I’ve never listened to an audio book, but after reading this, have formed two opinions: 1, I no longer need to look into offering my novels in audio format; 2) audio books are like movies – not as good as the book.
    Thanks for taking the time to write this guest post.

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  3. While I agree with the idea that narration adds a “third author” to the mix, I don’t think it “spoils” anything. It’s merely a different experience, which some may like and some may not. Some people hate reading, but enjoy audio books.

    Audiobooks are great to enjoy when you can’t sit & read. I put on an audiobook when I’m commuting or doing chores, which at least doubles how many books I’m reading. You only get one life, and you can only read so many books. Pick which ones you’d like to physically read, and which you wouldn’t mind listening to.

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    1. Cheers Nick. I’d be interested to know if you’ve found any narrators that are good. As a previous comment stated the quality of the narration can make or break the experience. Great you hear its working for you. Enjoy!

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      1. It’s not just that the narrator is “good,” more that the right narrator is paired with the right work. So far, every audio book I’ve listened to is a fantastic pairing of the right actor to fit the story.

        1) Snow Crash read by Jonathan Davis (Perfect tone for cyberpunk)
        2) The Martian read by R. C. Bray (Nailed the roll of Mark Watney, excellent accents for other characters)
        3) Ready Player One read by Wil Wheaton (On top of fitting the role perfectly, Wheaton is a nerd icon of the 80’s, who today represents nostalgia of the 80’s, read a book nostalgic of the 80’s. In fact, the author even wrote in ‘Wil Wheaton’ as a cameo character.)
        4) Stranger in a Strange Land read by Christopher Hurt (Has a 60’s smoker-esque voice and accent perfect for this story, that while it takes place in the future, is very much grounded in 60’s culture)

        Hyperion by Dan Simmons is another great example. There are 6 parts to the book, each from a different POV. Each part is narrated by a different actor, and each is perfectly casted for that viewpoint.

        Obviously you can see I almost strictly listen to sci-fi audiobooks, so it’s potentially different in other genres. Perhaps the reason these authors are great is because they capture the essence of the story so well that they blend into the background, thereby lessening the “third author” effect. Or perhaps add or accentuate a layer to the book, as is arguably the case in each example above.

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  4. Hi, Lee. I’ve had a couple of very good experiences with audio books, but the situations were unusual.

    One was Angela’s Ashes, read by Frank McCourt, the writer. Mr. McCourt was my high school English teacher — and hearing him tell his story, and singing all the songs, was wonderful.

    When Inherent Vice came out, I was obsessed with it for five months — basically reading it over and over, posting daily on the Pynchon Wiki, and blogging a lot. The audio book version, read by Ron McLarty, was one way to be reading the book even when I was at work. Plus, since it’s Pynchon, there are a lot of songs, and McLarty sang them, which was nice (I have no idea where he got the melodies, though).

    Other than that, I listen to a lot of audio drama. Why listen to novels, which weren’t written to be performed, when you can listen to stories which were meant to be listened to?

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  5. Wow, great teacher! I’ll be honest with you. Not sure I’d cope with the songs. Too close to musicals. I don’t know what it is, but songs and stories never work for me. The Chimp might have something to say about that. She enjoys them. I know a great song often tells a story, but you know what I mean. Appreciate the feedback and insight. Thanks.

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  6. I’ve never listened to an audio book, and this post drives a good point home; narration would definitely change the flavor of a book. I’ve never published my books in audio and am not considering doing so either in the near future. Thanks. 🙂

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      1. I’m sure everyone has a preference. And undoubtedly, audio books have a big place in the market; especially for those who are visually impaired, and for those who sneak in their reading time, by listening in a car etc.

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