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Beyond unabridged: the captivating world of audio drama

My name is Jenni Lewis. I’ve worked as a commissioning editor in audio books for 10 years, mainly for Penguin Random House.  My newest challenge has been to commission for the BBC Audio list, with a primary focus on audio drama.

The thing I’ve always loved about working with audiobooks is the huge range of titles you get to work on. In other editorial teams, you may get to be a specialist in, say, women’s fiction or popular science. But with audio, you can one day be puzzling out the casting of the next The Girl on the Train, the next researching the pronunciation of an obscure scientific term for a natural history book. The huge variety of books, and the talent of the actors reading those books, always inspires me.

But it’s not just the content of the book we have to think about as editors. We must also think about how that content is delivered. And sometimes, a single-voiced narration of a publication just isn’t enough. Which is why I’ve begun to love the world of audio drama, something the BBC specialise in.

What is the BBC Audio list?

BBC Audio takes contemporary and vintage BBC Radio productions and makes them available for sale, giving fans of radio shows that may once have been lost the opportunity to purchase and listen again at their leisure forever. Our bestselling titles include dramas that were created for radio, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or adaptations of books like The Chronicles of Narnia, or Agatha Christie’s oeuvre and more recently, a collection of Terry Pratchett’s novels. We also publish comedy and factual titles – like long-running shows Just A Minute or Cabin Pressure. It has a huge offering.

What are your areas of focus?  

My work on the list over the past few months has been to focus on commissioning the best audio drama the BBC has to offer, and thinking about how to present the wonderful and plentiful archive of recordings to listeners of commercial audio books. I split my time between liaising with BBC producers and learning about the productions they are working on for current broadcast, with a view to release them commercially at a later date, to diving deep into the BBC archives to discover gems of old recordings that are worthy of a new lease of life.

For example, I’ve recently commissioned and published two collections of classic authors: D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. Both the collections feature archive recordings with incredible casts –John Hurt, Emilia Fox, Penelope Wilton and Dan Stevens, to name a few!

Being able to bring collections of the BBC’s audio drama output together in this way adds real value to the listener. They can help someone new to a famous writer’s works understand themes and motivations in one offering. Rather than having to purchase individual (and often rather long!) unabridged recordings of each individual book by an author, a listener can appreciate shorter pieces that bring the writing fully to life.

Or, for someone wholly familiar with a classic author, a collection of audio dramas can shed light on a familiar work and offer a different imagining of something they thought they were au fait with. It’s a real moment of joy when you see a character you have loved or hated explored in a way you didn’t even consider.

On the flip side, I also love exploring the BBC’s contemporary drama offering, and I hope to bring more radio writing talent to a commercial audience. There are a huge number of talented playwrights that write inspiring and epic pieces for broadcast, and I would love to see these writers become bestsellers in the way Penguin Random House’s authors often do. I love Mike Walker’s writing, and recently added a historical drama The Stuarts, starring Anton Lesser and Julian Rhind-Tutt, to our list. I also love the comedy drama of Katherine Jakeways. Her writing has been likened to the sharp observational wit of Victoria Wood, and I would whole-heartedly support that. If you haven’t listened to them, I would urge you to.

What’s next for me?

I would love to continue exploring the ways in which audio producers and publishers can work together to bring drama and plays (not just radio) to the commercial digital marketplace. I’ve been inspired by Penguin Random House US’s publication of Angels in America, with the original National Theatre cast, and Audible’s work in bringing Broadway shows like True West to the market place. I plan to focus on what more we can do on the BBC list to provide a wealth of stunning drama to listeners, but my dream would be to work more closely with authors who are known for their novels, but  perhaps have a play or two tucked up their sleeve that we could do justice to!

Jenni Lewis is an audio publishing professional with over 10 years’ experience working for Penguin Random House.

Work in publishing? Join our panel of passionate audio publishers for an insightful look at how far audio publishing can take your business in 2019. September 25th, London. Tickets here.

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