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Event Report: BookMachine Unplugged – Talking Audio

On Wednesday 25 September, a packed house of audiophiles gathered in London’s Century Club for the very first BookMachine Unplugged: Talking Audio event. BookMachine editorial board member Louise Newton (Audio Editor, Little Brown) introduced a panel of experts with an outstanding range of experience between them: Catherine Daly (Audio Editor, Faber & Faber), Paul Stark (Audio and Digital Manager, Orion Publishing Group), Helena Sheffield (Marketing & Communications Manager, Penguin Random House Audio) and Sarah Shrubb (Audio Publisher, Hachette Audio).

Louise started the event by grounding us in the present; she explained that while many articles and conference presentations focus on the great potential of audiobooks, and the audio landscape in 20 or 30 years’ time, this panel would be focusing on where audio is today, looking at concrete examples of what has worked – and what hasn’t – for the speakers.

Thinking outside the book

Catherine Daly started the presentations by describing how Faber decided to bring its audio operations in-house, following earlier partnerships with Canongate and Penguin. Faber has a long history of recording poetry, starting with vinyl and moving on to cassette, CD and now to the digital streaming age, and they aim to publish audio editions of all their poetry collections simultaneously with their print editions.

As well as producing audio editions that are identical to the written versions, Faber has also been experimenting with formats that go beyond the printed book. One recent example is Sara Pascoe’s book Sex, Power, Money: as well as publishing an audiobook, they also produced a podcast presenting conversations around the book’s topics. The podcast was very successful, shooting up the Apple podcast chart, but it was also labour-intensive: the takeaway message is that it’s good to experiment with new forms of audio content, but you need to be aware of the extra resources such projects take up.

The magic of author–reader collaboration

Science fiction audiobooks bring their own unique challenges, as Paul Stark pointed out. As well as often being very long, they also tend to have specialised vocabulary invented by the author, so a comprehensive brief is vital. Another factor publishers have to consider is that although SFF readers are generally digital natives, they are also quite conservative in their reading habits, seeing the beautifully jacketed hardback as the purest format of a book – so they can need a bit of persuading to adopt an audio version.

The key to success in these kinds of projects is close collaboration between the author and the actor who reads the audiobook. Paul described how Ben Aaronovitch works with his reader, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, not only during the recording but also in his actual writing process: Ben will email Kobna to ask, for example, if he has a Hungarian accent in his repertoire. Having the author fully involved with the process, and talking to their fans about their own excitement for the audio edition, helps bring readers on board. Hopefully, as a result, readers will want to acquire a print version and an audio edition – which is an ideal outcome for any publisher.

Understanding different listener types

Helena Sheffield’s presentation focused on the importance of recognising the different types of listener, and the need to target your messages appropriately. She described two distinct listener groups: first, the ‘advocates’, who are already booklovers and already listen to audiobooks; and secondly, the ‘entertainment seekers’, who consume content from diverse sources such as Spotify, Netflix and podcasts, but who don’t already self-identify as audiobook listeners.

With advocates, the key message is that the audiobook is here, and it adds an extra element to the book-reading experience. With entertainment seekers, the marketing effort relies more on reaching out into new spaces, finding potential listeners where they are and telling them the benefits of the audiobook experience.

One example of marketing to advocates was a promotional video for Philip Pullman’s new book The Secret Commonwealth, in which actor Michael Sheen talks about his passion for Pullman’s books and his pleasure in reading them aloud: this kind of messaging draws Pullman fans towards the audio product. An example of marketing to entertainment seekers came from Gary Lineker and Danny Baker’s book Behind Closed Doors. In an audio advert, the two authors describe their book, humorously, as a nine-hour-long version of their podcast: the aim is for this ad to attract listeners of other, related podcasts to investigate the audiobook even if they are not frequent audiobook-listeners.

Another route to reach entertainment seekers is through brand partnerships, such as promoting children’s stories with Sonos and sleep stories alongside a relaxing moisturiser from Dermalogica. The key takeaway is that if you want to reach the widest range of potential audiobook consumers, you need to extend your marketing strategy beyond the campaigns you’d use for print editions.

Different genres, different challenges

Sarah Shrubb has overseen the publication of over 2000 audiobooks, so she knows a thing or two (thousand) about the many different factors that come into play when you’re recording a text.

For fiction titles, a single actor is usually used. Audiobook acting is different from other types of acting as it’s vital that performers can convincingly portray all the voices in the book. However, some titles may require multiple narrators, telling different strands of the story. Some books contain unexpected challenges when translated into audio: for example, there could be an unidentified murderer’s voice or a genderless AI, which the actor will have to decide how to characterise.

Non-fiction titles have other issues which need to be solved in an audio edition: how should footnotes and references be included, if they’re included at all, and should illustrations be ignored or adapted into words? These kinds of challenges need to be addressed well before the book reaches the recording studio. Sarah’s take-home message was that nearly all types of book can work successfully in audio, as long as you stay focused on the needs of the text and work to communicate them in the best way possible.

My thanks to Louise and all the panellists for an informative and insightful discussion – the real-life examples gave us lots to think about in our own audiobook adventures. Come and join us at BookMachine Unplugged: Talking Design on 13 November 2019 at 6:30, to find out how design thinking can transform your publishing strategy.

Abbie Headon is Editorial Director at Duckworth Books, where she commissions humorous fiction for the Farrago imprint. She also writes books, and her latest title, LEGO Build Yourself Happy, will be published by DK on 3 October 2019.

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