A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Audiobook Month on Vulpes Libris
Audiobook Month on Vulpes hits the ground running with a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Nicolas Soames, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Naxos AudioBooks.
VL: Naxos has an amazing collection of work on offer – fiction, non-fiction, classic, history, biography – not to mention poetry and plays. Obviously plays are designed for performance, but other than these, what kinds of books lend themselves best to audio books in your opinion?
NS: Surprisingly, there seem to be very few books which don’t emerge with character on audio. After all, the writers are communicating. Books as different as Le Morte d’Arthur and Ulysses are spectacular. But I suppose multi-voice books lend themselves particularly well because the characters narrating are so clear – such as Dracula and The Woman in White or the more contemporary example of Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence.
VL: What are the best-selling audiobooks? Do they tend to be bestsellers in hardcopy also or are there some surprises in there – perhaps influenced by who’s reading the book?
NS: The best-sellers vary from publisher to publisher. Harry Potter was a best-seller! For our classics range, we have all been surprised that Anton Lesser’s exceptional reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost in both abridged and unabridged has done well, as have Joyce’s Ulysses (abridged and unabridged again), War and Peace unabridged (!!); most Jane Austen (despite the competition). And from our Junior Classics range, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Tales from the Greek Legends. Also. Romeo and Juliet with Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale.
VL: Naxos obviously has a wide-ranging market in mind with such an array on offer but is perhaps best known as a recorder of the classics. Is there a “typical” audio book listener? Do they tend towards a particular demographic?
NS: Well, I am an audiobook listener, and I tend to think I am pretty typical. I listen when in the car, when in the gym, when on the train or walking in the countryside…ie, basically on the move. As for age and other factors – the range is extraordinarily wide…I am in touch with a student (and actor) at Cambridge University who is a non-stop listener, and then with any number of 30s and upwards to 80 and beyond…and all over the world!
VL: In terms of classics – readers often have their own very strong ideas of characters and how a book should sound – how do you go about trying to meet those expectations and how do avid fans react to your recordings?
NS: In the end, it can only be a personal choice. I know most of the classics we do and I hear a voice, or a delivery. When I am not sure, I will discuss with my producers, and often ask for suggestions from them. Sometimes, when I don’t know the book or am stumped, I ask agents. I didn’t know a reader who would be a natural for D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and an agent put five voices in front of me…and we settled on Paul Slack, who had never done such a weighty book, but he came from Lawrence country…and he gave us a wonderful reading. Similarly, it was an agent who suggested Jim Norton for Ulysses. Sometimes I am lucky and brilliant readers fall into my lap so-to-speak, which is what happened with David Timson (Sherlock Holmes), Neville Jason (Proust and Tolstoy) and more recently Roy McMillan who started with us as a producer. Then there is the question of the series. Juliet Stevenson’s Jane Austen is so wonderful – would our listeners like to hear her reading them all, or most; or would they like a different voice. You have to go where your own heart is.
VL: Is it a growing market?
NS: If one looks around at the numbers of people with white wires hanging from their ears on trains and pavements, there is no doubt! The great advantage is that one can multi-task!
VL: How does the digital “revolution” affect audiobooks – if at all? I notice there are wonderful samples of many of your recordings on your site – do things like podcasts, etc encourage people to get into audiobooks or is it a completely different market?
NS: The quality of the reader is crucial. I may want to listen to a book, but if I can’t get on with the reader, I can stay the course! And this is true for many, many people. This is why it is so important for people to sample the reader beforehand. And the reader must match the book. We have one example of a reader who is peerless in one area of literature, but when we thought he could sidestep into another, it became a round peg in a square hole. There is no doubt that the digital revolution has benefited audiobooks. It is much easier carrying unabridged Tristram Shandy on the iPod than a box of CDs under your arm. And it is less expensive! Also, downloads has made so many more specialist titles available. The shops can’t be expected to invest in Bulgakov’s The Master and Magarita but you can get it as a download 24/7.
VL: The live literature scene is growing rapidly with literature festivals springing up all over the UK. There are performance poetry slams, readings from authors and performed flash fiction. Does this sort of thing whet appetites for the audio book experience? Do you tap into any of these trends at all?
NS: For two years running, we gave a variety of presentations at the Oxford Literary Festival. So, yes – after all, reading is a live experience and what better than to see your favourite reader do what he or she does best, and also talk about the book. Anton Lesser and Professor John Carey gave an unforgettable Milton experience (you can hear it on our website on the Milton page); and (Ulysses/Finnegans Wake producer) Roger Marsh’s lecture on James Joyce, which is on our website, was a revelation for many.
VL: The marriage of voice and words is so important. How do you go about picking the right actor for the right material?
NS: As I mentioned, it is by a variety of ways. But also I like to take risks. Audiobook reading is a highly developed skill and it is always a risk to use someone who has never read, or certainly not a classic. David Timson is preparing The Pickwick Papers at this very moment. He knows the book, of course, but he told me only yesterday he is reading it to himself, then he will read it aloud in his own room; and then hone and prepare certain passages before coming into the studio. New readers rarely do this…but it is good to have someone fresh. Michael Sheen had never read an audiobook when he came, just out of RADA, to read Crime and Punishment, but he was astounding. He turned up in black leather trousers and black leather shirt, and said he wanted to read standing up. OK, we said, and adjusted the studio. He stood there all day, delivering this brilliant performance. (It was an abridgement). Some months later we invited him back to read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. We prepared the studio with a tall music stand and no chair. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Would you mind if I sat down.’
VL: Robert McCrum recently wrote on the Guardian Books blog:
“At their best, unabridged and read by an author who knows about reading aloud (John le Carré springs to mind) they can be distillations of pure magic; a lovely window on the author’s intentions. Read badly, or over-read by an out-of-work actor and horribly abridged, they can do a book a great disservice.“
Can you talk a bit about the difficulties of abridging and what qualities an actor needs to be a good audiobook narrator – how do you stop them over-acting?
NS: These are two questions in one. A skilful abridgement inevitably concentrates on the plot and a the description may have to be conveyed by the actor. Sometimes the abridger has to make real judgement calls in order to get the script to length (as with a TV adaptation). Sometimes, a very famous passage is in danger of being taken out because that particular scene is not really a crucial part of the plot. We nearly lost ‘the ineluctable modality of the visible’ from Ulysses….and, if I recall correctly, Micawber’s unforgettable ‘Annual income twenty pounds…etc..’ had to be reinstated. But I really think that listeners want to hear the best-known lines.
As for over-acting, the key thing here is that the actor must remember that he/she is speaking to one person…directly into the ear. Most understand this. The main danger is when an actor is on stage at night…and has to remember to make the big shift from projection to intimacy. However, there are also very different styles which are equally valid. William Hootkins (Moby Dick, unabridged. Amazing! Amazing!) and in a different way Bill Homewood (Dumas, Hugo, King’s Solomon’s Mines) hew their performances from big blocks of masonry and you just get carried away.
VL: A recent piece on Strictly Writing saw a few people saying that they found audio books very slow. People read at different speeds. Certainly many of the audiobooks I listened to seemed a lot slower than a radio play for example. What dictates the speed of reading?
NS: Again, that is down to the individual actor. I would rather someone read too slow rather than gabbled. But this is where the voice should suit the book. Sean Barrett, one of the great readers of his time with a remarkable range from Cormac McCarthy to Samuel Beckett and Dickens, has quite a fast reading speed, but you never notice. But generally we find that the book sets its own pace (if the actor has been well chosen).
VL: I was reading a rather entertaining post on your blog about diction. Argh. A total minefield if the postbag of Radio Four’s “Feedback” is anything to go by. Do you have any general policies on diction or does it depend on the book?
NS: I try not to be too grand, but I do like to hear English well spoken. I am not, I hope, rigid. Of course I am English but if Kerry Shale reading a great American classic says ‘the sun shone’ and pronounces it ‘shown’ I may blink, but I know it is right…However, if someone is just sloppy, then I am unhappy because I wouldn’t want to listen to it! All this is, in part, dictated by the fact that we do classics, and therefore we SHOULD reverence the language. Few kids on the block get on to Naxos AudioBooks only because the appropriate opportunity is not there!
VL: As a listener to Radio Four – I do get a bit fed up with the same-sounding voices you tend to hear on radio plays and short story readings. And, to me, the voices aren’t so much neutral as “Radio Four”! Apart from the obvious – Irish accents for Beckett for example – do you ever use regional accents for the “narrator” voice of a book? Isn’t RP as riddled with associations and precise placement as anything else these days?
NS: Ah! Right! A Debate! When we do a classic on audiobook, I feel we are putting down something a bit in stone. This is not the time to have a Bollywood actor to give Dickens a different spin. However, radio is another matter. It is a more ephemeral medium and so there is room for experimentation, as is the case on the stage where you can set Julius Caesar in Vietnam. I agree that Beckett, of all dramatists, can probably be set on Uluru…but I wouldn’t have asked a non-Irishman (!) to read the Trilogy for the world premiere unabridged recording.
VL: Poetry: some of it is meant to be read aloud and some of it exists very much first and foremost on the page – what are the main issues with recording poetry and what recordings do you think have worked the best?
NS: Poetry is perhaps the most subjective of all literary forms on audiobook because it is so personal. Clarity may be foremost; temperament is also absolutely key; but for me also the music of the performance is equally important. It has to flow unimpeded – I really don’t like editing poetry. Anton Lesser’s Paradise Lost is simply a marvel. It was broadcast unabridged on BBC Radio 3 over 12 days and I know that thousands of people were riveted. But also Samuel West’s Letters and Poems of John Keats, is exceptional. He came into the studio at 9am, discussed the use of the dash in 19th century literature with our literary advisor/abridger/compiler Perry Keenlyside, and sat down to record. He read a letter, and put the page to one side. He looked down and saw the poem which was next. He looked up to the microphone and recited it. One take. From memory. Then he stopped and sat in silence for a bit. Then he picked up the next letter and read it. Then glanced at the title of the poem that followed, looked up at the microphone and recited it. From memory. He did this with almost every poem. And as I remember, no slips. Unforgettable. And by the way, I know Keats was a cockney, and Sam West certainly isn’t. But listen to his Keats. You will not move.
VL: What are the biggest challenges in your job? And what is the part you find the most satisfying?
NS: I started Naxos AudioBooks in 1994, so I have been running it for 16 years. The challenge is to be fresh and excited and not to regard the forthcoming recording as No. 550. It is the nature of the world that some will work better than others, and there will be some failures along the way, and some interactions with actors and writers which are less than skilful. We are working intensely for so much of the time. But I have been fortunate in feeling personally enriched by so many years’ immersion in the classics – by definition, the greatest literature – and working with so many outstanding artists. What these readers do is absolutely amazing. Listen to David Timson’s podcast on the Our Mutual Friend page. He explains how he keeps 58 (I think that was the number) characters in his head. To be honest, I am not so interested in most stars. They have a charisma and their own talent. But, strewth, I see little-known actors performing miracles month after month. I have been informed, instructed, moved, elated and frightened more often then I care to remember. I was in the studio once and an actress (ok, Teresa Gallagher) was reading a short story (The Garden Party). Not a sentimental wallow at all. So, I have no idea why I suddenly found my eyes getting wet. Her performance must have touched an inside chord. Damn! Just so unprofessional! But, you know, like uncontrollable laughter, you simply can’t stop the tears. And there was Teresa, feet away from me on the other side of the glass. I thought: Please Miss, Just keep your eyes on your script. But there can be a curiously telepathy in these circumstances, and she looked up just at the worst moment. There was nothing I could do. Well. That’s life in classic audio.
Nicolas Soames was answering questions put to him by Rosy Barnes. Join us again tomorrow for the first of our audiobook reviews – of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, read by Ralph Fiennes.