An Observation on Audiobooks

Over on MetaFilter, there’s a conversation thread about this opinion piece on audiobooks in Vulture, where the author has a personal preference about how audiobooks should be performed, and wishes to suggest their preference is actually the best way, which it isn’t really (as with many things in life, the answer is not clear cut, and the best way to narrate an audiobook is heavily dependent on both the text and the performer). I wrote a comment in the thread which I am transplanting here for archival purposes, and because I think it might be interesting to the readership here, many of which also listen to my books in audio.

Unless the book is read by the author — which is very often not a great idea, as authors are not professional narrators or performers — then inevitably the recording is going to be an interpretation, one, because the narrator is not the author and can’t/won’t know the precise intent behind every single sentence, and two, because the narrator is a human with their own inclinations, preferences and opinions about the text (and three, because there’s also usually an audio director/producer involved, who again is usually not the author and has their own opinions, so there’s another layer involved there). An additional factor can be the nature of the audio production process itself — narrators who get booked a lot don’t necessarily have time to read the book before the recording, which means another set of choices about how the book gets read.

As an author, I was not initially in love with audiobook versions of my books because it was an interpretation, and because the narration was not the way I heard the book in my own head — the narrative beats would sometime be different; a word would be given a different emphasis; a character who I heard one way in my head would sound different (and sometimes would feel like they had a different personality entirely).

Two things got me over this. The first was that audio increased my annual income from writing by about a third, which smoothed over quite a lot. The second thing was that I realized that audiobook narration is a performance and that, like one can appreciate the myriad of ways that actors have approached the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy in Hamlet, one can equally look at the choices the narrator makes in their performance and see how they are in conversation with the text, often in ways that are a surprise to me, the author. So the necessary fact of the interpretation stopped being an annoyance and became a thing of interest.

Which is not to say that I like every narration of my work (although I do like most of them just fine). It does mean I don’t get especially annoyed if the way the book is narrated is not precisely the way it was in my head, or how I would do it if I were the one narrating my book (which I am not especially tempted to do, unless I write a memoir). Even the narrator who I think is closest to my own personal voice — Wil Wheaton, who is within a few years of my age, grew up where I did, has the same vocal tics and intonations that I do, and is an actual friend of mine and so can text me when he has a question when recording — makes choices I wouldn’t, or didn’t, with the words.

It offers a certain level of surprise to the text, which means that, oddly, the audiobook version of my novels are the ones I can appreciate most in the role of a reader — filtering the words through someone else gives them a remove that helps me appreciate the words in themselves, and not dwell on the fact of how I set them in their form, and how I was feeling the day I wrote that particular bit, or whatever.

— JS

49 Comments on “An Observation on Audiobooks”

  1. It is a very personal thing – but one reason I also enjoy audiobooks (beyond the production value) is that I can listen to them at far faster speeds than I can read.
    Being able to listen at 3x speed is a blessing. I lose nothing and I am able to read far more novels a year as a result.
    Its one reason why my first read of a book is frequently audio. Subsequent re-reads then transition to physical books or ebooks.

  2. As a classical musician who specializes in 17th and 18th century music, I deal with these issues every day: how do I determine the composer’s intentions and be faithful to them, while at the same time being a musician myself who will bring my own sensibilities to my performances? I agree completely with what you’re saying.

  3. One “book read by the author” I would definitely recommend is Frank McCourt doing ANGELA’S ASHES.

  4. Also, it should be said, when I read a book and make their voices in my head and say names the way I think they are said and whatnot, I am also interpreting the work and it is likely not exactly how the author intended. So, yeah, I think chilling is in order.

  5. I both read and listen to audiobooks, depending on mood. I adore and enjoy audiobooks (In fact, an Audible freebie got me reading some of your work)

    Sometimes the performance can enhance the text. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman and performed by Lenny Henry leaps irresistibly to mind.

    Other times things about a performance can throw me out of the book. I can think of at least one Wen Spencer book I couldn’t listen to after the first chapter because the narrator quite understandably pronounced Taliaferro “Tal-ee-ah-fer-ro” instead of the correct “Tolliver.” Or when an author specifies an accent and the narrator can’t actually do that specific accent. Those books, I’ll go to text to enjoy.

  6. I listen to tons of audiobooks and the combination of a great story and the right narrator can elevate the experience to something sublime. We are a species that evolved with an oral tradition after all; the written word is a recent invention.

    One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with audiobooks has been your Lock In series. I love the interpretation of those stories read by both Amber Benson and Wil Wheaton. They both feel completely true and I’ve never been able to decide that I like one more than the other. I find that fascinating.

  7. My favourite “read by the author” audiobooks are the old readings of the Hitchhiker ‘trilogy’ by Douglas Adams and various Neil Gaiman ones (especially The Ocean at the End of the Lane). Both authors are also excellent performers/storytellers and the result is readings that, for me, improve significantly on the original text.

    As for YOU, John: I sure wouldn’t mind a reading or two in character as Theo Pratt. Because yes, that silly old thing is kind of sublime. ;)

  8. “ which is very often not a great idea, as authors are not professional narrators or performers ”

    Mary Robinette Kowal being the noteworthy exception. Some authors are talented narrators (Gaiman for example) but I can’t think of any other than MRK who is a talented performer. Her readings of the Lady Astronaut books are among the best performances in audio books, no qualifier. I wish she would do a news podcast in her newscaster voice – I would 100% make that my primary news source. She is unfairly, absurdly talented at so many things

  9. I think even when an author is a professional narrator (ex. Gaiman and Kowal), there is a benefit of having a version of a book narrated by someone with a different voice.
    It gives us the choice of what we want their protagonist(s) to sound like.

    I think the perfect example is with your Lock In series.

  10. This is sooooo timely. I’m on chapter 15 of KPS and I’ve been wanting, for days, to inquire whether you write for the joy of the craft and to tell a good story, or to give Wil Wheaton the opportunity to flex his interpretive and vocal talents with alacrity on each book he’s narrated for you? I mean, his voice really catches your tone on twitter, in your Whatever pieces, and I imagine, in your day to day conversation. He’s a great narrator for your work. Or, you’re a great source of material for his. Or both? Yes, definitely, both!

  11. I do greatly appreciate having audio versions of your books for those of us whose eyesight makes it so much more difficult to read anymore.

  12. Not just about audiobooks, but in general:

    The author might be less skilled at interpreting his/her/their own work — either in general or just the work at issue — than is the narrator, too. One wonders if Ms Kramer (the author of the OP) had even heard of “The Intentional Fallacy,” let alone engaged with it… or the mountain of theory and approaches that makes clear that there is no one right way to interpret all the nuances of expression in anything longer than “The Cat Sat on the Hat” (which itself was the subject of a 3,500 word essay).

    The author gets to say “That’s not what I intended,” but then we’re back to trusting the author to fully understand every aspect of the work and its context and its transformation into another form and the limitations of the recording medium/method and… The author doesn’t get to say “That’s not what it means,” let alone “That’s wrong,” with any more authority than anyone else.

  13. Very early in my career some coach said something to me, that I try to remember every day:

    “It doesn’t matter how you meant that sentence. It may matter the world how someone understands the sentence.”

    You know already how you meant the book. Someone else reading the book can tell you how they understand it.

  14. I think it works the same for the reader as well. I have read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series and listened on audio, and I find that listening after I’ve read often brings more nuance to the story. I’m a fast reader, and sometimes how I interpret is different than the narrator – which widens the value of the story for me.

  15. I can say i’ve never been a fan of audiobooks as they never really convey what i get from reading.

    I will say for those looking at what works, a great example of good and bad is the Harry Potter one done during the Pandemic – each chapter read by different actors (some by multiple). They are ALL different styles and approaches and it’s a good way to learn what styles do and do not work for you…. not all choices work for each person (most don’t work for me)

  16. Does this mean that when your works are adapted into a movie or TV series that the differences would also stand out (for better or worse), or does the change to a visual media make a difference in expectations for similarity?

  17. I can see how some people would like to hear an audiobook with a full cast doing a more dramatic reenactment but I really don’t like that style. It would be great if audiobooks were available in multiple styles so the reader could pick their favorite. My preference will always be a single narrator who has a light touch on the material.

  18. Thank you for your perspective on audio books. It makes me appreciate how talented and versatile the performer and the author are. I don’t listen to audio books because I prefer reading them but I purchase them religiously because I’m betting my future self will thank the stars when he can no longer read. I love Wil Wheatons narration of your books, partially because I’m a fan, but mostly because it’s closest to how I hear them in my head when I’m reading them.

  19. Setting aside the question of full-cast audio (which I vehemently believe should be reserved for works that were written or adapted specifically FOR full-cast audio, rather than novels read by committee), what I see in both those conversations is a case for recognizing that audiobook reading is a separate medium, and needs a population of actors who are trained/experienced/good at that specific kind of performance.

    And then, couple that with experts in the industry who are better at pairing the work with the author.

    Some celebrity actors are good at audiobooks – some, surprisingly so – but some otherwise excellent actors simply suck at them. Some of my favorite books have become audio disasters because whoever picked that author made awful choices – I particularly remember one of my favorite series, which followed a rural farmgirl through a whole series of SF/fantasy life events, but which was read by someone who would have been better suited to gritty mobster noir books. 70% of the characters were female, and the reader had exactly one (bad) female voice in his repertoire.

    That’s not an indictment of audiobooks. But it is an indictment of THOSE audiobooks. Which, sadly, are likely never to be re-recorded, nor the series ever finished.

    But I agree with those upthread – all of us readers are going to do whatever we do with voices, pacing, narrative beats, and often, mental imagery – in our own heads, so it’s not like keeping things on the page makes our experience more in line with “what the author intended.”

    God knows, I’ve had several experiences where I’ve read an entire book or even series, and having locked in the character’s name in my head, gone the whole time, only to realize in retrospect that I’d gotten it completely wrong the entire time.

  20. DanS – how the heck can you listen to them at 3x speed? (Serious question.) I listen to most at around .8 or .9x.

    I do watch most Youtubes at 1.25x, but that’s because I’m reading the captions more than listening.

    Anyhow, love audiobooks, love great performances on audiobooks. Great performances can enhance your understanding of a difficult book. The best audiobook performance I’ve heard is William Hootkins’ Moby-Dick. He will get you through the whole book, including the boring “lexicography” stuff in the middle.

  21. I totally agree that for the author audiobooks are the best way to enjoy their own books. I can’t stop listening to mine, as self-indulgent as that sounds. It’s a fresh book entirely and the different choices in delivery from how it is in my head I’ve quickly learnt to embrace it all.

  22. I agree with the sentiment that the narrators are performers and that I choose audio over (or in addition to) text when I want someone to tell me a story. Because I see it as narration, I have a tough time listening to audiobooks at faster speeds…I generally feel like the performer chose the pace and emphasis intentionally and I don’t want to lose that. But I definitely read faster than audiobook pace, so I also choose audiobooks when I want to slow down and savor a story.

  23. Anyone who enjoys a performance by a narrator needs to listen to Steven Pacey read The First Law books by Joe Abercrombie (of course, if you love sci-fi/fantasy you should be reading these books regardless, they’re amazing). There are so many characters, and Pacey’s performance of each one is distinct and memorable, and adds so much more to an already fantastic story.

  24. I’ve listened to Tolkien read Tolkien and I have to say he shouldn’t do that. It’s like listening to paint dry on a Bible. The Recorded Books version (or whatever they call that company these days) had the delightful benefit of putting all those old songs to music. On the other hand, I’ve also listened to Stephen King read some of the Dark Tower series and he really wasn’t bad at all.

  25. David Gilmour said that the final mix in the engineer’s control room of a Pink Floyd record constituted a performance and an audio book reading is as well. I am not a big fan of audiobooks and, in my limited use of them, I have noticed a vast range of quality. Benedict Cumberbatch’s reading of Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is an example of how good audiobooks can be but who can attract that level of ability?

  26. But it seems that the point of her article was asking “what does female authority sound like?” And when she listened to audiobooks of authors she considered to be women of authority, the audiobooks routinely sounded far too bubbly, emotive, or whatever.

    Imagine someone taking Walter Cronkite’s words and speaking them with the voice of a frat boy looking for some brewskies and “babes”.

    Sure, author words can have different interpretations. That didnt seem to be the primary complaint of the article. But rather that all the authors she considered female authority had all been performed by voice actresses channeling their inner cheerleader.

    I could see how that could be annoying.

  27. My main gripe with audiobooks is that they take so long — I probably read at least 8 to 10x faster than listening and I don’t think I’d be able to understand spoken language at that rate.
    I have listened to a few now during the commute and at least one of them may have been better as an audiobook, Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater than Death — the narrator’s first audiobook but she was a very experienced voice actor for animation and video games. And some of them are just great on their own as performance, but that’s almost more like watching a show than reading a book.
    Also one I listened to had chapters done as version numbers, (e.g. chapter 1.15) and instead of correctly reading the digits after the decimal (“one point one five”), the narrator would say them as if they were whole number (“one point fifteen”). Annoying, but infrequent. (and not to blame the narrator, as that could have been direction).

  28. As an audio book listener I don’t think there is anything more annoying than a book narrator being changed mid series.
    Or when they attempt an accent way outside their wheelhouse (that they have never heard?) & your left with a mangled do we really sound like THAT moment mid flow.

  29. With the sentence structure of the Ancillary Reich series, is very difficult for me to understand in audio. Thoughts and the spoken word in the text is separate by grammar marks. Which one does not hear in the audio.

    I have found it easy to under stand Full Cast Audio productions. Each character is portrayed by a different narrator, and light editing is done as “Carol said” is cut

    Several Heinlein have been given the full caste treatment and I found them to be excellent.

    And the interpretation of what the character is important. In “The Martian.” audio recording “In your face, Neil Armstrong!” is delivered with a punch.

    In the movie Matt Damon give the sentence the wet noodle treatment.

    I think the audio presentation is better that than written word.

    And with the Locked In series, I checked on Amazon, is read by Wil Wheaton. I thought their would be an option for a female narrator.

  30. Why don’t authors collaborate with audiobook directors more closely to work out these issues which aggravate listeners? Pronunciation for example.

  31. Thank Will for not attempting a NZ accent in KPS.

    Kobna Holdbrook Smith who reads Rivers of London series can do accents and they are varied & make the characters.

  32. I read so fast, listening to the audio work would take 3x or 4x as long as just reading it … many years ago I read a description of speed reading, took the advice, now I read really fast Unless it’s a textbook, of course.

  33. I wholly agree with EB White, in the quote where he says “I think a book is better read the way my father used to read books to me — without drama. He just read the words, beginning with the seductive phrase ‘Chapter One,’ and I supplied my own dramatization.”

    But that author is so damn pretentious that I’m choking back an urge to find her and challenge her to a duel.

    Some people on Metafilter have points, like “it’s not a radio drama”.

    But a LOT of folks buy and listen to audiobooks just as they are! I don’t like them – so I don’t buy them. It’s easy! I listen to music if I’m busy with something else. My ex preferred talk radio like NPR.

    Just let people enjoy things!!

  34. @John
    “And with the Locked In series, I checked on Amazon, is read by Wil Wheaton. I thought their would be an option for a female narrator.”

    The Lock In books are available read by Wil Wheaton and also, separately, available read by Amber Benson, at least in the US, from both Amazon and Audible.

  35. Well, that answers everything I submitted a few weeks ago when you solicited us for questions. Thanks! BTW, I don’t know Will Wheaton personally, but I’m an avid fan and love The Ready Room. I’m intrigued by your comment that you share a similar voice intonation, age, etc. with Will Wheaton. That’s cool to know.

  36. While I personally don’t listen to audiobooks much, I think it’s safe to say that audiobooks should be treated like any other adaptation of an authors’ work. They’re usually the first (and often of course only) adaptation the book will get, but it has the usual filters and interpretations that any other adaptation would have. It’s not “just the same as the book”, but of course hopefully closely related.

  37. Consequence of listening to your books in audio form: when I read you, I hear Wil Wheaton’s voice in my head. Haha!

  38. That interpretation aspect is what initially made me reluctant to try audiobooks. I was interested because it meant I could read on my commute, but my wife initially wanted to listen to the Ready Player One audiobook with me. I had a very strong connection to that book and didn’t want someone else’s idea of what the book “was” to interfere with the version that lived in my head.

    (I’m the same way with music videos: I don’t like watching them because they overwrite whatever I see in my head when I hear a song, and they’re almost always less interesting than what my brain comes up with.)

    But after I gave them a shot, I found that it wasn’t so bad. Like you and others have said, it’s a little bit like watching a play: you can hold multiple interpretations of the same source material in your mind at once, and you can get a lot out of comparing them.

  39. “Old Man’s War. By John Scalzi.” My very first introduction to your works, read by the late great William Dufris on Audible.

  40. I can’t sit and listen to an audiobook because I too get frustrated by the fact that I could read words on a page so much faster. But I LOVE audiobooks for driving and for my morning runs! “Gotta keep going until I get to the end of the chapter!” is often very motivating.

    The narration is extremely well done on Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, and I have chosen to listen to books read by Julia Whelan purely because I know I will enjoy listening to her for hours on end.

  41. Side note, Mr. Scalzi, but I think there may be a problem with the search box on this site — no matter what I put in, I get a 404 error.

  42. Fuzzy Nation audiobook is how I first discovered you. Audiobooks are the grease that keeps a commuter’s wheels spinning.

  43. Absolutely love the addition of good actors to the consumption of good books, been listening over reading for years. There are sometimes mistakes in word stress, but there are also misprints in text.

    Biggest surprise I had was hearing Ann Leckie read an excerpt from Ancillary Mercy at a book signing and pronounce Translator Dlique’s name completely different, and I’m ashamed to say that I preferred the actor’s interpretation.

    (For the record, since I only had the audiobook with me, I asked her to sign my phone.)

  44. It’s interesting that many here like audiobooks because they can listen to them faster than they can read the original. I have the opposite situation–as it happens, I read voraciously, and very fast (no idea why), so for me a good audiobook prolongs the enjoyment.

    Not to mention that for years I made my living as what’s called a “ferry pilot,” delivering small (usually single engine) airplanes all over the world. On those long (sometimes >12 hours) overwater legs, sometimes described as “hours of boredom interspersed with occasional moments of terror,” audiobooks were one of the two most significant technological developments in that particular field. (The other, of course, was GPS, prior to which I often used a sextant with which Capt. Cook would have been entirely familiar.)

    W/R/T authors reading their own work, I can unreservedly recommend the late John le Carre’s brilliant performances of his own even more brilliant work–even if you’re not particularly interested in spy stories, this is an author (perhaps like someone else named John) whose “writing transcends the genre,” and with whom I agree entirely about the merits of Wil Wheaton and Mary Robinette Kowal. And excellent multi-reader performances of major works are becoming more common. I can recommend Neal Stephenson’s massive “Baroque Cycle” performed by Simon Prebble and the late (and sorely missed) Katherine Kellgren.

    Note that the entire Discworld canon is now in audiobook production with a star-studded cast including Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis (not to detract from the excellent individual Discworld books narrated by Stephen Briggs, who I believe was a good friend of Sir Terry’s.

  45. I listen to audiobooks almost exclusively for my reading pleasure. I prefer a single narrator, and if they can do multiple characters and male/female well, so much the better. What I do not like is multiple narrators who each represent a single character, and I absolutely HATE those audio dramatizations with a full cast and dramatic music. Just read the damned book!

    The best ever has to be Roy Dotrice who read over 200 hours to complete the first five books in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire was recognized by Guinness World Records for having the most “distinct and distinguishable” character voices in an audiobook, at 224.

    I like Scott Brick (I’ll listed to a book narrated by him that doesn’t appeal to me after reading the reviews, and I’m almost always glad I did), and Barry Eisler narrates his own John Rain series and does an excellent job of it. I always liked George Guidall’s narration of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series but Edoardo Ballerini took over in The Cellist in 2021, and it doesn’t really get much better than that pairing.

    Well, except John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton of course! 🎵We want the snark, gotta have that snark, ooh we want the snark..🎵

  46. Man, you make me wish i COULD listen to audio books! (I cannot engage with just vocal input, it quickly turns into just noise and i get no meaning. I have trouble with phone calls that are just audio, and there I’m actively engaged… sigh)

    I’ve heard so many great things about so many audio books. But, i mean, i taught myself to read before i was three so people would STOP READING TO ME (alas, this only worked at home)

    I’m 45, and i STILL cannot listen to something vocal audio only. Music is fine, spoken word (poetry) depends on how rhythmic it’s being (what portion of the brain is engaged) and it makes me VERY SAD. Thankfully, i read MUCH faster than books are narrated (i read Lock In in 3 hours, the first time).

    But question for the audiophiles – do you still get the thing where you fall in to the book? You can see EVERYTHING, like… like the best movie EVER, except in surround-holo? (It’s why i tend to prefer books to movies – it LOOKS better, shot, directed and cast by my imagination lol)