Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 30

For my last post I want to discuss some issues, not about the past, but about the future. My featured title is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, which I recorded for Blackstone last year.

Now here's a great audio program. It has everything going for it: a evergreen non-fiction title, an epic journey for narrator and listener, and subject matter that never gets stale. It's doing extremely well on Audible and I'm sure it will make a lot of money.

Do I wish I had a little back-end participation? Yeah, that would be nice. Would Blackstone have offered it to me? That's debatable. On a sure money-maker like this, they're probably better off getting me out of the picture as soon as possible, rather than risk paying me three or four times my usual fee over the course of seven years.

Am I sorry? Well, no, because for every book like this, I've done eight or nine that probably won't come even close to making that kind of money. They're good books but they don't have the broad appeal of a book like The Rise and Fall.

Royalty sharing has become an issue lately, and it's worth looking at for a moment. It's not that it can't work. It can if you're very canny, or get lucky and hit the jackpot. But if you don't, the returns may not be what you expected. One problem is that most audiobook rights are limited to 7 years, at which point they revert to the rights holder. They might be renewed, but there's also a chance that they won't or they'll be transferred to someone else. Bear in mind that, of the over 750 titles I've recorded in my career, only about 300 are currently in circulation. Over half my output has disappeared.

Before jumping into anything like this, a narrator would be wise to have some knowledge of trends in the industry, as well as access to research tools like BookScan (though even that won't help with first-time or self-pubbed authors). It's no secret that book acquisition, for anyone except the major publishers with best-selling authors in their stables, is a gamble. Obviously it's worth the gamble, or companies like Blackstone wouldn't be able to stay in business. And with a catalogue of 4000 books, you're likely to pull in a decent profit over the long run.

My point is not to bash the idea of royalty sharing. It's to make it clear that, as more and more narrators are forced into entrepreneurial positions, you have to find out as much as you can about how the business works and how it's changing. And it's definitely changing, with breath-taking rapidity.

I was relieved not to be on a panel at APAC this year because my answer to just about any question about the future of audiobooks would have been,"I have no frickin' clue." Having spent a week in New York at BEA, however, I've got a little better idea. The most encouraging thing about the business right now is that those on the receiving end (talent, producers, directors, and so forth) are very willing to exchange information and insights with each other. This sharing of information is very beneficial, particularly to talent, because until various union efforts and rate scales are settled (if they ever are) the only way to support a stable rate structure is for people on the talent end to know what's going on. This works the other way, too. As a producer, it helps to have some sense of the range of what's acceptable to the majority of narrators. There's always the danger of collusion, but we're a long way from that right now: The market is too fragmented, and there are so many variables to take into account--timing, schedules, location, experience levels, book length and complexity, special language or character skills, and so on. Price is just one consideration in the production process. In fact, I think it would be very healthy to see more freedom of negotiation in the rate structure depending on all these factors.

About 90 percent of audiobook production is based on relationships. This is perfectly logical--you don't trust someone to do a 15 hour book in two weeks if you have no idea who they are. It also behooves me from a casting point of view to know who my narrators are, what they like and how they work. When these relationships are not fully engaged in and realized, the production process falters, sometimes disastrously. Maintaining these relationships is about 50% of my job as a producer who relies on a consistent stable of available readers.

As JIAM draws to a close today, my hat is off to all the new people coming into the business who have negotiated a path through what is still an incredibly loosely-structured, Wild West sort of industry. It's about to get wilder. Stay informed, ask questions, learn as much about the business as you can. Don't be afraid to pump people for information. The more you know, the better you'll be able to benefit from the changes going on as we speak.

Blasts from the Past, Day 29

Napolean Hill.

What is it about this guy? He's the self-help guru to end all self-help gurus. Eighty years later he's still going strong. You can get his books for free from various web sites. You can buy deluxe editions of them. You can download numerous audio versions. It doesn't seem to matter, the guy has a huge following and people will pay whatever to read him.

He puts forth some pretty wacky ideas, from "mind-meld" to "atmospheric vibrations," some of which make a little sense if you believe in "karma" or things like that. His behavioral insights are generally sound, though. Always do more work than is required of you. Be pleasant, positive and cooperative. Work as a team and draw on the intelligence and experience of others to help you get ahead. Take care of your health and mind your hygiene.

This is useful stuff, and though it's presented as an astonishing set of revelations, it's nothing common sense wouldn't dictate. But back in the day, before there was a real middle-class, this advice to people seeking advancement was no doubt highly pertinent.

He's very entertaining to narrate, I'll give him that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 28

The Wall by Jeff Long was the first book I recorded for Tantor Media in 2006. It was nominated for an Audie Award in 2007. This was kind of startling to me because, as much as I enjoyed it, I hadn't been quite sure what to make of it when I was narrating it. Part action novel and part mystical ghost story, it doesn't fit snugly in either category. It's not that I want to pigeonhole books when I narrate them, or resort to a "stereotyped" read, but it helps to be able to determine what sort of audience the book will appeal to. This one was hard to pin down. The writing was excellent and the images were vivid enough to stay with me all these years.

Today I got curious and looked up Jeff Long on Amazon, and I understand a bit more about him now. The Wall is in fact typical of his writing, which blends mystery, adventure and the supernatural in a way that defies easy categorization. Surprisingly, none of his other books are currently available in audio, which seems odd because the descriptions are appealing, the reader comments are strong and at least a couple of them have decent sales rankings. In fact, they look downright interesting. I may purchase a few for vacation reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 27

I mentioned Gore Vidal's series of historical novels in my first post. The recordings I did are long out of print, but if you enjoy historical fiction, delivered with a gimlet eye and healthy dose of (mostly cheerful) cynicism, you should pick up this series for summer reading. Burr is excellent, and the later novels spin out the family saga sub-plot in a clever way, but Lincoln is the jewel in this richly figured crown--probably one of the best historical novels of the last century. The author's fondness for his subject is obvious on every page. His portrait of Lincoln is deeply affectionate and fully fleshed out. You feel you get to know Lincoln in a way few other novelists or biographers have managed. Whenever I read a book about Lincoln these days, I can't help picturing Gore Vidal's Lincoln, a complex, humorous and immensely loveable figure.

What I never knew until I scouted around on Amazon looking for a copy of my old recording, is that Vidal himself recorded an abridged version for Random House. You can pick one up for as little as $4. I imagine the entertainment value would be well worth the price--plus the trouble of digging out an old cassette player to hear it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 26

I know I'm going to hell for yesterday's post. Let's see, which famous author or high-end publisher can I offend today?

We might as well get this out of the way: What's the worst book I've ever recorded?

Without question, hands-down, no-brainer, it was The Cry of the Panther by James. P. McMullen.

It was a well-intentioned effort, I suppose: A memoir by a Vietnam vet who, struggling to exorcise the demons that haunt him, immerses himself in a hunt for an elusive black panther named Shakespeare who lurks in the gloom of the Everglades.

And when I say immerses, I mean it. In one unforgettable passage, he douses himself in panther urine and buries himself in swamp muck up to his eyes, all the while chanting "I am a panther, I am a panther, I AM a panther." Reading that with a straight face was one of the challenges of my career.

It got to the point where both the engineer and I concluded that it had to be a hoax. Nothing about the story made sense. When, after hundreds of pages of tortured prose, he finally meets up with Shakespeare and they exchange a "meaningful" glance, we both howled. That's it? We waited four hundred pages for this?

I recall that the book received a plug from James Dickey, which makes sense in a perverse sort of way.

I know I'm going to get an email from James McMullen's son or niece or someone close to him, saying that this book saved his life. Or some vets' organization will tell me how meaningful it was to them. I can't even find a picture of the cover, though it's still listed on Amazon with, astoundingly, a handful of five-star reviews. If you're still out there James, I'm sorry. But it was murder to pull this one off.

Regardless of whatever backlash I might incur, I've answered the question that only the boldest of interviewers dares to pose.

UPDATE: I found an old People magazine article dated from the time the book appeared. "The Scatman"--I'd forgotten that part! I guess the book really meant something to him, so I feel bad. But it really was a grueling read.

Blasts from the Past, Day 25

Pace, James Michener.

I did two of his sprawling, noodle-headed behemoths for Books On Tape in the 90's, Caribbean and Mexico. I also recorded The World is My Home, a sort of random memoir about his travels, and The Novel, which was actually an interesting look at the publishing industry from a writer's point of view.

How many of these "blockbusters" did he write, anyway? At least a dozen: Texas, Hawaii, Alaska, Chesapeake, Iberia, Poland (!)...the list goes on and on. My parents loved these things, as well as the prolific Irving Stone. I guess it was "substantive" reading for people who didn't like to read that much. They were almost impossible to manage from a narration standpoint: a unending flash flood of under-developed, two-dimensional characters and sub-plots that raced along without ever developing any teeth or guts. It was like an automated panorama at a hi-tech amusement park that just keeps scrolling past you, devoid of thought or emotion. I ran out of voices about halfway through the first one. A tremendous amount of work with very little payoff.

The first time I ever turned down work was when BOT proposed sending me a third one, and I said I'd had enough, maybe someone else would enjoy it more than I would.

Question: Would anyone want to hear these again? If so, I've just botched my chance at recording them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 24

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold was my first Audie nomination, in 2006. There's not much I can say about this series that hasn't already been said by Lois' fans. It's a wonderful joy ride, all the way from Shards of Honor to the recently-released Cryoburn, along with the numerous spin-off books and novellas. I'm not much of a sci-fi fan, but you don't have to be to enjoy these witty, exciting space operas featuring the ever-resourceful and ever-heroic Miles Vorkosigan. He's a marvelous invention and he grows more complex and endearing with every book.

I started recording the series with The Warrior's Apprentice, the first book that features Miles. The series really begins with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which relate the story of Miles' parents. I only recorded these recently, and was under the impression that they had been written later to flesh out the back story, but Lois actually wrote them all in order, clearly with a very grand scheme in mind. For me, they provided wonderful insights into characters I was already familiar with, and I'd recommend that newcomers to the series start with The Warrior's Apprentice, complete the Miles books, then read the first two. To me, they are a lot more rewarding when you understand what's to come.

That first nomination, by the way, was the year I hosted the Audie Awards in Washington, D.C. I was working on a project for GraphicAudio in Bethesda, and one of their people was organizing the ceremony that year. She stopped me on my way into the studio one morning and asked if I would be willing to host the Awards that year. I was flabbergasted. Apparently Tony Roberts couldn't make it and they needed a last-minute substitute. I gladly accepted, knowing that it would be the one and only time I would be asked to fulfill this function. I say that because I've hosted and presented at various theater things over the years and I never like the scripts they give me, so I make up my own. This doesn't go over well with organizers and I'm never invited back.

That turned out to be the case, but it was a fun evening, except for the opening. Dinner had been served and, knowing that the ceremony itself was about to begin, I made a trip to the restroom. On my way I stopped at the check-in table and told one of the people there not start without me. I came out five minutes later and this same person said, "They started without you." I thought it probably wasn't going very well absent the host, and sure enough, upon entering the dining room I noticed a pall of silence, an empty podium and two hundred pairs of eyes staring my way.

There was only one thing to do. I strode camly to the dais, mounted the steps, stepped up to the microphone and said, "I had to go to the bathroom."

By the way, I didn't win that year. Simon Vance, who was sleeping on my sofa, took the category and dashed my first hopes for audiobook glory.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 23

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella is a lovely book, better than the movie they made of it, Field of Dreams. Blackstone just re-released this on Audible. They also have my recordings of Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Box Social on cassette--apparently they haven't been digitized yet. I hope they get around to that soon.

I remember doing research for this by watching both Field of Dreams and John Sayle's excellent movie about the Chicago Black Sox, Eight Men Out. I was struck by the fact that several of the players' names were pronounced differently in the two movies. I called the Baseball Hall of Fame and found out that Field of Dreams had it wrong and Eight Men Out had it right.

Eight Men Out is a far better movie about the Black Sox (and baseball in general). But Shoeless Joe is wonderful book about life. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 22

I didn't narrate Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy but I did direct it, and it's probably the toughest project I've ever worked on. The book is written in a made-up language, somewhat resembling English but (according to Chuck) drawn mostly from the cadences and syntax of his Lithuanian relatives when they tried to speak English.

Many of you will not be old enough to remember the Sid Caesar Show, which was must-watch comedy TV in the 1950's. (I'm not old enough either, but I loved watching reruns of 1950's TV shows when I was a kid in the 1960's.) They had a regular series of sketches based on what was then a trendy influx of foreign movies flooding the American market. Caesar, Carl Reiner and other members of the cast would play out a ridiculous scenario involving some melodramatic situation, improvising the dialogue in a made-up language that vaguely resembled French or Italian or something else, depending on the costumes and set dressing they'd pulled out of storage. What was so fun about these pieces was that you always understood exactly what they were saying, even though they were talking gibberish. Typically, in a climactic moment, one of the actors would burst out with an exclamatory word or phrase, like "Pastamajamatooboo!!!" and the other actors would pick this up and run with it. "Aaaaahhhhh, pastamajamatooboo!!!" "Si, si, pastamajamatooboo!!!" "Aaaahhh, non so pastamajamatooboo!!!" and so on. The word clearly had some shocking or profound (or even lewd) implication, but exactly what that was was left to the viewer to decipher.

As a young acting student, I remember doing exercises that involved playing out a familiar story with made-up words, similar to what they did in these Sid Caesar sketches. The idea was that if you knew what you were saying, it didn't matter how you said it. This has important implications for the performance of, say, Shakespeare, where a modern audience won't grasp all the vocabulary or syntax, but they must be able to understand everything you are saying.

For Pygmy, Paul Garcia and I had to parse the sense behind the nonsense of every single sentence. For example, if you listen to the sample on Audible, it will hopefully not take you long to understand that our young "foreign exchange" student, dubbed Pygmy by his American host family, is first shaking hands with his Host Father (in the process assessing his weight and general health), then notices a badge pinned to his shirt pocket alerting Pygmy to the salient fact that Host Father works in a nuclear facility. And so on.

My approach was to pre-read the script to grasp the general story; then I set aside the text during the recording sessions and just listened. If I didn't understand exactly what was being said, I would ask Paul to read the sentence or paragraph over until I did. Sometimes we had to do eight or nine takes, crafting the emphasis and phrasing so that the meaning was absolutely clear without any strain on my part. This required a tremendous amount of visualization from the narrator, so that the listener would get a clear picture of the action. In some cases it took us a while to figure things out, as when Pygmy describes the songs he has to learn for Chorus. We'd sit there puzzling over it until one of us would shout, "I've got it! Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head!!"

It was an amazing experience for both of us, working together in a way that we usually don't have the time or opportunity to do. On the other hand, I'm not sure every book would withstand the scrutiny we had to bring to this project.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 21

When Jonathan Kellerman's "Alex Delaware" books first started appearing in the 1990's, it was common practice to do two versions--an unabridged "library" edition read by a journeyman like myself, and an abridged "retail" version with a celebrity narrator, in this case John Rubinstein. I recorded the first ten or twelve in the series, then the abridged-unabridged thing became moot and John has been doing the full-length versions ever since. He does a great job with them. I enjoyed them up to a point, then they became rather formulaic and it took some effort to keep them sounding fresh and interesting. The gimmick was a semi-retired child psychologist who gets involved in bizarre cases and has to do some dangerous sleuthing to save his young clients. There was a fair dose of gluey PC stuff--a crusty gay cop/best friend, a beautiful-but-smart girlfriend who makes musical instruments, and so on--but, at least initially, the stories involved intriguing psychological phenomena. As the plots grew more outlandish, it was a struggle to maintain believability. I wasn't sorry to see my involvement come to an end, but they were fun while they lasted.

This is an example of what I call "the best-seller curse." So many of the so-called "top titles" are churned out in cooky-cutter, assembly-line fashion, aimed at quick consumption. It's hard work to make them sound credible in audio. I, for one,would gladly forego whatever cache these titles might bring in favor of something with more meat in its bones.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 20

Havana Heat is a neat little novel about baseball, history and politics, an imaginative take on what would have happened if Fidel Castro had really been a professional minor-league pitcher. There has always been speculation the Castro spent some time playing ball before he became a revolutionary, but such legends have pretty much been debunked.

The reason I mention this title, apart from it's entertainment value, is that it presented me with a real stumper of a problem when I recorded it. The main character is an American who travels to Cuba with a minor league team in the 1950's. He speaks Spanish, but it isn't always clear what language he's speaking when, and to whom. Sometimes the author refers to Cubans speaking English, but often the English-speakers and the Spanish-speakers simply chat away with no indication of what language they are speaking. The problem for the narrator, of course, is when to use accents and when not to. If the Cubans are speaking English, should they have accents? If they are speaking Spanish, then presumably they shouldn't, since they wouldn't have "accents" when speaking their own language. If two Cubans are speaking to each other but then speak in English to the American character, should they have no accents at first but accents when they speak to the American? But then, should the American sound like he's speaking Spanish? How do you do that? Occasionally the text gives some hints ("she said to him in Spanish" or "they spoke in broken English") but for the most part the story rattles along with everyone talking to everyone else, and after a few attempts to indicate who speaks English and who doesn't, the author sort of ignores the issue.

That's not to say it's a bad book. On the contrary, it's a charming story and very nicely written. A print reader really wouldn't be aware of the issue. But clearly the author never considered what would happen if the book were to be read out loud. There's no easy way to establish any sort of convention for who speaks what how when.

I can't remember exactly what my solution was, except to improvise as I went along. But I must have pulled it off because it got some nice reviews.

Later this month I'll revisit this issue in light of an international thriller I've got coming up.

Blasts from the Past, Day 19

The Raft is a terrific survival tale, detailing the 34-day ordeal of three airmen whose plane came down in the Pacific during World War II. A while back I got an email from the son of one of the men thanking me for narrating the book. I'd forgotten about it and had to check around to make sure it was still available. It's up on Audible and it's another one of those Blackstone titles recorded on cassette which have held up so remarkably well.

Along the same lines, I travelled to New York a few years back to record In Harm's Way, a chilling and somewhat grueling account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the wretched experiences of the crew members who struggled to survive in shark-infested waters. Talk about Jaws--you'll have trouble enjoying the beach after this one. Unfortunately the audio seems to have disappeared. Perhaps the rights expired, I don't know, but it was a fine story and worth reading if you like survival and endurance tales.

Blasts from the Past, Day 18

The Stand was one of the first major books I narrated for Books On Tape under the contract that Flo Gibson arranged with them. It was a memorable experience. This was the edited-down version, which was the only one available at that time, but even so it was a monumental undertaking. Of course, back then we didn't bat an eye at thousand-page books--in fact, what was the point of going to all that trouble for some little dinky thing?

I still get fan mail about this recording. The last time I heard an excerpt (when it was still available from Books On Tape) the speed was off and I sounded too fast. I don't know if the cassette editions still floating around sound like this, but it would be a pity if they did. At that point we were recording on reel-to-reel tape and would dub the masters onto cassette for Books On Tape to duplicate. The problem was that cassette machines regularly got out of whack and what sounded fine on one machine could come out too fast or too slow on another. Also, high-speed cassette duplication was a clumsy process fraught with technical issues that could lead to pitching boxes worth of cassettes when a run failed to execute properly.

All that aside, what's astonishing to me is that no one has ever re-recorded this masterpiece. It's the granddaddy of "virus" novels and remains as chilling and effective as the day it was written, in spite of King's penchant for overwriting. It's hard to believe it isn't currently available in audio. What are they waiting for? I wouldn't expect that my old recording would be salvageable at this point. I'd certainly love to do it again. I narrated The Dark Half last year for a new series of King recordings issued by Blackstone and Penguin Audio. It was every bit of fun as I anticipated it would be. But regardless of who does it, it's a huge disservice to King fans both new and old to keep The Stand under wraps.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 17

Before we get into today's post, I want to give a hat tip to Megan Fitzpatrick of Hachette Audio, who inspired yesterday's post. I hesitate to name names in a forum like this, but she said she didn't mind, so I'm happy to give her the nod for helping me to come up with a topic.

This showed up in my email yesterday, from a newspaper editor in Canada:
"Are you the actor who did the 1992 narration on The Adventures of Augie March? If so, it was a drop-dead brilliant performance. You're a genius."

Why yes, yes I am that guy, thanks!

At the time of it's release, this recording got excellent reviews, including the following from the Saul Bellow Journal:
Parker’s masterful...a model of balance and control; he brings a dimension of performance to the novel you simply cannot get by reading the novel yourself. His clear voice and exact tempo capture the spirit and rhythms of the text. Parker's performance allows you to visualize the images of the novel with amazing vividness. Listening to this superb reading of the novel makes clear that this is one of Bellow’s most entertaining and profound books.
Library Journal wrote:
Tom Parker creates all of Augie's extraordinary acquaintances while merging, in one compelling voice, Augie's own conflicting traits into a fate that is never final because his "character" is to dream something better. This must-listen should be in most collections.

Look, I quote these things as a tribute to Bellow more than myself. The book is amazing and probably his most engaging and accessible work. As for me, I remember thinking it was very difficult, and feeling a little self-conscious because I wasn't really the right voice for it (as a rule, I don't do "Chicago" and I certainly never considered myself an expert on Bellow). And the story itself is hazy in my mind, probably because I was so busy threading through the breathless virtuosity of the writing. It's entirely possible that I read it cold. But something went right because, listening to it today, I'm surprised at the synergy of it. It's not typical of my "style" back then--it's extremely relaxed and fluid, as though I just surrendered myself to the book and never looked back. It reminds me of a story about (I think) Laurence Olivier, who gave an amazing performance one night but, upon being complimented by his fellow actors, remarked that it depressed him because he couldn't remember what he did right.

Unfortunately the recording is in bad shape. Blackstone has a new recording of Herzog up on Audible, and we have four more Bellows coming out later in the year: Seize the Day, To Jerusalem and Back, The Dangling Man and The Victim. (I've got my eye on Seize the Day, lest anyone out there get any bright ideas.) Augie is showing his age. I've asked our engineers to look into remastering it with some of their new techniques. I'd like to redo it, but I'm not sure I could do it as well. I'd be thinking about it and would probably ruin it. Then again, I'd love to rediscover what I did right. I might learn something.

It's a strange commentary on my career that the books I spend the least amount of time thinking about usually get the most attention. Maybe there's a lesson for others in there--or maybe not.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 16

Yesterday, someone in the Twitterverse mentioned my recording of Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw. This is a coincidence because I was going to blog about it so I'll do it now.

I love good bios. They're fascinating, inspiring, transporting--they take you to another time and place and introduce you to people you'd love to meet, or even be like. I recorded a lot of them way back when--the wonderful Horowitz/Collier books about the Fords, the Kennedys and the Rockefellers; William Manchester's stunning book about General MacArthur (still up on Audible); David McCullough's fantastic books about Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and so on. To me, this is Narrating with a capital N--sitting down in the booth every morning and learning incredible stuff about people and history. It doesn't get better.

I did the Carnegie bio for Gildan Media, which is run by Gilles Dana, formerly of Simon & Schuster Audio. Gilles is an interesting guy, very busy and very elusive. In the five years I've done books for him I've only met him once, and that was a ten-second hand shake at APAC. But he picks some cool books and you should do a search on Audible, since his products are download-only.

I was fascinated, in a gory way, by the few comments on Audible for this one. I mispronounced something (ZOMG!!!11!!) or it was too "detailed." Phooey. The two sensible comments have it right--it's a wonderful bio that, like Caro's books about LBJ, makes you admire and loathe the guy at the same time. Very much worth a read.

But my TOTAL FAVE kind of bio, my "chocolate bon-bons and martinis in front of the fire" kind of bio, is a really good Hollywood bio. Not the sleazy tell-alls, but the really incisive, atmospheric ones. I'm particularly fascinated by books about "B" actors and directors-- the people who slogged along and occasionally hit a high note, like Robert Mitchum (Baby I Don't Care) and Gloria Graham (Suicide Blonde). But there are also some towering works about the real greats. So now I compose a prayer to the Audiobook Gods:

Please please PLEASE let me record every single book by Scott Eyman, the superstar of Hollywood historians. If you love movies and have not read his books, get thee to Amazon and buy them NOW. The Speed of Sound is a brilliant book about the transition from silents to talkies, and made me appreciate the art of silent film in a way that I (and probably a lot of us) never have. (Blackstone actually has this one--oh, that I could have read it!) It's also something of a myth-buster, dispelling many cliches about silent films and the early talkies, which is fun. His bio of John Ford is just exceptional. Here's a director I was never that crazy about but you really learn to appreciate his work by reading this. (Now, every time I take a hike in the glorious Oregon mountains and high grazing country, I can't help but think of a John Ford movie.) The Cecil B. DeMille book is great, the Ernst Lubitsch book is very nice, and the Louis B. Mayer bio is a revelation. Again, the "Caro" syndrome kicks in here, wherein a biographer was prepared for one thing and discovered something quite different. Eyman is a fantastic writer and you always feel that there is a real person behind the writing--his occasional personal comments are like little "Easter eggs," as they say in the gaming world. I'll sit by the computer and wait for the flood of emails.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 15

Goodness! Here we are halfway through the month already.

Speaking of abridgements, I'd nearly forgotten, until it was called to my attention the other day, that the first couple of David Rosenfelt titles I did for Listen and Live were actually "abridged." Fans of the series have complained that they wished the complete versions were available. Given the average running time of these titles when they are not abridged, I feel comfortable assuring people that very little was left out in shortening the books from eight to seven hours. The folks at Listen and Live soon realized that it wasn't necessary to abridged these.

And speaking of series--how about when another company picks up an author in mid-series and changes the narrator? Hoo boy, that's some fun!! The virulent, outraged and often obscene reactions of fans is something to behold. I think Audible's "instant feedback" feature has been instrumental in reducing this practice to a minimum. I've noticed that usurpers are more inclined to track down the original narrator these days, if they can, so the series can continue without disruption. This is generally a good thing. Unless there's some shatteringly compelling reason to make the switch, you're better off to leave things as they are.

When I see a new book in a series coming up, I'm quick to contact the narrator immediately to give them a heads up and make sure they reserve the time, even if it's a year from now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 14

In yesterday's post I touched on the issue of abridgements and how they can differ from the full-length versions, and not just in a textual sense.

Once, when I was recording one of the Star Wars abridgements for Random House, I remarked to director Charlie Potter that abridgements took a lot more energy than full-length titles. He looked surprised and said he thought it would be the other way around. I said that when faced with bleeding chunks of a story it was more difficult to maintain a sense of continuity and momentum. As a narrator, you have a responsibility to make the story feel seamless, and when the text jumps from episode to episode without the usual bridges, you have to create the transitions yourself, using a combination of quick shifts in energy, focus and emotion to trick the listener into thinking they haven't missed anything. Also, the narrative passages that are usually cut from abridged versions contain a wealth of visual and emotional cues that the narrator now has to "invent" in order for things to make sense. And narrative bridges offer places to "coast" for a bit and rebuild your energy for the next important bit of dialogue or action. In that sense abridgements demand non-stop energy as you move from crucial scene to crucial scene, with no rest stops in between.

An interesting question might be, should you read the whole book before embarking on an abridgement? In one sense, it would help to know what was left out so you can "fill in the blanks" in your own head and convey at least of some this to the listener. On the other hand, is it a distraction to know what's missing? Are you better off just playing what's in front of you, for better or worse? Hard to say. Might be interesting to know what other narrators with experience in this area think.

Abridgements have always drawn the scorn of audiobook devotees, but I think the hostility is somewhat misplaced. When retail audiobooks first started appearing in book stores, they were geared toward the casual listener, who might pick up a bestseller for the occasional car trip. They were never intended to be definitive, and most were available in full-length library editions for the "serious" listener. There were, in those days, two distinct markets that had to be served. Nowadays there's still a market for abridged versions of very long novels and non-fiction works, because there are people who really don't want to sit through a 20 or 30 hour book. But the distinction between "retail" and "library" markets has largely disappeared, except in matters of packaging and pricing, though even that is becoming moot as digital downloads take over almost every area of sales and distribution.

I think there will still be a market for abridgements, even in the download world. Maybe even more so, since as the customer base for audiobooks broadens, there will be more people looking for less challenging listening than that offered by a 15 or 20 hour book.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 13

Yesterday I wrote about the break that introduced me to the New York audiobook scene of the late 1990's and early 2000's. This was a rarified world that thrived on lavish production budgets and the high profit margins afforded by the burgeoning market for retail audiobooks. Production was largely outsourced to audio producers, who hired directors, who in turn hired the studios and the talent. It wasn't unusual for a publisher to drop upwards of $30,000 on production for a best-selling title.

Sadly, those glittering days are now behind us as the demand for hard goods (with their juicy profit margins) subsides and downloads become the norm. But they provided some great opportunities for me, a lowly little "home narrator" with a knack for efficiency and a lack of ego issues. Any producer from that era will regale you with stories of the movie star who showed up without a clue as to what the book was about, or the author's preferred celebrity reader who turned out to be dyslexic. I once overheard two producers discussing a very famous actor who had just backed out of an audiobook gig. The one producer was complaining about having to find another narrator. The other one smiled and said, "You're lucky."

While it shouldn't be said that the push for celebrity readers as a means of promoting audiobooks was frivolous or misguided, it definitely created some headaches for conscientious directors and producers. Of course, it also spawned a distinctive class of notable film, stage and television actors who excel as narrators--including Ed Herrmann, Will Patton, Jim Dale, Tim Curry, Jay Sanders, George Guidall and numerous others--and who now constitute the upper firmament of audiobook "stars." But you can imagine the relief of a producer or director who, faced with a hefty history book or modest non-fiction title, could call on the services of an eager bloke like myself who was willing to schlep to the big city and, for a modest fee, knock out a project in record time and without any fuss.

One of the most enjoyable projects I worked on during this period was an abridged version of Who's Your Caddy?, Rick Reilly's hilarious account of his stint caddying for an assortment of professional and celebrity golfers. It's a charming and, at certain points, moving book, well worth a listen even if you aren't a fan of golf.

What was odd was that, not long after I got home to D.C., I received a call from Books On Tape asking me if would record the unabridged version of Who's Your Caddy? I said I had just recorded the abridged version in New York, so maybe they wanted someone else to do it. They said no, that was fine, all the better since I'd already passed muster with the author. So I did it again, this time in my home studio, including all the bits that had been left out before. Sometime later I received copies of both versions, and I was curious as to how they might have differed. The abridged version is distinctly more "on"--the energy is higher, reflecting the heightened stakes involved in recording in New York, with a director ogling you through the glass window and a host of producers and editors dodging in and out. The "home" version is more relaxed, but no doubt benefited from the takeaway of the sessions in New York. Frankly, it was pleasant to do it again without the pressure, and be able to include more of the background and setup material.

Both versions are on Audible and the curious can listen to the two samples. It's very rare in the audiobook business to have an opportunity for "do-overs." I've had a couple others, maybe I'll write about those in a day or two.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 12

In the mid- to late-1990's, the big publishers like Random House, Harper and Time Warner started selling unabridged audios. Whereas previously they had confined themselves to abridged productions, the advent of compact discs enabled them to sell unabridged recordings in retail packages that were less bulky and more economical than the old cassettes. As a way of cutting down on the costs of these full-length programs, they contracted for co-publications with some of the "library only" companies. Books On Tape, for instance, would produce the recording and distribute it in the library market, and Harper or Random House would repackage the recording for distribution in retail stores. This worked out well for everybody, and in one instance it turned out to have a considerable impact on my narration career.

In the fall of 1999 I was directing a production of Arthur Miller's The Price for Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. We were three days from opening when it became clear that the show "wasn't happening," as we say in the business. The leading actor was suffering from a horrible case of nerves and couldn't master his lines or his blocking. We searched for someone to replace him but came up empty, so I had to step in and do the part with script in hand. With all the stress I developed a ferocious cold which I only managed to overcome with heavy doses of medication. In addition, I had to cancel a ski vacation to Taos, New Mexico that Tanya and I had long been planning to celebrate her birthday. She ended up going alone, a sorry turn of affairs that has never been forgotten and is invariably dredged up whenever I try to take on more than I can handle.

In the midst of this crisis, on a Wednesday evening, I got a phone call from Books On Tape. They had just finished recording Terry Brooks' novelization of the first installment in the new Star Wars trilogy, The Phantom Menace, but evidently no one had told them that narration alone wasn't sufficient: LucasFilm expected a full-blown production with music and sound effects. They had to start all over with two weeks to go before the release date, and Random House was taking over production. Was I available to go immediately into a Washington, D.C. studio and begin recording? I said that apart from the fact that I needed to be in Baltimore at six o'clock every evening and had a terrible cold, I was willing, so we set up the first session for that Friday morning.

Friday came around and things immediately got off to a bad start. A director from Random House was flying down from New York to take charge of the process, so I offered to pick him up at the airport and drive him to studio. Well, I tried to pick him up but I couldn't find him anywhere. Figuring that he must have taken a cab, and worried that I would be late for the first session, I headed to the recording studio only to discover that he wasn't there. I sat around for a while with two bewildered voiceover engineers who were looking at this enormous, four-hundred page script and saying, "We're gonna record all this?" Finally the phone rang and it was the irate director who was still waiting at the airport. One of the engineers told how to find a cab and gave him the address of the studio.

Thanks to my bungling he arrived in something of a state, and following a brief discussion with the engineers he came into the booth and announced that he knew how I was "used to working" but that we were going to have to do things "very differently." I surmised what that meant: I was one of that lowly species called "home narrator" who worked without supervision and supposedly rattled off a book without much thought for style and content. I got the impression he felt it would take a lot of effort on his part to draw out a reading of any skill or sensitivity. This wasn't particularly encouraging, but I figured fifteen years of experience had to count for something and somebody thought I could do it, so I steeled myself for a rough ride.

The biggest challenge came when I had to imitate the voices of the principle performers, including the colorful cast of aliens. But since the film was such a huge deal and everything surrounding it was top secret, all we were given was the trailer, from which I had to extrapolate a whole novel's worth of characters and plot line. A brief glimpse of Jar Jar Binks, a couple of shouts from Liam Neeson, and some garbled alien chatter were about all I had to go on. But there was no time to waste, so we plunged in.

The first page, describing the desolate landscape of Tatooine, took about half an hour and seven takes. There were a lot of exasperated sighs and mutters from the control room. Apparently I wasn't "painting the picture." I was doped up on antihistamines and thinking about the enormous role I had to perform for the first time that night with only two days of rehearsal, so frankly I wasn't in the mood to argue and was just trying to go with the flow. We pressed on and finally got to some dialogue passages, and the mood improved a little. After I managed to pull off a couple of alien voices with some aplomb, the sailing got fairly smooth. We broke for lunch and over catered sandwiches the director admitted that I "wasn't too bad at this." That was a relief.

Four days later it was "in the can" and there were smiles all around. The voice track was shipped off to New York to be dolled up with music and foley, and that was that. It turned out pretty well, but I figured that was the last I'd hear from George Lucas or Random House.

Surprisingly, a few months later I got a call from producer David Rapkin, asking me to come to New York and do a series of Star Wars spin-off novels. These were snappy little abridgments with a boatload of music and effects, but the scripts were laid out in such a way that I always knew what was going on underneath the voice track. During the battle scenes, for instance, it would say "Laser fire" in the margin, and they'd play me a bit of the effect, so I could adjust my pace and volume accordingly. I ended up doing eight "Young Jedi" programs before there was a change in plans and someone else took over the series (it was Jonathan Davis, in fact.)

But these were enough to raise my profile with New York producers, and thereafter I travelled to the Big Apple about six times a year for one project or another. It was a huge boost to my freelance career, as well as my income, and led to some very fun projects--more about which tomorrow.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 11

Perusing the web for my old recordings, I came across the "Toby Peters" series by Stuart Kaminsky, read by "Tom Parker." Kaminsky has written some fairly hard-hitting stuff, including a series about a Pittsburgh cop and another about a Russian police inspector, but the Toby Peters books were fun little romps involving a private eye operating in 1940's Hollywood. They featured an amusing cast of secondary characters, including a Swiss midget and a batty landlady. But what really distinguished them was that each one featured a famous movie star from the period, who was in some sort of fix and needed Toby's help to straighten things out. Thus, A Fatal Glass of Beer involves a road trip with W. C. Fields as he tries to rescue his numerous, far-flung bank accounts from the clutches of an imposter posing as one of Fields' own fictional radio characters. In You Bet Your Life, Chico Marx has gotten into dutch with some gangsters over a gambling debt, and his brother Groucho hires Toby to get him off the hook. Fred Astaire is being bothered by women and mobsters in Dancing in the Dark, which features an especially funny sequence in which Peters stumbles into a musical number with Betty Grable. And so forth. The writing was snappy and the protagonist was an endearing schlumpf with one clean suit and a perpetually empty wallet.

What made them unusually challenging, however, was that you had to muster a pretty fair imitation of a different celebrity for each one. Sometimes they were little more than cameos, but at other times they dominated the book, as in A Fatal Glass of Beer. I'm a classic film buff and managed to memorize most of the W. C. Fields and Marx Brothers movies when I was a kid. Even so, it's not an easy trick to pull off. It's one thing to imitate a few famous lines, but to place that particular voice and character into a completely new setting is difficult. Listening with trepidation to the samples on Audible, I think I did okay, even if my W. C. Fields sounds more like Jimmy Stewart than W. C. Fields. What struck me most, however, was how sleek and charming the writing is, and I found myself sitting back and going along for the ride all over again, after all these years. If you're in the mood for something light with an extra twist, you'll enjoy them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 10

On Day 3, I listed some of the recordings I did for Books On Tape which have been deleted from their catalogue. Among them was A Time to Kill, John Grisham's first (and many think his best) novel, written when he was struggling to make his mark as a novelist. It's an excellent story of race and justice in the vein of Harper Lee and William Styron, original and beautifully crafted. I thought this recording was long gone, but I see now that it has been re-issued for download and is available on Audible, along with the abridged recording by Michael Beck. The unabridged version includes an interesting introduction by Grisham, detailing the genesis of the book and how it came to be published. Initially released in a tiny print run, it was re-published to critical acclaim following the success of his blockbusters The Firm and The Pelican Brief. Popular as these books have been, many wondered what happened to the wonderful writer who lurks behind the breathless, improbable cliff-hangers he began churning out.

If you haven't read this, it's high time to do yourself a favor. It's a terrific book, a legal thriller with substance, style and heart that hasn't dated a bit.

Apparently no one could be bothered to make a cover with "Alexander Adams" on it. No matter; below is a picture of the old library edition I found on Amazon.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 9

Robert Caro's masterpiece of historical biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is as relevant today as it was when he began writing this epic over twenty years ago. The first volume, The Path to Power, is a political thriller of the first rank. Caro details Johnson's early life in the poverty-stricken Hill Country of Texas and his lust for recognition and popularity. Johnson's election to the House of Representatives and his subsequent first bid for a seat in the Senate are related in all their color and excitement.

The second volume, Means of Ascent, chronicles the lean years when Johnson was languishing in the House and his career appeared to be heading for obscurity. This all changed when he ran again for the Senate in 1948, ekeing out an 87 vote win against former Texas governor Coke Stevenson. The legitimacy of his victory is debated to this day.

The third volume, Master of the Senate (there is a fourth volume supposedly nearing completion) is the longest and most fascinating of the three. It begins with a lengthy but critical primer on the Senate itself--why it was formed the way it was and why it operates the way it does. This setup pays off when we join the titanic battle to pass the first Civil Rights bill. Johnson's political genius is on full display as he grovels, cajoles, bullies and threatens his way to the bill's successful passage.

I recorded all three for Books On Tape over the course of nearly a decade. Inexplicably, Parts I and II have never been transferred to CD or download. This is truly unfortunate, for while the second volume is not quite as gripping as the others, Part I is indispensable reading if you are even remotely interested in American politics and Southern culture. Luckily Master of the Senate is still available on Audible. I highly recommend it as one of those history books that never goes out of date.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 8

Today's pick is Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. This is the very first book I narrated for Blackstone back in 1989. It's the sort of book no one writes anymore: a charming, breezy, informative bit of popular history with no agenda to promote and no axe to grind. Allen wrote for a post-war generation newly awash in technological marvels who found comfort in revisiting a simpler, less hectic time; a time that, after the horrors of the Depression and World War II, must have seemed as distant as Ancient Greece.

The recording was made on that wonderful little Akai cassette deck I mentioned earlier, and it's remarkably crisp and clear. You can also hear a healthy dose of the print-through or "echo" I also mentioned. They managed to clean up the quieter parts, but you can't get it out from under the voice itself, and in the breaths and short pauses you can hear little bursts of it. If you listen in the car you won't notice, but over headphones it's a little disconcerting.

In 1989 I was living in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., so this must have been done in the single closet off the living room, though I have a memory of sitting at a little desk in my bedroom reading this. Honestly, I recorded just about anywhere in those days, depending on how hot it was or what sort of noises the neighbors were making. I never worried about it, because I could tell if things were amiss and would just throw up another blanket or move closer to the microphone. I even recorded a book in the bathroom of a Holiday Inn in Raleigh, N.C. while visiting my father, who was sick in the hospital at the time. If you were smart about it no one would notice, and I doubt I could listen to those old books now and determine were I was when. Even today my home studio is a little appalling-looking, but I don't care, it's how it sounds that matters. You can spend a fortune on booths and equipment but if you don't know how to use them it doesn't matter.

A word about the narration style. After joining the Library of Congress program, I devoted a considerable amount of energy to trying to sound like Alexander Scourby. I failed. It's a little embarrassing to listen to now, and I couldn't replicate it if I tried. There's also a certain blandness to the approach, which is partly attributable to the need for efficiency (punch-ins could be audible and it was important to keep them to a minimum) and partly to confusing Scourby's legendary ease and fluidity with emotional detachment from the text. But I think it's more than listenable, though it would be fun to do it again and warm it up a bit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 7

There seems to be a movement in the audiobook industry these days toward recording everything under the sun, and doing it as cheaply as possible, with the idea that the more audiobooks we produce, the more people will listen to them.

That may be true to some extent, but I think there's a danger in overestimating the demand for audiobooks, and underestimating the expectations of current (or future) audiobook customers when it comes to quality. To be of real value, an audiobook has to do more than just deliver information, or simply replicate the reading experience--it has to improve upon the reading experience, to the extent that it becomes desirable in and of itself: an entertainment, worth seeking out for its own sake, not just an adjunct to the text. That's what's exciting about the current state of the business: there are so many programs out there now that enhance, even supercede, the print experience. If it's only about information, it's easier and cheaper to substitute currently available (and rapidly developing) technologies--which, while they may leave something to be desired, are reliable, ubiquitous and FREE. Just tap a button on your laptop or Kindle and let it read to you.

Driven by three decades of growth and competition for market share, audiobook standards have reached a remarkable level of consistency, such that today you can browse a clearing house like Audible or WeRead4You, select a title at random, download it, and be reasonably sure you're getting something you can relax and listen to. Truly sub-standard audio programs are becoming pretty scarce these days. In fact, I'll bet if you asked most audiobook consumers, they couldn't tell you what "brand" of audiobook they were buying--Blackstone or Brilliance, Tantor or Hachette. They buy titles, not brands. I really don't think most consumers can distinguish these days, which speaks well for the industry as a whole.

But what happens when you start flooding this market with inferior products? What if standards are diluted, or even abandoned, to the extent that buying an audiobook becomes a crapshoot instead of a sure bet? You can't flip through an audiobook, you can't "try it" and, in the case of downloads, you can't return it! Once you commit, you're pretty much stuck.

The fact is that the vast majority of Americans have neither the time nor the inclination to listen to audiobooks--and they never will. The people that do, form a small but dedicated core audience--one that will grow and solidify as more people get hooked on listening, which is not difficult. They won't get hooked, or stay hooked, however, if we're so focused on quantity that we forget about why people are drawn to audiobooks in the first place. It's not just about information, or convenience, or being able to hear anything you want. It's about the uniqueness of each and every listening experience.

With this is mind, I'd like to offer today's title, The Flight of the Phoenix by Elliston Trevor. It's a terrific book, but in my opinion it really comes alive in audio. With crackling dialogue, vividly drawn characters and a plot that lifts off from the first page, it's a great example of an audio program that attempts to create an experience you can't get just reading the book. I say attempts--I'll leave you to judge, but it was a tremendous amount if fun for me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 6

I see there's been a bit of a kerfuffle in the audiobook Twitterverse regarding the topic of pre-reading titles you are going to narrate.

In my opinion, there are arguments in favor of not pre-reading. There's a feeling of fun and adventure that comes from discovering the story as you go. It can impart a certain drive and spontaneity to the reading--you're just as eager to find out what happens as the listener is. There's a tiny sense of disappointment when I pre-read a mystery or thriller these days. "Shoot, now I know how it ends!" But these things are pretty much balanced out by being prepared for anything that crops up in the book. Every narrator has stories of the unpleasant sense of shock when you get to page 367 of a 368 page spy novel and learn that the main character has a German accent.

On the other hand, if you think I pre-read all 11,000 pages of The Story of Civilization, you're nuts. A book like that pretty much reads itself, I was just along for the ride. Plus, I already knew how it ended.

An amusing example of what can happen when you're unprepared occurred many years ago when Flo Gibson was recording a book called California Rich for the Library of Congress. This was a breezy history of the family dynasties that acquired wealth and fame following the Gold Rush and the explosion of Far Eastern trade and commerce. Flo's maiden name was Anderson, and she hailed from one of the oldest and richest of these families, so it was thought that she would bring a special verve and interest to the story. Which she did--until she came to a passage that chronicled a lavish debutante ball thrown by a group of these families during the Depression years. The author clearly regarded it as a crass affair, a vulgar display of wealth during times of economic hardship. He particularly mocked the tasteless "theme" of the event, which involved costumes and decor harking back to the days of Marie Antoinette and Versailles--or something equally absurd, I don't remember.

Well, suddenly there was dead silence in the booth. The engineer kept the tape running for a bit, thinking that perhaps Flo was simply gearing up for the next chapter. But nothing was forthcoming, so he hit the STOP button, engaged the talkback mic and asked, "Everything okay?"

Nothing, save the sound of heavy, distressed breathing.

"Flo, are you okay? Do you need some water or a break?"

Finally, in a low, grumbling growl, came the words, "That was my coming out party."

The worst argument for pre-reading is so you can "craft" the performance. I use that term in the pejorative sense. A calculated performance draws attention to itself and distracts the listener from the text. I have to battle this every time I step into the booth. It's one thing to know where the story is going and help guide the listener there. It's another to impose your own sense of style and tone on the text at the expense of the author and the listener. I've "crafted" very few performances in my career, a notable exception being The Sound and the Fury. In that case, the reading had to be carefully crafted, otherwise both I and the listener would be lost. But in most cases, every time I've set out to "craft" a "great reading," I'm pretty much disgusted with the final product.

When I conduct classes and workshops, the single most valuable piece of direction I can give is this: "Think of the end of the book when you start the beginning." This simple encomium yields startling results with fledgling narrators. What was previously an ambling, moment-to-moment reading now takes on subtle colorations and a sense of momentum that foreshadows the author's ultimate goal. It imparts an "arc" to the narrative. When you narrate with the end of the book in mind, a mulititude of issues disappear. You stop thinking about "pace" and "tone" and "emphasis," and instead invest your energy in moving inexorably toward the conclusion of the story. Descriptive passages, the various characters, the dialogue all fall naturally into a proper perspective. Seemingly momentous questions--"What kind of voice should I give this character?" or "How much should I linger over this description of the lake at sunset?"--answer themselves when you consider that someone out there is waiting for you to get to the point.

Another thing is that I can't NOT prepare these days. My eyes and brain aren't what they used to be, and if I don't know what's coming I start to fall apart and my mind wanders. It's sad.

So by all means, be prepared. But don't take preparation as license to manipulate the text in some way that detracts from the author's intentions.

An excellent example of what preparation can do for you is a title I narrated for Random House a number of years back. I went up to New York to record the abridged version of James Hornfisher's The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, an excellent but lengthy history of the tiny fleet of U. S. destroyers that managed, through a combination of tenacity and heroism, to scuttle what remained of the Japanese navy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In pre-reading the book, I immediately sensed a problem: The "setup," which was crucial to understanding the magnitude of the feat these men pulled off, comprised fully half the script. The author took what seemed like forever in fleshing out the situation in the Pacific theater up to that point, describing in detail the classes and types of ships involved, introducing the various captains and commanders of those ships, and laying out the dire tactical situation that confronted them. As a reader, I found myself growing impatient and eager to get to the good stuff. Some of this could be attributed to the nature of the abridgement, but be that as it may, what promised to be a brisk and exciting story threatened to get bogged down in seemingly pointless details, unless I found a way to pull it all together somehow.

Fortunately, there was a wealth of material about the Battle of Leyte Gulf to be found online, so I spent hours looking at maps and pictures, and reading about the various people involved, until I had a clear picture in my mind of how the whole thing had played out.

When I arrived in the studio, the director was standing at the door and the first thing he said was, "We have a problem."

Guessing what his concern was, I replied, "Yes, we do, and I think I can solve it."

With that we got down to business and I launched into the opening passages with a clear sense of the goal ahead, imparting every bit of drive and interest I could to each character, each ship and each turn of the developing plot. (Yes, non-fiction books have a plot.) In the back of my mind, I repeated over and over to the listener, "Stay with me, hang in there--you'll be glad you learned all this! The reward is coming."

And it did, because the climactic battle, when it finally arrived, was thrilling and moving in a way it couldn't have been without this wealth of background information.

And with that I navigate you toward today's pick, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. There is an excellent unabridged version available as well, but performing the abridgement was one of my most challenging and enjoyable experiences, and taught me a valuable lesson about preparation and the narrator's role in supporting the text while remaining absolutely faithful to the author's intentions.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 5

Today I reveal some of the dark, unsavory secrets of the audiobook business in its early days.

To quickly review, audio programs have been around for a long time. In the days of LPs, you could find recordings of poets or famous authors reading excerpts from their own works. Perhaps someday Caedmon or whoever will reissue the beautiful recordings made by Gertrude Stein, Somerset Maugham and others (or perhaps they're already out there, I don't know.) And of course there were children's stories on those fun, multi-colored discs some of us remember from our youth. But audiobooks as we know them today didn't really exist, except for the Library of Congress' "talking books" that were only available to the blind and handicapped. It was in fact this program that gave some enterprising folks the idea to start producing unabridged audio programs for the general consumer as a way to pass the time sitting in traffic or during long business trips in the car.

Basically, Recorded Books and Books On Tape were founded on opposite coasts in the late 70's. Recorded Books originated in Maryland and employed actors from Arena Stage in Washington D.C. This is where Frank Muller, the legendary late narrator, got his start. Within a short time they moved their studio to New York City and hired a host of narrators who were working for American Foundation for the Blind.

Books On Tape started in Newport Beach, CA. They went a different route and employed narrators who worked from their homes. This kept overhead low and allowed them to reach out to talent all over the country.

In the early 80's, an adventurous consumer might find a few abridged audiobooks in the bookstores, but addicts depended on a handful of audio publishers for unabridged titles, which you rented from the company or borrowed from the library, because bulky cases full of cassettes were simply too expensive to buy outright. For years, this was the core of the audiobook industry: rental and library sales. I should also mention Brilliance at this point. They attempted to end-run the problems of size and expense by producing four-track cassettes that played at half speed (similar to the Library of Congress tapes). You bought a special player that enabled you to listen to these. It worked after a fashion, but ultimately they dropped this in favor of standard cassette tapes.

The thing was, you had to grow your catalogue very quickly in order to attract customers. So there was a huge push to record as many books as possible. All the titles were backlist, so a productive narrator for, say, Books On Tape, might receive boxes full of books every so often, and then proceed to narrate them at his or her leisure. I always had a shelf full of books waiting to be done. Pardon me while I pause to brush a nostalgic tear from my eye.

Now, in the previous article I kept referring to "punch-ins." I should probably explain this to the uninitiated. The standard mode of recording in those days was to gallop along through the book, and if you made a mistake, you rewound the tape a bit, played back the end of the previous sentence, then punched the RECORD button and picked up where you left off. There were three very simple reasons for this. First, splicing the outtakes from a 20 hour program on reel-to-reel would have entailed a staggering amount of work. Basically, the process went as follows:

You listened to the recording, heard a fluff, backed up to a good spot to edit, wiggled the tape back and forth across the playback head a few times to find a clean break without a breath or noise, marked the tape with a grease pencil, pulled it down to a splicing block in front of you, made a diagonal slice with a razor blade, and set the loose end aside. Then you had to run the rest of the tape off the reel onto the floor until you found the next good take. You made another mark,whipped the tape onto the splicing block, sliced it with the razor blade, found the OTHER end of the tape and pasted them together with a tiny piece of special adhesive tape. Then you moved on to the next mistake. You can see why this would not be an attractive proposition.

I remember the time a famous actress came to the Library of Congress studio to record her own biography. She refused to do "punch-ins" but insisted the we just let the tape roll and edit out her mistakes later. Some time afterward, I asked the head of Quality Control how this had worked out. He turned bright red, muttered that there had been something on the order of a thousand splices, and said he didn't care of God came in to record the Bible, we were never doing that again.

Also, those little adhesive strips could, under the right circumstances, eventually dry out and fall off. If the master reel wasn't stored properly or was exposed to temperature extremes, you might open that box ten years down the road and find yourself with several hundred random pieces of magnetic tape on your hands. Good luck putting it all back together.

The second reason for punching in was that, even back then, high quality reel-to-reel tape was expensive. A 90-minute reel of Maxell tape could run $10-12 a box. So naturally you used both "sides," that is you recorded 45 minutes one way, flipped the tape over and recorded 45 minutes the other way. Then you'd dub this bi-directional master onto the two sides of a 90 minutes cassette. The point is, of course, that you COULDN'T splice anything, because in the process of chopping up one side, you chopped up the other!

The third reason for punching in was that you needed very little, if any, post-editing. Basically, once you completed the project you were done and the book could be hustled to duplication and distribution. This was important for fledgling audio publishers trying to build their catalogues while keeping costs as low as possible.

So "punching in" became more or less the norm. It's really not difficult to do once you get used to it. In fact, it helps to hear the end of the last sentence so you can preserve the same tone and energy.

Now, a lot of the early home narrators got their training from various "talking book" studios around the country. It was very common for a narrator to double up as an engineer and proofer. So a lot of us learned to punch in on the engineering side. It involves all of three buttons, so after a few days of practice, you don't even think about it. I can't NOT do it--my right hand floats around looking for something to do--and I'm inclined to get impatient with an engineer who isn't "quick on the punch," as we say. Plus, I have a horror of leaving a mess behind that someone else is responsible for cleaning up.

Speaking of messes--here's a dark secret that no one likes to talk about these days. A lot of the stuff--heck, MOST of the stuff--we home narrators produced was never proofed. There just wasn't time. And frankly, listeners weren't inclined to be too fussy in those days. The fact is, a remarkably high percentage of those recordings are still in circulation and you rarely hear a complaint about them. In fact, for many years I had a recording out there with a very bizarre error that I can't quite account for. Right in the middle of a narrative passage, I clear my throat loudly and say, "God, I need a cigarette." I have no idea how, with the punch-in process, that might have happened. My sole guess is that we took a break and, upon returning, the engineer simply hit record and we pressed on. The weird thing is that no one, not the publisher nor myself, heard about it until at least ten years after the recording had been released. It goes to show the high tolerance for error listeners had back then. Either that or the book was so boring everyone fell asleep before they got to that point. I don't know.

Nowadays the standard is very different, and an audio publisher is taking a huge risk not QC-ing their recordings. One stumble and it's all you read about on Audible.

Finally, a word about research. This, frankly, is a little painful to discuss. But you have to understand that before the age of the Internet, if it wasn't in Webster's, your chances of finding it were slim. You could spend hours on the phone with experts to find one little thing. I remember a name that cropped up in a book about Thomas Hardy that I simply could not figure out, so after numerous calls to the publisher and academics around the country, I managed to track down the world's leading expert on Thomas Hardy. I dialed the number of his university office somewhere in England, and a dry little voice answered. "Hellllooooo?" I explained why I was calling, and recited the name I was trying to pronounce. There was a long pause. Finally he said, "I'm sorry, I don't know." Feeling a little sick, I tried again, spelling it out this time, but after another long pause he said, "No, I'm afraid I don't know what that is."

"Well," I said, a sense of despair washing over me, "can you make any suggestions?"

He thought for a moment, then replied, "I should just leave it out."

Today, with all the resources literally at one's fingertips, and given the level of most listeners' sophistication and knowledge, the idea of "winging it" through a book about ancient Greece or World War II is unthinkable. The Internet is a fantastic tool for narrators (and proofers as well.) These days, if you draw a blank on Google, you can be pretty sure nobody knows what it is or how to say it.

Here at Blackstone, we recently remastered the recording of Shelby Foote's The Civil War that I narrated over two decades ago. This was a chance to right a wrong that had been weighing on my mind for years. I did a search of the text and found a few dozen names, places and terms I wanted to fix. I dug out my old microphone (never, never pitch them out or sell them, by the way) and recorded about 600 corrections. I am proud to say that the recording is now a far better one than it was before. I can rest easier.

Speaking of Shelby Foote, I had the immense pleasure of recording not only his magnum opus, The Civil War, but his four superb works of fiction--Tournament, Jordan County, Follow Me Down, and Love In a Dry Season. It's astounding to me that more people haven't read them, because they are magnificent examples of the "New South" style. I adore them all, but if I had to pick one I'd opt for Love In a Dry Season. These were recorded for Blackstone as Tom Parker, and are available from Blackstone's web site or on Audible.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Blasts from the Past, Day 4

I thought a little history of home recording might be in order at this point. When Books On Tape first asked me to record from home, I constructed a crude booth in the basement and managed to acquire a reel-to-reel tape machine. I hired an actor friend to engineer the recordings. We would dub the reels to cassettes for duplication purposes, then ship the whole mess to California.

I think it was Blackstone who came up with a cassette machine that actually worked well for home recording. It was three-head Akai with a switchable tape/monitor function. (Blackstone had contacted me around 1990 about recording for them, but they didn't want to annoy Books On Tape, so I used yet another name, Tom Parker, for their recordings. Again, no one was fooled but it kept the peace.) This little Akai deck was quite handy. If you made a mistake, you could rewind a skosh, press play, punch in at the appropriate spot with the record button, then deftly tap the tape/monitor button to hear yourself as you recorded without an annoying delay. Naturally, this made shipping and dubbing much easier. They could duplicate right off the master cassettes. It was a very good machine--in fact, just recently someone was digitizing some of these old cassette masters at Blackstone and remarked on how good they sounded!

I was always looking into new technologies, and throughout the 80's and 90's I spent a lot of time at the local pro audio shops investigating and testing new gadgets that would make the work easier and more efficient. In the late 80's the first DAT (digital audio tape) machines appeared. The advantages were many, including no print-through (the process by which a magnetic signal will imprint itself across several layers of tape wound on a spool) and the cassettes were even smaller than audio cassettes, which made shipping a breeze. But the disadvantages were frustrating. You couldn't "punch in" on the run with a DAT machine. You had to stop the tape, locate an approximate spot, then hit record and hope you had the right place. I can always tell an old DAT recording by the slight random pauses here and there. These were punch-ins that didn't quite time out right. Also, if you over-modulated on a DAT (in other words, got too loud) the signal fell apart and you got digital garbage for a second or two. Analogue tape, by contrast, had a very high tolerance for recording at too high a level. There was some distortion but nothing that the average listener would notice. So you had to watch your recording levels very closely to make sure you didn't exceed the tolerance of the DAT tape.

The other problem with DAT was that the recording heads, which spun very fast like a VCR recording head, were tiny and would easily get out of alignment. A tape that played on one DAT might produce a lot of digital glitches on another DAT. To this day Blackstone keeps several different machines on hand to remaster their old DAT tapes, in the hope that they'll play back without errors on one of those machines.

Sony made a very fancy DAT machine that allowed for punch-ins, but they were very expensive and you still had to account for the lag between the playback head and the recording head when you punched in. Flo Gibson used these successfully for many years, but few home narrators could afford them. They cost about $3000. A basic Sony or Tascam DAT machine cost about $1200.

Then in the early 90's, Alesis developed the ADAT machine. This was a huge step forward. It recorded eight parallel digital tracks on a Super VHS tape. It worked just like a reel-to-reel recorder, in that you could rewind, play and punch-in on the run effortlessly, and the timing was always spot on. The little remote control was silent and easy to use in the booth. I think I was the first one to use this machine, and it took me a while to convince Books On Tape and Blackstone to convert, but within a short time they did and the ADAT became standard for many narrators for a number of years. Alesis used an excellent digital-to-analogue conversion chip, resulting in an unusually warm, pleasing sound. You could fit eight 45 minutes cassette sides on one tape. You'll still see some recording studios that keep their old ADATs in running condition, for back-ups or other purposes. It was a dandy machine.

Then in the late 90's, Digidesign came out with the first affordable computer-based recording system, the DIGI 001. This consisted of a sound card you installed in the computer and an eight-channel interface for audio input. The package included a scaled-down version of ProTools, still the best and most popular digital recording software on the market. Again, I think I was one of the first to adopt this for home audiobook recording, but I can't say for sure. It wasn't easy--the publishers didn't know what to do with raw digital files, so I would dub eight tracks off the computer onto an ADAT and send those out. But it wasn't long before computer work stations became the standard. Nowadays you can put together a professional digital recording system for under $2000, and that includes everything from the microphone to the computer itself.

It's hard to imagine what a break-through non-destructive, hard-drive recording was. You could cut, paste, re-edit the length of a side, record a correction and paste it into place, compress, expand, de-ess--all with a touch of a button. You didn't have to do these processes in real time, it only took a couple of seconds. It has transformed home recording, as we all know.

Someone tweeted a question yesterday about why older recordings would be deemed unusable. As I mentioned in passing above, reel-to-reel and cassette tapes work by imprinting a magnetic signal into a strip of tape coated with a magnetically sensitive oxide solution. The magnetic force from the recording head rearranges the particles in the oxide coating in such a way as to imprint a sound signal on the tape. The problem is that reels and cassettes are wound one layer upon another. When stored this way for many years, the magnetic imprint from one layer of tape will bleed through to the layer next to it, creating a faint "ghost" or echo of the sound from the adjacent layer of tape. If you listen to an older audiobook, sometimes you will hear this echo in the pauses between sentences. It's distracting. In some cases it can be silenced or edited out, but this is a laborious process and often destroys the natural sound of the recording. (Blackstone actually has a proprietary process that enables them to remaster these recordings quickly in a manner that eliminates most of this print-through effect.) In addition, the oxide coating on old tapes tends to dry out and flake off, leaving "drop-outs" or slight gaps in the original recording. Thus, older performances are often deemed irretrievable.

Okay, great, but what about today's book? As a tie-in to my own "obsession" about home recording gadgetry, I nominate Noble Obsession by Charles Slack. It is, as the subtitle so aptly states, the story of "Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the 19th Century." That would be, of course, the vulcanization of rubber. It's a corking good story of science and American inventiveness, and extremely well-written. It's remained another one of my favorites over the years and is currently available on Audible.