Should Authors Read Their Own Audiobooks?

Posted on July 13, 2016

Audiobooks are thriving. The growth in audiobook sales has been a bright spot in the book industry. And the growth is continuing to climb upward. Publishers have been pleasantly surprised to find that audiobooks sales are booming. In fact subscription audiobook models are more profitable than ebooks. But that isn't the only change in the audiobook industry. These days, an author rarely gets to read his or her own work. It's usually read by an actor.

But is this a good idea? Wyatt Mason writes a passionate essay for The New York Times about why authors and poets -- not actors -- should read their own audiobooks. He argues that authors, especially poets, know where the stresses should fall in a sentence and when they read the work you really hear what it is supposed to sound like.

He aims his ire particularly at the producers who usually have the actors read a foreign character's dialogue in English, but using the accent of their nationality. For example in the audiobook version of Jonathan Franzen's Purity, the German characters lines are spoken by an actor using German-accented English.

He writes, "This is the platonic ideal of trashing a writer’s work, and treats the listener like a total moron in the bargain. Franzen['s] ...prose isn’t written in patois. So I can only conclude that the choice is made by the producers of the audiobooks, for whom a special circle in hell is being readied, one in which they will have to listen to these abominations until the end of time. And if you are inclined to blame the author for his or her absence from the process, bear in mind: To read a novel in its audiobook version, the author is routinely made to audition for the job of narrating it."

He's right, of course. This approach is often taken in films, especially World War II films in which the Nazis speak English, but with a German accent. It makes more sense to either have them speak German with subtitles, or just have everyone speak English without a German accent.

Not everyone agrees that authors are the best people to read their books. We know many people who won't buy an audiobook unless it's read by a professional actor. It's true: some authors are wonderful writers and terrible narrators. However there are a number of authors who apparently passed their auditions with flying colors. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert reads the audio version of Eat Pray Love. Maya Angelou's reading of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is excellent. Tina Fey reads the audio version of her book Bossypants. Malcolm Gadwell reads his novel Blink. And when Neil Gaiman reads any of his own work, it's a true joy to listen to.

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