Monday, July 25, 2011

The Pink Chair: Changing Horses Mid-Stream

Audiobook publishers don't want to do it. Fans of a series don't like it. But it happens? Why?
In no particular order:

  • The original narrator sucked. The reviews are in and they are all bad. The listener advisory service reviews (professional reviewers) are scathing. Customer reviews are generous with one star posts. The audiobook company is getting hate mail and customer service is fielding call-in complaints. And still, the audiobook publisher will be reluctant to pull the narrator; but if they do, can you really blame them? The audiobook publisher has really no where to go but up.
  • The original narrator has gotten worse. The narrator has developed a unique style as a result of bad advice, a workshop experience or maybe just thinks s/he sounds better with a new mannerism or; years of smoking and drinking have lent a not particularly pleasant new quality to the narrator's voice... The studio director has called the narrator on it ("Stop it!") but the narrator can't or won't and, now the character totally sounds different then when the narrator was originally cast for it. In this case, sticking with the same narrator isn't doing anyone - the listeners, the author, the book, the publishers - any favors.
  • The original narrator died. For obvious reasons, this is awful. And for less obvious reasons, it is also awful: The succeeding narrator will never be as good as the now-beatified voice of the original narrator who passed away.
  • The original narrator is otherwise engaged. Sometimes a narrator lands a juicy film role or a television gig or a role in a stage play or; maybe the narrator is ill or; having a baby or; in jail... It could be anything. The narrator is unable to meet the deadline of submitting the recording files. This is where the audiobook publisher weighs delaying the release of the title versus changing the narrator. For every day after the release of the print title that the audio edition is not available, the audiobook publisher and the author lose sales and royalties respectively. On the other hand, fans of a series may very simply not be interested in another narrator and would be willing to wait. It's a tough call and some of the factors that go into making it are things like weighing lost sales, contractural clauses and, whether the narrator's situation is one-time, chronic or, permanent.
  • The original narrator has retired from narrating. Many narrators are not full-time narrators. They have other careers or sidelines that are augmented by narration work. Sometimes those other lives develop into more meaningful pursuits and they move on from narrating. Other times, a narrator may rebel against being typecast into a certain series (e.g. the family man who doesn't like being known for his pedophile-character's predilections; the narrator who has a profound distaste for narrating passages involving bestiality, etc.)
  • The original narrator is difficult to work with. Maybe the narrator is off his or her meds. Maybe the narrator is an absolute asshole. Whatever, the narrator has gone beyond being eccentric into being truly impossible to work with. Studio sessions implode and everybody is tense and anxious. Almost inevitably, at one point the phrase "no one is indispensable" will be thrown into the mix.
  • The original narrator is too expensive. The narrator fees can be too high, the studio sessions can be getting too long (in the studio, time=$$$), the post-edit can be labor intensive (again, time=$$$)... Exactly how much is too much? When the costs of producing a book turn the title into a possible revenue generator into at best, a loss leader. This means that instead of hoping to ever eke out a literal dime in profits, the title will never even break even. The title will remain in the catalog and might attract customers to other titles; but overall the title becomes the weapon against which the bean counters wield against producers at every quarter's budget meeting. When the uber expensive production fails even to generate backlist sales, "actionable efficiencies" (cost cutting measures) are executed. Bye-bye, narrator with the non-negotiable fees.
  • The author disapproves of the original narrator. The author's reason(s) for being unhappy with a narrator can be many; but the reason always given is that the author does not agree with the interpretation that the narrator gave of the book. What triggers this decision can also be mysterious: Sometimes a narrator and an author do not becomes BFFs (see The Pink Chair: Contacting the Author); in fact, quite the opposite during a narrator consultation. Sometimes the author thinks that the audiobook royalties or the book's reputation will improve with a different narrator. Sometimes, the author may just exercise his or her prerogative to get more involved in the audiobook process. Sometimes, they even listen to the audiobook and truly do believe that the narrator didn't quite get it right. The audiobook publishers will generally fight against narrator changes, especially if the series is doing well; but sometimes the audiobook publisher loses.
  • The original narrator ages but the character hasn't/new title is a prequel to extant series. This is an issue with series that have gone on for decades; but the protagonist remains the twenty-something-year old, stuck in time without a cell phone or perhaps with her immortal cat... Unfortunately, the narrator originally selected to narrate the series has aged. The vocal quality has matured and/or thinned and there is an disconcerting difference between the protagonist's and the narrator's voices. Sometimes, an author will write a prequel to the series. The adolescence of a pushing-forty protagonist will be explored and there's no way it's not going to sound bad using the same narrator.
  • The series gets picked up by new audiobook publisher. Sometimes a series will be picked up by another audiobook publisher and the new guys cannot get access to the original narrator or; the new guys think they can cast the audiobook better. In the former case, it should be noted that the audiobook publisher tries very hard to retain the same narrator for the series; but sometimes, it just doesn't work out. The narrator can be under an exclusive contract with another audiobook company or, perhaps the original narrator and the new audiobook publisher simply cannot come to an agreement. In the case of the new guys thinking they can cast the audiobook better, it should be noted that the new guys were attracted to the series in the first place because of the series' reputation; but oddly there are producers who seek to either fix what isn't broken or; think that a soap opera star or B actor will do a better job than the professional narrator who developed the series. It's usually a short-lived delusion that corrects itself with the next title in the series.
Whatever the reason(s), know that an audiobook publisher does not make the decision to change narrators mid-series lightly. They know, as do you, that if you're unhappy with the change, you can always go to print.

Next up on The Pink Chair


  1. Interesting! It's nice to know the decision isn't taken lightly.

  2. Thanks, Tanya, this is really informative!