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Don't cough or swallow; just speak

Recording audiobooks, a $2-billion-a-year enterprise, is an exacting process. Every stray noise or breath must be banished.

August 11, 2003|Linton Weeks | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — OK, reader. Perhaps the best way to understand this little story about the trials and trip-ups of making audiobooks is to read it aloud. So have a seat, grab a bottle of water and let's begin. You take the regular text; we'll handle the italics.

They are gathered, the three of them, to make an audioblook.

You said "blook." It's "book." Audiobook.

To make an audiobook. They sit in the drab and windowless sound studio at Interface Media on 20th Street NW, below Dupont Circle.

For three days, director Paula Parker and sound designer Jeff Mullen have been listening to Donovan Webster read aloud from his book "The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II," which will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux --

It's pronounced juh-ROO. Farrar, Straus and juh-ROO.

-- Farrar, Straus & Giroux in October.

Webster, 44, in an untucked white shirt, olive trousers and bare feet, sits in a glassed-in sound booth. In front of him, the double-spaced printout of an abridged version of "Burma Road" is propped up on two document holders. After he reads the page on his left, he moves it to his right. Reading lights glare off his glasses. His voice -- tired, low, raspy through countless fits and starts -- fills the room.

Facing him, on the other side of the glass window, is Mullen, 29, who is perched at an audio console -- a deck of switches and levers and keys and speakers. He is dark-haired and wearing jeans and a black T-shirt that reads, "My Producer Went to the World's Flashpoints and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." He has a copy of Webster's abridged work in front of him.

Behind Mullen, also facing Webster, is Parker, 53, a redhead in a gray smock, black pants and glasses. She wears headphones, and she, too, has a copy of Webster's book, which she marks up with a sharlp pencil.

You swallowed when you said "sharp."

Sharp pencil. She uses a microphone to interrupt Webster and point out the error of his ways. There are bottles of water on her console. And a couple of bags of Cosi chips and a fruit cup and a raisin squagel (a square bagel) -- untidy spoils of a meticulous metier.

There is also a box of tissues, a tin of peppermint Altoids and an array of magazines for downtime reading, including a Time magazine with a cover story on dyslexia.

With the low ceilings, the isolated track lights lasering down here and there and everyone's focus on the author's voice and his writing, you feel as if you are dwelling in the innards of the book -- among the glue, the spine, the paper, the ink -- seeing the words and pages from the inside out.

Many Washington-area authors have come to Interface. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton read "Living History" here. A Secret Service agent sat in that chair over there. Other Washington writers, such as Sandra Day O'Connor, Michael Beschloss and Iyanla Vanzant, also read books aloud in these studios.

"Only 26 pages to go," Parker says to Webster. She and Mullen both listen keenly for missed takes --

Let's back up. It sounded like you said "missed takes," not "mistakes."

-- mistakes, including mouth noises, unnatural-sounding breaths or any noises that would distract listeners. The six-hour master tape will eventually pass through 50 more hours of cleaning, tightening and quality control before it is turned over to Harper Audio, the audiobook division of HarperCollins publishing house, for duplication.

"Burma Road" will be available on five CDs or four double-sided cassettes. The whole process takes about three weeks. Webster is paid $10,000 for his work.

Audio publishing is a $2-billion-a-year enterprise, according to Publishers Weekly. Nearly every major publishing house has an audio wing. The audio divisions bid for the rights to a book just like the print divisions do, so a book that's published by one publishing company might be recorded by another. And there are more than 100 other audio publishers, according to Robin F. Whitten, editor of AudioFile magazine.

Sometimes writers are hired to read their own works. Other times actors do the job. A few professional readers, such as Jim Dale, who reads the Harry Potter books, have become celebrities. Recently he received the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from the queen. Lois M. Kirkpatrick of the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Library says her system carries nearly 200 audiobooks that have been recorded by celebrity readers such as Brad Pitt, Jodie Foster, Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Spacey and Meryl Streep.

In a telephone interview, Rick Harris, executive producer at Harper Audio, says his company churns out about 150 audiobooks a year -- "some abridged, some unabridged, some we do both." Usually a publishing house will produce one audio copy for every 10 copies it prints, Harris says. If a book receives a first printing of 40,000, the audio company places 4,000 into the marketplace. The price of the audiobook depends on its length.

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