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From the written word to voice: how audiobooks are made

Many people read books without using their eyes. They listen to them. And they are not few: 5.2% of the population does so at least once, 79% more than two years ago. Publishers such as Penguin Random House, Planeta or Ediciones Maeva produce their own audiobooks and distribute them on their websites or through specialised platforms such as Storytel, Audible or Ivoox, among others.

The key to an audiobook is the spoken word, without embellishment. With the exception of some children’s or young adult titles, the vast majority of audiobooks do not have sound effects and there are few cases in which there is more than one voice. Given these limitations, finding the perfect speaker is essential.

The first big question for publishers is the gender of the speaker. If the story is told in the first person, the choice is simple: a male narrator will have a male voice, and the same if the narrator is a woman.

For third person stories it is different. Publishers usually choose to match the sex of the narrator with that of the person who wrote the story, seeking the effect that the listener listens to the author; an effect that today is achieved in the most direct way possible because, although there are not many yet, there are already authors who give voice to their words. For example: Elvira Lindo, Isabel Allende, Elvira Sastre, Andrés Neuman and Marta Sanz, among others.

A choral product

Although a large part of the development of an audiobook is carried out by the person who gives voice to the text, accompanied by a microphone and a tablet, there is a small team of people who participate in other phases of the process: the sound technician who assists the recording, the editor in charge of eliminating breaths and making the sound cut clean, the publisher’s proofreader who reviews the audiobook and a figure who does not always appear but who is crucial when he or she does: the director.

Elena Silva is a dubbing actress, voice-over artist, director, teacher and founder of the studio La habitación con una cama. As a director, her role is to prepare the narrator and convey the personality of the characters and the tone of the story. “The director is there to guide the narrator, to say ‘don’t speed up’ or ‘don’t be sad because your character can’t know that yet’. We take great care with the interpretation.

Caption: page from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, with annotations and the characters marked in different colours. Source: Elena Silva.

Recording an audiobook

Generally, to get an hour of narration out of the book, it is usual to spend twice as much time or even more. A 10-hour audiobook could easily have required 20 or more hours of recording. To this must be added the preparation before recording and sound editing, as well as any revisions made at the suggestion of the publisher’s proofreader.

“The big problem with the audiobook is that it is a book. It is not made to be verbalised with the voice, but to be read mentally”, says Ángel G. Morón, voice-over artist, dubbing actor and professor at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos and also at Atresmedia Formación, where he teaches audiobook voice-over.

For Ángel, there are some genres that may be easier than others. The subordinate sentences that populate some essays make it difficult to narrate them. Novels are generally easier, as long as they have a reasonable number of characters, as most audiobooks have a single narrator who voices all of them.

But the difficulty also depends on circumstances beyond the author’s control. Ángel tells how he once encountered an “andé” in a dialogue. As the word appeared in a trivial conversation and it didn’t make sense that it was characterising the character, the narrator spoke to the play’s supervisor. At first, she told him to record it that way, which Ángel did, but later she asked him to correct the word because it was a translation error. “Up to that point you have to respect the literality,” says Ángel.

The text is sacred… most of the time

There are other cases in which publishers give more leeway in their audiobooks. These are exceptions that are allowed when the author of the work proposes a game that makes sense in the book but it is not possible to translate it into the spoken word.

Elena says that when she gave voice to Papel y tinta – one of the longest audiobooks she has ever made, 28 hours long – its author, María Reig, came up with a complex scene. We have the main character, who is studying French, and an important character who is French. Both meet at an event for Spaniards who are not particularly fluent in Napoleon’s language. At one point, the male character decides to pass on a confidence to the protagonist in French, to ensure secrecy. The author wrote the message exactly as it appeared in the book and added the translation at the foot of the page, something impossible in an audiobook. “As you couldn’t lose that information, we solved it by having the character whisper the message in Spanish,” explains Elena.

At other times, the author of the work complicates life for the narrators. This happened with Laura Gallego’s La emperatriz de los Etéreos, where it was said that one of the characters had a “non-human voice and spoke in gushes”. “We added a lot of seseo, because the character was made of water (it’s a fantastic book), and there we were able to add a sound effect”.

Footnote: In Enid Blyton’s book Santa Clara 1. The twins change schools, they talk about lacrosse, a little-known sport that was explained at the foot of the book. The solution for the audiobook was to include a short definition in the dialogue. Source: Elena Silva.

Both Elena and Ángel agree that one of the keys to being a good speaker is to avoid the read word. “An audiobook is not read, but told,” explains Ángel. “I always say it in my classes: here we come to stop reading. We are going to unlearn how to read aloud and learn how to tell things”.

For Ángel, anyone can verbalise a text, but they must meet three requirements. “They must not have diction problems, have a more or less pleasant voice and, above all, they must like the ability we human beings have to tell things and transmit them truthfully”.