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Episode XVII: "It's a business now"

Published 6/10/15
In this installment, I speak with Simon Vance. Topics include how he got into narrating, mistakes, being natural, finding your niche, the narrator community, how the art has changed, the changing tide of literature & more.

I’m here with Simon Vance, an award-winning audiobook narrator and actor. He’s won 13 Audie awards and 52 Earphone awards, and his voice is, obviously, incredible. You can listen to samples here. Simon’s voice is like butter with confidence. I imagine if I ever find myself as a houseguest on an estate in Sussex, drinking gin-based cocktails, playing croquet and discussing Dickens’ deep cuts, I’d want my host to have Simon’s voice.

Being read to is an integral part of anyone’s introduction to books, and it’s also a humongous, booming industry. Upfront I’ll ask for forgiveness for my questions, which I’m sure you’ve encountered at every party you’ve ever been to, but consider it a justice to your peers; our readers will now know the answers, and thus never need to ask. But first: we’re far away. We’re are you? What do you see?

I have a delightful view from my office window up in Concord, near San Francisco – but right now I'm in Altadena just to the North East of LA. Apart from a large computer screen in front of me just to my left and behind me I can see green undergrowth outside the window with just a sliver of sky.

How did you get into audiobook narrating?

I was a BBC Radio newsreader in the 1980s new in town (London) with time on my hands. A friend who had preceded me (at Radio 4) had begun lending time to the Royal National Institute for the Blind's Talking Book service and I thought that would be a good way to occupy myself. I offered, they accepted. I spent the next eight years recording for about an afternoon a week - I look on that as my unpaid apprenticeship.

It was run very simply and since I was not in it to make a mark, simply to help out, I didn’t find it particularly stressful. There really wasn't much to it. I was assigned a book...I booked time in the studio. There was a red light and a green light. There was an engineer who monitored two studios. If I 'fluffed' I got their attention and they ran the reel-to-reel tape back and I restarted when I got a green light…Not much guidance on what was needed - or perhaps I just got the hang of it very quickly.

What defines a "fluff"?

You know, a stumble, a mistake.

Does it have to be a mistake in reading, or is it sometimes in tone?

We're talking about a very basic reading service here. But it could be anything I picked up on that needed redoing. Sometimes it might be that the engineer heard me read a wrong word. But if he/she was checking the other reader I had to make the decision to stop myself if I felt I was getting the sense wrong. This was the very early days.

I assume now, if you leave out even a comma pause you've got to redo?

Well, certainly there wasn’t the quality control on those recordings that there is today for the commercial narrations we do. The pressure is much more intense (and rightly so) to get every single word correct and to avoid any kind of extraneous ‘noise’ or click. If you go back to very early recordings you’d be surprised at the amount of studio noise you might hear (I hope not too many of my own). Since you mention punctuation there was a discussion on Facebook recently amongst narrators on how strict we should be about the punctuation. My feeling is that punctuation is only a guide. Most punctuation in the written word is essential for a reader with the book in front of them. Not so essential if someone is telling you a story - commas do not dictate pauses. To answer your question – yes, we stop more often than we used to.

Is your (regular) speaking voice markedly different from your reading voice?

No. And I don't think it's advisable for a narrator to consciously use a different voice in recording, unless it's for a character. It could be a terrible strain as well as being unnatural - and the first thing we want to be is natural (and the second thing is to not strain our voices – given the duration of a narration session that could be seriously damaging).

I guess what should be the easiest thing might end up being the hardest. Similarly, I find it hard to internalize what I’m reading while I’m reading it aloud to someone else. Perhaps I’m too self-conscious. Can you?

I suppose I would have to say it's essential. You internalize a story when you tell someone about an experience you've had. Like a car accident (for example). You remember it and retell it and in your mind you see it happen again... It's the same thing. I'm just using the author’s words. It is essential to have an actor's sensibility - by which I mean, in a simple way, the ability to take another person's experiences as your own. I see the words as a window through which I look to see what it is I am talking about, rather than as black and white marks on a page… if that makes sense.

How many times do you read a book before recording (if any)?

For me, never more than once and sometimes I just scan the pages. I've been narrating for more than 30 years and I'm a very good sight-reader. If it's non-fiction on a subject I am familiar with, I only need to check pronunciations of words and so on. If it's fiction and involves a convoluted plot I may have to read it through word for word to make sure I know what's going on. That said, I would never recommend that a new reader do other than read everything at least once. I don’t believe in dogma… whatever works is the right thing to do and some people do read and reread and mark up their pages quite a lot. Here’s my dirty little secret – I have been known to sight read whole books… and they’ve been among my award winners.

Dirty little secret no more. Speaking of pronunciation: do you have different pronunciation guides depending on the country? Or does the voice of Simon Vance come with only one pronunciation schedule?

The general aim these days is to use authentic pronunciation guides. But, that said, we do not generally say 'Paree' when we're talking about Paris and characters will use their own styles within the text. It varies from book to book.

Is there a risk of being pidgeon-holed as an audiobook narrator because of your specific voice, as an actor might be because of his looks?

New narrators are sometimes advised to find the best niche for them to gain entry into the industry (eg. YA fiction). When I started I did everything and, for the most part, I still do. But I am 'pigeon-holed' in the sense that I'm British. It can be good and bad.

Bad how? (The good is obvious, I think—but tell me if I'm wrong.)

Well, it's very limiting. If my publishers only sent me non-fiction books about 18th century England then I'd have very little work.

What is the majority of the work you get? What is your niche?

I don't have one...apart from the British thing. What do I get? It’s such a large range I'm not sure I could pin it down…I just went on Audible to see if any one genre was bigger than any other - but it's pretty spread about.

Is there a genre you prefer (if you don't mind saying)? How much does your interest level in a given text aid your performance?

I don't really have one preference - other than that the book should be well-written (and that's not a given in this new publishing world). I love variety and would hate to be limited to one particular type of book. At the risk of repeating myself in answer to the second part - I think I can be interested in just about anything if the author has a passion for it and has put that passion into the words. Okay, if you hold my feet to the fire, I have always loved Dickens and Trollope – so, mid 19th century classic British fiction – there I said it!

Have you ever read a book (obviously more likely to be non-fiction) that you fundamentally disagreed with?

Not really - I have turned down a book that I shall I put it...that was full of BS. That was during the 2004 election race. I've read ‘distasteful’ things in fiction sometimes, but that's part of the job and I wouldn't necessarily turn down a book for that reason.

I guess an actor might have his limits, and he has to decide if the material is too vulgar to perform. A few actors take out professional insurance policies on their health. Is it common for narrators to take out insurance policies on their voice?

Don't know of anyone who has done that...Frankly I think that kind of insurance is expensive and the pay for narrators probably couldn't justify it :)

Is there a 'narrator community' in any sense of the word?

Absolutely - we're about to gather in NYC for the annual Audio Publisher Association Conference followed by the Audie Awards (the industry's 'Oscars') and there'll be many other events. We have 'mixers' in various cites (well, mostly NYC and LA) from time to time and there are Facebook groups. It took me ten years of recording in my little box at home before I found there was an 'industry' out there and with the recent expansion things have got a lot more sociable.

If you're at a narrator 'mixer', and there are some narrators and some outsiders, can you tell who's in the industry just by their voice?

The mixers are for industry only and we generally know who 'we' are. If you mean other industry types like the publishers - it's still small enough that we know names.

Hm. More generally: Do you think you'd be able to decipher if someone is a narrator based on his or her voice?

No, I doubt it. Being a narrator is absolutely not about having a 'nice' voice. It's about being a good actor – and other things, like stamina :)

Do narrators recognize other narrators who have a similar niche, and ruminate when their vocal doppelgängers get jobs they might have received? I imagine there’s less rivalry than my imagination is creating?

Very little rivalry. Obviously we'd all like to get the best books and if it’s a great series that’s gone to someone with a similar range as you there's a moment's pause (dammit, I'd have done a great job) – but we're all friends (at least so far) and you can't resent a fellow narrator for his or her success. As with acting generally: it’s selection not rejection.

Has the art changed in any detectable away during your tenure?

Back when I started doing commercial recording (in the US in 1993), the market was ruled by libraries and a huge part of the market was about classic books, well-written books that people were interested in getting in audio. Now it's much more market driven...I'm having trouble here phrasing this delicately...As you see in the publishing industry there is a move toward self-publishing and so on and standards of editing, proofing, etc. have dropped. Books are being made available that would not have seen the light of day in years past. Now that's called the democratization of the industry, and many see it as a good thing. But a lot of these books are being made into audio and they can be a nightmare to read. Most of the classics have been done (sometimes several times over) and so what we’re being asked to record now can often be from this new pool of material. It's not as much fun when you have to correct the written MS as you read it. There are still good books (and still old books that have not been done) but where I would have said I loved 95% of the books I read I would now say that percentage has dropped to nearer 40 or 50%. It's not always as pleasurable as it used to be.

Narrators occasionally go off-script and correct the manuscript?

Wrong words, out of order, punctuation missing, wrong character named. I don't think anyone wants that read as is. Of course you'd check with the publisher or author, but yes!

We're over time, so I've got to let you go (you owe your great answers to us going over), but given the tenor of this series, I've got to know: in what tangible ways has the material decreased in quality?

I have been very lucky getting into the industry when I did. I was fed on Dickens and Trollope and Don Quixote and biographies of wonderful people. I still get some wonderful works to read from time to time, don't get me wrong, I love a lot of what I do. But I've noticed that the gatekeepers of quality have fallen away in this new digital age. I've been given books that would never have made it into the public arena a decade ago. I find it a shame although I understand that this is simply the nature of 'business', and perhaps that’s the’s a business now. I'm probably what one might call 'old school'...not quite a Luddite, but with Luddite tendencies :) To go back to an earlier comment: I love a well-written piece of literature - nothing gives me more pleasure than to give voice to a beautifully turned phrase. Given the expansion of the industry it's perhaps not surprising that I have to share those BTPs (beautifully turned phrases) amongst a larger group of narrators. I never entered this profession to make money - it was always for the pleasure (but being paid for reading ain’t bad). So you must excuse me if I find myself sounding a little less than bubbly when faced with second-rate material. I'm sorry - this has got quite dark (and probably has to do with a recent fantasy series I recorded… no names). But, to be honest it's why I'm now in LA doing what I first came to the US to do - film/TV acting. I'd love to cut back on audiobook narrating so that I can pick and choose, while supplementing my income with the occasional acting role... (and maybe Scorsese will call, one day).

I love that answer Simon. If any comment has justified the name of the series, it's that. Thanks for your time and words.