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Demand For Audio Books Keeps Penguin Random House Recording


There were 36,000 audiobooks recorded last year. And somebody's got to record all of them. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates learned how it's done when she visited the West Coast studios of one of the nation's largest audio publishers. Take a listen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The studios for Penguin Random House Audio are about an hour outside of Los Angeles. On this day they're hosting an open house for industry-related visitors. Booksellers, librarians, reviewers and others are eyeballing photos of famous readers that line the walls. Dan Zitt, a Penguin Random House VP, points out a few.

DAN ZITT: BJ Novak from "The Office" reading his book from last year. The late Joan Rivers was also just nominated for a Grammy for best spoken word album with the fire you would imagine Joan would have in the studio.

GRIGSBY BATES: There were also photos of two presidents - George W. Bush and Bill Clinton reading their books. And then there's George R. R. Martin.


GRIGSBY BATES: His fantasy series about the Seven Kingdoms is a bestseller. Audiobooks as we know them have been around for about 25 years. A lot of people listened to them on portable tape players in the '80s, then came CDs. But the form really took off when MP3 players, like the iPod, came out. Easy streaming and downloading means demand for audiobooks keeps this and other studios busy. The production is strangely intimate work. The narrator reads from a soundproof box so quiet he can hear his own heartbeat. And it's pretty Spartan. There's a window that looks out on to the director, a chair, a microphone and a bottle of water. Recording sessions can last hours. While some celebrities do narrate books, it's often lesser-known actors who become famous - for their voices.

REBECCA LOWMAN: My name is Rebecca Lowman and I am an audiobook narrator. (Reading) I was 16 when the Depression began, just old enough to have had all my dreams and expectations duped by the effortless glamour of the '20s. It was as if America launched the Depression just to teach Manhattan a lesson.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's Lowman as the young, career-minded heroine in Amor Towles' best-selling novel "The Rules Of Civility." Kirby Haybourne is another audio star with scores of books to his credit. He was the voice of hapless husband Nick Dunne in Gillian Flynn's thriller "Gone Girl." And here, guests watch and listen to him become Finch, the suicidal teen hero of Jennifer Niven's young adult romance, "All The Bright Places." Finch gives a lot of thought to how he might kill himself.

KIRBY HAYBOURNE: (Reading) I'm not a vain person. But I am human. And I don't know about you, but I don't want to look like I had been run through the wood chipper at my funeral.

GRIGSBY BATES: As we watch these actors perform for visitors, it's clear this isn't work just anybody can do. You have to be fluid enough to become the believable voices of several people - different genders, ages, places. With all the stop, starts and retakes, a slim portion of what's recorded ends up in the book. Kirby Haybourne says you have to concentrate to do this right.

HAYBOURNE: It's really hard to read an audiobook well, but it's also extremely satisfying.

GRIGSBY BATES: For the reader and the listener. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.