Books

A Bittersweet Listen, And Why Authors Needn't Worry About The Kindle 2

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Audiobooks: The loss of a beloved narrator drives home the value of a great voice. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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I am an audiobook person and also a kicky chick-romance-novel person (at least some of the time), and for the several years that I've been carrying audiobooks around on my various MP3 players, I've been listening to romances by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Comforting and entertaining in a way that's harder than it appears, these are reliably diverting and very silly stories I tend to listen to while I'm walking or riding the Metro or doing the dishes, and the first six or seven I heard were narrated by an actress named Kate Fleming, who recorded many (many, many) audiobooks under the name Anna Fields.

[Side note: Coincidentally, Fleming also read Molly Ivins' book Who Let The Dogs In?: Incredible Political Animals I Have Known, which was one of the first audiobooks I ever heard. If you were to invent a voice you'd give Molly Ivins based solely on her writing, it would be the one Kate Fleming used for that book. (You can hear a sample here.)]

Kate Fleming drowned in the basement recording studio of her Seattle home during a flood in December 2006. (You can hear an NPR remembrance here.) Obviously, projects spend a lot of time percolating, and my particular audiobook provider doesn't necessarily get everything right off the bat, and old books and recordings have a way of bubbling back up. So for almost another two years, there would still be a Phillips book now and then that featured Fleming. But I knew it wasn't going to last.

A sad little change in my routine, after the jump...

And now, I've listened to my first one without her. Called What I Did For Love, it is still formulaic, it is still predictable — it is the same, but it is not the same. The new narrator, Julia Gibson, is fine, I think — though reviewers at Audible.com are being pretty tough on her and are missing Fleming's work with predictable vigor.

But what's remarkable is how accustomed I was to the little ritual of this author and this narrator, voice and voice, even with these frankly frothy books. It's so sad; I miss it.

This is why, I think, I shook my head at the concern, however theoretically well-founded and no matter what the legalities, that the Kindle 2's robot voice represented a threat to traditional narrated audiobooks. We who actually like audiobooks, we don't even want a different narrator. We complain bitterly when you replace the actress with another person.

Narration is a skill generally carried off by talented actors, and the good ones are very good. A robot voice isn't going to replace their work in my world any more than random word generators are going to replace poetry.

If the only thing the reader did was literally speak the words, I'd think audiobook narrators would already have been replaced by robot voices, because robot audiobooks would be cheaper and faster to produce, and the prices could be lower. You'd certainly save money by running a book's text through a synthesizer instead of hiring an actor and sitting her in a studio to complete a recording that may easily be 14 or 15 hours long.

People say the technology could get there "someday." I guess. Someday. At the moment, I can't conceive of it.

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