11 Things You Never Knew About Audiobooks (plus the Orbit team meet a Doctor Who star!)

The Orbit team recently took a trip to watch Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY MERCY being recorded as an audiobook by actor Adjoa Andoh (you might know her from Doctor Who).

We went to the RNIB Talking Books studio in Camden, London. We were all completely fascinated to see this process and to meet the people involved, so here’s what we learned.

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On Dec 9, 2015

It's a little bit rock and roll

We watched Adjoa recording a fight scene in 'Ancillary Mercy'. The RNIB voice actors work in a small studio with a director overseeing them at a production desk, using the ‘rock and roll’ method. This means the reader will stop and start reading very quickly, with the director to prompt them to restart at the exact point where any mistakes are made.


But it's really hard work

It’s high energy, demanding work, taking between three and five days to record the average book. RNIB readers read for six hours a day – three in the morning and three in the afternoon. An experienced reader gets about one hundred usable minutes per three hours. A bad one can get much less, and take up more (expensive) studio time.


Voice actors put a lot into their readings

Adjoa told us she reads books through to the end before she starts – there are potential pitfalls to navigate, so it’s good to know what’s coming. The audio director told us about a ‘whodunnit’ he had recorded where the murderer was the only character with a strong Scottish accent – imagine trying to keep that ending a secret! But the author can often step in to help rewrite a chapter or two.


And they do have favourite books…

Adjoa loves science fiction and said she especially enjoyed the social issues explored in the Ancillary novels, of which she has recorded all three. Adjoa told us her son is transgender – something she first spoke publicly about on BBC 4 last year – and she appreciates the way the Ancillary novels make readers think hard about gender.


And favourite characters!

Adjoa’s absolute favourite character in 'Ancillary Mercy' is the eccentric Translator Zeiat, though she loves the ‘emotional journey’ of the protagonist, Breq.


Voices can come from lots of different places

Adjoa was undaunted by the challenges of the Ancillary novels – from accents to the occasional song – she said ‘I’m an actor, I do a bit of everything’. She told us she especially enjoys voicing Seivarden, because the ‘louche’ character reminds her of a close actor friend (here she sat languidly back in her chair and treated us to an impression). She also finds voices from one book creeping into another, saying mysteriously 'The voice of Station is a bit like a whale I had to do once.'


The RNIB Talking Books Service is an awesome initiative made available to blind people in the UK

The RNIB are the Royal National Institute of Blind People, a charity who record around forty audiobooks a month which are made available for free to their tens of thousands of members.


RNIB were the very first people to record audiobooks in the United Kingdom

The first audiobook made in the UK was Agatha Christie’s 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', in 1935. There was a lot of demand for the new format – from readers who had become blind too late in life to learn braille easily, to soldiers whose hands were injured in WWI and weren’t able to feel braille, audiobooks made books more accessible to a hundreds of keen readers.


They love sci-fi!

An RNIB panel usually chooses the books to be recorded, but if two members write in to request the same book it will be recorded regardless. Science fiction and fantasy is very popular at the moment! They’ve been recording for eighty years and have a library of over 20,000 audiobooks.


Technology has come a long, long way.

The RNIB used to send out clunky equipment to its members, which was so heavy the Royal Mail kindly granted them a special postage rate. There’s a display of the equipment at the studio, covering LPs to cassettes to CDs. These days, members have a number of options including simple internet downloads. (Whew!)


But despite leaps and bounds in technology, the book is still the most important thing.

From choosing the right voice actor to getting the characters just right, everyone is really keen to communicate the author’s work in the right way – the book comes first. Adjoa said that working on audiobooks reminds her of a character in a Marilynne Robinson novel – a priest who prays 'Please God, get me out of the way' before preaching to his flock. She said she always hopes against hope that she can ‘get out of the way’ and let the author’s story come across.

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