Saturday, April 17, 2010


John here. It’s my pleasure to reintroduce Steve Steinbock. Steve is the regular Friday columnist at, the Mystery Short Story Web Log. He is a contributing editor for AudioFile, the review editor at The Strand, and he currently serves as the president of the North American chapter of International Association of Crime Writers. I found the following essay fascinating, and I think you will, too. Enjoy.

Steve Steinbock

I enjoy reading with my ears. Reading is as much an aural experience as it is an intellectual one.

I mean two different things by that. First, I tend to read slowly, savoring the feel of the words, and flow of the sentences. There is music to good writing, and an unpleasant clunk to prose written with a tin ear. Every once in a while you might even see my mouth move when I read, and it’s not because I’m mentally deficient, thank you very much.

The second meaning is that I listen to a lot of audiobooks. It wasn’t that long ago that people, upon learning about my interest in the spoken word, would react with supercilious surprise. “That’s cheating,” some would say. “It’s not real reading. It’s just for lazy kids and blind people.” Audiobooks have come a long way, baby.

In the early 1980s, most commercially available audiobooks were two-tape abridgments. In order to fit the average novel onto two 90-minute cassettes, most of the book ended up on the cutting room floor. (Incidentally, I still hear people referring to audiobooks as “books on tape” even though cassettes have become museum pieces and the phrase “Books on Tape” is a trademark registered to Random House.

Today far more unabridged novels are being recorded. I don’t know the exact percentage, but of the review copies I receive, there are about two unabridged books for every abridgment. When the books are abridged, it is typically a six hour recording on five CDs.

Audiobooks are not a substitute for traditional reading (or what I sometimes refer to as “eyeball” reading). It’s a supplement. I spend an average of two hours a day with a book in my hands and my eyes on the printed page. I love books. So when I’m driving, doing laundry or yard work, or (God forbid) working out, what could be more enjoyable and edifying than listening to a book. I’m effectively doubling my book-consumption.

I’ve been writing for AudioFile Magazine ( for more than a dozen years and have been a contributing editor for that magazine since 2000. Short shameless plug: AudioFile ( is the preeminent voice (pun not intended) of the audiobook industry and the US, and is a major industry resource internationally. Each issue of the magazine contains several hundred audiobook reviews along with news, interviews, and opinions about everything ranging from narration to engineering, language instruction to audiodrama.

Having written several hundred audiobook reviews, I’m often asked what makes them different from reviews of print books. The short and obvious answer is that in addition to evaluating the content, style, and voice of the book, I look at its audio elements. These include the narrator, the format, and production quality among other things.

My reviews for AudioFile all fit somewhere in the 125 word range. By contrast, most of my print-book reviews run around 400 words. That doesn’t give me a lot of space to go into plot details. I try to limit my story recap to two or three sentences, and no more than sixty words. By contrast, longer audiobook reviews, such as those I write for The Strand, I may devote several paragraphs, as much as three hundred words, to the story.

Something that a lot of reviewers lose sight of is that people read reviews in order to learn about which books they may or may not want to read (or listen to). At one extreme of unprofessionalism are the reviewers who simply recap the entire story, listing every character, delving into every subplot, sometimes spoiling all of the surprises that the author set so carefully. At the other end of unprofessionalism are the reviewers who use their reviews to show off how much they know and how witty they can be. No one wants to read a review to see how clever the reviewer is. (That’s what guest columns on a friend’s blog are for!)

When I write a review of an audiobook, whether for AudioFile or elsewhere, here are a few of the elements I’m likely to look at and listen for:

1. How is the narrator? This is the most obvious characteristic that distinguishes an audiobook from a print book. Another human being – other than the author – is acting as an interface between the written word and the consumer. Does the person speak clearly? Does he put the right amount of emotion into the reading? Does her style correspond with the style of the writing?

2. Character. A good narrator can put on a different voice for each character. When doing so, are the characterizations relevant to the character? Are they consistant?

3. Accents. A few really good narrators can shift back and force between authentic Russian, Hispanic, Brooklyn, or Buffalo accents. Listening to these is a treat. But I’d rather hear an exotic character represented by the narrators natural accent than to have a story ruined by clichéd or caricatured accents. the mispronunciation of place names and foreign terms

4. Pronunciation. The mispronunciation of place names and foreign terms can also ruin an audiobook for me. A good narrator or director will check with an expert in order to get words right. I’ve been called on several times to go over Hebrew and Yiddish terms for audiobooks, and the resulting production came off professionally. I’ve listened to several audiobooks that weren’t executed so carefully, and it just takes one wrong word to shut a listener’s ears. Place names are especially vulnerable. Having lived in both Oregon and Maine, I’ve been to the Willamette and Piscataqua rivers. I’ve also heard both words butchered by unprepared narrators.

5. Production and Recording. In this day and age, there is no reason for an audiobook to be badly recorded. But some still are. I’ve heard electronic buzzing, shuffling pages, and hollow acoustics on audiobooks. I’ve also heard firetrucks driving past badly insulated studios.

There are other aspects, of course. These are just a few of the ones I might address in an audiobook review. What do you listen for when you play an audiobook? I’d love to hear from you.

1 comment:

Michele said...

I listen to books for these same reasons -- housework, exercise, or driving. I always have a print book on my nightstand and an audio book on my mp3 player because I must have my several hours of reading each day, but what I need from my audio books is different. For me, it's all about the narrator and I will listen to just about anything by my favorites even if I would never touch it in print (like mysteries: I just can't "eyeball read" this genre). So, I'll take anything by Simon Vance (who's prolific enough to keep me happy for many hours), John Lee, or Kate Reading. Or, I choose books where the authors themselves read, such as Neil Gaiman who's a brilliant storyteller.