Stefan Rudnicki [listen] is an independent director, producer, narrator, and publisher of audiobooks. For his work, he has received 11 Audie Awards from the Audio Publishers Association and a GRAMMY Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for The Children's Shakespeare (1999). Outside of the audiobook industry, he's probably best known for the dozen books he's written or edited, from actor's resource anthologies to a best-selling adaptation of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
John Joseph Adams: Audiobook listeners are probably familiar with your name already, but for those who don't know you, why don't you start us off by telling us a little more about yourself?
Stefan Rudnicki: Well, I've been in the audiobook business for around ten years, first with Dove Audio and then with a couple of other companies. The genre work—science fiction and fantasy, that is—is actually a recent specialization, although the genre has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. And there's been a ton of stage directing and a couple of feature films...and on and on. Oh right, and somewhere in between all that there's around twenty years of university teaching.
JJA: How did you first get involved in the audiobook industry?
SR: I began as an abridger, an activity that suited my academic background. I was talking to a friend who said she couldn't meet a deadline—this was for Dove Audio—and I took over the project. The rest is history.
JJA: Before we get any further, settle for us the great semantic debate: does one read an audiobook or listen to it?
SR: One absolutely listens.
JJA: You've done a lot of work with one of my favorite producers of audiobooks, Fantastic Audio. I heard that they went into "financial limbo" recently. What can you tell us about that?
SR: Fantastic Audio, an imprint of Audio Literature in San Bruno, California, is still around. Just not doing much in the way of new projects. The core series titles by Orson Scott Card and Ben Bova have been sold to Audio Renaissance, where they will be reissued in a massive publishing campaign to begin this fall, but the rest of what was Fantastic Audio is still with Audio Literature and mostly available.
JJA: You've also worked for another of my favorites, Audible.com, producing original content for them, such as the excellent audio editions of F&SF, Asimov's, and Analog. What do you think of them and this new digital medium?
SR: I think Audible is the bees knees. I've been involved with those folks in a number of ways since they first began to acquire content nearly ten years ago. Their approach to audio publishing and technology has always been innovative and bold. I think that, more than anyone else, they are the future of the spoken word.
JJA: Do you see the advent of internet distribution as an opportunity for audiobooks, or—given the piracy issues the recording industry is attempting to deal with—as a threat?
SR: Definitely an opportunity. Audiobooks are still a young medium, and the more people that are exposed to the better. Any new delivery medium can only help promote the industry. Downloads have copy controls that are nearly as efficient as the hard media have. If someone is determined, there are always ways around the controls, but the cost and time involved in pirating a 12 hour book seem pretty excessive.
JJA: Audiobooks can be quite expensive, especially if you compare the cost of a mass-market paperback to an unabridged audiobook. Do you see the prices of audiobooks becoming more affordable as new technologies become available?
SR: MP3 or DVD. If, as is likely, one or the other (or some new storage/playback system) takes over, the prices will be able to drop.
JJA: What other thoughts do you have on the future of audiobook publishing? Where is it going? What will it look like in five or ten years?
SR: All I can say with relative certainty is that, despite publishing and retail woes, audiobooks are not going away. After all, senior baby boomers, students, and commuters are constituencies that continue to affect the market. And, unless some new technology comes to the fore soon, I expect that MP3 or DVD will become the medium of choice, with more and more content available for download to one of these formats.
JJA: Do you think most audiobook listeners read regular printed books too, or do they tend to stick with the audio adaptations? What's the audiobook listener profile look like—who's buying them? What makes people opt for audiobooks instead of regular books?
SR: Many people actually do both. Especially fans of a particular genre or author. In the early days, print publishers were afraid that the audiobook industry would cut into their market, but history has not supported that. Audiobooks are ideal for students, for the elderly, for commuters (around 60% of the market), and a lot of others. As for the attitude that listening to a book is somehow a second-hand or non-genuine experience, the fact is that many of the best writers are meant to be heard out loud.
JJA: Aside from commercial considerations, what factors influence your decision to adapt a work into audio format?
SR: Unfortunately, those "commercial considerations" all too often outweigh others. The key, though, has to be whether or not the book will be understandable, and, ideally, whether the consumer's experience of it will be enhanced by listening.
JJA: Other than a pleasant reading voice, what qualities do you look for in an audiobook performer?
SR: Some of the best readers don't necessarily have voices that could be termed pleasant. What is needed is for the reader to be compelling. The listener needs to be drawn into the narrative. So the reader has to be a great storyteller, someone we want to believe, someone we trust.
JJA: You seem to work with a certain stable of performers—what is it about them that makes you use them again and again?
SR: What I just said. I trust them. I believe them when they talk. And they take me places I want to go. This applies to celebrities like Theo Bikel [listen], David Birney [listen], Robert Forster [listen], John Rubinstein [listen] and Jean Smart [listen] (a few of my faves) as well as to those terrific readers unknown outside of the industry.
JJA: How do you go about choosing the reader that performs each audiobook?
SR: The reader (or readers, in the case of multi-cast productions) has to be able to master the tone of the book.
JJA: What are your feelings about authors who read their own audio adaptations?
SR: In general, I feel that authors of fiction should stay away from narration, but that many non-fiction writers, especially in the self-help area, are great. There are exceptions, of course. Orson Scott Card is a fine reader. Harlan Ellison [listen] is a brilliant performer who augments any work he reads, whether it's his own or someone else's. Sharyn McCrumb [listen] brings such a wealth of Appalachian authenticity to her narration that I cannot imagine anyone doing quite as well. And there are others, of course.
JJA: When the author is not the reader, how involved is he or she in the recording process? The backs of audiobooks always say "This abridgement has been approved by the author." Is that the extent of an author's involvement, or does the he or she have other responsibilities as well?
SR: Besides abridgment approval, it's extremely rare for an author to have any direct involvement in the audiobook. Sometimes, for certain authors, there is reader approval, or, more likely, reader consultation, but most publishers will avoid this as it will often slow down the production process significantly. Also, many authors don't really care. So much for the industry hard line answer. For my part, I like to have the author as involved as possible...it avoids later problems. Pronunciation issues especially. When I produce a book by Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, we'll have a phone conference in advance of recording, going over every strange word she has invented. These sessions are an opportunity for me to gauge the author's true intentions and the ultimate tone of the work.
JJA: Why don't you take us through the audiobook adaptation process step by step.
SR: Format decisions first—to abridge or not. Then casting. Most books require some degree of producer prep and research at this point...tricky pronunciations at the very least. Then recording, on average taking double the final length, so a ten hour book would be budgeted for twenty hours in the studio. Then a first edit or assembly, which comes back to the producer who makes notes regarding pacing, nuance, etc. Then mastering...the final polish. Masters then go through a further series of QC (quality control) steps, the complexity of which varies by publisher and producer, ending up with a test copy from the duplicator, followed by mass duplication, packaging and shipping. It's a process that can take anywhere from three months down to two weeks in exceptional rush cases.
JJA: When a book is abridged for adaptation, what sort of material is cut?
SR: Depends on the book. Some books are driven by story, so the plot has to be intact. Others are character driven, so plot points are not as essential. Others still are dominated by mood or a particular literary tone. What goes away in an abridgment, ideally, is what is not essential to the author's style, while what's left retains the core elements of that particular book.
JJA: When you're recording a scene, is it just the reader and a microphone? Or is there a whole team of production engineers at work, along with a director, etc., like the set of a film?
SR: There are at most three people present: reader, director (who is often also the producer), and the engineer. When I record in my own studio, I engineer as well, so it's just me and the talent. We get to know each other pretty well, and that's part of the fun of it.
JJA: Do you have a favorite audiobook project that you worked on? If so, why does that one stand out?
SR: Out of the nearly 1,000 I've worked on, I've got lots of favorites. Ender's Game is one of my most recent. I've been crazy about the book since I first read it soon after its publication. It took me some years to acquire the audio rights and then do the unabridged recording. I got to be a principal narrator as well. Another favorite is Pictures in My Head, a kind of poetic autobiography written and read by Gabriel Byrne [listen], who speaks Dublin dialects by street. And then there's A Valentine, a compilation of romantic poetry read by wonderful people like Roscoe Lee Browne [listen], Vanessa Redgrave [listen], Burt Reynolds [listen], Meryl Streep, and Michael York [listen].
JJA: Do you have any nightmare adaptation stories you could share with us (omitting the names of any guilty parties)?
SR: There's always the unexpected. The trick is to turn the potential nightmare into a daydream. There have been problems, of course...technical, aesthetic and collaborative. The most frustrating, I think—and this has happened to me on several occasions—is when an author reading his/her own autobiography looks up at me from page 4 and says, "That's not right. That didn't happen." Indicating that not only did this person not write the book, they haven't even read it.
JJA: You've also worked in the film industry. What can you tell us about that?
SR: I think that's another story altogether. Suffice to say that I love working in film, and plan to do so again soon. I've got a couple of hot properties in case anyone is interested.
JJA: How does that relate to your work in audiobooks?
SR: Everything I do feeds off everything else. It may be that I've had several careers going, as I guess I've reinvented myself a half dozen times at least, but the work is always THE WORK. Nothing is ever lost.
JJA: Do you have much contact with audiobook fans? If so, what do they say about audiobooks?
SR: I wish I had more contact. Conventions are good. I attended the San Jose SF WorldCon and Orson Scott Card's EnderCon in 2002, and both were revelatory. Fans can be opinionated, even nasty. But they're rarely uninformed, and they are the lifeblood of any industry.
JJA: You've done much of your audio work recently in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Who are some of your favorite authors?
SR: I started reading SF and fantasy when I was six or seven. I grew up wanting to write like Ray Bradbury, travel with Arthur C. Clarke, and evolve a la Theodore Sturgeon. These days, I am proud beyond measure to have produced audio works by Clarke, Greg Bear, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Harlan Ellison, Alan Dean Foster, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Pratchett, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, Bob Silverberg and so many others. I count several of these as friends and collaborators, and that's an even greater pleasure for me.
JJA: Have you produced many non-genre works?
SR: Figure that at least 90% of my audio output has been in other areas. I especially love working with poetry, mysteries, and contemporary history. Dramatizations of Nixon tapes, Kissinger transcripts, and Titanic disaster hearings have been especially fun.
JJA: What are you working on now that you can tell us about?
SR: I'm putting the final touches on the fifth and final volume of the fifty-hour Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. I've just recorded Firoozeh DuMas's memoir about growing up Iranian in the United States, Funny in Farsi (read by the author), which is currently in edit. And in a couple of weeks I'll be recording The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, featuring commentary read by the brilliant scholar/philosopher Jacob Needleman.
JJA: Anything else you'd like to say about audiobooks to all those potential listeners out there?
SR: If you've never listened to an audiobook, you owe it to yourself to do so. It's not for everybody. There are people who just don't respond to being talked to. But if it turns out you're one of those who can enjoy it, the first book will be a revelation and your life WILL be changed.
JJA: Stefan, thanks for your time. For all you readers and listeners out there, if you'd like to learn more about audiobooks, check out some of the links listed here, on the Audio Publishers Association website: http://www.audiopub.org/apalinks.html.