According to British sociologist and book trade expert John B. Thompson, the market for audiobooks has grown astronomically since the turn of the 21st century. Once upon a time, publishers would pore over their catalogs, choosing only a select few titles to produce as audiobooks, a format that tended to account for about 10 percent of a book’s sales. These days, when an audiobook can make up anywhere from one to 50 percent of a book’s sales, publishers cover the spread by producing far more titles. From 2011 to 2017, the number of new audiobooks produced each year grew from 7,200 to more than 46,000. “For many of the large publishers,” Thompson reports in Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (2021), audiobooks represent “the only growth […] in the digital category.” And the market for audiobooks is expected to grow still further, reaching a projected valuation of $19.7 billion by 2028.
Audiobooks have become such a driving economic force in the publishing industry that they have spawned their own dedicated networks of promotion, circulation, and consecration. Audiobook rights are now a staple of book contracts, changing the terms of negotiation. Their sales are counted and listed by The New York Times. They even have their own literary prizes, the Audies and the Golden Voice Awards.
The audiobook boom is also changing how writers work. In 2021, novelist Jess Walter and narrator Edoardo Ballerini released The Angel of Rome, a jointly written, two-hour “Audible Original,” born of the pair’s previous work together. Walter is writing lines with Ballerini’s voice in mind, and Ballerini is so familiar with Walter’s work that he is able to add some lines himself; the idea of this collaboration is thus woven into the born-audio novella from the start.
Likewise, Rebecca Makkai’s 2023 novel I Have Some Questions for You—currently topping the libro.fm charts—is cannily aware of how much storytelling has migrated from eye- to ear-oriented. The novel follows a professor-cum-podcaster attempting to solve a decades-old murder, taking its cues from true-crime podcasts like Serial and pop-historical deep dives like You Must Remember This. In April, rom-com queen Emily Henry published Happy Place, which helpfully describes the pitch, timbre, and vocal tics of the book’s secondary cast, as if she were writing notes directly to the narrator in the booth.
But the best example of writing for the ear comes from celebrated narrator Julia Whelan, whose 2022 novel Thank You for Listening represents the most substantial exploration of the audiobook world to date. “No matter how many times you explain that your book isn’t autobiographical,” Whelan explains in an afterword to the book, “no one really believes you.” In this case, that’s because the protagonist of Thank You for Listening is, like Whelan, an actress-turned-audiobook-narrator, known for both her intellectual depth and her vocal range. “Sewanee does all the tough books,” another narrator says at one point in the novel. “The ones no one else can touch. Fantasies with three hundred characters, war sagas with twenty different accents, the Classics, literary doorstops. The longer the better, the bigger the better, she does them all.”
Unlike those forbidding tomes, Thank You for Listening is largely a romantic comedy about two audiobook narrators who fall in love while working on a romance novel. The book’s jokes work well on the page, but they land even better in your earbuds, where the vocal impersonation and dexterous wordplay of its star-crossed narrators often blur the boundaries between shop talk and foreplay. For Whelan herself—who has narrated everything from Makkai and Henry’s aforementioned novels to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), Tara Westover’s Educated (2018), Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), and Cormac McCarthy’s Stella Maris (2022)—the novel operates as a kind of highlight reel. Novelist Whelan writes lively scenes and heavily accented characters so Narrator Whelan can slide between a flirtatious Irishman, an exhausted Angeleno, a perky Texan, an elderly Michigander, and a clueless Bostonian.
But Thank You for Listening is more than an occasion for one of the most prominent audiobook narrators to strut her stuff. The novel is also an index of just how well-known the figure of the narrator has become in literary culture, and just how little is known about how they do what they do. “I felt confident that most people had at least heard of audiobooks, even if they’d never before thought about the narrators behind them,” Whelan writes in the afterword. “I wanted to give the professional, working-class, yeoman narrator their due.” No wonder, then, that in both its narrative and its production, Thank You for Listening focuses on the crucial, if overlooked, intellectual labor of the narrator—work that is increasingly precarious, yet increasingly vital to shaping the way that contemporary literature is read and received.
While a number of audiobooks are narrated by celebrities or by their own authors, the vast majority are read by unknown and unacknowledged literary workers, at once subordinated to the text and responsible for it, unseen but audible.
Narrators represent an entirely new role in the literary field, variously performing the functions of author, text, and reader. Like the author, the narrator is the person from whom the text emanates. Given that the material of the audiobook is not the printed page but a recording of a voice, narrators likewise serve as the embodiment of the text itself. And yet, they are also that text’s reader—in many cases, one of its very first readers. Before a book is released in hardcover, before reviews start popping up on Goodreads or in the pages of The New York Times, the audiobook is recorded. Unlike a film or television series based on a novel, the audiobook is not a post hoc adaptation but a parallel production. As a result, the audiobook narrator is often among a book’s first critics, not only reading but also doing a reading, interpreting its characters, structure, pace, and voice, in a way that shapes our own interpretations.
Christina Rooney, the Grammy- and Audie-winning director of more than 800 audiobooks, including works by Margaret Atwood, E. L. Doctorow, and Haruki Murakami, runs her studio like a graduate seminar. “Why is this sentence here? Why is each paragraph here? Why is each character here?” asks Rooney, who coaches her narrators through these same analyses. “You have to understand every single ‘why’ before you can start performing it.” To prepare for a book, Rooney studies author interviews, historical context, and the development of its particular genre or national literature. Once, when producing a book by Svetlana Alexievich, she launched a full-on research project into the history of the Russian fable and the tropes of the “gulag tale”—and she asks her narrators to do the same.
That’s why, Rooney told us, finding the right actor to narrate a project is the most crucial component of her work. “You’re not casting a voice,” she said, “you’re casting a brain.” Not just any brain, but one particularly attuned to language and literary history. She casts narrators whose performances resonate “at the level of the author’s entire body of work, at the level of the genre, at the level of the question that we’re exploring in wider society.” The narrator must hold these interpretive modes in tension as she crafts the vocal profiles for each of the book’s speakers or characters. Given this, a narrator’s literary chops are just as essential as their theatrical ones. It was Rooney who cast Whelan in her breakout role as Amy Elliott-Dunne in Gone Girl. Whelan came to the field of audiobooks with acting experience, yes, but also after studying literature at Middlebury College and studying abroad at Oxford (later publishing her own debut novel, 2019’s My Oxford Year, based on that experience).
Yet the vast majority of audiobooks, even those by well-known narrators, do not have a director as rigorous as Rooney, or even a director at all. Most narrators are their own producers, taking levels and mixing audio in the studios they’ve constructed in their basements or closets. They’re their own casting agents, managing bookings and finding auditions. They’re their own publicists, engaging listeners on social media, promoting the scores of books they produce each year. All of this labor is entirely invisible and unremunerated.
Narrators are not salaried employees working under the auspices of Audible or one of the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates; rather, they are freelancers paid “per-finished-hour” of audio. Central as their work may be to the way we read now, that work is precarious, part of a creative gig economy.
If a narrator is a member of the Screen Actors Guild (and many are—the auditioning-actor-to-Audible-narrator pipeline is vast), she might make upwards of $200–$250 per finished hour. In other words, for portraying a junior lawyer in some legal thriller, she can bill almost as much as a real junior lawyer does. When you factor in the time it takes to prepare for a book, however, and the fact that a single hour of an audiobook usually takes about three hours to record, the real hourly wage for that narrator might be closer to $70. That is far more than you can earn by delivering portobello burgers or boba tea, but the work is just as varied, taxing, and unreliable.
In Thank You for Listening, Whelan details all the unpaid work that her protagonist does just to prepare for a single audiobook, including “making word lists and finding the correct pronunciations, identifying the emotional arc of the story, marking breath points in syntactically challenging passages, mapping relationships between the characters, and developing voices and accents.”
All this “book prep” is overlooked on the narrator’s final invoice, as is the ultimate success of the book itself. Whether the book is a hit or a sleeper matters little: the narrator receives no royalties. No wonder that Whelan’s protagonist jumps at the opportunity to work on a project whose author has offered her a share of the book’s sales. This is the inciting incident of Thank You for Listening and perhaps its most fictional plot point of all.
And so, the professional audiobook narrator endlessly hustles and grinds. Early in their careers, narrators might work on as many as 70 audiobooks in a given year. “It takes a physical toll. It takes a massive mental toll that is not healthy,” Whelan told us. “But given the rates in the industry when you’re starting out, that’s kind of what you have to do to be able to make a living.” These are the working conditions of the voices in our ears. And yet, there is something about the labor of audiobook narration—the piling-on of projects, the micro-tasks squeezed into spare moments here and there—that sounds a lot like the work of listening itself.
The promise of the audiobook is that reading time, leisure time, entertaining time, and edifying story time can all happen anywhere at any time. Whether you are riding the bus to work, doing the dishes, or nodding off to sleep, the hands-free audiobook allows you the freedom to read when you otherwise could not. According to a 2018 consumer survey conducted by the Audio Publishers Association, 45 percent of audiobook listeners reported listening while doing household chores, and 65 percent while commuting between home and work. It is not hard to see how the technology’s promise of extracting leisure from labor can easily tip into the logic of optimization. If you can pick up the newest Colson Whitehead novel while you are gripping a subway pole or a Swiffer WetJet, then you can convert those pesky uncompensated minutes into profitable experience. After all, there are tens of thousands of new titles published each year and an ever-dwindling amount of time in which to read them. The audiobook agrees with you: you really could be reading more.
In this way, the insecurity and precarity of the narrator’s labor reflects our own. At least she gets to read the novel in real time, while we are rushing at 1.7X to cram in one more chapter before our stop. (In Thank You for Listening, one character jokes that it’s probably closer to 3X.) It’s no wonder that three of the industry’s top publishers—Books on Tape, Recorded Books, and Blackstone Audio—were each founded by commuters looking to turn their time in traffic into increased cultural capital. Whereas these companies once produced scores of titles in abridged form, promising to deliver classics like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in far less of it, now we simply ramp up the speed. All that’s required to keep up with the book world, or your book club, is a simple, if harrowing, calculus: if Emily’s daily commute is X minutes each way, and she spends 6X minutes cleaning or cooking each week, how many New York Times notables can she read in a year if she listens at double speed?
It’s all too much. Perhaps this is why a novel like Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is even more arresting when it is read to you by Whelan. Though it is set in 2000 and 2001, the novel, which follows a 26-year-old Columbia graduate who decides to abandon the world and sleep for a year, is largely about the unyielding frenzy of contemporary life. In an effort to make Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator come alive (or even rouse a little), Whelan nestles her characteristically wry and knowing tone under a weighted blanket of apathetic malaise. It’s a performance that gives the impression of 0.8X, even when played at normal speed. “You have these long passages of her basically being passed out,” Whelan recalled, “and I made a decision at a certain point to just ride that. That’s part of the hypnosis of the book. It almost becomes an ASMR thing, where you’re putting the listener into that meditative, slowed-down state.”
“Hibernation” is what Moshfegh’s narrator calls it, the thing that she and Whelan and the woman on the L train listening to her earbuds are all trying to produce. In Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (2021), Mark McGurl argues that the audiobook “facilitates the return […] of the bedtime story in the life of the adult commuter”—but isn’t this the fantasy that the audiobook continually defaults on? Like the protagonist of Moshfegh’s novel, who finds herself bizarrely “productive” even while unconscious, the audiobook listener is always ambivalently at work, at rest and in motion. This is the irony that Whelan’s reading captures so well, the irony at the very heart of the audiobook as a form: it takes a flesh-and-blood narrator working countless hours in a cramped studio to produce the detached and disembodied voice of a novel about hibernation that you can listen to while you walk to the office. The narrator’s working conditions are our reading conditions.
Even as the audiobook market booms, changing the way that books are read, and even as some novelists are writing more and more with a narrator’s voice in their ear, the work of the already precarious narrator is increasingly in jeopardy. In January, Apple Books discreetly rolled out their AI narrator function. Automated narration, Apple claims, will make “audiobooks more accessible to all” by eliminating some of the “the cost and complexity of production.” Despite the insistence that “Apple Books remains committed to celebrating and showcasing the magic of human narration,” and their promise to “grow the human-narrated audiobook catalog,” the implication for narrators is clear: they may soon be automated out of existence.
This prospect also makes an appearance in Whelan’s novel, as the diabolus ex machina, “the monster under the bed,” that threatens protagonist and author alike. “Everyone talks about coal miners, farmers, steel workers. The horror of automation and what we owe them. No one talks about artists,” Whelan protests in the voice of her narrator-protagonist. “[T]hey can’t just copy our voices, right? Without our consent. That would be illegal,” Whelan pleads in the voice of her narrator-protagonist. “It has to be illegal.”
Though her producer cautions that such a lawsuit is inevitable, Whelan’s central character ends up all right in the end. At the close of Thank You for Listening, our hero not only finds true love, but she also lights upon a veritable “gold mine”: not some big-break project, or an illustrious Audie award, but a “whole box of [an author’s] IP”—that is, the copyrights to a series of popular novels. It’s a depressing kind of “happily ever after” for a book about the labor—and the intimacy—of narration. If you want to make a living out of reading, the novel seems to suggest, you had better have a line of passive income. Nice work if you can get it.
Alexander Manshel is an assistant professor of English at McGill University. His book, Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, is available for preorder from Columbia University Press.
Laura B. McGrath is an assistant professor of English at Temple University.
J. D. Porter is a digital humanities specialist at the Price Lab for Digital Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.
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