Nicholas Jones established Strathmore Publishing in 1995 to create both printed and audiobooks. It has since recorded several thousand titles with readers ranging from Ian McKellen and Juliet Stevenson to Carrie Hope-Fletcher and Russell Brand.
How did you get into publishing?
My mother did calligraphy, and as a child I got interested in lettering and book design. I had a printing press when I was 12, and so publishing was a great use of that interest. Studied science at university, but then went on a training scheme run by Thomson Publications (since split up, though technical bits have become part of Thomson Reuters), and seconded to Michael Joseph before it was part of Penguin Random House. It was a brilliant company to learn with. No doubt that my printing interest helped get the job. Publishers are always looking for evidence that you really care and have some particular skill to offer.
I can honestly say that I have taken real pleasure in something almost every working day I’ve done. That’s not to say there aren't tedious or stressful or difficult things, but without those you wouldn’t get the satisfaction of things achieved.
As to the audio connection, I volunteered at a hospital radio station while working at MJ, and that made me aware of the spoken word. Audio is a great mix of the technical and the creative.
What does audio bring to the story?
For years, audio was thought of as a substitute for printed books (“Oh yes, you do books for the blind,” people used to say to me until quite recently). That’s still of course an essential part of it – accessibility is vital – but it’s less than five per cent of the market. Publishing is about communicating something someone knows to someone who wants to know that something. Both fiction and non-fiction. The spoken word is the original form of storytelling. Think of hunter-gatherers around the campfire. Audio is now a medium in its own right. It is a great way of storytelling.
What is the working relationship like between author and narrator?
It varies a lot, but most authors are delighted to be involved. We consult over casting, character details that are not defined by the written word, over accents and pronunciations. We're a production house, but we work really closely with the book publishers. These days, it is usually the publisher of the printed book that is doing the audio. That wasn't always the case. We think the formats support each other really well.
We love to talk to authors before the recording, and are pleased to welcome them to attend a bit of a session, although sometimes hearing their words out loud makes them want to rewrite, and that can slow things down a lot. The desire to rewrite can be tricky when an author is reading her or his own book. Several authors we work with (Richard Dawkins, or Sally Gardner, for example) always read their books out loud to themselves while writing, and that makes for great audio. I once had an author who was so surprised by how difficult her text was to read out loud that she went away and re-edited the whole 300-page book at page proof stage! It was much better book for it, but production department was a bit upset.
How has your job made you rethink 'the book'?
After Michael Joseph, I worked at Thames Television doing books based on their programmes, so I have been aware all my career that printed books are only one way of communicating out of many. Good information deserves to be presented in as many ways as possible.
How long does it take to record an audiobook?
We reckon on three to three-and-a-half hours of finished reading per day. Average 9,000 to 9,300 words per finished hour, though that depends on what sort of book. So 30,000 to 35,000 words per working day. Editing takes usually between two-and-a-half and four times the final running time, but some readers are more fluffy than others, and we did do one project where lots of paragraphs had ten or more takes. Editing that took ten times running time. Then books are proof-listened, and corrected if necessary – up to another twice running time.
What skills do you look for when recruiting?
In people working with us, obviously good English language skills, but general knowledge is really important – and some knowledge of other languages, or at least how they are pronounced. And knowing what you don’t know – if you’re not sure, check. Nothing destroys the credibility of an audiobook faster than mispronunciations. We've rung up Chinese take-aways in Edinburgh, tourist information sites and post offices all over Britain, a saw mill in Canada, all to check how they pronounce the name. Things on the web like Forvo help, but they are not infallible.
People producing need tech skills in the studio, since most times there won’t be an engineer as well these days – ten or fifteen years ago there would mostly be two in the control room, a producer and an engineer, but that is now rarely the case.
How do you meet the challenge of keeping up with the industry’s fastest-growing sector?
Audiobooks are part of wider media as well as ‘just’ publishing, and being aware of what is going on elsewhere in media is really helpful.
Read the trade press – but not just in publishing like The Bookseller and BookBrunch. Look at TVBE for television developments, and Audio Media International for audio, and DigiDay – all of these do great e-newsletters. And Audiofile, the US consumer magazine. Talk to other producers and studios.
Do you make your own sound effects?
We have about 15,000 in our library, but yes, we do lots of odd things in the studio! We do lots of children’s books, and we think sound effects (SFX) really stimulate a child’s imagination. Some things are fun to fake – if you want to make the sound of something rustling through long grass (for Giraffes Can’t Dance), get some old reel-to-reel recording tape and rustle that. Heavy rain: dried peas rolling around in a colander.
What is the biggest trend in audio production?
Multiple voices, adaptations of podcasts. Location recording is now much more possible, although doing it well requires experience and the right equipment. We recently did an audio version of a stage play too. Anything that tells a good story! The difference between radio (on demand) and podcasts and audiobooks is shrinking all the time. People are more aware of the involving and immersive qualities of the spoken word.
What is the future of the book?
Without wanting to sound too grand, I really believe that the publishing industry is the guardian of the accumulated knowledge of humankind. In the face of fake news and sloppy writing, publishers can protect the quality of information. And of course others are important too – libraries, schools, universities, colleges. And those who prevent censorship and shutting down conversations. Good information makes for better decisions. A book is a container of information. The traditional codex (pages bound together) has proved remarkably stable. Electronic media have their part to play, but already there are things from the 1980s that are really hard to access (Philips Video Disc, anyone?). Of course, audio should be stored in as many ways as possible to prevent loss. The MP3 files is a pretty good standard (even though now officially deprecated).
There is increasing evidence that the printed word stimulates better retention than on-screen reading. In some case, audio is even better. And a recent study from University College London showed that an audiobook reading was more emotionally powerful than a film clip of the same scene.
Audiobooks and printed books are proving to work comfortably together. They are not mutually exclusive. People will buy both formats to assist fully exploring all the details of a work. An autobiography, for example, will be brilliant in written form, but you might gain more and different things from hearing the author read it.
Is there an audiobook you especially admire and wish you'd worked on?
That's a tricky question since there are so many different kinds of audiobook. Perhaps Forgotten Voices: First World War ? It was from Random House about twelve or more years ago. It used archive recordings from the Imperial War Museum – the same that appear in Peter Jackson's film; and was at the time really innovative.
What areas of publishing do you think need to pay more attention to audio? Are there sectors which could be doing more with their book content to reach listeners?
Audio is part of the mainstream now. Everyone should be considering whether their books could reach an audio audience. We are delighted to see how many new clients have come to us recently.
We have noticed more publishers bringing authors in to our studio to do podcasts. That is a great way of bringing a new audience to audiobooks. Audio is a very intimate medium, and gives the listener a real connection with the content and the writer.
What's the most creative thing you've done to a manuscript to make the book work in audio?
Well, we once did a picture book! Thomas Pakenham's Meetings with Remarkable Trees was adapted as a television series of short films, but we got Bill Paterson, who had done the TV voice over, to read all the commentaries that TP wrote about 100 trees. That was in the days when everything was on CD or tape, so we did a little booklet that went with it. Worked really well. In some ways harder now, but you can put PDFs with downloads.