By January 6, 2012 0 Comments Read More →

Johnny Heller on Digital Shift

This audiobook narrator has hundreds of titles on his resume, multiple awards on the shelf, and was named one of the top 50 voices of the 20th century by AudioFile Magazine.  Heller has enthusiastically jumped into the 21st century, utilizing his home studio to make the digital shift that’s radically changing how narrators create their work. So you know he has the background to reflect on the current state of affairs in the audiobook industry. Check out the interview below for Heller’s musings – and a taste of his wry humor.

This conversation came about when I asked five industry pros about the shift from studio production teams to solo narrators recording in home studios for my January “Voices in My Head” column in Booklist. Their answers are so thoughtful that I want to share every word with you, before the column with their abridged remarks appears next month. I’ve already featuredPaul Gagne, of Weston Woods/Scholastic Audio and narrator Tavia Gilbert. Next up are Barbara Rosenblat and Paul Ruben.

Thanks, Johnny, for stopping by Audiobooker for a chat. If readers want more Heller, be sure to visit his blog Abbreviated Audio – and check out this post to see how I know Johnny’s Chicago west suburban accent is spot-on 😉

MB: Johnny, you are one of the industry’s most honored & prolific narrators. You’ve communicated your role as an innovator with your studio & as an established narrator invloved with ACX on your Abbreviated Blog. As many other narrators create home studios, what do you feel is the shift in the industry that is driving this change?

JH: I think it’s no secret that publishers want to bring the cost of production down.  There’s only so much money one can make on an audiobook and most of it already goes to the publisher, the author, the agent and the download marketing site. Narrators with home studios allow producers to cut out the cost of a recording studio.  It’s the nature of commerce and the free market to increase profit wherever possible.  Sadly, the industry is moving to a place where being an excellent actor isn’t enough. Now we narrators need to be engineers as well. 

MB: What do you see as the positive and negative aspects of recording with an audiobook production team in a recording studio versus solo recording in a home studio?

JH: On the positive side, in a home studio I can control my hours and work naked — although I keep sticking to the chair and frequently scare the dogs when I emerge – not to mention the impression I leave on guests that I didn’t know we had. Also on a positive note, I get more work because I have a home studio than I otherwise would.  If I didn’t have a home studio I’d have to find a second job – probably a gig going door to door selling home studios.

On the negative side, I think only certain gifted narrators have the ability to work without a director and create a wonderful audiobook.  It’s better that narrators be left to create characters and share the authors voice with listeners and let others worry about editing and mastering. 

Producers save over $100 an hour having a narrator work in a home studio.  A 10-hour book takes about 20 hours to record on average and that’s not including editing, mastering and doing retakes.  So a home studio can save a producer $2000 on a project.  None of that money goes back to the actor, of course, and the producers don’t have to give it to the actors because they know that actors are always ready to work on any project at any time for any amount of money as long as they can get someone to cover their shift at the diner. 

It’s also a negative because when a gifted narrator works with a gifted director like Paul Ruben or Robin Miles or Dan Hypes or Marc Avila or Zane Birdwell,  magic is created — a wonderful collaborative effort to produce an exceptional audio experience that completely captures the author’s voice.  I’m not saying that a great audio can’t or doesn’t happen in a solo effort – just that it’s more effort for the actor and the actor must be very good indeed to equal the collaborative efforts a fine studio and director are capable of.

MB: As audiobooks move from a physical  edition created by a team of narrator plus a studio production team to a digital-only edition created by a smaller team or perhaps a solo narrator/producer, how do you see these changes impacting the decisions that must be made by librarians evaluating and selecting audiobooks for library patrons?

JH: I’m not sure that librarians will be impacted too much by the industry move toward home studios. They shouldn’t be – maybe if the audiobook production savings is passed on to the library it would make a difference but other than that — I don’t think it should matter.

If a library’s customers like books produced by Recorded Books, that’s what they should stick with. If a librarian has a choice to make between spending their ever-diminshing budget on some solo vs. studio produced audios, I would suggest they go with the ones that sound the best or carry the titles most likely to be circulated.  I know that certain producers are great with libraries and certain producers aren’t.  I really don’t think it should affect the library too much at all….unless one can hear that a given solo production is awful and a studio production is not.  If an audio sounds bad – don’t buy it.

MB: Care to reflect on the impact of the impact of Audible’s Audiobook Creation Exchange or other possible major shifts in the industry that solo home recording or digital technology makes possible?

JH: I have a blog called “For the Hell of It” at and all of my blogs have been written to make people laugh.  I actually tried to teach/share as well as provide giggles in my last one which was about my experiences with ACX. I’m working on Part 2 of the blog now. 

I don’t know yet what ACX will do – for the actor, author or the industry.  I’ve heard great things and horrible things.  I know it’s a chance to get audiobooks made of books that otherwise would not be available on the market but I believe that it my be a wee bit monopolistic and something in our American character distrusts that.  However, everyone at ACX has been as pleasant and helpful as they can be thus far and they are trying very hard to get narrators to do projects.  It would help if the rights holders to the available projects would respond to auditions but I believe ACX is working out the kinks.  Time will tell if it’s a good thing of a huge horrible Amazonian creature prepared to swallow the world.

MB: Any other information that you feel is important for librarians to know about in relation to these topics?

JH: Here’s the thing. Libraries are where people must go to learn and read and grow. Especially in an economy like this.  Librarians need to find the best audiobooks, the most audiooooks and at the best audiobook prices and that’s not an easy threesome to assemble.  They should talk to fine people like Dave Wiley, Paula Roman and Craig Mears – and all their sales reps and see what they can do for each other.  I know this: producers of audiobooks who market to libraries understand that budgets are being slashed.  They also know how very important audiobooks are to libraries and the public they serve.  I can’t imagine that reasonable trade cannot continue.  I feel certain that AudioGo, EChristian, Recorded Books, Blackstone, Tantor, Audible, Hachette, Harpers…etc all want to provide – and do provide – great audiobooks and they all want to see their productions in libraries.  Librarians need to remember how important they are to the audiobook industry and to the community at large.  You are irreplaceable and far more appreciated than you know.



About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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