An Interview with the Wall Street Journal
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Wall Street Journal reporter Sarah Nassauer interviewed Reagent Press Vice President and Publisher Jeannie Kim for an upcoming story on the audio book industry. Sarah Nassauer’s article “Home & Family: Getting an Earful of Printed Words” appeared in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal on 28 September 2006. The following is an email interview between Sarah Nassauer and Jeannie Kim.
[SN] Can you tell me about your company and your audio books? Do you have any interesting stories to tell about your audio books, your authors, and your narrators?
[JK] Reagent Press's RP Audio imprint is the publisher of the Audible #1 bestselling audio book The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches by Robert Stanek. The company’s celebrity voices include Karl Fehr, a musician and theatre actor who just returned from a USO (United Service Organizations) tour supporting the troops overseas; Ron Knowles, a 20-year industry veteran voice actor for television and film; Gary Ryan, a news radio commentator in Burlington, Ontario, Canada; and Victoria Charters, an actress, on-camera-host, and contributor to Art & Living Magazine.
Working with celebrities is both exciting and challenging. Our experiences range from downright hilarious to crazy/zany. Creating audio books requires a lot of hard work. An audio book is a production, but in our disconnected digital world the producer isn’t always sitting in the same room as the actor to give direction. This means there’s no one there to say, ‘Cut, do it again this way…’ and we often have to do retakes and re-reads after our in-house review process.
Reagent Press just finished production on a 7-book set of children’s stories written by Robert Stanek for children ages 3 to 8 and featuring 16 voiced characters all performed by a single actress—Victoria Charters. While the company had considered doing the story collection using a full cast, the actresses’ wide range of skills convinced them she was the right talent for the task. Creating 16 original voices is lot of work and requires a lot of direction. Case in point, the initial recording sessions didn’t go as planned. The original voice for the star of the stories wasn’t right and the company’s test listeners, a pair of sisters ages 7 and 8 years old, didn’t like it. The one sister covered her ears and the other was giggling because the character (a bee) was talking using a very nasal, high-pitched voice. The sisters came up with the ideas for the new voice for the character and the voice actor went back to work using their direction. 16 character voices and 7 finished books later, the company’s sound engineer and producer can now go in and finalize the audio to produce a finished product which will be available in 2007.
One of the most interesting things about our company and the way we do business is that we’re completely digital. A lot of other print and audio publishers are trying to go digital, but we’re already there. All our books—in both print and audio—are digitally produced.
Reagent Press’s RP Audio imprint is one of the few completely digital audio production companies. All of the company’s books are digitally mastered in high-quality stereo. For online distribution, the company’s digitally produced audio has to be down-sampled so that it can be more easily distributed on sites like Audible.com and iTunes.com. We can’t wait for the day when everyone is using high bandwidth connections and we can distribute our audio in the original high-definition audio we’ve created.
[SN] In general do you see more emphasis and money being put into the quality and/or "star power" of audio book narration compared to a few years ago? If so, could you give me some specific examples? (perhaps narrators are paid more then they were 3 years ago or you now employ many more producers/casting people, etc.. to work on audio guides or you now have to really recruit people like you would for a movie to narrate a book - ?) Also, are you putting more and more books into an audio format?
[JK] Reagent Press is completely digital, and for us, technological innovations have made the job of producing audiobooks much easier and much less time-consuming than it was previously, but at a higher cost in terms of production equipment and production staff. Our producers and engineers use high-power (high-cost) workstations running fairly expensive software to process the audio and produce the final work. This means we not only need to make a considerable investment in equipment and software, but we also require highly-trained, computer-savvy, production staff.
Finding narrators is a challenge. Reagent Press does extensive searches, seeking out the right voices. When we are conducting a talent search, we ask for auditions and/or samples from hundreds of narrators and then narrow these down to what we feel are the right voices for specific books that we'd like to produce in audio. Thus we go from hundreds of voices down to a dozen or so over the course of a few months, then from there, we ask for readings from the specific texts we are producing to find the right one or two voices for each specific book.
Reagent Press definitely is putting more and more books into audio. Our goal is to produce 100 percent of our books in audio, and this requires taking a look at all of the books we sign in different ways than we normally would. Before making a decision to publish a book, we have to ask ourselves, is this a book that will work well both in print and in audio? We also have to look at costs and return on investment. A 1,000-page thriller may work well in print, but may not be readily adaptable to audio. Plus, the costs associated with producing a 1,000-page thriller in audio are off the charts in terms of voice talent, production time, and required engineering, making it unlikely we could produce the book in audio and get a return on our investment.
[SN] You say the goal is to produce 100% of your books in audio. What percentage do you currently produce in audio?
[JK] 100% of our 2006 fiction titles have been published in both print and audio. 100% of our current backlist in fiction are either in audio or on track to be produced in audio. In nonfiction, the exception is for education titles, such as our Teacher's and Student's classroom guides and similar titles, which aren't being produced in audio because there is a much smaller market.
[SN] Is having the goal to produce 100% of your titles in audio new? Has this been your goal for the last 10 years or was it less important a few years back (therefore you produced 80% of your titles in audio three years ago or something similar)?
[JK] Producing 100% of our titles in audio is a new goal, starting in 2006, because audio is an extremely important and growing part of our business. Previously, we produced about 50% of our titles in audio.
[SN] Thanks for your help!
[JK] You’re welcome, glad I could help.