The Magic of Audiobooks: From Inception to Implementation

Volume 43, Number 3

Jodie Cohen and Teri S. Lesesne

The Magic of Audiobooks: From Inception to Implementation

Many of us learned to read while resting on the laps of our parents or sitting on carpet squares in front of our preschool teachers. We listened as someone read to us. Sometimes we followed along with our fingers tracking the words on the pages as they were read aloud, and sometimes the reader tracked the words as he or she read to us. Hearing the sounds of the words and listening as someone read with enthusiasm and excitement made us fall into the story. In many ways, listening to someone read aloud or listening to an audiobook are quite similar. We can still follow along with the printed text, should we wish to do so, or we can close our eyes and enjoy the story as a skilled narrator reads it. As we enter a tale woven by a storyteller, or “read with our ears,” we are centered on story.

Developing strong listening skills is critical; 85% of learning is done through listening, and 45% of an individual’s average day is spent listening ( Hoskisson & Tompkins, 1991 ). Audiobooks have proven to be a valuable tool for improving student learning, and they benefit the literary and listening skills of students. In this article, we offer an inside look into how audio books are created, how they offer key benefits, and how they might be used effectively.

Both of us, Jodie and Teri, have background experiences in the creation and implementation of audiobooks. Jodie is a senior marketing manager at Listening Library and has been working in the audiobook industry for more than seven years. She has witnessed every step in the process of creating an audiobook, from helping read manuscript submissions to at­tending recording sessions. Teri is a professor in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University where she teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She served on the American Library Association’s inaugural Odyssey Award Committee for Excellence in Audiobook Production and chaired the committee in 2013. She has also written about audiobooks and reviewed audio for VOYA.

An Inside Look at Audiobook Creation

by Jodie Cohen
Choosing the Best Titles

Listening Library casts a wide net to create a broad and diverse list of available titles. Many titles are taken from in-house imprints at Penguin Random House, while others are acquired from outside publishers. Each season, the Editorial and Marketing teams attend the in-house launch, where editors describe the coming year’s titles. At this stage of the process, we consider which titles will have strong potential to become great audiobooks. Often, when an editor is excited about a newly discovered author or a text with an engaging backstory, this information helps us consider unique elements we might incorporate into the audiobook. For example, when Phoebe Yeh, Vice President and Publisher of Crown, presented Breakout (2015) by Kevin Emerson, she mentioned that he was a musician. When we created this particular audio book, we asked Kevin to record some original songs; he agreed, and we included them on the recording. In another example, we learned that author Lance Rubin is also an actor and sketch comedy writer. Lance’s humorous YA novel is written in a witty first-person voice, and because of his training as a comedic actor, we asked him to narrate his text. He brought the right balance of humor, energy, and emotion to Denton Little’s Deathdate (2015) , which received an audio starred review from School Library Journal .

For out-of-house acquisitions, outside agents and publishers send Listening Library submissions from their lists, often a year in advance of publication. Their pitch provides background about the author and the manuscript. Editorial Director Rebecca Waugh says that one of her favorite part of the job is getting an early look at new books, even before reviewers. She says, “It’s fun to spread the news about a great, new discovery” (personal communication, August 14, 2015).

When a title has strong commercial potential or is published by a well-established author, Listening Library may participate in an auction for audio rights. This past year, for instance, we learned that Disney was going to publish a series of middle grade novels retelling the Star Wars saga. Rebecca Waugh recognized that because the new Star Wars movie ( Abrams, Burk, & Kennedy, 2015 ) would be released in December, this would be a popular subject. She also knew that three bestselling authors, Alexandra Bracken, Adam Gidwitz, and Tom Angleberger, had the talent and experience to write great books. Since our adult audio imprint, Penguin Random House Audio, is the longtime publisher of the Star Wars franchise, our team was already very familiar with the Star Wars mythology. Because of this, we participated in a heated bidding war and won the audio rights for the series ( Angleberger, 2015; Bracken, 2015, Gidwitz, 2015 ).

Movie tie-ins provide an effective way to draw students’ attention to fiction, particularly for reluctant readers, but we also value literary gems. Our philosophy is to publish great titles for all children, and our Marketing team plays an integral part in that process. Last year, we acquired two notable titles, When I Was the Greatest (2014) by Jason Reynolds and Gabi, A Girl in Pieces (2014) by Isabel Quintero. Both caught our attention through rave reviews, and after reading the texts, we felt each had a wonderful voice and narrative quality that would work particularly well as an audio recording.

We often develop relationships with authors that continue long after the audiobooks are published. For example, Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award Winner Jason Reynolds is very involved in the We Need Diverse Books movement, and he partnered with us on our companion campaign, Hear Diversity. We encourage you to visit for powerful videos and interviews about the critical role audiobooks play in our shared commitment to diverse literature.

We also look for titles that will appeal to younger listeners and help support the development of their listening and language skills. We are the longtime publisher of series that have strong educator support, such as The Magic Tree House® (2001–2015) by Mary Pope Osborne, Junie B. Jones (2003–2007) by Barbara Park, and more recently, the Three-Ring Rascals (2015) by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise. The latter’s illustrated-chapter-book format presented a challenge in its adaptation to the audio form, but we felt that the core story was so engaging and funny that it would resonate with kids—and their parents or guardians. This is a perfect example of a collaborative acquisition; we discussed the challenges with the producer and the authors and decided to implement a full-cast production with light sound effects. You can learn more about this audio on our website, which includes interviews with the producer and authors, at:

Divvying Up the List

After our Editorial Team has acquired titles, we have our own launch meeting; this gives the producers and marketing and sales teams an opportunity to become familiar with the texts. The producers then meet and divide up the list based on two main criteria: a strong connection to a particular title and/or a legacy with an author they have previous experience with. Building longstanding relationships with authors is part of our core philosophy. Our staff of ten producers has a combined 125 years of experience producing and directing audio productions, and some producers have worked with the same authors for over 15 years.

Once the list is divided among the team members, the producers read their assigned manuscripts and collaborate with the authors on casting. As stated previously, some titles present special format challenges when it comes to creating an audiobook. In order to ensure that the listener does not miss out on any part of the experience, the producers work closely with the authors to translate elements, such as the drawings in The Book Thief (2013) by Markus Zusak or the puzzles in Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (2013)