Here's What Being An Audiobook Producer Is Really Like, From Someone Who Has It As Her Job

by Kerri Jarema
Denni Van Huis/Stocksy

It's no secret that audiobooks have become increasingly popular in recent years — in fact, digital audiobook revenue increased by 22.7% in 2017, according to a report issued by the Audio Publishers Association. Plus, subscription services like Audible and the library app Libby have made audio reads more accessible than ever, and modern readers seem ready to embrace them. But while you've listened to Michelle Obama read her best-selling memoir, Becoming, or lost yourself in Harry Potter all over again thanks to Jim Dale (or Stephen Fry) have you found yourself wondering what exactly goes into adapting those physical books into an audio format? It turns out that there are tons of talented audiobook producers behind-the-scenes, developing all of the books that get you through your long commutes and marathon apartment cleaning sessions — including Penguin Random House Audio's Sarah Jaffe.

"When people find out you work in book publishing, usually they immediately assume you spend the whole day reading. In my case, that’s actually more or less true," Jaffe tells Bustle. "I produce about 100 audiobooks each year, and I have to make sure each one is cast with the right voice so there’s a ton of reading and note-taking required."

Jaffe produced the audiobooks for Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang and three of the five National Book Award finalists for fiction in 2018: Florida by Lauren Groff, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, which won the award. In other words, Jaffe knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a memorable audiobook. And for her, it all starts with casting.

Sarah Jaffe, photo courtesy of Doug Dubois

"The narrator is what makes or breaks an audiobook, so finding the person who can heighten the language while letting the writer’s work shine is key," Jaffe says. "Is the book in first person, or third? Are there multiple points of view? Are there any accents required? What’s the tone like? Would this character have some grit to her voice, or does he need to be polished and smooth? Is there a voice that comes to mind immediately or do I need to ask actors to audition to find the voice I hear in my head?"

But there's so much more to audiobook production than the crucial task of picking the perfect reader. Below, Jaffe shares more about the day-to-day responsibilities of creating a truly captivating audiobook, and offers advice on how you can break into the up-and-coming world of audio publishing.

The Path To Becoming An Audiobook Producer Is Not Necessarily A Straight Line

"I ended up graduating with what my university calls a Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration, in what 21-year-old Sarah dubbed 'Multimedia Storytelling.' Essentially it’s a glorified English degree, with some comparative literature, film, creative writing, visual art, education, and foreign language/linguistics thrown in," Jaffe says. "I was spectacularly lucky to find a relevant career that hit the same sweet spots. Every producer I know comes from a totally different background, though: some have experience as radio producers or actors or theater directors, some came in through various doors in the greater book world… it varies a lot, so there’s not any one particular track I think you need to follow."

There Are No Necessary Prerequisites Beyond A Love Of Reading & Storytelling

"I think the only thing that’s non-negotiable is a love of reading. Living in New York is pretty important, since it’s sort of the center of the publishing world, but I do know of a few audiobook production companies based in Oregon or New Jersey or elsewhere," Jaffe says. "You should also be a creative thinker, quick problem solver, clear and diplomatic communicator, and the kind of person who can look at a mess of moving parts and know how to organize it. Empathy doesn’t hurt either — the same empathy that all good readers build, and that all good readers need, is the same empathy that helps you imagine a character’s internal life and from there, do some really good casting based on who can inhabit that life and tell that story."

Casting, Booking And Even Directing... It's All A Part Of The Gig

"Once I read each book and get a sense of who and what it needs, I consult with the author on casting, book the talent, and hire a director. I also oversee any adaptations or creative additions to make sure the text works on audio. Plus I’m responsible for approving artwork and quality control notes and, of course, making sure we hit our deadlines," Jaffe says. "I also direct a handful of my productions myself each year, [which] means spending a few days in the studio with an author or actor, helping them shape their performance and keeping an ear out for accuracy and consistency. Directing is one of my favorite parts of my job... besides the whole getting-paid-to-read-a-hundred-really-good-books thing."

Audiobooks Are Still A Relatively New Field So There Is Room For Growth

"Honestly, nine years ago when I was starting out, I’m not even 100% sure I knew there was any such career as audiobook producer. We hadn’t yet hit the audiobook boom we’re in now, so audio kind of felt like this strange appendage to the book industry that nobody knew what to do with," Jaffe says. "I had some experience as an audiobook narrator, though, with a small company in my hometown called Full Cast Audio, and I’d had a college radio show. So when I saw an opening for a new assistant to Penguin Audio’s then-publisher, I thought, 'Huh, I bet I could do that.' I thought it was just a foot in the door, and had no idea it would become the full, thriving, super-fun career that it has."

Traditional Fiction Adaptations Are Just One Aspect Of Audiobook Production

"I love the puzzle of producing audio editions of books that don’t naturally lend themselves to the audio format: Nick Offerman’s woodworking book Good Clean Fun, for example, or the Queer Eye coffee table book. I usually like to echo the missing visual element with a comparably textured audio-specific element, so Good Clean Fun got some original songs and Queer Eye got some ad-libs from the Fab Five," Jaffe says. "In a similar vein, I love complicated narratives with multiple POVs, and figuring out how to stay true to the texture of the spectrum of voices in the print book while translating it to audio, like with Tommy Orange’s There There."

The Time Is Now For Diversity Of Every Kind, In Every Aspect Of Publishing

Blessedly, publishing is a very female-dominated industry, so this is one realm in which I’ve never felt that my life is made more difficult by virtue of my gender. I think any struggles to be taken seriously (or to take myself seriously) as a woman in my field have much more to do with the way women and girls are socialized to think of ourselves than they do the particulars of my field," Jaffe says. "One thing I will say to anyone who looks at publishing and says, 'I wish I could do that, but that’s not for me or people who look like me or come from my world,' is that it is for you, and you should do it. Right now is a really exciting time to be working in publishing and amplifying voices that may not have been heard loudly enough before, and the industry needs to reflect that diversity, not just in the books we publish but in who is publishing them. Get in here! We are waiting for you and there is space for you!"