As audiobook market grows, narrators of color find their voice
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As audiobook market grows, narrators of color find their voice
January LaVoy, who has voiced works by best-selling authors like James Patterson, John Grisham and Harlan Coben, at her home in Atlanta on April 30, 2020. LaVoy says that publishers are now working hard to find audiobook narrators whose lives and cultural experiences more closely match the characters in their books. Audra Melton/The New York Times.

by Fabrice Robinet

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When actor and audiobook narrator Cary Hite learned he had been cast to read a novella for a sci-fi anthology, he was ecstatic — and not just because he loved the genre.

Until that point, Hite, who is African American, was mainly hired to narrate urban lit, from classics like Iceberg Slim’s “Pimp” to Wahida Clark’s best-selling “Honor Thy Thug.”

“I was being pigeonholed,” the New York native said. He remembered wondering, “Will I ever get a shot to read something like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?”

The sci-fi project, which he landed in 2017, helped him break out. His resounding voice has since chronicled a wider range of stories, including “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a children’s audiobook based on the animated film.

And it’s not just him. Audiobook publishers are increasingly offering opportunities to narrators of color, said Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, a response to a broader range of stories and desire for the voice talent to reflect that diversity. Colorblind casting has been on the rise, too.

“Ultimately, the color of the person behind the microphone doesn’t matter if it’s not the key point of the story,” she said. “It’s just about telling that story well.”

Spurred by the advent of smartphones and digital downloads, audiobooks have been booming for years. According to the audio association, American publishers generated $940 million in audiobook sales and produced more than 44,000 titles in 2018, the most recent year for which the trade group had complete data.

Before 2010, only about 100 to 200 people made a living from narrating audiobooks, Cobb said. “The books were less diverse, and the call for narrators was a bit less diverse as well.”

As the market has grown, so have opportunities for actors who, like Hite, are passionate about books and have the stamina to enact them. Now the need to make the field more diverse for narrators of color has become a central issue for publishers.

But the particular demands of the job, compared with film and stage acting, make this tricky. What does representation mean when actors can only be heard and not seen? What constitutes a black, Latino or Asian voice? And to complicate matters, in most audiobooks a single narrator voices multiple characters, who may have a variety of ethnicities and accents.

“It’s our job as producers to be respectful and sensitive to those voices and characters,” said Dan Zitt, senior vice president of content production at Penguin Random House Audio. His team of 15 producers is on track to release more than 1,700 audiobooks this year.

But finding the right voice talent isn’t always easy. To cast the two lead narrators of “When Stars Are Scattered,” a graphic memoir about Somali boys growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, Zitt’s team members looked beyond Los Angeles and New York, where their recording studios are. They found Somali actors in Minnesota, who recorded there while being directed remotely via Skype.

Zitt also said he’s been challenging the way casting decisions are being made. That includes promoting colorblind casting, especially when a story doesn’t specify the main character’s race. “It’s not just: ‘An older white man wrote this book; an older white man has to read it,’” he said.

Take “The Last Human,” for instance, a space opera published in March about the galactic journey of an orphaned girl, described only as a human living among aliens. To narrate this debut novel by Zack Jordan, who is white, Zitt enlisted actor and award-winning narrator Bahni Turpin, who is black.

“It’s really important to take a step back and say: ‘I just want a great storyteller,’” Zitt said.

January LaVoy, who has voiced works by best-selling authors like James Patterson, John Grisham and Harlan Coben, said publishers are working hard to find narrators whose lives and cultural experiences more closely match the characters in their books.

Her own career has benefited from the increase in stories featuring interracial families and diverse characters, said LaVoy, 44, whose mother is white and biological father is black. In March, “The Ten Thousand Doors of January,” a fantasy novel she narrated about a mixed-race girl who, to LaVoy’s delight, is also named January, won an Audie Award — the Oscars of audiobooks.

But her acting range — she has a knack for children’s voices and recently narrated the part of the barn spider in an audio production of “Charlotte’s Web” — has also landed her books with no characters of color.

“I sound like someone’s stereotypical idea of an educated, upper-middle-class, white woman from Connecticut because that’s what I grew up around,” LaVoy said. “There’s no such thing as what a white woman from Connecticut sounds like — that’s not a thing. There’s no such thing. But in people’s minds, there are categories.”

Janina Edwards, an African American narrator based in Atlanta who recorded her first audiobooks in the late 1980s for the American Foundation for the Blind, said that actors with cultural ties to a book improve the listeners’ experience. “If you didn’t know anything about black or Southern culture, you’d probably read ‘chitterlings,’” she said of the soul-food dish. “It’s pronounced ‘chitlins.’”

A Chicago native who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Edwards said she loves narrating African American women’s voices. Her resume includes titles like Jasmine Guillory’s romance “The Wedding Date.”

But even though her accent would be hard to place — “Most people don’t know where I’m from or that I’m black when I pick up the phone” — she has mainly been hired to narrate “quote-unquote black books,” she said.

In Edwards’ experience, traditional publishers are still very much stuck on traditional casting. And while she appreciates all the work she’s received, this has also cut her off from other opportunities. “It’s not even a glass ceiling; it’s like a glass box that can develop around you,” she said.

While mainstream film and television actors often train with voice coaches to master specific accents or speech patterns, that isn’t the norm for audiobook narrators. And any given book may require them to read in multiple dialects.

According to Neil Hellegers, a narrator who lives in Brooklyn, New York, accents can be essential for listeners to differentiate the characters during dialogue.

Hellegers, who is white, once narrated a scene involving Cuban American, Nigerian and Haitian characters for the first installment of the urban fantasy series “Black Magic Outlaw,” which came out as an audiobook in 2016. Because it was an independent production, coming up with plausible, technically sound accents was mostly up to him.

“I decided that the Nigerian had learned British English, which made it more distinct from the French-inflected Haitian dialect, who would more likely be speaking American English,” he said.

Hellegers tries to approach each role with respect by doing research, discussing with the writer and sharpening his voice skills, he said. “It’s often bad technique that leads to cultural and racial stereotypes.” The field has become increasingly mindful of how narration choices can come across, he said.

On professional Facebook groups, for example, narrators are often seeking advice on whether they should accept books whose main characters are from a different ethnicity than theirs, Hellegers said. “There absolutely needs to be appropriate casting for minority representation.”

Jayme Mattler, the director-producer who cast Hite on the sci-fi anthology, first met him at a recording studio in Queens, but she already knew of him because of his good reputation.

“The thing about audiobooks is that it’s a pretty small community,” she said.

Mattler then checked out some of Hite’s samples. The fact that he had done urban fiction did not lead her to think he could do only that. She simply liked his work.

“I didn’t cast him in stories of black characters in sci-fi,” Mattler said. “I just cast him in a sci-fi book.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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