The audiobook world is getting bigger and more amazing. I think people who haven’t given it a shot should do so. —Kirby Heyborne

To be on his game as a renowned columnist and Fox News contributor, George Will has to know his stuff. In a recent question-and-answer session with students at Brigham Young University, the journalist and author offered an insightful tip.

“I read all the time. It’s all I do. I have on my smartphone, 34, at the moment, 34 recorded books. I got up today and it was pitch-dark in downtown Provo and I went for my morning walk listening to a book. And I’ll drive back to Salt Lake City Airport listening to a book. I shaved this morning listening to a book. I go through three hours of listening to books a day. I go through 70 books a year. Over a decade, that’s 700 books — adds up — and a little bit of it sticks,” the Pulitzer Prize-winner said. “So read. Read, read, read more.”

As illustrated by Will’s comment, audiobooks are a multitasker’s dream. With more people carrying smartphones and digital devices, audiobooks are becoming more affordable, more accessible and more popular. An audiobook’s success also depends largely on the voice talents and skill of the narrator and the quality of the finished product.

“The audiobook world is getting bigger and more amazing,” said Kirby Heyborne, an up-and-coming narrator who has received several awards for his work.

“I think people who haven’t given it a shot should do so.”

Interesting facts

The first form of the audiobook was born in the 1930s when the Library of Congress created a “talking books” program for the blind.

About 50 years later, audiobooks gained popularity through cassette tapes and later CDs, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Now in digital form, audiobook sales have increased by double figures in recent years, according to the same Wall Street Journal article.

Retail sales have jumped from $480 million in 1997 to become a $1.2 billion industry today.

An average downloadable audio-book costs about $20. Because of smartphones, more are downloading books and fewer are buying CDs. The unit sales of downloadable audiobooks climbed nearly 30 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Audio Publishers Association.

Depending on the size of the book, advances in digital technology have lowered the cost of audiobook production while the demand has risen, said Kenny Hodges, who independently produces audiobooks for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain Publishing. Just two years ago, Hodges said 90 percent of the audiobooks were produced in his home studio using local narrators and authors, he said.

“But we’ve found that it was actually less expensive to hire national narrator talent from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco … get them the manuscript and details … and have them send in the recording files and have me put together the final form,” Hodges said. “We have literally saved thousands of dollars that way and we’re getting a better product.”

How is this media consumed? According to a Bowker market research study cited by the New York Times, 47 percent of people who buy audiobooks listen while commuting in a car. About 25 percent listen while working around the house and 23 percent while exercising, the Bowker study said.

Audiobooks are a popular item at community libraries. While learning to read, children can follow along in the book. It’s convenient to check out a book online and download it to a mobile device. They can’t be lost or damaged, and they don’t have to be returned because they automatically deactivate. The only downside is they can be expensive, said Jerry Meyer, assistant director of the Davis County Library.

“It’s become a big thing,” Meyer said. “It encourages people to experience books they probably wouldn’t try otherwise.”

A multitasker’s dream

Lee Warnick can relate to Will.

The BYU-Idaho professor of communication, including digital, career and mass media, is frequently popping in his earphones to listen to a book, podcast or article. It started about 10 years ago when he became bored with music and needed something to listen to while he worked in his garden. He bought an iPod and found Audible.com.

“I quickly became hooked. Every audiobook and podcast is a new, unique production, something new,” said Warnick, who listens to a dozen podcasts a week. “It’s not ‘Tiny Dancer’ for the hundredth time, it’s what happened yesterday with Apple, or it’s John Grisham’s new book, or whatever it happens to be. … I’m always on the lookout for anything that can help me stay sharp in my field.”

Audiobooks allow people to stimulate their minds while driving, exercising, cleaning or a multitude of other tasks.

When he lived in Nevada and commuted from Elko to Carson City, Ross Hunsaker listened to the unabridged version of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” 63 hours long, over a few months. He has since listened to “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” John C. Maxwell’s “Becoming a Person of Influence,” Thomas J. Stanley’s “The Millionaire Next Door” and several other titles.

“I doubt I would have been so dedicated if I was to read the book,” said Hunsaker, who works in the mining industry and now lives in the Dominican Republic. “The cost (of audiobooks) can be somewhat prohibitive, but it is worth it to me.”

Audible.com is one of the biggest providers of spoken books. Warnick recently toured Audible’s headquarters in Newark, N.J., and came away impressed.

“Audible.com is a company that really is at the intersection of the literary and technological tradition. They are quite honestly helping to prolong the literary tradition,” Warnick said. “It’s a viable and compelling new way to get these great ideas out to the public. The book industry by itself, I think, would be in serious decline if not for some of these new forms.”

While Warnick values the increased access to information, he believes young people still need to learn how to read a book they hold in their hands.

“There is no substitution for that,” Warnick said. “There is always going to be a place for print media. Parents should still teach them to read and appreciate print books.”

At the same time, he challenges his college students to consume more news and information instead of entertainment.

“At this stage in their careers, audiobooks are a real good way for a young person to bone up quickly on their field,” he said. “I love audiobooks, not just for what they’ve done for me, but the whole idea of this new media form that represents an overall melding of our mass media today. You are able to get a lot of information into your life that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to because of lack of time.”

The art of narration

Simon Vance is a recognized name in the world of audiobook narrators. He has won numerous Audie and Earphone awards while putting his voice to many best-selling books. He started out as a BBC radio voice in the 1980s before getting into acting and audiobook narration. He’s been called the “Anthony Hopkins” and “George Clooney” of audiobooks.

“I’m working my way through the canon of extraordinary actors,” he said in an email.

Nonfiction books are generally easier to research and produce, while fiction requires plenty of reading ahead of time to gain a feel for the genre/style, the pace of the story, the characters and potential accents.

“Of course, if the author has made up a lot of names and words, or invented a language, there are going to be a lot of long phone calls in the preparation phase,” Vance said. “After this has happened my ‘actory’ instincts take over and I just jump in and see what comes to me as I read. I’ve been doing this for 30-plus years and I think my instincts are good.”

Vance preserves his voice by never shouting. He doesn’t smoke and he tries to stay in good physical shape. He takes the common cold very seriously.

“If I sense a cold coming on I don’t push it. I stop work and immediately start treatment,” he said. “Hot lemon, ginger and honey with a touch of cayenne pepper is amazing.”

Vance used to be booked recording books three months in advance, but a spike in the number of narrators has thinned out his work load. When he does get a gig, the publisher wants the book “yesterday.”

It doesn’t help that audiobook companies are paying celebrity actors like Colin Firth and Kate Winslet many thousands for their voices. Vance has also noticed that midrange TV and film actors are moving into audiobooks to supplement their income.

“So I decided to move to Los Angeles and get my own back by looking for film and TV work,” Vance said. “I’ve only been here a few weeks and I landed a part in the CBS show ’Criminal Minds.’ Take that, TV actors!”

Kirby Heyborne is another narrator who is gaining a national reputation. The Utah native has given his voice to about 300 books, including best-selling titles by Orson Scott Card, Richard Paul Evans and Dean Hughes.

“Kirby is an amazing talent,” Hodges said.

Heyborne got his start as narrator a decade ago when he read Clay Aiken’s book, “Learning to Sing.” He spends an estimated 6-10 hours a day preparing or recording books in his home.

“I don’t read for pleasure any more because I have to read for work,” Heyborne said.

The actor/narrator recently finished the authorized biography of Jim Henson. One of his goals when reading is not to get in the way of the story. One trick he has learned is to slow down when speaking so the listener can hear the material and process it.

“A voice can make or break a book,” Heyborne said. “If a narrator gets in the way of the content, it’s going to be horrible. A good narrator gets out of the way and lets the author tell the story.”

Amid his hours of listening, Warnick has noticed that more and more authors are reading their own work. If the author is capable of doing his or her own voice work, that’s what he prefers.

“When you have someone who can read it well, it really comes alive,” Warnick said. “There is nothing like hearing the voice of the author themselves.”

Production notes

Kenny Hodges starting recording and producing audiobooks for Deseret Book in the mid-1990s. He is also a musician, having played for 37 years as an extra player with the Utah Symphony and a timpanist for Ballet West. His musical experience has helped him to produce quality audiobooks.

Comment on this story

“When I do audiobook production, it’s like playing a piece of music and finding a narrator who has that concept. The silence is as important as the words. The way the words are said are like the dynamics of music — you can say them loud or soft,” Hodges said. “So for me, it’s like creating a piece of verbal music performance, you might say. I try to make sure the flow of it doesn’t feel like a jagged, interrupted musical moment. It’s a flow you are picturing it in your head.”

Completing a project brings Hodges a lot of enjoyment.

“My reward is knowing I’ve tried to give the author the correct voice, the correct performance, like if you are playing a symphony,” he said. “I want the performance of that author’s words to mean something to the listener and be satisfying to the author, because in all cases, you hope you are making them happy as well as the audience.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone