Friday, 10 September 2010

Abridge too far....

Continuing our series of interviews with people working in the audiobook business, today we talk to award-winning abridger Kati Nicholl.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do.

Born in Glasgow, I went to train as a journalist at DC Thomson’s in Dundee at the bright and shiny age of 18, hoping to become a crime reporter, but was told it “wasn’t a job for a lassie,” so went into the fiction department- where, on my very first day, I was handed a book and told to cut it into 13 equal parts for the evening newspaper. Nothing like getting thrown in at the deep end! Oh, and I was also given an enormous pile of books on astrology and told I needed to write 3 weeks of daily horoscopes by the following Friday...
Went from there to the People's Friend, a very cosy Scottish magazine which had been going strong for a hundred years - and still is!

Married, moved to London and IPC Magazines, and became Fiction Editor of Woman’s Own – where, contrary to popular belief, we ran far more crime than romance as serials (that desire to be a crime reporter was still there!).

How did you start in the audio industry?

I went freelance a year after I had my first child, abridging for magazines and newspapers, editing for major publishers, and reviewing – which was how I discovered audiobooks. Rosalie George at HarperCollins asked me to abridge Stephen Fry’s first novel in 1991 and since then I’ve abridged authors as diverse as Margaret Thatcher, Ronnie Corbett, Dan Brown, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Marjorie Allingham, Margaret Atwood, Ruth Rendell, Jostein Gaarder, Patricia Cornwell, Beryl Bainbridge, Val MacDermid, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ian Rankin, Sebastian Faulks, Stuart MacBride, Yann Martel, Peter James, Mark Billingham, Reginald Hill and Peter Mandelson to name but a very few!

How do you go about abridging a book for audio?

I read it purely for enjoyment, to relish the author's words, and while I do so a little bell rings in my head as I come across "clangers". Which I don't make notes of at the time, because it's the feel and essence I'm after, not the particular. These days most scripts come in electronic form, so I format them as scripts, check the word count - most books these days are 120K plus - then subtract the wordage I need to get the script down to. What remains, I divide by the number of pages so that I know how many words need to go from each page, then I roughly divide the script into the 3, 4, 5 or 6 parts required - whatever I'm working on, 11,200 words is the standard number of words that will go onto an 80 minute CD, with a good margin for tolerance, depending how quickly the actor reads. Some actors read quickly - Michael Brandon, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow, Colin Buchanan - and that can mean another 2,000 words on each disc. Oh, I like that! Anyway, then I start cutting scenes that I think are totally non-essential, also characters, and sub-plots. That probably cuts about one-third of what I need to cut, and then it's down to the nitty-gritty of taking out paragraphs, sentences, and finally single words. Greatest delight is when an author says they can't see what I've removed!

What is a typical day like for you?

Usually up by 6.30 and spend an hour, maybe two, reading the newspapers online. Then breakfast, and back at my desk for 9. Write any emails I need to, to clear the decks, then I get on with the job. May have something to eat about 2, but I eat at my desk and surf the net then go straight back to work. If the abridgment isn't urgent, I'll finish work about 7-7.30. That's a typical non-urgent day - but when I have a 220,000 word book to reduce to 44,800 and 6 days to do it, as happened recently, I get up at 6, spend half an hour on the newspapers while I have breakfast, then I start abridging and I will go straight through until 3 before I have lunch at my desk and then a half hour 'power' nap. By 4 I'm back on the abridgment and will work on until 9. An hour's break for dinner and some mindless TV or a movie, an hour's sleep, and then I'll work through until about 4 in the morning. Bed for 2 hours and back to it.

What makes a good audiobook?

A good story! Which means a gripping plot, whatever the genre, well-drawn characters, clear, lyrical writing, edge-of-the-seat tension and excellent narration.

How important is the narrator?

Vital! Without a good narrator, you're dead in the water - because the first audiobook a buyer listens to will be the last it they don't warm to the narrator's voice and delivery.

What, in your view, makes a good narrator?

An actor who subsumes her or himself into the book, so that you don't listen and say "Gosh, that's so-and-so just being himself - I can't identify or connect with the characters". So intelligence is vital - and a richness or depth to the voice.

What is the production of which you are most proud?

Impossible to choose one - but memorable ones include Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, read by Lorelei King; Joseph O'Connor's Redemption Falls read by Kerry Shale; Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong read by Sam West.

And which production was the most challenging?

Again, too many to single out one - but having just 48 hours to read and abridge Richard Leakey's autobiography was definitely challenging... And discovering, just 3 days before he was due to go into studio - his recording dates couldn't be changed - that I had been given the wrong version of John Major's autobiography to abridge was a jaw dropper. But he was wonderful to work with and we made it!

What do you think the future holds for audio publishers?

I think it holds lots of good things, and not just from the entertainment angle, which I believe will always be ongoing - because the spoken word is the oldest form of storytelling there is, from the days before written language was invented, and there is something magical about listening to the perfect actor reading the perfect book - but from an educational one.

One third of the kids leaving school aged 16 haven't even got a C in English. At 11, more than 150,000 children can't read to the required standard. Children who are poor readers at 12 are not going to get satisfaction from books meant for 7 year olds – they need books that address their emotional and age-related needs so that they can engage with their peers.

Audiobooks are the perfect answer. Small children have book and CD sets to educate and entertain them, but there's nothing around like that for the 7-ups. But an audiobook, used in conjunction with an e-reader, could be the perfect answer here. I’m an abridger, so you may think I have a vested interest, but I believe the length of the audio and script is of concern and they must match exactly. A struggling reader generally has poor concentration, initially, so a six hour stretch is too much in the early stages – a three hour audio makes far more sense. The abridged scripts could be sold to schools for use in the classroom, could be downloaded from the internet along with the audio for either home or school use, and then who’s to know what you are reading, something that is often a source of embarrassment to older children and turns them further away from reading. Poor adult readers could benefit from the same approach. 150,000 non-readers a year is a heck of a potential market! And as many as 17.8 million over-18s are reported as having poor levels of literacy; if we only had a take up of 8%, the percentage of people actually aware of audio, you're looking at a million and a half possible customers...

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