June 5, 2020

Will audiobooks lead the charge of diversity in publishing?


Publishing has a diversity problem, this we know. From the products, to the chain stores, to the awards apparatus.

But many in the industry have seen the Coronavirus shutdown as a chance to right the ship. After all, working from home (and by extension not necessarily in New York City) could have the effect of making many more people eligible for a spot on the roster, not just those funneled in from the east coast liberal arts to unpaid internship pipeline. As a correlative to that, those clinging to the old publishing models might quickly become out of touch.

The massive protests in remembrance of George Floyd, in support of Black Lives, and in defiance of racist police violence carry the momentum to make that dream of structural overhaul a reality.

A key place to establish a new normal will be in the world of audiobooks, the rise of which has been something close to the publishing success story of the last couple of years. There, the call for diverse voices becomes literal.

As Fabrice Robinet writes in a piece about audiobook narraters for the New York Times,

Audiobook publishers are increasingly offering opportunities to narrators of color, said Michele Cobb, the 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.”

Diversity in audio publishing means two things. First, it means publishing diverse content and paying a diverse set of voice actors to bring that material to life.

Second, it means not limiting those actors to roles as narrow as their own identity, or what one narrator in Robinet’s piece calls the “glass box,” an even more stifling limitation than the  “glass ceiling.” These are, after all, actors, and books usually call for multiple dialects. That’s a difficult task unique to this job, one that needn’t be dominated by white people.

At the moment, the audiobook boom hasn’t ushered in the big big money to bring it to the Hollywood level of voice coaches and script consultants, so the delivery of each line is largely the narrator’s choice after consultation with the text and its author. This flexibility–combined with the relative newness, ongoing experimentation, and skyrocketing popularity of the form–is another reason audiobooks might be the branch of publishing that most quickly proves its commitment to a more interesting future for publishing.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.