These readers are all ears

Anyone with two hours and a tall glass of water can read aloud Molly's soliloquy, the unpunctuated, 24,000-word passage that concludes James Joyce's "Ulysses."

But few storytellers can really light it up, says Nicholas Soames, founder and managing director of NAXOS Audiobooks in Surrey, England. Mr. Soames chose Marcella Riordan, a stage actress who also knows her way around a microphone, to read as Molly Bloom in his company's audio version of the book.

"Marcella is also an extraordinarily understanding Joycean," says Soames, whose mastery of casting made his audiobook one of three finalists for Audiobook of the Year at the "Audies," the industry's Oscar equivalent. This year's awards will be announced Friday in New York. [Editor's note: The original version included the wrong date for the announcement.]

The other finalists for the prize, which also takes into account production, packaging, and sales: Bill Clinton's "My Life," read by the former president, and actor Tim Curry's rendition of Lemony Snicket's novel "A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning." (www.audiopub.org)

Other awards cover 31 categories.

Besides applauding the best pairings of voice and written word, the Audies celebrate the rapid rise of audiobooks both as a dramatic art form and a means of delivering volumes of written content - whether lightweight, how-to books or literary masterpieces - to a society that likes to read but often can't sit still.

Audiobooks represented an $800 million business in 2003, according to Mary Beth Roche, president of the Audio Publishers Association, which stages the awards. Those sales - primarily tapes and CDs sold in stores and via online retailers such as Amazon.com - have since grown at about 14 percent a year.

The big driver: audio downloads. Credit the proliferation of portable devices - iPods, Palm PDAs, pocket PCs, and, increasingly, "smart phones" - with digital-audio capability.

"It has gone really fast," says Don Katz, president of Audible.com, the largest provider of downloadable recorded-voice audio. "Just a few years ago we were under $1 million" in revenue, he says. Last year the firm took in $34 million, adds David Joseph, a spokesman. It could take in $65 million this year. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the company name.]

While Audible also packages newspaper content and its own audiofiles - its staff recorded and released "The 9/11 Commission Report," for example (an Audie nominee for achievement in production) - the firm attributes most of its success to its distribution of thousands of audiobooks by major publishers.

They're coming fast in every format, not just digital MP3s. "Not too many years ago what you would find would be abridgments of bestsellers in a bookstore, and a limited selection," says Robin Whitten, who founded AudioFile magazine in 1992 to review audiobooks. "Six months later you would find the unabridged version in a library. Now, anything making the bestseller list will probably have audio versions [simultaneously], abridged and unabridged."

It was only about 20 years ago that many publishers launched full audiobook divisions, says Ms. Roche.

Today, audiobooks are central to the marketing of hardcovers, she says. "You can play a clip [on the radio] to promote an author's appearance at Borders."

That's assuming the author has read his own work. Publishers often wrestle over whose voice to use. "Sometimes it's obvious," says Roche. "No one but Frank McCourt could read 'Angela's Ashes.' It's such a personal story. Or Bill Clinton. Who else do you want to hear telling that story?"

"Our first request for all of our nonfiction is that the author record," says Ana Maria Allessi, publisher of Harper Audio. "And in cases where the author can't, we try to find a 'generic' voice."

Fiction allows for more creativity. It can also add complexity.

"We struggled with [Tom Wolfe's] 'I Am Charlotte Simmons,' " says Roche, also the publisher of Audio Renaissance. "While the main character is a young woman, there were many men in the book, and they all come together toward the end. Ultimately we went with a man [Dylan Baker] we thought would do a good job with the woman's voice but also convey the variety of male characters." The book has been nominated for an Audie for solo narration (male).

Seeking out a star can create valuable buzz. Ms. Allessi's division hired Tim Curry for the Lemony Snicket, and the team was rewarded with a finalist's berth. Simon & Schuster recently hired Sean Penn to read Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Vol. 1," the actor's first audiobook.

Sometimes, Ms. Allessi notes, it comes down to which actors are available - coming to New York for a stage performance, for example, and willing to polish their vocal chops on a reading, or work for a day without makeup and memorization.

"If they have any inclination, they don't hold you over a barrel," says Allessi. "You offer them a modest amount of money, and if they want to do it, they'll inform their agent that they are to accept the offer."

But celebrities can be hit or miss. "They often find out that it's quite a bit harder than they thought," says Ms. Whitten, who notes that some of the best work is done by audiobook specialists largely unknown to the public.

Unknown or renowned, the best readers yield to the writer's work, experts say.

"Readers will actually go back to hear again a great reader really convey the art of the storyteller," says Soames. "The actors, in this case, are not the stars. And that's what it's about."

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