Whispering in my ear again

In a previous letter, I wrote a bit about audio drama and how podcasting is changing the way fiction reaches our ears. That piece focused on the BBC and the independent team behind the brilliant sitcom Wooden Overcoats, and I didn’t really have space to look at any of the other platforms that are producing audio fiction these days.

To correct that, this week I’m going to focus on Audible, an Amazon subsidiary primarily known for producing and distributing digital audiobooks. In the last couple of years, the company has also started investing in original podcast content for their subscribers, with Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect perhaps the best-known show to date to come from their line-up.

The line between audiobook and podcast is blurred these days, when you no longer have to load up a cassette or CD in order to hear a book but can rather just click ‘download’ in an app. (I’ve explored this in more detail in the past with reference to podcast length.)

With this in mind, Audible has just launched three new fiction podcasts: Bard, Jali and Skald, which each comprise readings of newly-commissioned short stories from authors including Sophie Hannah, Ben Okri, Joanne Harris and Nikesh Shukla. The latter, best known as a novelist and as the editor of the groundbreaking anthology The Good Immigrant, has contributed a story titled Anuj about a law student who begins to realise that he might be a superhero.

When I spoke to Shukla over the phone, he told me that listening to books had long been a big part of his life. “I grew up listening to lots and lots of audiobooks because you could get audiobooks from the library,” he said. “There would be books that I would read and then audiobooks that I would tear through. I used to listen to a lot of crime.”

With this project, where he was writing fiction for audio rather than for the printed page or screen, his way of writing had to change, he explained. “The mechanics of writing become a bit different because you’re having this intimate space with your listener,” he said. “You’re telling them the story almost like whispering in their ear. And so it becomes this really interesting interaction between you and the listener.”

The process involved a lot of reading his drafts aloud, Shukla said — something he does anyway, as “it’s a good way of rooting out extra words”. He likens the shift in technique to the way that authors alter their published work when they read it aloud for an audience. “Authors tend to have the same copy of their book that they do readings from, because we’ve worked out what words are extra, and we’re constantly editing.”

Anuj is a thrilling story, full of narrative drive, which is something else that Shukla had to consider when constructing it. “I had to write something that was constantly driving forward, never stopping to ponder,” he said. “The thing I ended up finding quite difficult is how to maintain nuance of character and the mechanics of a short story while also writing something that’s going to be really exciting to listen to.”

Shukla says he stopped listening to audiobooks as he grew up, and so getting into podcasts marked a welcome return to spoken word audio when he got his first iPod in the mid 2000s. “I could have people whispering in my ear again and there was something really comforting about that,” he said. “I probably listen to podcasts as much as to music these days.”

The growth of audio fiction offers authors a bigger canvas to work on. “I think it expands the scope of what I can do as a writer in an interesting way,” Shukla said. A printed novel need no longer stand alone — it can be part of expanding universe made up of creations in different media.

He cites the example of Jon McGregor’s award-winning Reservoir 13, which has been followed by the companion BBC radio series The Reservoir Tapes, set in the same place but following different stories and characters, and first released as audio and then subsequently as a book. Shukla hopes to be able to do something similar with the character of Anuj that he has created for this Audible series. “This is the origin story I’ve always wanted to write,” he said.

Audible’s Bard, Jali and Skald podcasts include new and exclusive short stories written by multi-award winning authors and Sunday Times best-sellers. Listen now at audible.co.uk/podcasts

The podcast recommend

Davo writes:

ABCDevo is four fans discussing the songs of one of my favourite bands in alphabetical order. They find unique interpretations, talk about themes, origins, instrumentation, lyrics, and find songs that are comparable. It’s full of cultural flotsam, historical nuggets, interesting ideas, and good humour.”

Do you have a podcast you’ve been listening to that you’re burning to recommend to someone? Tell me about it! I’ve set up an easy submission form here where you can do that. With your permission, I’ll include the best recommendations in a future edition of the newsletter.

The podcast links

  1. Save a Podcast for Washing DishesLifehacker

  2. The Best Podcasts of 2018 So FarCosmopolitan

  3. 5 Aussie-Made Podcasts You Need To Know AboutJunkee

  4. Finding a Happy Medium in Podcast MonetizationBello Collective

  5. Why Isn’t Anyone Marketing Podcasts Correctly?Discover Pods

That’s everything for today. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget that you can subscribe to get two extra emails about podcasting from me every week: I do commentary on industry news on Thursdays, and playlists of great shows to listen to on Sundays.

Coming up this week — my thoughts on the ‘where to host your podcast’ minefield and a playlist of my favourite Australian shows.