Regular readers may have noticed that it has been several months since I’ve posted any book reviews. This is not because I haven’t been reading or listening. On the contrary, I listened to 23 books in the past 3 months. And I can’t talk about any of them!

I’m thrilled to be participating as an Audies judge this year. The “Oscars of audiobooks,” the Audie Awards are bestowed annually by the Audio Publishers Association for outstanding audiobooks in more than 30 categories.

 

The Numbers (this year)

  • 1200 submissions from publishers (keeping up with the explosion in audio publishing—10 years ago it was only 500 submissions)
  • 190 judges
  • 3 rounds of judging, taking 6 months to complete

The Process

The entire process is overseen by a committee headed up by Janet Benson, whose tireless dedication to the massive undertaking deserves to be commended. In Round A (newly added this year to help cope with the high number of submissions), 3-5 judges are assigned to each category and quickly listen to short snippets (10-15 minutes) of each title deciding which ones move forward. After tallying the votes, those selected get added to Round 1. At that point, a different crop of 3-5 judges per category each listen to all titles (in their entirety). My category had 23 titles in it, but the number varies greatly from 7 to 70 (or more!), depending on the category and the year. There is no maximum to the number of titles in any category. In Round 1 we’re listening to the performance overall, making notes on what works and what doesn’t. After listening to all titles, we rank the top 7. Votes are tallied and 4-6 finalists in each category are selected to move on to Round 2.

In Round 2, a different group of 3-5 judges score each title on specific elements of the title: Performance, Direction, Production, and Overall. So a title could score high on Performance but not that great on Production. Scores are tallied and the winners are announced at the posh Audies Gala in New York City at the end of May. In the rare event of a tie in either Round 1 or Round 2, judges’ comments are instrumental in breaking the tie.

Judges often work within the industry (like me) but no one who works for a publisher is permitted to be a judge. All judges are experienced audiobook listeners. As with all major awards, narrators often say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated,” but having recently completed my selections for Round 1, I have to say I think the real honor is in getting to be a judge. This was such a thrilling experience.

 

The Experience

When we first got the list of titles, I admit I was daunted by the sheer number of hours. My category added up to almost 280 hours, to be listened to over the course of 3 months. I found myself longing for the days when I had a long commute. How utterly useless my 15-minute drive seemed in the face of such numbers! I calculated how many hours I would need to get through each week (22) and started squeezing in listening wherever I could. It was hard at first, but became second-nature and just a way of life. It got to the point where the hardest part about it was that I was listening to all these great books and I couldn’t talk about any of them! Judges are asked not to share any details about their listening, not even the category they’re assigned to, so I’d be getting really excited about this book or that one, and then I’d go to work—where my job is to talk about books and get people excited about books—and I’d have to not talk about books.

I intentionally did not look at title descriptions, publishers, or narrator names while I was listening, wanting to remain as impartial as possible. I knew that one of the hardest challenges to impartiality is judging the performance, regardless of whether the story is interesting or the writing is good, but what I was delighted to discover was that sometimes the performance was precisely what made the experience enjoyable. Maybe I wasn’t interested in the plot or the writing wasn’t what I would have liked, but the narrator was able to pull me into it and make me want to hear more, and that, I think, is just about the best thing a narrator can do.

I felt myself getting more comfortable with the process as I worked my way through the list. With 23 titles to listen to, it’s critical to keep notes so you can keep track of everything and know how you want to rank each title at the end. (And even with that, I still spent the last several days just switching back and forth between titles I’d listened to, trying to decide which one was better.)

Having spent some time with narrators and having so much respect for them and their craft, any book that I knew wasn’t going to make it into my top 7, I tried to imagine if I were talking to that narrator and had to tell them why I didn’t choose their book. I wanted to be able to give them some comment of value. I wanted to do justice to their work and their evolution as artists in being able to say, “This specifically is what I felt was lacking,” or “This specifically took me out of the story.” I won’t, of course, ever talk to the narrators about what I listened to, but thinking of it in that way is what helped me be able to identify the things that were good or bad about a performance, in ways I hadn’t needed to verbalize in the past.

I found myself noticing cadence and pace much more consciously than I ever have before and especially appropriate variation in each. I was several hours into one title and had determined that there was something about it that made me think it wasn’t as good as some of the others I’d listened to, but it took me several hours more to figure out that the narrator’s placement of stresses in words and in sentences made everything sound like it was terribly important, even the most mundane of sentences. Plenty of times, the criticisms—when taken against the whole of, say, a 10-hour book—were minor, but when you’re at this level of performance, those small things can be what make the difference between a great book that moves forward and a good book that doesn’t. Trying to identify precisely what was done well or poorly in this way gave me even more respect for narrators. At times, I had to work hard to figure out what it was that was affecting my listening; narrators have to keep all those things in their head and execute on them all at the same time!

To my chagrin, I wasn’t successful with this approach in every case. There were two titles that, in the end, all I could say was that they were good, just not quite as good as the others. It’s a wholly unsatisfying assessment but it does make me think about the special something that goes into truly outstanding performances, that sense of awe that some audiobooks engender. Maybe we’re not supposed to be able to put that kind of magic into words. Still, I hope that if I’m chosen as a judge in the future, I’ll get better each time at finding the words to precisely describe the listening experience.

After listening to 23 books and selecting my top 7, all I can say is that I’m so impressed by the talent in the industry right now. More than once I got chills and goosebumps. I started one book on an evening after the post-holiday house cleanup, when I was exhausted and just wanted to go to bed, but knew I needed to get in another hour of listening first. Within the first 30 seconds I was breathless and my skin was prickling. I stayed up for another four hours listening and finished it the next day. To the entire narrator community, I say bravo! You should all be proud of your achievements. You all have a lifelong fan in me. I am the one who is honored to play a role in bringing your achievements into the spotlight they deserve.

Bring on Round 2!