As print publishers capitalize on an appetite for memoirs that is turning books by celebrities both notorious (Jose Canseco) and revered (Bob Dylan) into bestsellers, audio publishers are increasingly taking the fixation with fame even further by hiring celebs to narrate their own life stories.
For some audio publishers, getting that celebrity voice has become essential to making a deal. "It's just too weird to have someone else," said HarperAudio publisher Ana Maria Allessi. This spring, audio publishers are releasing self-narrated books by such well-known names as Jane Fonda, Ari Fleischer, Gene Wilder and Michael Eisner.
But for all the advantages celebrities bring—a built-in fan base, an intimate connection with the material, years of performance experience—there are drawbacks. The famous are different from the rest of us—they cost more, have tighter schedules, are used to VIP treatment and often are unaccustomed to the rigors of the typical audio recording schedule. Far from automatic, the decision about whether to use a celebrity to narrate his or her own story is often a complicated matter of weighing the difficulties against the potential payoffs.
"There are times when there is someone personally connected to the author, say, an actor who has played that person, for example. In that case, it can work because of the nature of who those two people are. In a unique circumstance, other people are suited to do the recording. In the case of Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles, it was very creative casting that created some excitement and energy," said Mary Beth Roche, publisher of Audio Renaissance and president of the Audio Publishers Association.
But, she added, "I couldn't imagine anyone else reading Bill Clinton's story or Fran Drescher's. There's something magical about hearing it in their own voice, like you have that famous person in the car with you." Chris Lynch, publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, says there are exceptions—such as when S&S hired Penn to read Dylan's autobiography—but in most cases getting a celebrity narrator is key: "We just wouldn't do books by Ellen Degeneres and Lewis Black read by someone else."
And while it's tough to calculate the effect on sales, Roche sees obvious promotional advantages. "It gives you another tool to use in marketing both the audio and the book. For example, you can use sound clips for TV and different media outlets as promotion; the celebrity's voice can be where they are not."
Inside the studio, celebrities reading about their own experiences can add some unexpected texture to the work. "In the case of Tatum O'Neal [A Paper Life], you can really hear in her voice all that she went through," said Allessi. "When celebrities recount these life events, it comes through. There's just no hiding the emotion behind it. Sometimes the recording can be even better than the book itself."
Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton brought his trademark charisma to the recording sessions for last year's My Life. "The man sat in the chair and 'performed' his work with clear sincerity," coproducer/codirector Dan Zitt said in an interview at the time. "He is not just listing facts about his life in the audio; he is telling it in such an intimate manner that you feel as if you are sitting around a campfire with him." Clinton even used the opportunity to sneak in some extra material not found in his book. "Not only did he add a few lines, but the lines were usually so profound that I found myself speechless as to how well he could write off the cuff," Zitt said.
Another skilled performer, Jon Stewart, proved adept at the format. "It's one thing to speak in bursts on a half-hour TV show and land your jokes. But to read for three hours straight, and land your jokes as you're reading, that's something else," said John McElroy, producer and director of Stewart's America audiobook. "He came in intimately familiar with the material and knew how to deliver all the jokes, so he didn't need a lot of direction."
Signing the famous reader is worth it even under more difficult circumstances. "We recorded Christopher Reeve, which was a challenge because of his health concerns and breathing apparatus. But we felt it was absolutely the right thing to do. We had a somewhat similar situation with Michael J. Fox [who has been very public about his struggle with Parkinson's disease]. We worked around the schedule that was best for his energy level."
Even healthy narrators sometimes need special arrangements. "For celebrities who are not performers and not used to using their voices that much, we may stretch out a session over a number of shorter work days or use a different kind of director," Roche said. "Requests do come up. What do they need to perform at their maximum? If we can accommodate it, why not?"
Audio publishers also deal with the famous being used to certain perks. "We may use a studio closer to the celebrity's home, or even in their home," said Lynch. "There have been one or two instances where we let people smoke in the studio, but we haven't had anything too outrageous." As Allessi said, "If Lauren Bacall wants lunch from a particular place, we'll get it."
The costs of signing a famous narrator go well beyond lunch. Celebrities earn top dollar on the audio pay scale for their narrating work, though the money pales in comparison to what they might receive for film or television work. In some cases, compensation for the audio narration is included within the advance for the hardcover. In other cases, a pay rate is determined in the book contract or it is negotiated as part of a separate audiobook rights deal. Still, said Roche, "None of these celebrities are doing this for the money."
Sometimes it's just not practical for a celebrity—regardless of how much the publisher is willing to accommodate them—to spend long hours in a studio recording an audio book. Bob Dole, whose memoir One Soldier's Story is out in May, was not up for the job, so actors narrate his book. Publishers often compromise, having the author read the abridged version and hiring an actor for the unabridged, or getting that famous voice to at least introduce the work. "Tiger Woods, Rudy Giuliani and Bill Gates each read introductions to their books and then we hired professional readers to perform the rest," said Maja Thomas, v-p and publisher at Time Warner Audiobooks.
And sometimes audio publishers producing a memoir by a famous name have to contend with one insurmountable fact. "Not every celebrity is a good reader," Lynch said.
Still, for those who do know their way around a microphone, audio publishers say it's hard to beat the experience of well-known figures telling their own story. That's why Mike Wallace will spend part of his summer this year cooped up in a recording studio, reading aloud his memoir. "No one else could take his place," said Thomas. "He was there for some of the most important moments in recent history, and when you hear him tell the tales, you feel like you were there, too."