How Canadian voice actors are cracking the booming audiobook market

In 2005, Canadian actor Erin Moon was living in New York City, struggling to make ends meet in between theatre gigs. She took a job in production at audiobook publisher Recorded Books. By 2009, she had recorded her first audiobook, The Flying Troutmans by Steinbach, Man.’s Miriam Toews.

“They wanted authentic Canadian voices,” says Moon, now one of Canada’s most prolific audiobook narrators with close to 200 titles recorded. “Not all companies knew it at first, but that’s fundamentally important to Canadians, to hear ourselves in our literature.”

Nearly a decade later, it’s something that audiobook producers are only beginning to appreciate.

Audiobooks are a booming business; the American Association of Publishers reported that the category now out-earns mass-market paperbacks. But until very recently, Canadian voices were rarely heard. Now, thanks to a confluence of new developments across the industry, that’s changing.

Until September, 2017, Canadian actors were blocked from working for industry leader Audible unless they were a member of the American actors’ union SAG-AFTRA.

However, when Audible launched its Canadian service last fall, it began working with independent Canadian recording studios, which have their own deals with ACTRA, allowing a backdoor entrance for Canadian actors to read for Audible Originals. For now, this workaround gives ACTRA members a foot in the door (and rates closely mirror SAG-AFTRA’s).

Founder Don Katz also promised, at the time, that the company would invest $12-million in “Canadian writers and voices” over three years. So far this investment has gone toward a mix of new and established Canadian narrators, along with projects that trade on the name recognition of famous Canadian such as Colm Feore, Sarah Gadon, and the recent George Stroumboulopoulos narration of the Tragically Hip biography The Never Ending Present.

(Yet other recent Audible Original adaptations of CanLit do not seem nearly as concerned with including Canadian talent, such as Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing, Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angels and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which have been read by prolific American narrators.)

When the Japanese-Canadian company Kobo Rakuten launched its Kobo Originals audiobook program in January, their inaugural title was Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, read by an American narrator. But more recently, they released the audiobook of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, produced by Toronto’s SoulPepper Theatre Company and narrated by Ojibway actor Meegwun Fairbrother.

“We were dedicated to finding an Indigenous narrator that could accurately portray the voices, characters and experiences in this incredibly important story,” says Rebecca Best, manager of original content and publisher relations at Rakuten Kobo.

The company is also looking to develop original content for the audiobook market. This may become an essential model for audiobook platforms as major publishers retain audio rights to their big titles.

Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC) launched an in-house audiobook production program a year ago. They have since produced 55 audiobooks, 53 with Canadian narrators. “We do it because we love Canadian stories and feel they should be told by Canadian performers,” says Ann Jansen, audiobook producer at PRHC.

The most ambitious undertaking in Canada has been led by David Caron, co-publisher of ECW Press. In 2016, Caron committed to recording 100 Canadian audiobooks from a collective of 21 small publishers using Canadian voice talent provided by ACTRA, in a project funded through the Ontario Media Development Corporation. Of those 100, 74 have been published, 17 are in production and nine have yet to be cast.

“We’ve typically tried to hire a narrator at least two to three times so that what was learned the first time they did the audiobook can be applied the second and third time,” Caron says. “You can see their growth as a narrator as they go.”

As the ECW-led project winds down, the Toronto-based small press is committed to continuing to record audiobooks with Canadian talent, including a suite of books that address Canadian diversity. “If we want to have a deeper pool of Canadian actors who are great audiobook narrators then we have to give them the work,” Caron says. The OMDC will continue to help fund the development of digital audiobooks in Ontario so long as they are published simultaneously with a printed edition.

Erin Moon believes those developing Canadian narrators will find more opportunity than ever. “There isn’t an accent so to speak, but there are very specific pronunciations and it’s not just the ‘out,’ ‘about’ and ‘sorry.’ ” she says. “The Canadian ear is very attuned, even though we’ve been inundated with American media. What I like is when companies recognize that, and right now they are. They are saying CanLit needs to be narrated by authentic Canadian voices.”

More Canadians who’ve made their voices heard in the audiobook industry.

Location: from Montreal, based in New York

Audiobooks narrated: 100

Notable titles: Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster and its forthcoming sequel Trickster Drift, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown: What Being Brown In The World Today Means (To Everyone).

Location: Loretto, Ont.

Audiobooks narrated: 44

Notable titles: Russell Blake’s bestselling Jet series of thrillers, Joseph Campbell’s works of criticism including September’s Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine.

Location: from Quebec City, based in New York

Audiobooks narrated: 60

Notable titles: James Patterson’s Detective Luc Moncrief trilogy, J. Robert Janes’s St. Cyr & Koehler mysteries.

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