Frankfurt’s CONTEC Mexico: Audiobooks’ Finer Points

In Feature Articles by Adam Critchley

At Frankfurt’s CONTEC Mexico, panelists from Chile, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the United Kingdom discussed making audiobooks.

Panelists at CONTEC Mexico discussing aesthetic points of audiobook production were, from left, Ana Clements, Reynaldo Infante, Cristina Flores; and moderator Everado Comacho. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Adam Critchley

By Adam Critchley

See also:
At CONTEC Mexico: Examining the Hopes and Hurdles of Sustainability
CONTEC Mexico: ‘Is the Publishing Industry Sustainable?’
Frankfurt’s CONTEC Mexico 2023: Sustainability, Translation, Audio

‘A Reinterpretation of a Book’
The second day of Frankfurter Buchmesse‘s 2023 CONTEC Mexico program was branded as a “First Latin Audio Forum” and a in a discussion titled “Publish for the Ears: The Audiobook as a Work of Art” looked at the finer points of producing audiobooks. The round table was moderated by Everardo Camacho.

“An audiobook is a reinterpretation of a book,” said the Dominican Republic’s Reynaldo Infante. He’s the founder of World Voices, a United States-based nonprofit industry association for voice-over artists. “As a reinterpretation of a text,” he said, “it becomes a work of art in itself, because actors, artists, narrate it.”

Infante,  however, cited an example of when an author insists on reading his or her own book. Having spent years writing the work, the author may bring a much more complex vision of who the characters are to the reading. “But it also depends on the personality of the author,” he said, and whether that personality lends itself to the narration.

There also are elements of performance skill and talent, of course, involved in what the professional reader of books can bring to the tracking booth.

Infante cited an author who came into the studio to read his own book but who, after only reading the first sentence, realized that his rendition was inadequate and asked to have a professional actor read the book—an example of what Infante calls the ‘necessary humility’ of the author.

Even the choice of a reader, Infante noted, can be something the author isn’t the best to make. “In the commercial publishing world,” he said, “there’s a trend for a publisher to develop the audio project alone, for which the author needs to trust the publisher.”

As far as the place of the audiobook in the business and culture goes, Infanta said, “We live in a world that’s changing, and our audience is transforming, and the transformation of the format obeys the demands of the listener. With the audiobook, we’re seeing a return to the radio-play format, of dramatized and serialized books, similar to what’s happening in the film industry with streaming,” which has its own demand as a relatively new offering.

‘Respecting the Content of the Book’

Cristina Flores and Everado Comacho at CONTEC Mexico 2023. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Adam Critchley

Christina Flores, of the Chilean audiobook production company Audiobuk was onstage as one of the sponsoring partners of this year’s CONTEC Mexico conference.

“The audiobook is not just a new format,” she said, “but a new work in itself. It requires [attention to] artistic criteria.

“The artistic challenges are various and have to do with respecting the content of the book, [trusting] that the book tells you what needs to be done. It’s a question of ‘listening’ to the book to know how to create its audiobook. You might not like the final result, as everybody’s tastes are different, but you make the audiobook that the book itself demands.”

She mentioned a Mexican author who, on listening to her audiobook, “told me that one scene made her cry, but she hadn’t cried even while writing it.”

Panelist Ana Clements, a voice-over artist and audiobook reader from the United Kingdom, said, “We all read a book in a different way, but it’s the author who provides the information we have to work with.”

The panel’s speakers agreed that audiobook production must also be defined, in part, by its target listeners.

“Visually impaired people listening to audio,” Flores said, “have a different way of processing it, and they often prefer a simpler format without sound effects, because they may listen to the book at a slower speed.”

Infante said, “A book that’s full of images brings the challenge of describing those images to the listener. We can’t have a rigid format because every day we’re finding new content for which we’ve never made audiobooks before, as we’ve made art books.”

‘A Sculpture Created by Each Person Working on It’

Ana Clements and Reynaldo Infante at CONTEC Mexico 2023. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Adam Critchley

Casting is a fundamental part of the creation of an audiobook, Clements said, because, “A particular actor can bring something different, something unexpected, to a recording.”

Infante said that during an audition process, an editor can instinctively know when a voice is the right one for a story. And the other fundamental role in the production of an audiobook is the director.

“The authorial voice, that of the actor, and the director’s input,” Flores said, are “three voices, all key to creating the audiobook. It’s like choosing a boyfriend: you know when you’ve found him.” She said the author shouldn’t be excluded from the audiobook production process because the writer can give feedback on whether a scene is correctly represented.

She talked about an author whose perception of a character changed on hearing the audiobook. It wasn’t voiced “‘like the character,’ this writer said, ‘although the reader said the very same lines that the author wrote.’ That character’s audio delivery changed the tone of the book completely” for the author.

The session’s moderator, Camacho, is a Mexican voice-over worker who has read audiobooks for Storytel. “The art of the audiobook is the result of a sculpture created by each of the people working on it,” he said, “from the narrator to the editor to the sound engineers. It’s a sculpture crafted by many hands.”

Infante talked about recording the audiobook of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Hachette Audio, 2011), read by Michael Boatman. The book features many words in the Xhosa language, native to South Africa and Zimbabwe, a factor that gave the book’s narrator difficulties with pronunciation.

The result, Infante said, was that a candidate for narrator who worked in a call center—but had no previous experience in audiobook production—was able to pronounce the words. That capability launched his own career as a narrator.

“The world of the audiobook in Spanish is still being written, and it’s going to get better,” Infante said.


More from Publishing Perspectives on México is here, more on audio and audiobooks in publishing is here, more on international book publishing industry conferences is here, more on the CONTEC programming from Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, and more on Frankfurter Buchmesse itself is here.

About the Author

Adam Critchley

Adam Critchley is a Mexico-based freelance writer and translator. His articles have been published in Latin American Literature Today, Brando, Forbes, GQ, Gatopardo, Publishers Weekly, Travesías and Vinísfera, among other publications, and his short stories have appeared in The Brooklyn Review, El Puro Cuento and Storyteller-UK. His translations include a series of children's books based on indigenous Mexican folk tales. He can be contacted at adamcritchley@hotmail.com.