I started talking with Alaina Mauro, Assistant Publishing Manager at Penguin Audio, in 2010. Although we were officially talking as a representative of Penguin and columnist for Speaking of Audiobooks, our conversation ran deep (and long) to our mutual love of romance audiobooks. Alaina explained the production process to me while I shared our listeners’ favorites and I discovered that Penguin had recently charted a new course for romance audio. When we started featuring columns on the production process earlier this year, I invited Alaina and Penguin Producer Diane McKiernan to talk with us about their process in choosing romance titles.
Diane and Alaina – welcome to Speaking of Audiobooks! We so appreciate you joining us today. Diane, as a Producer for Penguin, can you tell us a little about your background and describe some of your present responsibilities?
I’ve been working at Penguin Audio since 2005. I had worked for my college radio station WFUV 09.7 FM and our college press, so audiobooks seems liked a perfect match for me. My favorite audiobook that I’ve worked on is The Help. The narrators absolutely transport you and embody the characters. The best part of my job is casting. It’s a challenge to find the perfect fit for every audiobook but it’s so satisfying when we do.
A question that comes up again and again in discussions here at Speaking of Audiobooks is that of choice. How is a print book chosen for production in audio? We are aware there are a number of factors involved such as the digital rights issue but we wonder just who in the process says “Choose this one –listeners loved it in print and I think it will do well in audio as well.”
Diane: That’s the fun part of our jobs but it can also be one of the most challenging. Typically we like to release our audiobooks simultaneously with the print book and it can be difficult to guess which books are going to really take off, especially when it comes to first time novelists so it’s a bit of a team effort. We rely on input from Penguin editors and the sales force and we spend a lot of time reading early manuscripts. You never know what will be the next breakout book!
Using The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne and Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James as examples, it seems as though you dipped into the favorite lists of romance readers to choose these two for audio production. In fact, in our recent Favorite Romance Audiobooks Poll, The Spymaster’s Lady came in second only to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander in the Favorite Historical Romance Audiobook category – quite an accomplishment. Just the Sexiest Man Alive tied for second in theFavorite 2010 Romance Audiobook category. How did you choose these two particular books?
Alaina: As Diane said, this was really the fun part. We knew we wanted to do more genre audios, and decided to start with older titles with a more established following. We talked to a few editors at Berkley and NAL to see which romances, science fiction and fantasy, or thriller titles that they just adored and felt would get listeners attention. Then I read these two, fell in love with the stories, and Diane found the perfect narrators to really bring them both to life. The Spymaster’s Lady, which was such a great book, was really enhanced by Kirsten Potter’s interpretation, I felt.
So, can I assume Alaina that you read romance on a regular basis?
Yes, I have loved romance novels since I read my first one when I was 12. My mother actually named me Alaina because she was reading Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind while she was pregnant, so it is only fitting that the first one I read was Woodiwiss’s Rose in Winter. To this day, it is still one of my favorites. I have always particularly liked historicals, but have found that the more I read, the more I appreciate other sub-genres. Right now, I am loving steampunk. It has been really fun for me to work on these romance titles, and I sometimes feel I give the science fiction or mystery titles less attention because they stories don’t capture my imagination in the same way.
How exciting to know that we have someone involved in the process of choosing who loves the romance genre! You have scheduled the last seven in Lora Leigh’s Breed series for release in August. What influenced your decision to produce romantic erotica in audio?
Diane: A few years ago we decided to expand our audiobook program to include genres we hadn’t done before, primarily: romance, science fiction, and fantasy, and children’s books. Penguin has such an extensive catalog of books and it seemed only natural that eventually we would dip into other genres. Being able to produce audiobooks as digital only downloads has also given us a lot of freedom. Going straight to download allows us to skip the cost of manufacturing physical CDs so we’re able to take a chance on books that may be a bit riskier.
Alaina: Lora Leigh’s Breed series, like the previous two titles, came from an editor’s recommendation to take another look at this author and her extensive body of work. The editor, the subrights director, Diane, and I, felt that of all of our new genre authors, across categories, Leigh had the most potential to take off and to connect to listeners despite the erotic content. The romance, the mystery, and the story of the Breeds has been immensely popular with readers, and we are so excited that audio listeners will now get the chance to know this author.
Were there any particular challenges in producing the more erotic titles?
Diane: When we produce erotic titles, the first thing we do is to make sure we choose directors and narrators who are 100% comfortable with the material. If a narrator isn’t comfortable reading certain scenes, it will come through in the performance and that’s the last thing we want. Luckily we’ve been able to find incredible narrators who are having an absolute blast recording these titles for us.
Do you see Penguin producing more romance audiobooks in the future and can we expect romance offerings on a regular basis? What are you searching for in your future romance releases?
Diane: Yes, we look forward to continuing to publish romance audiobooks. The great thing about romance is there are so many different subgenres to explore. We’ve done historical romance, contemporary romance, paranormal romance and we’re especially excited about our first foray into the steampunk romance genre with two upcoming novels and a novella by Meljean Brook in the fall.
Alaina: Yes, I completely agree with Diane. Romance has been a good category for us, and we’ve had a great time producing these. I am so excited for The Iron Duke in audio—I adored this book, and as a fan can’t wait to listen to the finished product. As to the future, Diane, our executive producer, Patti Pirooz, and myself, are always looking for new titles to spark our interest and old favorites to reimagine in audio.
As avid romance listeners, we like to think we have a good sense of current print books that would be successful in audio format. Do you have a “go-to” person we can contact with our requests for future audiobooks?
Diane: We love feedback from fans! The best way is tweet us at @PenguinAudioUS.
Many thanks to Diane and Alaina. Now I think it’s time for us to tell Penguin some of the romance titles you most want to see in audio. Alaina and I reviewed together the results of our recent Favorite Romance Audiobooks Poll and I know she took notes on the authors we most want to see in audio! What are your requests for individual titles?
Romance Audio Reviews
Savage Nature – Christine Feehan
Review written by Brenda
Narrated by Karen White
With Savage Nature, the fifth in the Leopard series, Christine Feehan moves the setting from the Rain Forests of South America to the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou. She stays with her standard “couples are fated to be together” style but the story is interesting in other ways and moves at a fast pace. Beyond the main couple, Feehan’s other standard is to bring in a supporting cast of reoccurring and new characters. She shows both the camaraderie and fierce loyalty between them in a way I enjoy each time.
Saria Boudreaux has known her older brothers were leopard shifters since the age of ten but they’ve never voiced it to her. So when she starts discovering bodies killed by a leopard bite while photographing wildlife in a deserted marsh, she turns to the landowner who sends Drake Donavon to investigate. Drake is a running character in this series known for having a leg injury repaired by steel plates which means he no longer shifts. He’s now had experimental bone graft surgery and is ready to try shifting again while in the secluded bayou.
There is a lot going on in this disturbed leopard lair – 15+ hours worth – and Savage Nature jumps with a lot of action scenes. After getting over my initial disappointment that narrator Karen White doesn’t choose to give the written Cajun accent a nod (which made the French words sound out of place), I settled in with her pretty southern accent for those living in the bayou and enjoyed each unique voice given to this large cast. Most important to me is the fact that White has the feel of the story down. The characters’ attitudes and their wide range of emotions are portrayed perfectly, making this audiobook a pleasure to listen to.
Note to production, please lose the music at the beginning and end. It’s so distracting!
Texas Princess – Jodi Thomas
Review written by Lea Hensley
Narrated by Linda Stephens
Jodi Thomas writes a good western and it is a genre I thoroughly enjoy. Give me a strong quite cowboy who doesn’t carry too much angst and keeps the violence to a minimum, and I’m highly tempted to fall for him. Give me a good narrator and I’m listening with delight. Texas Princess delivers on the first count but the second? Not so much.
Tobin McMurray is a solitary man who is completely satisfied working on his family’s ranch raising horses. He doesn’t especially like the idea of leaving the ranch to deliver one of their horses to Senator Mayfield’s spoiled daughter, Liberty, but he’s all about helping his family out. When he finds Liberty refusing her fiancé’s persistent attentions, he quietly comes to the rescue – again and again. What Tobin hopes would be a fast trip soon becomes much more when the Senator asks Tobin to kidnap his daughter and keep her safe.
Despite a heroine who was just a tad too spoiled at times, a major TSTL moment, and a few obviously unwise decisions by the McMurray brothers (totally out of character), Texas Princess worked as a comfort listen for me. I tuned in and immediately fell into a good old Western tale without much effort. However, narrator Linda Stephens kept it from being as comfortable as I wished with a shaky little old woman voice that kept creeping into all of the characters’ voices now and then. Often her portrayal of the youngest McMurray (a 19 year-old female) sounded both elderly and bubbly (yes, confusing). I had little difficulty distinguishing one character from another and there is something to be said for that with a large cast of characters. However, I didn’t agree with Stephens’ interpretation of Tobin. The strong don’t-speak-much persona I envisioned was there but Stephens occasionally injected it with a “golly gee” lifting of his voice. My penalty flag waved with each instance.
The story of Texas Princess is one I will remember fondly but quite honestly, I have to wonder if it would have sounded better in my head than through my ear phones.
Time After Time – Kay Hooper
Review written by Melinda
Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller
Audiobook publishers seem to be having a field day releasing older books as new audiobooks. The contemporary listener will immediately notice anachronistic details: the hero has an answering service instead of a cell phone, for starters. Those details made me stop and look up the original publication date (1986) which I used to filter the book through the proper historical setting.
When I first heard the narrator’s voice, I thought she sounded familiar, and after several minutes I decided it’s because she has a certain quality that I identify as a C List narration. Her narration voice is young – not child-like, but noticeably not mature. Her reading style is not what you could call a monotone, but it has a repetitive cadence that quickly becomes, well, monotonous. It stood out even more to my ears because I had just finished a book with an A+ List narrator, whose reading greatly complemented the story.
I compare these two styles to live theater – things like lighting and sets and props enhance the experience but they are not the experience. While you are watching, the show itself is all-encompassing, not the individual pieces of it. While I’m listening to an audiobook, I don’t want to be aware of the narrator’s voice. I want to be engrossed in the story she is telling.
The story is reflected in the name – lovers meeting again in a new time through reincarnation. Hooper’s writing style is more tell than show, as she tells us the hero is uber-alpha, while his words and actions imply otherwise. Simplistic, no surprises, not much in the way of conflict and only about four hours long – it’s an average read all around.
Time for Your Thoughts
Do you have a question for Penguin concerning the process of choosing romance audiobooks?
What is on your wish list for future Penguin romance releases?
Have you listened to Jodi Thomas’ Texas Princess? What were your thoughts and do you have a recommendation for another Western Historical romance?
Have you listened to Christine Feehan’s Leopard series books? What are your thoughts on the series?
Have you listened to Kay Hooper’s titles? Is there one you would recommend?
And as always, do you have any recent audiobook successes or failures to share with us?
We now have a list of all our Mini Reviews from our Speaking of Audiobooks columns over at our Goodreads group. There are 154 romance audio reviews for your perusal.
I’m announcing new romance audiobook releases and other audio tidbits on Twitter – look for SpeakingofAudio (I changed from LeaAAR).
For those new to our Speaking of Audiobooks column, be sure to check out our audio archives for further recommendations and discussions.
Our Speaking of Audiobooks Goodreads group keeps growing and we now have 134 members. It’s easy to join and it’s a great place for discussion in between our columns.
Enjoy your listening!
– Lea Hensley