The pitch-perfect voices bringing alive audiobooks

Casting the right narrator or voice over artist for a book is a meticulous process especially since audiences build a relationship with the voice.  (iStockphoto)
Casting the right narrator or voice over artist for a book is a meticulous process especially since audiences build a relationship with the voice. (iStockphoto)


As audiobooks gain listeners and subscribers, voice-over artists are finding themselves in demand. But AI is not far behind

Even Ruskin Bond advocates for audiobooks. Just last weekend, when Audible India launched an audio version of his All-Time Favourites for Children, read by Anuj Datta, Bond told PTI that the format could be called “a stimulus, a catalyst for the whole art of reading".

As true as this may be for children, many adults, too, listen to books so that they can multitask during a commute or while doing chores, and meet reading or learning goals. India is the third largest audiobook market in the world after the US and China, according to Statista. The country’s audiobook market is expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.5% between 2024-29, hitting a market volume of $585.30 million (around Rs. 4,860 crore) by 2029. With this, the projected number of audiobook “readers" will be 416.4 million in five years.

“Audio is one of the oldest ways we have consumed stories, from our grandparents and parents (reading to us or narrating stories) to audiobooks now," says Piyush Agarwal, a Bengaluru-based audiobook narrator who primarily voices Hindi titles. He has recorded Nirmala by Premchand, Kashmirnama by Ashok Kumar Pandey and Barahvin Raat, a Hindi translation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, among other books.

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With the boom in demand for audiobooks, more narrators are needed to voice the books. Yet, few artists truly shine as audiobooks require diverse skills and the artist has to think like a storyteller. “VO (voice-over) artists often have a diverse mix of experiences across radio, ads, dubbing and singing," says Arcopol Chaudhuri, executive editor of rights and new media at HarperCollins India. “Some additional strengths are crucial: impeccable pronunciation, a good understanding of the mood of the text, effective voice modulation skills and their fondness for reading."

Voice-over artists say there has been a surge in audiobook production since the pandemic, going by the number of projects for which they are being signed up. “Long-format audio recording was not in vogue" before covid, says Pallavi Bharti, who voices both Hindi and English audiobooks. The Delhi-based artist is one of the most sought after voices in the market.

She has recorded, among other books, Shormistha Mukherjee’s Cancer, You Picked the Wrong Girl, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, Sudha Murthy’s Here, There and Everywhere, and the Hindi version of Chetan Bhagat’s The Girl in Room 105.

A full-time voice-over artist, Bharti has worked on radio dramas, ad-films and jingles, all short-term projects though they paid well. The increase in audiobook projects has provided the luxury of being associated with one assignment for a few months at a stretch, allowing artists the joy of immersing themselves in a single narrative, sometimes developing distinctly different pitches and cadences for the various characters.

Pallavi Bharti at a recording.
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Pallavi Bharti at a recording. (Courtesy Pallavi Bharti)

In Barahvin Raat, for instance, Agarwal used his experience as a theatre actor and podcaster to create different personalities for each of Shakespeare’s iconic characters, distinguishing them by a tremble in one voice or a sharp middle register for another. Similarly, Bharti adds personal touches—a sigh here, a stutter there—in her narration, while being careful never to change or add words. “With dialogue, I fumble like we do in everyday conversation. I pause, sigh and sneeze. It infuses drama, but naturally," she says.

For some artists like Ranjit Madgavkar, former creative head at Radio Mirchi, the privilege of evoking, through their voice, the words of their favourite authors brings unparalleled joy. The main voice on Amitav Ghosh’s Smoke and Ashes, Nutmeg’s Curse and The Living Mountain, he says studying the author thoroughly helps while narrating non-fiction.

“I see (the authors’) interviews, how they talk, how they pause—I become them," he says. Since 2021, Madgavkar, who also dabbles in other entrepreneurial ventures, has voiced Dr Mukesh Batra’s The Nation’s Homoeopath and cricketer Wasim Akram’s memoir Sultan, among others. Other artists have different methods. While Bharti likes to discover the story as she records, Agarwal tries to breeze through the book to get its sense and chart out an emotional graph for the characters.

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Casting the right voice to ensure “the right alchemy between an author’s written narrative and the transportive listening experience for the audience is a meticulous process," says Karen Appathurai Wiggins, vice-president and head of regional content, Asia-Pacific, at Audible. She adds that Audible “witnessed a notable 39% increase in paid member listening hours" in India in 2022, indicating a rising demand and popularity of paid audio content.

At KukuFM—which has 3 million paid active subscribers, and where audiobooks form 20% of their catalogue of 3,000 productions a year—content head Kunj Sanghvi notes that “audiences really build a relationship with the voice… and sometimes mistake them to be the author, too."

This means the artists need to think like actors. For Mikhail Sen, a London-based actor who has voiced the Detective Kamil Rahman series by Ajay Chowdhury, narrating audiobooks is, in a way, more challenging than acting for the screen or stage. “There, you always have the visual elements or the rest of the cast to play off—there’s a sharing of energy. In audiobooks, you’re mostly the sole narrator, having to paint the entire picture through your voice," says Sen, who played the part of Amit Chatterjee in Mira Nair’s TV adaptation of author Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

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Thinking like an actor also includes not disclosing their age for the fear of being typecast for specific projects. Additionally, “you need to really take care of your voice," says Agarwal. This not only entails eating and drinking right, but also building up endurance to stay the course through recording. Unlike a short form project, where the script is 1,000-odd words, an audiobook involves getting through 300 pages or more of a book, about 20,000 to 50,000 words. Since this is done over a period of a few weeks to a couple of months, voice artists and producers liken it to training for a marathon.

“From start to end, for many hours a day and over many days, your voice—and the ways you have modulated it in case of multiple characters—needs to stay consistent. You cannot have it influenced by your mood, your health or the weather," says Rupam Sehtya, head of Gurugram-based Studio Wht Nxt. Since its inception in 2019, the company has produced over 500 audiobooks for various players, including Audible India and KukuFM as well publishers like Penguin Random House India and HarperCollins India.

This can be physically taxing. Agarwal remembers how his body would be sore and aching when recording Kashmirnama. His first audiobook project, this had a three-week schedule with 6-8 hours of recording everyday. Realising that incoherence crept into his narration when he took long breaks, he learned on the job to take five-minute breathers to rest his voice and reset his mind.

Piyush Agarwal is also a podcaster and theatre artist.
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Piyush Agarwal is also a podcaster and theatre artist. (Nagaraja)

Bharti, too, takes quick hydration breaks. Having recently wrapped up Common Yet Uncommon: 14 Memorable Stories From Daily Life by Sudha Murthy, Bharti says she was particular about how she prepared herself to voice the various points of view, especially for the story told through the eyes of the author as a child. “You need to remember the tone you gave the character when you started—you mentally get in the zone before recording that part, or you go back to the recorded stock, listen and match not just tone, but also pace," she says.

Despite this level of effort and commitment, audiobook narrators say that on average, pay is not commensurate with effort. Some stars can state their rates, and the pay for big titles can touch Rs. 10,000-15,000 per finished hour (PFH) of content, or the duration of recorded content after cuts and retakes. However, the usual rate tends to hover around Rs. 3,000 PFH, with some players paying as little as Rs. 1,500 PFH. The actual time spent recording could easily be two-three times the PFH.

To add to this, most platforms are leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) for cost efficiency and quicker turnaround times. Agarwal estimates that AI can produce in 5-6 hours a book that could take a human narrator up to three weeks.

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Sanghvi of KukuFM says they are working on “comprehensive AI stacks" and that some of their shows are “completely voiced through AI". He adds that they “are open to cloning voices into a different language".

With such advancements, Sanghvi says that narrators could make money on audiobooks in languages they don’t know. However, not all artists are convinced—some are concerned about protecting their voices. “Regulations need to be put in place and quickly," says Sen.

Regardless, producers, audio-content platform managers and narrators all say audiobooks have a bright future in India. The newest trend is dramatised audiobooks featuring more than one artist. As Bharti says, “All of it refreshes the creative endeavour as well as the listening experience."

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