FOR THE HELL OF IT VOL. 8 NO. 3 August 23, 2016
By Johnny Heller
The audiobook narrator sits in his or her solitary confinement, bent over an IPad and trying to say “fecund” without giggling and then wondering what “fecund” actually means and then deciding that it doesn’t really matter what it means since it’s doubtful that this effort will ever be reviewed anyway.
The narrator puzzles over this lot he or she has chosen. With earphones affixed and eyes on the copy, little thought is given to the sweat dripping down the back, the pain of strained muscles from poor posture and a crummy chair or the fact that all of this work – this constant speaking – and not just speaking – no! this need to stay connected to the author, to share his truth – may never result in anything more than a check. No accolades, no applause, no notice.
“When I sang Yellow Ducky in the 6th grade talent show, I got more attention!”, thinks the narrator. “Hell, when I got pantsed right after the talent show because I sang Yellow Ducky, I got more attention! Will I ever be noticed?”
Does it matter? If you get hired by Blackstone to do a book and you do a nice job and Blackstone hires you again, does it matter if the books get reviewed? If you work for a Rights Holder on ACX and the same RH asks you to do a 13- book series he has written about the romantic escapades of a 15th century gong farmer, does it matter if it gets a review? (a gong farmer is a guy who cleans out privies – not the job one would think could lead to romantic interludes but we’re talking 15th century kinky here – not current kinky where having a full time job cleaning privies just isn’t enough – even if there’s an insurance program and a 401k involved.)
Today we will examine reviews. We will discuss their value and usefulness and how to use them in your marketing – assuming that you should at all.
To begin let me share my take on it – I’m putting it at the top here so you don’t have to scroll down wondering what I think. I think this:
Reviews are deemed brilliant and insightful when they echo your own thoughts and feelings regarding your wonderfulness. Acting is an ego-driven art and nothing feels better than to have your ego stroked and your firm belief in your talent validated by someone else. The reviewer who points out your strengths is no doubt an excellent human being – likely a philosopher king. When reviews do not validate your work, when they destroy your ego and hurt your feelings, they are evil instruments of the devil or Don Cheney. They were likely written by bitter serial killers taking a break from bludgeoning heads by crushing your heart with their cruel commentary.
Yet a review – especially on Audible- is only an opinion. And, especially on Audible, likely written by the same people who send scathing reviews in to Yelp. When do you ever write about the great lunch you had at Olive Garden? You don’t. You only share the horrible experiences. People love outlets for their anger. They love the chance to be vicious from a distance. (I know this because I went to a Jesuit College and we had to take at least 12 hours of philosophy and when you learn about philosophy from the Jesuits, you learn a thing or two about the evil nature of humankind let me tell you!)
Look at your worst Audible review. Then look at the number of stars the book has. I confess that I rate 4 ½ to 5 stars on almost all of my titles on Audible even when the written review(s) excoriate me.
Do not let the lone crappy review ruin you. If, however, you have a whole lot of written reviews and they all say that you talk too fast or that your characters all sound alike, those reviews have some merit in that you can learn something that you may not have realized about your work.
I think audiobook narration is an art form and art, if it’s truly art, needs to produce an emotion – a reaction in the listener. A review may be that listener’s reaction and response and it may be valid from that standpoint. But a lone voice saying ridiculous things can be safely ignored. I had one Audible review – I can’t find it now – that said that I seemed like a nice fellow who could date his sister but that I was an awful narrator! A friend of mine got a review some years ago that said “she sounded like a bucket of puke.” That is not an honest reaction to art, that is just freaking weird and mean. And I’m not even certain that a bucket of puke sounds like anything at all. Puking into a bucket has some merit in that it involves sound, but a bucket just sitting there? How is that different than an ottoman? “She sounded like an ottoman.” “She sounded like a rutabaga.” Nope. Doesn’t work.
So there is value in reviews written by Audible customers if they are sincere and well-reasoned reactions/responses to your art. But you don’t need to share them. Learn from them if there is something to be learned. Don’t share them. Unless they are really vicious and funny. But still, pay attention to the overall ratings of the book – not necessarily to the individual reviews posted.
Debra Deyan of Deyan Audio added this:
I would highly encourage actors to have 4 stars and above on Audible for each of their titles. If an actor knows a book is poorly written or is controversial, they might consider reading under a pseudonym so they protect their ratings. Please also remember that reviewers and Audible listeners are also reviewing the contents of the book itself. The review of the author’s writing, good or bad, should not be attributed to the narrator.
Her last point is instructive. I have a number of titles where Audible reviewers have hated the book. Nothing to do with me. Just hated the book. Yet, I got 1 or no stars because they thought the text sucked. That wouldn’t matter to me except that we now know that some publishers look at how many stars an actor gets and uses that in making decisions about that actor.
Bryan Barney – Blackstone’s Casting Director had this to say about Audible reviews:
I think the audible reviews are important when put in the proper context. No single review, be it positive or negative, is going to have a major impact. We look for trends. Are multiple people saying the same thing? Is it specific? Sometimes scrolling through the audible reviews reveals helpful feedback. There’s often going to be a single unhappy customer. If we see that multiple customers are unhappy for the same reason, then we usually take that into consideration.
Ultimately, we read the reviews because they reflect on us as producers as well. It’s a collaborative effort on all fronts. If the reviews are generally bad, we have to consider whether that person was miscast or didn’t receive proper direction.
Again – look at his last point. A review – anywhere – may not just be about you. You represent your publisher. Your work reflects on them and on their choice to hire you.
Here is a review of one of my books on Audible:
“Mr. Heller was the best part of the story, his voice range and timing of delivery of dialog was superb. He gave life to the characters.”
Here is another review on Audible for the same book:
“I really had no interest in the sounds coming out of his mouth. It could have been an eighth grade English teacher reading aloud the previous night’s homework.”
Here is a review for my narration of Huckleberry Finn from Audiofile Magazine:
“Johnny Heller’s stellar narration makes this audio experience ALMOST like hearing Mark Twain himself. Twain’s dialogue and descriptions of people and places along the Mississippi River come alive. Huck; the escaped slave, Jim; and Tom Sawyer are equally distinct and believable. This is Mark Twain at his best on audio.”
Which review(s) do you think I feel best about? Which one should I use in my marketing? Which should I share? (actually, it seems I am willing to share all 3 because I certainly am!) Clearly the Huck Finn review is the most worthwhile for my purposes. It sings my praises and it comes from an actual professional reviewer – someone paid to provide critical reviews by a leading review magazine. Let’s say the reviewer was not complimentary. They hated my work. Still a review that I might be able to learn from but not one I would share. It’s also entirely possible that a reviewer -pro or otherwise can rip you a new one and be wrong.
If a reviewer from Publishers Weekly writes that Dick Hill is the worst reader ever and has ruined another fine Jack Reacher book, would that stop Random House from hiring Dick? I don’t think so.
And since I’ve brought up Dick (I know! Haven’t you always wanted to write something like that?!) let’s see how he feels about reviews.
I pay no attention at all to reviews on Audible or similar sources. PW or AudioFile, Library journal, major newspaper reviews and the like are always gratifying…well, if they’re good, but I don’t seek those out either, only see ones called to my attention by friends or authors or publishers. Collect a few to blurb yourself on your website, but after that I see little value to me as a narrator. So long as you’re continuing to get as much work as you want, that’s the best feedback one can get. Besides, if you’re gonna’ get all warm and fuzzy over good ones, you have to give equal weight to the bad, and from what I’ve seen of Audible listener reviews, some of those are very bad indeed. Hilarious sometimes, but potentially soul crushing to people new to the business.
Reviews do have merit and can be helpful. Certainly a review in Audiofile, Book List, Publishers Weekly, well read and respected review blogs and other industry magazines can be a wonderful marketing tool and a great source of pride. It’s great to be acknowledged and celebrated for your work. No actor wants to play to an empty house hoping for the sound of at least one hand clapping, but this job is solitary. It demands that you believe in yourself and trust your skills. If reviews show your trust to be misplaced or your skills to be nonexistent, that may not be such a bad thing. It’s important to know that you can do the job you’ve chosen. But one or even 10 bad reviews shouldn’t sound your death knell. Especially if all the reviews are written by IHateNarrators31.com or some such cretin. But if all the reviews point to a weak spot in your game – don’t hang your head. Fix your game. If a big leaguer can’t hit the curve, they go back to the minors and work to get better. If you want to work for the top publishers – the big leagues – your game must be complete.
Well known, occasionally appreciated and brutally honest pal-o-mine Jeffrey Kafer says:
The only time to consider the content of a review is when you see a trend. If 30 out of 50 reviews say that your female voices are terrible, then that’s something to listen to and take note of and get evaluated by a reputable coach. Just the same, if 30 out of 50 reviews say your Scottish accent is spot-on, then good for you! You obviously spent another life as a Highlander.
It’s important to note that you can always improve at any stage of your career. Tiger Woods has a coach as did Michael Jordan. Always keep training and trying to better your craft. Do that, and you’ll keep getting work, which is ultimately, the best barometer of your talent.
Coaching is a good call, if the coach is a good coach and works well with you. That, however, is fodder for the next blog. Let’s keep it right here for this one.
We’ve just heard from Kafer. Now note what does the sweetest lady in the biz – Amy Rubinate – has to say on the subject”
Most of us work alone in dark rooms and reviews are the only feedback we get, unless we happen to meet listeners. So enjoy the good reviews, and let the bad or mixed reviews inform you – but don’t let them break your spirit.
Many people will tell you to ignore reviews – but this work isn’t just about us; the goal is to benefit the audience, and if we aren’t serving their listening experience we aren’t doing our jobs. If you hear the same criticism over and over, take it as an opportunity for growth.
Great Caesar’s Ghost! Dr. Evil and Miss Sweetie Pie on the exact same page! Instructive – no?
Unlike children of helicopter parents who get awards for the hard work of showing up to stuff, Simon Vance has actually earned a garage full of awards for his stellar narration. He uses earphone certificates as place mats and hands out Audies to kids in lieu of Halloween candy. He says this:
I have never found a useful review on those occasions I have ventured onto Audible’s comments site… (of course I do look, I won’t deny it…but rarely). We do what we can to cover a multitude of roles and pronounce names and places and …well, we do our best and the one listener who happens to come from that particular village will post a negative comment on your ‘local’ accent and however insignificant that may be there is still sense of hurt.
I understand the need for validation amongst new narrators, but I would suggest finding it from your coach (or more experienced colleague), not from the comments section of any website… I would take note of a ‘professional’ review, but I would still take notes from a coach (or experienced colleague) above any kind of web contributor or reviewer.
Home studio narrators are meant, first and foremost, to be good self-directors and that means our goal must be to become our own best judges of our work… I suffer under the delusion that I am actually a good judge of when I suck the most… But I believe I do have very high standards…
That said, if the comments you see are good then you know the writer has excellent taste.
(If you read the above in a British accent, it’s quite charming and may get you a gig in an American TV show where I’m pretty sure no Americans get to work anymore. I know – another blog…)
I think it interesting that PJ Ochlan starts his thoughts off in much the same way I did — looking at our work as art. You’ll see he makes some excellent points about the value of reviews.
For a work to qualify as art, I feel it must evoke an emotional response and be subject to critique. By that criteria, passionate reviews – good and bad – confirm that we are contributing something artistic to the world. And that’s a great thing.
Here’s the big but:
I think the major challenge is that even though we’re creating work that’s personal and artistic, it’s nonetheless a product. And among artistic/acting mediums, audiobook performances are uniquely exposed to the world of online consumers, and therefore not limited to primarily professional critique.
Serious qualifiable inferiorities – technical/production issues, performances by non-performers, writing by non-writers – will typically be sorted out by the marketplace.
Trolls should be viewed as a separate issue. People who engage in anonymous personal attacks reveal far more about themselves than the works they make a show of criticizing.
So keep putting your best work out there and celebrate the fact that strangers far and wide feel moved enough to pay attention and say something about it.
I love that PJ thinks it’s fabulous that people think enough of your work to even bother reviewing it. Take a look at Audible reviews. Look at how many “ratings” a book has vs. how many written reviews. Not everyone bothers to rate their listens. Even fewer bother to write a review. The trick to using these non-professional reviews in a valuable way is to ignore the obvious asshats. Steven Jay Cohen, who has 3 names – proving that that isn’t only for serial killers – says:
…there is no value in an individual, anonymous review online, good or bad.
B00kNutter7a2 and Audi0Lici0us32b6 are not real people. They are masks that shield real people from owning what they type.
Unfortunately, the anonymity of these handles can distance people from the implicit social contracts of society. Newspaper websites have already learned that the only way to attempt to have meaningful, civil discourse online is to require people to use real names and link to verifiable social profiles when commenters express an opinion.
When commenters are held socially accountable for their comments, in general, they are more thoughtful. Real people express real opinions.
I’m sensing a trend here. Not only are all my brilliant narrator and publisher friends tossing around big-ass impressive $10 words, but they all seem to be saying the same thing. Speaking of big ass impressive $10 words, let’s see what Paul Alan Ruben’s take is:
Given that there are fewer directors available to guide performance, narrators may best be served by arming themselves with a battery of actable directions that, once a problem is identified, enable them to mine the subtext and organically connect that emotionality to the listener (achieve that and impossible to imagine a bad review). Reviewers are generally not actors/directors, and while their reviews adequately tell listeners what they like and don’t like, there is often no ‘actable vocabulary’ the narrator can take away to improve their performance. (As an aside, it’s interesting how little even the NY Times actually critiques performance in their long audiobook reviews). Ultimately, positive reviews buoy the ego, assist in marketing, or when negative, compromise the narrator’s mental health (actors are what they do). What’s certain is that narrators cannot control reviews. They can control their performance. They can self-review while performing with the outcome of improving their chances of receiving an Earphone, Starred Review, or Audie.
Paul correctly points out that there are rarely actionable take-aways for the actor in most reviews. If the essence of a review is that “I don’t like Johnny Heller” (or more likely) “I don’t like Simon Vance” – there is little Johnny or Simon can or should do about that.
With the onus on new narrators to learn the business on the fly – to get the gig, do it well, edit and master and self-direct, dealing with or even garnering reviews can be an excessive burden. Is it worth it? Are reviews something to seek or should we just let them come along when they come along?
From a marketing perspective, I freely admit that I occasionally contact bloggists and publishers to suggest they look out for a particular book. I know that positive reviews have helped the sale of my narration of Huck Finn. Since I don’t have a royalty share on most of my projects, I push certain titles because I think they are really special and I don’t want them to be overlooked. I’ve said that I think we are creating art and I want to be sure that some of that art be noted and recognized.
Sean Allen Pratt, a gifted narrator, a fine coach and an unusually tall person doesn’t use reviews to judge his worth as a performer (neither should you!) He uses them in two ways. One is to gather material for a “review sheet”- a collection of reviews an actor can use to post on his website or as marketing tools for his career.
Sean suggests we stop looking at these reviews through the lens of your ego, and begin to see them from the point of view of a marketing or publicity director.
The second and more difficult way to utilize reviews is to search them for themes or specific, consistent responses to your work. For example, if you keep getting reviews that say your narration was slow, metronomic or listless, that is an excellent note to tell you to pick up the general tempo of your read. Over the last 20 years as a narrator, I’ve learned a lot more from well written bad review than I ever did from a glowing 5-star love-a-thon.
There’s a distinction that I think must be made here as we draw this lengthy epistle to a close. There is a difference between an opinion and a review. Magazines like AudioFile, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, ALA publications and various bloggers posts print reviews of audiobooks – discussing the book and the audio performance of the narrator. Most of the reviewers have a background or expertise that adds gravitas to their reviews. The review is well reasoned and specific. This is not to say that all reviews on Audible are penned by spam eating syphilitic morons but many are not much more than poison pen letters from people who have a right to their opinion but nowhere else to share it since they’ve been kicked out of every bar in the neighborhood. Again – not every review there is just mean but if you get a really mean “review”, ignore it. If you know that I am a complete jerk, why would you care about my opinion of your work? You wouldn’t and you shouldn’t.
Peter Berkrot puts it very well:
Reviews are written by people entrusted within the professional community to critically assess the work we do as narrators. Professional publications such as Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, AudioFile, Kirkus and established bloggers whose love for the industry is on the job training for developing a common vocabulary.
If you are being reviewed by any of these people, then chances are you don’t need to read them because you are already narrating enough to be finding your name in prestigious and respected places. The only review that matters is the next job. That’s the most important review.
Audible, one of the largest employers of narrators in the country, may be doing a disservice to the very community it supports by calling the published opinions of its customers’ “reviews” instead of “opinions” or “feedback” by empowering anyone with the illusion that their words have power and impact. And guess what, they do if you let them. Some are kind and appreciative but while my professional reviews are always respectful, these are more often than not, cruel, insensitive and rabid. So read them at your own risk because even trolls have headphones. They just have to order them special because the tops are pointy.
Reviews can make our day or ruin our night. They can hurt us or lift us up but here’s the two important things I want you to hold on to:
- The best way to know that you are doing your job is to get the second job from the same employer. Continued employment counts as a great review.
- You can’t see them. You don’t hear them. But people need what you do. People love what you do. You bring literature and art to the world. And that’s a review you can count on. Your art has fans. You matter.
AND NOW- HOROSCOPES!
An earth sign – Virgos are well grounded and known throughout the astrological universe as real downers. You can count on not being invited to any parties again this year unless it’s a moving party to celebrate you leaving the neighborhood!
If today is your birthday, you’ll be interested to know that I didn’t buy you a thing. It would be safe to assume that you’ll be getting nothing from me again next year, but it will be for a different reason. The stars are in line for you to be abducted by aliens from a distant galaxy and subjected to experiments where you’ll be forced to watch every episode of The View until your head explodes. Happy Birthday!
You are an intellectual and a thinker and love to have discussions. You’ll be able to use that knowledge when you start leading your cell block’s weekly book group where you’ll be spending the next 7 years for embezzling funds from your local chess club.
A water sign, you are very mysterious and love intimacy. Well you will have a mystery to solve when you try to figure out which intimate partner gave you the clap!
Known for a mercurial temper, idealism and great energy, you’ll put all those to use when you start a war with your local street gang when you decide that they don’t belong in the park. You’ll put your idealism up against their guns and many neighbors will say nice things about you after the smoke clears, so that’s nice.
You are loyal to your friends through thick and thin – a virtue that’s sure to tested when you discover later this year that your best friends are really Neo Nazis and they’ve selected you to speak on their behalf at an NAACP meeting. Good luck to you and nice knowing you!
Lots of intellect and a brilliant brain associated with you lot! You’ll need that analytical mind of yours in March when you’ll have to explain how your fingerprints, your kitchen knife, your gun, your silk neck tie tied in a noose and your pants all ended up at the scene of a grisly multiple homicide!
You’re possessed of an ultra-sensitive personality which will be a problem for you when you run for public office and those pictures of you posing naked with your drunken pals and urinating on holy shrines show up on the front page of the Post. Sure it was youthful indiscretion but the next batch of photos show you just last week fondling vegetables in the produce aisle of Safeway. Welcome to Congress Pisces! You’ll fit right in.
You are physically very strong. Sadly, that won’t help you successfully fight off the pack of rabid wolves that descend on you after the tree falls on your camping tent and breaks your leg. It’s a good thing you are the adventurous type – you’ll need that can-do spirit especially when you realize that you actually can’t-do.
The Bull! An interesting zodiac sign and one you will wonder about as you accidentally trip and fall on your dream birthday vacation of running with the bulls in Pamplona. Never really thought about how big a bull is did you? You are known for your stubbornness but this will put your headstrong streak to the test as one bull after another slams you to the ground. Have all the fun you can on the way to Spain because you won’t enjoy the trip home in a body cast!
You’re a person who hates to be alone or to be confined. Two things you should have thought of before you decided to take up spelunking! You’ll regret satisfying your curiosity by checking out that heretofore unexplored opening with the big sign that said “Danger”. But don’t worry, you won’t have to fret much longer – the tide is coming in! Happy Birthday and so long!
The sign of the crab. How fitting since that’s what you’ll catch on your first trip to trendy Amsterdam! The stars say you dislike strangers – wonder why you paid one to do that unspeakable act with you – oh well – as they say: once bitten, bitten a real lot.
Another fire sign – sadly it’s also a sign for lazy people – both traits will combine for a hellish evening later this year when you won’t read the instructions before you microwave some beef stroganoff. That would’ve tasted so good too. Maybe you can try again in your new house – which you’ll need after the fire guts your current one. It’s a lesson learned for most people but not for you- you’re a Virgo! – you’ll blame the microwave maker and lose a bundle after your case is dismissed and you are assessed court costs. Next time, make a sandwich.