As the market has grown, so have opportunities for actors who, like Hite, are passionate about books and have the stamina to enact them. Now the need to make the field more diverse for narrators of color has become a central issue for publishers.
But the particular demands of the job, compared with film and stage acting, make this tricky. What does representation mean when actors can only be heard and not seen? What constitutes a black, Latino or Asian voice? And to complicate matters, in most audiobooks a single narrator voices multiple characters, who may have a variety of ethnicities and accents.
“It’s our job as producers to be respectful and sensitive to those voices and characters,” said Dan Zitt, the senior vice president of content production at Penguin Random House Audio. His team of 15 producers is on track to release more than 1,700 audiobooks this year.
But finding the right voice talent isn’t always easy. To cast the two lead narrators of “When Stars Are Scattered,” a graphic memoir about Somali boys growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, Zitt’s team members looked beyond Los Angeles and New York, where their recording studios are. They found Somali actors in Minnesota, who recorded there while being directed remotely via Skype.
Zitt also said he’s been challenging the way casting decisions are being made. That includes promoting colorblind casting, especially when a story doesn’t specify the main character’s race. “It’s not just: ‘An older white man wrote this book, an older white man has to read it,’” he said.
Take “The Last Human,” for instance, a space opera published in March about the galactic journey of an orphaned girl, described only as a human living among aliens. To narrate this debut novel by Zack Jordan, who is white, Zitt enlisted the actor and award-winning narrator Bahni Turpin, who is black.