An interview with Craftsman Audio Books

Craftsman Audio Books produce unabridged recordings of fiction for listeners of all ages. Publisher Tim Cook began his career producing radio commercials and later founded the audio list at Orchard Books working with many of the industry’s best-known readers on productions integrating sound effects, music and songs. In total, Tim has 20 years experience in book publishing, editing numerous titles. Tim kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2008.

Fantasy Book Review: Craftsman Audio Books only selects accomplished audio book readers. What exactly are you looking for in a reader and does the book itself affect your choice?

Tim Cook: The reading of unabridged audio books is a very special skill and very few actors have the ability to do it at the highest level. Firstly, they must have the stamina: it is 8 hours of concentrated recording each day. For the most part, this means an actor who has been trained to a very high standard. In the midst of this very demanding physical test they need to convey the text with subtlety and conviction. Actors in our recordings, like Karen Archer and David Collings (the voice of Legolas in the BBC Radio LOTR and the voice of Monkey), have an excellent command of the English language; understand what punctuation means and how sentences are structured. Without those skills, important moments are lost. When I cast audio books, I want someone who can carry you straight into the narrative, make you forget that it is a reading at all. Karen Archer has a precision and humanity that absolutely meets this requirement. Scenes in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA such as the one between the Dragon of Pendor and Ged are genuinely moving. You can’t direct that kind of nuance – you only can keep it on course and that is my job as a director. Karen and I debate interpretations a lot. True collaboration with an actor of intelligence is a rewarding part of a long, hard and tiring process. Ultimately though, my sole aim is to create the best experience for the listener.

Which Craftsman titles are your personal favourites?

Tim Cook: I have to say A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, don’t I? I am proud to say that I am a fan of the book. Some Craftsman titles are the result of a decade long ambition to record them. For WOE, it has been nearly twenty years. We worked incredibly hard on it and I hope that we have done it justice; have underlined the book’s quality and so begun to help undo the damage done by Studio Ghibli’s laughable movie adaptation of THE FARTHEST SHORE and Sci-Fi Channel’s shredding of WIZARD OF EARTHSEA and TOMBS OF ATUAN. I believe each of these was a wasted opportunity and best ignored.

I am also very proud of our recordings of the Snow-Walker trilogy by Catherine Fisher. I assess hundreds of books and most have all the allure of a picture painted by numbers.  So I am baffled by the plaudits given to some very familiar names. Yet Catherine Fisher’s work, which appeals to all age groups, flows as if it were stream of consciousness, nothing ever rings false. Her landscapes and characters are absolutely vivid. I want to see her pushed further and harder as a writer then I believe we will have some truly great books.

Our recordings of John Masefield’s THE BOX OF DELIGHTS and his masterpiece THE MIDNIGHT FOLK, make me smile in spite of the vast amount of work that went into their adaptation. They are whimsical, eloquent, full of wonderful characters, songs and poetry. It is no surprise to me that as many adults listen to them as children, with Richard Mitchley’s virtuoso performance.

You currently have A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan available in audio book format, both read by Karen Archer. Are there any plans to turn The Farthest Shore and Tehanu into audio format and so offer Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet to listeners?

Indeed there are. THE FARTHEST SHORE should be available by the end of 2009 followed by TEHANU in 2010. Le Guin fans should also watch out for an adaptation of THE LATHE OF HEAVEN.

How much involvement do the authors have in the process of producing Craftsman’s titles?

That varies a great deal. By choice, we always involve our authors and some care deeply about the way that their books are presented.

The Earthsea novels are about the power of words [names]. So, for their author, who is something of a linguist, accuracy of pronunciation is terrifically important. We made telephone recordings of Ursula pronouncing all of the key names that appear in the books. She and I also discuss interpretations and characters. As a result, I remember that the initial character of the oarsman, Skiorh was made more sympathetic, making his horrific transformation all the more vivid: “He’s had a bit of a bad press”, Ursula quipped. With other writers, it’s different, they don’t analyse their writing in this way, are more concerned with the broader ideas. In that case, you have to make your own judgement.

Some of our writers, John Masefield and M R James, are no longer alive. So we turn to experts: the marvelous Reggie Oliver (an acclaimed ghost story writer in his own right) for M R James; and Dr Philip Errington (deputy director of manuscripts at Sotheby’s in London) for John Masefield. I had always seen Masefield as a stuffy establishment figure (he was Poet Laureate) but in fact he was controversial with an impish sense of humour. That insight made sense of the style of THE BOX OF DELIGHTS and THE MIDNIGHT FOLK and gave reader Richard Mitchley a lead on how to approach the books.

Recording an audio book is like proofreading all over again. We pick up approximately 60-70 typographical errors in each book as well as structural errors (such as characters referring to events which it is essential for them NOT to know!). It is sad that the errors become more numerous the more contemporary the book. The skill of the book Editor seems to be a dying art.

Libraries and educational institutions can easily purchase your titles, what advice would you give to individuals looking to purchase your titles?

Over the last few years, we had a lot of emails and letters from individuals complementing our titles but saying that the price was too high. To answer this, we released a new range this year priced and packaged for sale to all. They are available from the main sources: Amazon and but also from specialists like London’s Talking Bookshop in Baker Street. It’s an amazing place, an Aladdin’s cave of audio books. Craftsman also has its own on-line store.

But don’t forget that the library service in this country has a fantastic selection of audio books including many fantasy titles – the hire fees are very good value for money and if you don’t see what you want on the shelves, make a ‘reader request’ so that they can get it for you.

The latest research has indicated that when reading-along with an audio book, reluctant readers can read text up to 2 years above their normal reading age. Do you have one particular success story that illustrates this point?

I learned of this from a US colleague based on findings from a study by teachers in Michigan. To test this myself, I enlisted the help of a teacher friend in Leicester. She gave a print copy of Robert Swindells’ best-selling vampire tale, Room 13 to one of her reluctant readers and was pleased to find that he was able to follow the text by listening to our audio book version at the same time. In a small way, she has continued with this technique. It seems to work so well because it raises the reader’s confidence and hence their enjoyment of reading, excellent motivation. I would like to see it used more widely. But the way that children are taught now, thanks to assessment and the national curriculum, fights against this kind of approach. That is a very bad thing.

Tim, what is your favourite fantasy book of all time?

Of course, there are many wonderful works of fantasy. From childhood, I have books by Nicholas Fisk, Alan Garner, John Christopher and, as I sit at my desk now, Tolkien, Herbert, and Aldiss are close to hand. But I am a lucky man indeed because I got to fulfil a 20-year dream to adapt A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. It has been my favourite since I first read it and I find something new each time I pick it up. Of course, it is a book about wizards and magic and dragons. But the truth about great writing is that you have a doorway into one person’s way of seeing the world, fulfilling the Shadowlands doctrine ‘we read to know that we are not alone’. In the stillness and solitude of her writing, Le Guin sees true ‘magic’ in the power of language, which can describe what it means, for one individual, to be alive. At the heart of the book, the wizard Sparrowhawk tells us…

All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand, the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

Perfectly expressed, this is a world seen not only through the eyes of the character but also through the eyes of the author.

What does the future hold for Craftsman Audio Books?

Craftsman is dedicated to the on-going task of carefully and, as our brand implies, painstakingly adapting, high quality fantasy, ghost stories and horror. We are beginning to develop a reputation amongst listeners and authors as a high quality producer and I want to reach a point where the Craftsman brand is trusted to introduce works that would not otherwise have been considered. In the immediate future, in addition to the continuation of the Earthsea novels, we have a long project adapting THE COMPLETE GHOST STORIES OF J S LE FANU to follow-up on our best-selling COMPLETE GHOST STORIES OF M R JAMES.

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