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Seanachai Etc.: Cheap man’s guide to audiobooks & literary podcasts

Podcasting has made things interesting for both writers and those seeking quality audio fiction.
Escapepod Podcast
First, podiobooks.com is a podcasting site that releases novels in serial form for free. Most of the books so far seem to be sci fi & fantasy (including Scott Sigler–interviewed recently on Teleread), but the distribution method and business model are innovative. Subscribing is free, but podiobooks.com provides infrastructure for donating (50% of the donation goes to support the website). Podiobooks.com has solved two pressing problems in the podcasting world: tracking audience and keeping old content fresh. Podiobookscom creates custom feeds for novels so the consumer is fed chapters a little bit at a time. Downloading a 10 hour audio novel can be overwhelming; but downloading a 60 minute mp3 each week seems less so. Right now I’m listening to a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth, Consider the Elephant. So far, most of the submissions are in scifi. (Here’s their announcement feed about new podiobook content). By definition RSS podcast feeds are public, but to take advantage of the custom feeds (which give you content one day/week/month at a time), you need to register.

During a recent 4 hour trip from Houston to Dallas, I heard an outstanding storytelling podcast, Seanachai, which is written and produced by a single individual, Patrick McLean. Seanachai is the Irish Gaelic word for storyteller, and remarkably, McLean not only writes his material but also provides voices, audio production and sound effects. His version of Cask of Amontillado (mp3) is haunting and brings Poe’s story to life to contemporary audiences. Other stories–the 4 Part tragicomic Death of a Dishwasher, and other raucously entertaining pieces: War with Santa (where Santa is a mafia don who pressures McClean to remove a satirical podcast–several parts), a man who steals nickels, a person who makes a cosmic connection using a Starburst candy and (most recently) a satirical comic book-type tale, How to Succeed in Evil.

Aside from established storytelling sites like This American Life (which offers streaming mp3s but sells DRM content on Audible.com), the best-produced show I’ve heard so far is Escapepod, a sci fi fiction weekly audio magazine. People submit stories in the normal fashion; accepted submissions are read aloud by experienced podcasters (like Mur Lafferty or Scott Sigler or editor Stephen Eley himself). Each week’s episode features an entertaining mix of stories/reviews/essays and writers are even paid a modest sum (a rarity on the Net these days). Like Podiobooks, Escapepod is sustained primarily through donations, confirming the point I made three years ago that reduced transaction costs and restrictive licenses by Big Media makes the tipjars/donation model much more attractive for creative projects.

The Public Domain has turned out to be a source of great opportunity for literary podcasts and audio. Audiobooksforfree.com now offers nonDRM mp3’s for free, with professional readers and better quality mp3s at a modest price (i.e., $7 or less for a 28 hour novel). (Slightly more expensive is TellTale Weekly, which does something similar). If you can tolerate less professional recordings, Librivox offers an amazing catalog of public domain audio stories produced entirely by volunteers (a site affiliated to TellTale Weekly called the Spoken Alexandria project also does this).

Ebooks vs. Audiobooks: Comparing their Growth

  1. For those with mp3 players, podcasts are portable stories and totally noncommercial (with This American Life and Ricky Gervais’s recent podcast for itunes being notable exceptions). Here podcasts are filling a void for “portable stories” which until now ebooks haven’t been able to deliver. Unlike ebooks, podcasting has not been saddled by DRM at all, and look how it has proliferated. What lessons are to be learned here?
  2. As podcasts proliferate, will standards rise for what people consider acceptable? Right now, only a few rare individuals can write, record and produce decent scripts on their own. Will the podcasting trend change the definition of what it means to be a successful writer/novelist? Will there always be a place in the market for a writer who does nothing except write (without having to be a sound engineer or graphic designer)? Will a good novel start to be defined mainly by production values (whether it be in ebooks or audio books)?
  3. Despite the lament of Cory Doctorow and others that world intellectual property treaties may be extending property rights to podcasts of public domain texts, who can deny that a performance of a public domain work (such as Cask of Amontillado mentioned above) can in fact be a creative reworking and therefore worthy of protections typically available for copyrighted works?
  4. On the other side of the coin, several people just enjoy reciting stories they have read, public domain or not. Take for example Miette Bedtime Story Podcast. A woman likes to read stories aloud on a regular basis (most recently “The Boy Who Drew Cats” by my fave author Lafcadio Hearn). A cursory look on the list of stories she has read shows several works by authors still under copyright. Does this mean that one day she’ll be visited by the Wicked Witch of Copyright who will cast a spell to ruin her efforts ? Clearly this woman is doing it for the love–not the money– think of the runaround she’d have to go through if she actually did try to get the necessary clearance. Where is the harm here? Miette is giving new life to stories that probably go unnoticed; the problem is that until recently publishing houses and copyright owners haven’t been comfortable with setting stories free in the wild Internet jungle. Perhaps there is a slight fair use argument here (probably not), but if the readers were high school students doing it for a class, would people be as quick to condemn the infringement? On the other hand, the distributed power of the Internet makes it easier to share the burden of digitalization. One person may lack sufficient zeal to record every one of Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories for public consumption. On the other hand, a group of 100 devoted fans could record one or two stories each, thus drying up the commercial audio market for Ms. Oates. Does the threat of distributed digitalization imply the need for a draconian response to the lone enthusiast? Or does it merely illustrate the absurdity of allowing publishers to suppress derivative works?
  5. The more audio books I listen to, the more uncertain I become about which is the better way to “absorb a story.” Usually I listen to books-on-tape to recapture time lost in the automobile, but all other things being equal, I sometimes still go for reading in the traditional way. Audio stories are done on the move (and usually when the person is performing another task like housework); books/ebooks are usually done in a single place in a moment of rest. One of the reasons, btw, why I don’t listen to more audio books (as wma or mp3s) is the difficulty in bookmarking where I left off (some mp3 players let you resume play where you left off, but only if you don’t listen to another audio track during the intervening time, I believe).
  6. With respect to genre, will literary podcasting become more dramatic and less personal? Patrick McClean’s podcast often sound less like books-on-tape than radio plays (or at least comedy skits). Sure, some of the podcasts are reflective–see McLean’s Instant of Eternity (mp3)— but the ones that work best are those with lots of dialogue and sound effects. As storytellers become more comfortable using technology for dramatic effect or interactivity, will stories be created with an eye towards how they will be produced? To use an analogy, music videos not only became a new hybrid artform, they caused lyricists to write different kinds of songs–with greater emphasis on visual narratives and imagery. Traditional novels face many market challenges, but the podcasting “threat” may also shift the pendulum away from the inner life of a protagonist to the external life, replete with voices, sound effects and background music.

Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) writes fiction under various pseudonyms and lives in Houston, Texas. In June, he and Sadi Ranson-Polizotti will be launching their own group storytelling podcast, imaginaryplanet.org, with an emphasis on true tales, poetry and non-genre storytelling.

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