Audiobook Expert

Jonathan Lowe
Jonathan Lowe, 50, works as a clerk in the forwarding department at the main Tucson post office--and his postal job indirectly helped lead him to his current passion: reviewing audiobooks. About 15 years ago, he had a different postal gig that required a lot of monotonous typing; he chose to pass the time by listening to books. A short-story and poetry writer in his spare time, he eventually merged the writing and the audiobooks. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, he reviews audiobooks for several trucking magazines (Land Line, America Trucking on the Road and The Trucker) and Web sites (, and He recently started producing Audiobooks Today Radio News, a series of about 20 minute-long audiobook stories that air on XM Satellite Radio, with Jeff Davis. He also writes articles for magazines and has published a couple of novels. Yes, he's a busy guy--but he's making the time to make two appearances with Davis at Borders on Sunday, Nov. 9, to discuss audiobooks. He'll be at the Park Place Borders at 1 p.m. and the Oracle Road Borders at 3 p.m.

You have statistics saying audiobook sales are skyrocketing. Why do you think that is?

I think because people don't have time to read print books anymore. They're so busy. Sales of hardcover book sales are down 17.9 percent this year according to Publishers Weekly, while audiobooks are up 17.3 percent. With a print book, you have to drop everything. With an audiobook, you can be gardening or jogging or, most often, driving. It's just that people don't have time, but they want to read, so what better way is there than listening? Plus audiobooks today are more sophisticated, with sound effects, multiple readers and major celebrities. They've blossomed.

How is reviewing an audiobook different than reviewing a print book?

The reader (narrator) brings a completely different experience than reading a print book. In the past, narrators were very dry, just basically reading and getting through the material. Now, it's an act, a performance. Jim Dale won a Grammy for reading the Harry Potter books; he did the voices of something like 113 different characters. It's phenomenal what you can do--it's almost like an audio-only movie.

What makes one audiobook better than another?

Ninety percent is the reader (narrator), if he or she is a good fit for the book. It's how they manipulate (their voice) with inflection, and their ability to interpret characters with accents. A lot of narrators have told me they really study accents to get them right.

What are the best and worst audiobooks you've reviewed lately?

The best is Seabiscuit. It had an interesting author, Laura Hillenbrand, and I really loved the narrator, too; it was Campbell Scott, George C. Scott's son. As for the worst, well, I reviewed a book by John Saul, a horror writer. It was more from the stupidity of the book than the narration; if the text is horrendous, some books are unredeemable.

Does it ever go the other way--where a good book makes for a bad audiobook?

It really depends on the publisher. Certain publishers don't do well, like Americana, which publishes biographies and mysteries. Their narrators are so bad; they don't project well, and they don't do accents well. The sound quality of the recording is off. But with the majority of the publishers, like Random House or Simon & Schuster, you're not going to find any of that.

You mentioned earlier that some major celebrities narrate audiobooks. Who?

Julia Roberts just read a book (The Nanny Diaries). A lot of character actors read. John Grisham just read his first own book--he just basically read it. He didn't try to do accents or anything.

Some say that big Hollywood stars often do worse on Broadway than unheard of actors who just do live theater, because the stars are out of their element. Is that the same with audiobooks?

It is the same thing. I was just talking about Julia Roberts. Everybody knows who she is, and she's a great screen actress; no question about it. But can she narrate? I don't think so. Then, have you ever heard of Barbara Rosenblat? She just won the Solo Narration Audie; every year, the Audio Publishers Association chooses the best in the business. I've been a judge the last three years; there are about 100 nationwide.

OK, one last question: If we could somehow make an audiobook version of The Weekly every issue, do you think there would be a market for it?

You mean other than for blind people? Yeah, maybe, because they'd be without advertisements.

Hmm. That wouldn't be good for the bottom line.

Yeah, I know. You could work advertising in there somewhere, I guess. Actually, some magazines are coming out on CD ... or on

Wow, I just asked that question jokingly.

Well, who knows, with magazines on CD now? They are kind of dumb, though.

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