Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, March 13, 2001





I've listened to hundreds of audio book adaptations, and every single time I wonder how they do it:

How do the producers and the engineers and the "abridgers" (an actual term) cut a book in half for an adaptation and still keep the heart of a book alive?

How does the person reading the book at the microphone turn the pages without making shuffling noises; how do those clicks and ticks of the tongue, or nostril hair tootles and the occasional throat tickle get erased at the same time the reader's voice is enhanced?

So here we are in the deep innards of a recording studio where my partner Terry has been asked by her publisher (Simon & Schuster) to read the book about her mother for the audio version that's going to be published simultaneously in April.

To get to the studio, we descend a steep flight of stairs right into the rock base of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Since we're so close to the Embarcadero area, the huge boulders sticking out of the brick walls turn out to be ballast from the sunken remains of Gold Rush ships.

I go into this because the effect is a cavernous feel, very intimate and enclosed - one might say claustrophobic and sealed off if one were nervous about such things - but the staff is friendly and welcoming, and Terry - a bit apprehensive at this first public reading of her book - begins to feel at ease.

Gary Dominguez, our engineer, explains that in the recording biz sound studios often take on a theme or an image to distinguish themselves.

In Los Angeles, for example, the cleverly named Margarita Mix has adopted a Mexican theme, while a San Francisco studio is covered with grotto graphics in an Italian motif and equipped with a huge and complicated espresso machine.

This studio by comparison feels more like the set of a Flintstones movie, and the idea of carving something artistic out of solid rock is a motivating spirit.

The S&S producer, Elisa Shokoff, a veteran of many dozens of book recordings, greets us with such warmth and professionalism that Terry's nervous strangulation begin to sound like a voice that's ready to be recorded.

Elisa makes the point that really, the toughest part of audio adaptation - the abridgment - has already been completed. Terry's rollicking 80,000 words have been hacked to dea - condensed to their golden essence of 40,000 words, and however painful it is for any author to see the shreds of a book left to stand for the whole, the "abridger" - the term does exist - has done a beautiful job.

"It's always best," says Elisa, "when the abridger loves the book, as Sloan has." Really? She refers to Sloan Seaman, a former associate producer S&S Audio who's left the company to do abridging full time.

Really? Gad, what a horrible job, I think. Heaven knows, I could never do it. An abridger would have to be so coldly objective, so unemotional about space and time limitations for audio that cutting the text in half must be clinical drudgery - wouldn't it? As Terry's voice levels are tested, I decide to call Sloan Seaman in New York and find out how she does it. Sure enough, I've been wrong from the start. "Emotional attachment plays a big role when I do an abridgment," she says.

And here's another surprise: the most important thing for an abridger to know (and this, I am floored to realize, is the same for book critics) is author intention.

"You want to know what the author's trying accomplish with this book. You want to feel the emotional impact," she says. "Because if you feel it, so will listeners. That's what guides you when you make each 'pass.' "

The "pass" is key to a good abridgment. "When I read the book, I start crossing out the paragraphs I think can be cut, and I bracket the paragraphs I hope to keep if there's space.

"I print out the manuscript without the cuts to see how it sounds: I don't leave the crossed-out paragraphs in because just seeing them, oddly enough, would make me miss them. The narrative has to make complete sense as I keep stripping it down."

Sounds simple, but there's a little art to it. The first pass usually takes out about half the required cuts, Sloan says. Then she looks at bracketed paragraphs and starts X-ing them out. "It's a roundabout process but it keeps the author intention intact."

The process is often straightforward for nonfiction books, but things get tangled up very fast with fiction.

"It can't be much fun doing novels," I say. "Don't you just hack out everything but plot and main characters? You won't have room for character development or background or subplots or anything the author has worked to make the book full and rich and meaningful." Okay, so I sound a little baiting.

It's true that fiction is the hardest, says Sloan, especially techno-thrillers and spy stories with a lot of intrigue.

In the latter case the abridger often must cut out one or two subplots, which means roto-rootering the narrative to clear out all the references deep in the novel to characters and minor stories that were dropped.

Literary fiction is the VERY hardest. "It's like surgery," says Sloan. "Sometimes instead of cutting paragraphs you go through snipping sentences or words to make the effect barely noticeable."

Unbelievable. "Snipping" away at half the book must be like pruning every tree in Central Park so intimately that the look from skyscrapers above is "barely noticeable."

But now the fun part: Let's talk to Sloan about trends in the audio industry. For one thing, readers are getting more of the book on abridgements than ever before.

It used to be that almost every book adaptation was eviscerated (not her word) to fit two tapes (3 hours). Now most books are taped on 4 cassettes (4.5 hours) and, increasingly, CDs. Six-tape packages are not uncommon, and unabridged adaptations, which used to be available only by rental, are sold in bookstores.

"There also seems to be a move to keep the text more authentic," says Sloan. "In long patches of dialogue, some abridgers used to take out many of the 'he said,' 'she said' references. That put pressure on the actor or performer to distinguish the voices."

Sometimes - this is my feeling, not necessarily Sloan's - actors so overplayed the characters with unnecessary wheezy, gravelly, singsong or accented voices that they got in the way of the book. Music and sound effects often did the same thing. I remember turning up the volume on one thriller because sounds of helicopters in the climactic scene drowned out the voice of the performer.

Then there were the actors who tried to deepen male voices and use falsetto for female voices. These performers, I always felt, should be shot.

Sloan says that much of these histrionics (not her word) are disappearing from the audio scene. A good sign (to me) is that as an abridger she can suggest nuance to the actor. "In one thriller, the murderer thinks he's been reincarnated from the 1800s and talks in a faux British voice." It's something I can jot in the margin of the script.

And what about Terry's book? See Part II, soon to come.



As I continue to compile the list of great independent websites, one suggestion keeps coming up in the mail that everyone can use.

That is to click over to the American Booksellers Association directory of members ( http://www.bookweb.org/bookstores/ ), where you can either browse the list state-by-state and town-by-town or search the list for the store you want t find.

All bookstore names that are listed in blue are direct links to the stores' websites - just click on the blue line and you're there.

This is an easy and adventurous way to explore neighborhood bookstores that have websites where you can order books to pick up or have sent to your home.

It's fun to see how a store you know has somehow brought its character and point of view onto the website, so you feel as though you're walking into it in a different way, not only because it's cyberspace but also because the connection is surprisingly personal.

The annotated list I'm working on now, with the help of many readers (and all suggestions are welcome), approaches the online independent in a different way - you may never visit any of the physical stores, but what a rich and varied experience they offer you on the Internet!

More to come on this.



I must say I've admired Jeff Bezos (well, anything's possible) for the way he's been up-front with investors all along. Even when his (personal and company) stock was soaring, he warned that Amazon.com was volatile and not for everybody.

So his "moment of candor" as PW called it yesterday, before he appeared on the BBC's Money Program, was perhaps more typical than unusual when he said that Amazon was "not a stock you can sleep well with at night."

And, again, he sure knows how to spin: Sounding like a brave and honest entrepreneur of cyberspace, Bezos also exploited the moment by adding: "We think over time we'll build a very valuable company. But for the short-term investor, or for a small investor, I would not invest in Internet stocks."

Saying "Internet" rather than "Amazon" keeps the ball outside his court, so to speak, which I'm sure he wants to do, since this week the New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA) has asked for proof that Amazon is not going down the toilet.

According to the Wall Street Journal, investment banker Gary Lutin, representing the NYSSA, "says that he's not alone when it comes to analysts worried about a 'disruptive financial crisis.' "

"Lutin wrote in the letter [to Bezos from the NYSSA], 'Whatever [Amazon.com] provided to the auditors should be disclosed publicly to investors.' "

Great idea. For a publicly traded company, Amazon.com has been getting away with murder keeping its "profits" so close to the vest. Perhaps now we'll get some evidence about the Books Division making a profit for over a year now. Or did anyone believe it was ever true?



Dear Holt Uncensored:

This is an exchange I have had with Amazon.com about a website called www.codoh.com [Committee for Open Discussion of the Holocaust] that advances "revisionism" regarding the Holocaust:

To: Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com
Subject: Your affiliate website codoh (Committee for Open Discussion of the Holocaust)
From: Arthur Goldwag

I am a first-amendment absolutist, but I don't feel compelled to enable or indeed profit off purveyors of hate speech. I was deeply disgusted when during my research on the Holocaust I clicked on this website (I am doing some research on D. D. Guttenplan's forthcoming book on the Lipstadt trial ["The Holocaust on Trial"]) and discovered that it sells its books through you. I have spent hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars at Amazon over the past four years (I am xxxx@xxx.com) and despite your rising prices and declining service, I never really seriously considered taking my business elsewhere. You have pushed me over the edge.

To: Arthur Goldwag
From: orders@amazon.com
Subject: Your Amazon.com Feedback

Thanks for writing to us at Amazon.com with your concern.

In addition to a wide selection of items, one of our aims at Amazon.com is to provide a convenient and efficient service; in this case, we have not met that standard.

I am truly sorry that we were not able to fulfill your expectations for this level of service. I hope that you will honor us with another opportunity to prove the quality of our service to you in the future.

Please let us know if you have any further questions, and thanks for shopping at Amazon.com.

To: "'orders@amazon.com'"
Subject: RE: Your Amazon.com Feedback
From: Arthur Goldwag

I don't know what the hell you're talking about. I wasn't complaining about your service (although it certainly has declined), I was complaining about the fact that Amazon is partnering with an anti-semitic, pro-Nazi web site. I really, really mean it when I say I'm taking my business elsewhere.

To: Arthur Goldwag
From: orders@amazon.com
Subject: Your Amazon.com Feedback

Thank you for writing to Amazon.com with your concerns about "The Holocaust on Trial".

Please note that Amazon.com does not endorse any opinions expressed by individual authors, musical artists, or filmmakers. As a retailer, our goal is to provide customers with the broadest selection possible so they can find, discover and buy any title they might be seeking. Therefore, the books and other items offered on our web site represent a wide spectrum of opinions on a variety of topics.

We value all feedback from our customers, and I thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments about this issue.

To: orders@amazon.com
Subject: Re: Your Amazon.com Feedback
From: Arthur Goldwag

Maybe it's my fault because I wrote in the heat of the moment and didn't explain myself thoroughly. I naively supposed that someone would read my letter, perhaps look up my account and verify that I really did spend all that money, and then check out the affiliate website (codoh.com) that I complained about. My issue wasn't with your service (as bad as it's become); I wasn't complaining about THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL, either, which has not yet been published. But since you value my feedback so much, I am going to try one last time to make myself clear. Then I will forward this whole string to the Jewish Anti-defamation League. 

Here is my complaint: while doing research on the above mentioned book, THE HOLOCAUST ON TRIAL, I clicked on an anti-semitic, Holocaust-denying website called codoh.com. At the bottom of its home page was an animated Amazon logo. When I clicked on it, it took me to "the codoh.com bookstore" [the Amazon.com website]. I was really appalled that Amazon would lend its logo and its corporate legitimacy to such a vile organization.

I too believe that all books, regardless of point-of-view or politics, should be made available to the public - I am a first amendment absolutist. However, I do not believe that that freedom of expression and business partnerships with Nazi organizations are at all the same thing. I support anyone and everyone's right to publish and disseminate their hateful books and pamphlets, I even acknowledge Amazon's right to legitimize and profit from them. However, I now choose to exercise my right to boycott your company and to tell as many people as I can to do likewise. Judging from how carefully you read my correspondence, I'm sure that your arrangement with codoh.com is a result of carelessness, greed and inattention, not deliberate policy. Be that as it may, your carelessness about these affiliate relationships, your promiscuity, as it were, does not, in my mind, excuse you.

Arthur Goldwag

Dear Holt Uncensored:

No doubt you will receive plenty of mail from Internet merchants on the subject of sales tax and use tax, as a result of your item in #222.

Any bookseller who is registered with his/her state to do business should be collecting sales tax for sales within that state, but not elsewhere. As for me, I collect sales tax on Internet sales from New Yorkers, but not anywhere else. That's the lowdown. Dealers are not required to collect use taxes. Where a state (like Oregon) has no sales tax, the dealers there charge and collect no sales taxes at all.

It is widely believed that we online booksellers are avoiding our tax obligations, but I believe that almost all of us are doing the right thing. There are, of course, people selling things on the net who are not really dealers, just folks emptying their attics. I am sure they probably don't do anything about taxes, but I really object to this canard of Neal Coonerty that we are not required to collect taxes, with the insinuation that we don't.

By the way, the NY State use tax, which I just looked up, is for "tangible personal property or services (purchased without payment of sales or use tax) used in your business within New York State."

I've never paid it or even paid attention to it because I am not using any equipment or anything that I did not pay sales tax on. This does not apply, of course, to things purchased for resale. If I did have such things, of course I would pay. Alyce Cresap
Books & Ephemera
Germantown, New York

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[About the story in #221 about Deepak Chopra's author event]: Chopra, of course, is a huckster, right up there with the televangelists. They give God a bad name...and that used to be called blasphemy. Want to know God? Try another Indian - Gandhi. He wrote a great book called  The Way to God (Section 532, when we have it ). If Chopra's title sounds familiar, it may be due to his "tapping into the quantum consciousness" which, in another era, was akin to plagiarism.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

We in and around Baltimore have just learned that that we will lose Bibelot - all four stores - within 90 days. Over the last six years they have supported many of us local authors, brought in big names and small, and hosted the annual Book Bash to support literacy. Sad news indeed.

Barbara Lee

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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