Debbie Levitt

voice actor, singer, producer

What Blind People Want From Audiobook Narrators

Posted on Sep 29, 2016 in Opinions

As someone with a 20+ year career in user experience and caring about accessibility, I can’t help but consider the blind and visually impaired when I am narrating an audiobook. Like any good UX researcher, I wanted to learn from these target users what they need and prefer. People with visual issues are large and lifelong consumers of audiobooks. They are an important target group to consider and include.

I joined the official online discussion forum for “Blind Audible Listeners.” I introduced myself as a narrator and said I wanted to learn more about what they wanted from narrators. What would make listening to us better? What could we do differently? Approximately 20 people chimed in.

You might already be doing some of these things but here is what I learned, names removed.

They are grateful.

Thank you, narrators, for reading audiobooks. Many people in this group have been blind since birth and grew up listening to audiobooks. It was hard to not get emotional when hearing how important our work is for these people.

Read everything

One of the most wonderful quotes in the whole conversation is this one:

If we are going to have true access to everything as sighted people do though with print books then I guess everything should be read.

As a narrator, you might think that nobody wants to hear the table of contents read… they can look at their screen and see the table of contents! Well… not if you are blind.

These listeners want us to read it all… About the Author, Table of Contents, even the snippets that appear on the back of the book and the inside jackets. They want to hear it ALL. We could put those files last if we think sighted listeners would want to skip them, but we should include them.

One of my biggest complaints about commercial audio, as opposed to our national library service for the blind, is that they don’t read the extra stuff. I like the table of contents. I like the book jacket info, acknowledgements, dedications and everything else.

Even when I read a braille book, I read everything, all the contents, acknowledgements and all. I want every word. So, losing all that with commercial audio is sad to me.

They would also like author names spelled, probably so they can research that person online more easily. I’m Debbie Levitt. D E B B I E. L E V I T T.

Table of Contents and Chapters

TOC for fiction books wasn’t that important to the blind listeners. But they did feel that the TOC could be helpful for non-fiction books.

They also want chapter names read out. Don’t just say Chapter 2. If chapter 2 has a name, read that.

Accents

The community has spoken: if you cannot do an accent really really well, pretty much natively, please don’t do that accent. They can’t really bear with hours of your obviously-fake southern accent.

They also felt that if a book takes place in a certain country or area, just use a normal accent.

It’s always struck me as odd when narrators use French, Spanish or whatever accented English for a book set in a country which speaks that language. I mean in France, people are speaking French, not French-accented English. So, my preference in those cases would be to read the text with no variation in accent.

Similarly, they did not want to hear a multi-hour non-fiction book in a regional accent, even if the author is from that region and has that accent.

Um, * to 10 hours of a book on self help …or cooking, or economics (ew!) or world affairs in a New York (or any other) accent? Thanks, I don’t think so…

Footnotes

Some books have footnotes. Narrators vary in where they read these. Some read them right after the sentence with the footnote so that the content is closely connected to the note. Other narrators might do a whole block of footnotes at the end of the book.

The blind listeners mostly agreed that the best place for footnotes would be at the end of the relevant chapter. Footnotes in a block at the end are now too disconnected from what the original content was. What are we talking about again? That was chapters ago!

Footnotes right after the relevant sentence interrupts the flow of the content. Many blind users suggested that narrators should continue the flow and then at the end of the chapter, read out each footnote as a set.

One suggestion was at the end of the sentence say, “footnote 1.” At the end of the chapter, reference the footnote number, remind the listener what it was about (a name, place, book, object, reference), and then read the author’s note.

The only thing I don’t care to hear is notes inserted in the middle of sentences or paragraphs, such as notes to clarify things often found in classics. It really puts me off when I was trying to read [famous classic book] and every other sentence, the reader said note, so and so was an historical figure or such and such is a device that…

Drama, rhythm, and tone

Blind listeners ask for medium on the drama level. They can hear subtle differences in tones, attitudes, and intentions. As narrators, we don’t have to overdo it to get an intense emotion or situation across.

Be careful of falling into patterns with your intonation, pattern, or both.

What has driven me nuts is there is a guy at NLS who ends practically every other sentence in the tone of “shave and a haircut, two bits,” as in the Bluegrass music lick. That was annoying.

Other blind listeners complained about narrators who were too monotone. It’s very important for us to find the balance between too monotone, which might sound uninterested, repetitive, or boring, and over-dramatized.

I don’t mind a bit of dramatization, after all, if I want an automaton, I can listen to synthesized speech, but like everything else, a little goes a long way. For me, the readers I seem to like best give me the feeling that we are reading the book together, and that the narrator is enjoying it as much as I am. I can’t define what the narrator does that gives me this feeling, exactly, but when I notice it, I’m delighted.

Pronunciation

Blind listeners are not happy when a narrator does not pronounce words or names well. These might be common words where the narrator has an incorrect or rarely-used alternative pronunciation. Or these could be names.

They suggest that narrators work with the author or publisher to double-check how things should be pronounced, especially in the fantasy genre, where people and places may be made up or from an imagined language.

If you are not sure how to pronounce it, don’t just go for it… ask the author!

Be remarkable

I’m picky, but that’s because I have had the privilege of being exposed to some truly *excellent* narrations, so I *know* what is possible.

In conclusion

Some audiobook narrators may be tied to his or her current narration style. Some may not be concerned with the blind or visually impaired. It’s very easy to keep doing what you’re doing… or to imagine that blind people are a minority so why aim at them.

A current statistic is that 0.5% of people in America are legally blind. A 2013 study reports that 2.3% of Americans have a visual disability.

It’s worth doing something for 2.3% of people. As I’m writing this, people are fussing over my new phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, and how Samsung recalled it for faulty batteries. Samsung estimated that 0.01% of the batteries were likely to catch fire (100 phones out of 1 million), but chose to recall all. It’s a great reminder that sometimes something represents a small group… but you do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do.

We can make this a better world by having empathy. If you were blind, what would you want?

Those with recent or lifelong visual issues are an excellent and faithful target audience for narrators. They don’t want speech synthesis. They want us. We should give all of our customers/listeners our best. But with little extra work, we can go an extra mile for a group of wonderful people who have a handful of fair requests.

I hope each narrator will consider what I have learned here. Perhaps there are small (or large) changes you can make to what or how you narrate that will better connect with everybody.