We had the pleasure of meeting Ian Rattray recently, to find out more about his latest project, Clear Voice Enterprises, and the production of accessible literature via audio books. With the market for audio books growing steadily, it seems that Ian has timed it just right. Did you know that formats of audio recordings were available in the 19th century? Ian tells us more ... 

Hello, my name is Ian Rattray, I’m registered blind and I run a small not-for-profit organisation called Clear Voice Enterprises (CVE).  Our core aim at CVE is the production of alternative formats, ie large print, braille and audio.

At the heart of what we do is the production of audio books.  You may ask yourselves why is this?  Well, I guess my motives were purely selfish.  I’d trained in audio production and I have a passion for reading and I believe that access to literature is a human right.  Literature to me is vital to development of thought and mind.  I also think it’s important to find the time to escape from the day-to-day hassles and occasional traumas of living.

Less than 2% of audio books produced are those in translation

The spark, as it were, came after I’d attended the Caine Prize for African Literature back in 2010.  It peaked my interest in literature by non-English writers.  I spent the next couple of years investigating literature in translation and applying to the Arts Council for a grant.   I found that less than 2% of audio books produced are those in translation; this is either commercially or by library services for the print disabled.

I also looked at my options in regards how to go about producing audio books.  The production of books commercially requires largish amounts of money.  Alongside the usual studio, voice, post, and production costs you have to fork out for the rights.  After a little investigation I found that by producing audio books for the print-disabled market I could avoid the rights issue by using the Copyright License Agency’s Print Disabled License.  Yes, of course this means a limited market, in fact no real market at all, as I intended to give the books away to the library services.  But the point was that I had a 90,000 plus readership readymade.  A nice solid fact to provide the funders.  The other upside was I didn’t require to produce art work or fancy packing for the product, as I was supplying the library services with digital masters.  This meant I could focus on quality. 

Not all actors can read, and not all voice artists can act.  And those who read audio books are a breed apart from them ...

One of the guiding principles of CVE is that quality matters.  Audio book production has a cost.  To help negate that cost the use of volunteers was often made, especially in the early years.  As worthy as this may be, a book is only as good as the reader makes it.  Some library services still use volunteers, most of whom are either retired actors or resting actors.  This works, as there is a measure of professionalism brought to the reading by the reader.  But, as a volunteer I once used found out, the taking on of an audio book is a real commitment.  By the end of the project we’d pretty well fallen out.  Unfortunately for me I then had several tens of hours post production to put the book together…

Audio equiptment next to laptop

This is why any book I produce for the print-disabled market is read by a professional reader - or at worst an actor.  There is a difference.  Not all actors can read, and not all voice artists can act.  And those who read audio books are a breed apart from them.  You really have to love the job.  Here’s why: professional readers are paid by the finished hour, ie a ten hour book the actor gets paid for 10 hours, even if they spent 15 hours in the studio.  They also have to prep the book, mark out characters, look for any tricky pronunciation etc.  They could easily have read through the book twice before even getting into the studio.  So for all of this work for a ten hour audio book they may get between £600 and £800, depending on the contract.  In real money say you spend 40 hours prepping and studio time for a £700 job, you’ll get £17.50 per hour and then you have to wait for the next job.

In commercial terms a reader standard has to be extraordinarily high, more than three fluffs a page and they probably won’t get invited back.  For a celebrity reader this is different, they’re being engaged for their name basically to sell the book regardless of their suitability or reading ability.

I’m in the fortunate position where, yes I’m interested in quality, but I can be a little forgiving when it comes to fluffs per page.  One of the sub-remits was to offer work to new readers.  As an actor it’s tough enough to break into the field in any area.  I kind of felt that offering opportunities to new voices was a way of giving back to the industry as it seemed to be a mutual giving I mean to say that the enjoyment got from the VI person is equal to the experience gained by the reader.

So in May of 2012 I’d launched my first attempt at a not-for-profit organisation called Clear Voice Books.  I received a grant from the Arts Council for £13k for a pilot to produce our first three books.  In fact we did well, since by the end of the funding period we had a surplus which went towards another book in collaboration with English Pen.  So, a success!

Since 2012 we have produced 5 books under the CVB banner and a sixth as an independent project. Before the audio books I was producing information in audio as an alternative format.  This could be in the form of text to speech or real voice audio.  I made the decision to merge the two strands of my activities in 2015 under the new company name of Clear Voice Enterprises. 

It’s worth noting that spoken word audio was available on wax cylinders in the late 19th century.  They held about 4 minutes’ worth of audio so were impractical as a media for literature.  The original concept of an audio book was explored by the RNIB in the 1920s, after WWI.   Many service men had been blinded and a need arose for these men to access books.  So by the 1930s, the RNIB and the American Foundation for the Blind had started producing audio books on shellac and later long playing discs.  The very first audio book was in America in 1934 and the RNIB followed shortly in 1935.  Each of these books would come on a dozen or more discs, not the most convenient way of listening to a book …

From its initial conception audio books were the province of the visually impaired.  It’s only in the last 15 or so years that the market has expanded into a growing commercial market.

Later, with the introduction of magnetic tape the process became more practical.  Tape was used right up to the 80s when CD started to take over.  Now of course we have MP3 downloads and MP3 CD as well as formats like DAISY.  So time is no issue.  A DAISY format audio book can hold up to 24 hours of audio on one CD.  Though it’s worth noting a special player is required to play the book.

From its initial conception audio books were the province of the visually impaired.  It’s only in the last 15 or so years that the market has expanded into a growing commercial market.  There were a limited number of books produced on compact cassette in the 1980s.  These generally were abridged or short radio comedy shows and dramas.  With the advent of download sites such as Audible, audio books have become more popular than ever.

By the 1970s, the RNIB Talking Book Service was providing books on 6 track cartridges that used a bespoke player, a large clunky box which used to sit by the side of my bed.  Calibre Audio Library went the compact cassette route.  There books would turn up in a long narrow cardboard box with about 8 to 12 cassettes in. 

Now, both services offer memory sticks, CDs and downloads: how things have changed.

My message for those who share my passion for literature, and making it accessible to all, is: get involved, get supporting CVE, and get in touch!  This can be with a view to supporting funding bids, making a donation, or offering practical services or help.

To get in touch please email [email protected] or go to the CVE website: http://www.clearvoiceenterprises.org

Interested in audio books or audio describing? If you have an article you'd like us to feature, please contact the team at [email protected]