Litdish: An Interview with Audiobook Producer Elishia Merricks

Audiobooks were originally introduced into my reading practice out of necessity. These are books that I could read while folding laundry, washing dishes, and commuting to my job. I was surprised at how immersive this experience could be. Is it just because I love a good story, or is there something to the construction of an audiobook that’s specifically designed to pierce through the noise of my buzzing brain?

To find out, I sat down with Elishia Merricks, audiobook producer, writer, and podcaster. We dished all about audiobooks: how they fit into the publishing industry, what it takes to make a great audiobook, and how someone might break into this interesting and evolving field. She offered fabulous recommendations for your “to listen” list, and I even learned an easy way to engage with audiobooks while supporting independent bookstores and your local library, who need us now more than ever. Reader, lend me your ears.

Elishia, I’m so excited to learn about your work. How did you get into producing audiobooks?

Getting into it proved to be harder than I thought, despite having experience with producing and directing regional theater in the UK. It wasn’t down at the West End, but the great thing about regional theater is that the director is often involved in doing the lighting, the set design, finding the money—you do everything and quickly discover what you’re good at. I found out that producing was right in my wheelhouse. On top of being organized, and a problem solver, you need to be creative, able to build an authentic relationship, quickly, so that people trust you. It’s very intimate; you get to be family.

Then, I moved to New York. You’d think that my life would be made! I was on Broadway, but it just didn’t have the same intimacy for me. Yes, you’re part of a team, but everything was just so much bigger. I missed that one-on-one aspect I used to have with the actors and the director.

I began working with a non-profit called the SDC Foundation, which promotes and develops the creativity of Broadway directors and choreographers, producing the Masters of the Stage podcast. At the same time, I was writing on my own and finding my place in that community, establishing relationships with critique groups I found online, such as our lovely critique group.

(We’re a group of YA authors living, reading, and writing in NYC. We read and write everything from contemporary to historical, speculative to fantasy. You can follow along with us on Instagram: @Y.A.Hype!)

I found that the book world was much more intimate than Broadway. I wanted to keep up with all the new releases so that I could talk with other writers about them. But, you know, day jobs! You can’t read as much as you’d like to. So, I started listening. It was one of those moments where the world clicks into place. Like, someone produces these! This is a performance.

Lots of people in the theater world are a bit snobby about audiobook narration—they’ll tell you it’s not a “real” performance. Meanwhile, some people in the book world say reading an audiobook is not “real” reading. But I completely disagree. For me, it’s a perfect beautiful connection between the two.

I knew that I could get that perfect marriage between a fantastic piece of literature and a stellar performance, in a way that would feel like I was really contributing something. Getting into the industry as an audio producer is tricky because there is no natural path. The audiobook department developed as people came in from digital, from e-readers, or editors who had some kind of performance background coming together. But if you haven’t had a publishing internship, which I haven’t, it’s very much about shouting from the rooftops that this is what you want to do.

It took me three years of building connections and saying to people that my experience in theater is directly transferable before someone said you know what, we’re in a bind, we need someone to direct/produce this or listen to this. Like every creative industry, relationships are so important, as is learning how to communicate your artistic vision effectively.

I love that what you had to do to get started in the audiobook industry was to figure out how to tell the story of yourself in a way that translated, in the same way you’re translating these books into a different medium.

It’s genuinely a difficult thing because, as you know, the publishing industry is dominated by “The Big Five.” [The Big Four, now?] Some smaller publishers are doing great work, but very few of them have their own in-house audiobook team. I went to a few information sessions, which were great, but not a single one of them had the audiobook department represented. The way I got my contact at Hachette was by going to an open house event. I was talking to an editor at one of their imprints who asked, “Why are you interested in being an editor?” I had to tell her I was actually hoping to speak to someone about audiobooks. She took pity on me and took me back to introduce me to someone in the audiobook department, which was wonderful.

That’s the kind of thing you have to do. It’s always a hustle, especially in producing or something like it, and you have to love the hustle, too. Otherwise, it can grind you down fairly quickly.

So, what is it that you love about audiobooks?

The accessibility drew me to them, but the thing that keeps me coming back is that I adore adaptation—taking one story from a book and finding how it fits on the stage or how it fits in your ears. I think one of the things that people are starting to grasp is that audiobooks are their own medium. The fun for me is in creating an adaptation that’s not just faithful to the book but has its own life and its own excitement.

For example, take The Hunger Games. I love those books and the films as well, but for me the re-reading experience is at its absolute peak with the 10th Anniversary Edition narrated by Tatiana Maslani. That one really clicked for me because Maslani brings a whole new nuance to Katniss—adding sarcasm to one line or another. It was the perfect way to experience the book again. I love hearing someone else’s interpretation in conversation with my own interpretation.

This brings to mind something that I learned here at Antioch in a fiction workshop with author R.O. Kwon. As a revision strategy, she suggested recording yourself as you read your work in progress. You hear so many different things that you might not necessarily pick up on the page.

I’ll try that! I haven’t done it for revising, but when I’m writing there are definitely a lot of very cringy voice memos on my phone as I try out dialogue between two characters. Authentic dialogue is so hard to capture in audiobooks, as well, and I’m able to draw on my theater background interpreting text for performance to support the narrators with that.

What does it take to be a great audiobook narrator?

The big hitters in the audiobook world have found a beautiful balance between a performance and a conversation with a friend. The people who are most successful acknowledge that this performance is different from acting on the stage or on film, even though many of them have that background. It isn’t this big advertising voice that sounds like, “In a world…” I want them to sound like they are telling the story to one person. Intimate. Like meeting a friend for a drink. As a listener you want to connect with the narrator.

Some authors, themselves, are fabulous narrators. When a friend was teaching Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds in her classroom, I suggested she get the audiobook for the students to listen to. Reynolds has a background in spoken word, a beautiful voice, and is adept at changing it to reflect different characters. It really helped the students who were struggling with text. Audiobooks are a great opportunity to introduce those elements that a reader might not be picking up on the page.

Another book that comes to mind for me is The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. She narrates the audiobook and also has a background in spoken word, so it just makes sense that it’s wonderful to listen to.

Yes, those are two of my favorites!

This is a good segue to this question: What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on and why?

When I started, I thought I’d only want to do fiction projects, but this experience has given me a huge appreciation for the power of nonfiction. Especially if it’s an author/narrator on the project, because then I get to talk to them about their work and open up a dialogue about backstory that might not be in the book but that we can use to inform the audiobook.

I recently produced an author/narrator audiobook called Faith After Doubt by Brian McLaren. I never would have thought this would be one of my favorites in my portfolio. McLaren is a progressive Christian pastor. I’m not a religious person myself, but he’s someone who has a strong connection between his faith and his political and social beliefs, so when I was reading it, I realized it’s a book about being a person. I came out of the session really inspired.
There’s a very powerful section about Brian’s interfaith organizing work around a counterprotest to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. He’s written about a highly emotional moment, so when I’m working with an author/narrator on a section like that, it’s about making a safe space for them to genuinely reflect on it without necessarily having to relive it.

Another project that comes to mind, for the same reason, is This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off the Record by Neal Karlen. Neal Karlen is a journalist who had a very long relationship with Prince, despite his having complicated relationships with journalists—you just didn’t have a relationship like that with Prince, but Neal did.

Because of that, there was a moment when Neal became emotional, and despite the fact we were a bit behind schedule, I had to tell the team to take a break. It was important to me to show him that he could be human. That was one of those moments where the producer and director are arguing in my head! The producer is wanting to keep us from billing another hour, but the director is like yeah, but the art, and the actor, and the person. Neal put so much of himself into that recording. It’s so great!

Lastly, I recently worked on I Came as a Shadow by John Thompson, narrated by Jesse Washington. This is Coach John Thompson’s memoir co-written by a brilliant ESPN journalist called Jesse Washington. The thing that stays with me is that Coach said, “I don’t want this to be a book about basketball,” which is amazing because you think, what? He’s this big Georgetown University college basketball coach, the first African-American coach at Georgetown…and I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a beautiful book and everyone should listen to it.

Coach Thompson passed away a few months before we started recording and had said that Jesse should narrate the audiobook. So, there was this real sense of wanting to do Coach justice and to make sure that every word came out exactly how he would have said it. Sometimes I would say, “Can we try it like this?” and Jesse would say, “But Coach would have said it super direct like this,” and I’d say, “Let’s try it and maybe add a little bit of this in as well.” It was a real dialogue between us to create this legacy.

Coach got into coaching because he wanted to be a teacher and told stories to his players all the time. The book feels like it’s his last great story, his last great lesson detailing his experiences as an African-American in his role as a coach, a teacher, a human. As a Black man, Jesse was invested in honoring this important story in a way that, perhaps, a line on a page can’t fully do, because Jesse knows how Coach spoke.

We’re hoping to include a recording of the beautiful poem called Nocturne Varial, which the book takes its title from. It was written by Coach’s uncle, a Harlem Renaissance poet called Lewis Grandison Alexander. We have the audio from Coach himself, recorded on a voice memo he sent to Jesse in the middle of the night. It’s really quite special.

It’s wonderful that in this format you can play with those elements. You can introduce another voice or some music. I just listened to Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, narrated by Ruby Dee. When the music played, it seemed to indicate a moment when you’re meant to sit with what you’ve just read.

Playing with those different mediums can set a mood in a way that honors and enhances the book. There’s a really cool audiobook written by N.K. Jemisin called The City We Became. It was produced by a fabulous producer from Hachette called Elece Green. If you’ve seen the cover, it looks like it’s been double-exposed. It opens with a glitchy feel in the music. She’s taken what that cover looks like and made the audiobook sound like it by playing with reverb throughout the recording. It’s just masterful.

My “to read” list is getting longer and longer! Or my “to listen” list, actually.

That’s funny you say that, because a huge part of the recording process is correcting the narrator every time they say, “in this book.” We have to stop and go back so they can say, “in this audiobook.”

That is funny! Maybe this is a good segue to this question: What’s something you wish audiobook listeners knew about what you do?

At the moment, that the process is all happening in closets! Beyond that, I would share that it takes hours and hours of preparation. Often, I’ll read a book twice if I’m directing it: highlighting everything I need to check for pronunciations and marking any regional accents so I can prepare for dialect work with the narrator. I have experience as a singing teacher, so I know about the mechanics of voice, and I’m able to give notes about producing the sound we want. So, if we’re working on a Brooklyn accent, I can say, “It needs to come forward in your mouth.” A lot of this kind of quick work is needed for audiobook production and getting dialect right is so important!

Another thing is that it’s a very small team. On each project you’ve got a narrator, a director, a producer, an engineer, and someone in post-production. Sometimes the producer is the director, the engineer does the post, and occasionally a sound designer is included. But if you think about it, the audiobook team is part of the larger wheel. You have the marketing team, the editor from the book, all the people who made the manuscript possible!

Can you talk a bit about how audiobook lovers can support their local, independent bookstore, and even small presses, during this challenging year?

Libro.fm is the go-to shop for this. It works the exact same as Audible does. You have your monthly subscription; the only difference is that the proceeds go to independent bookstores. You can even set it to support one particular bookstore. When it comes to supporting books from smaller presses, you can ask your library to stock your audiobook using the Libby app, which also works for eBooks. Libraries acquire books at the rate they are requested so make sure they know you want it!

What are you listening to right now?

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and narrated by Adepero Oduye

This audiobook has an amazing premise, and thrillers are good to listen to while running. I find them really motivating. This is also a great example of how the narrator can bring accuracy and authenticity to the language.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid and Narrated by Jennifer Beals, Benjamin Bratt, Ari Fliakos, Judy Greer, January LaVoy, Pablo Schreiber, and Julia Whelan

I’ve read this before, and it’s even better on the audiobook because it’s about a fictional band, and the stellar cast brings each character to life. The audiobook imagines what their music sounds like, which of course you can’t hear on the page. It’s a comfort read.

First Draft with Sarah Enni

One of my favorite writing podcasts. I also loved her mini-series, Track Changes, which follows one author on her publishing journey from start to finish. Sarah Enni has this longform journalistic style because her background is in journalism, and her interviews are just amazing.

Writing Excuses with Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Daniel Wells

I love this one. It’s just a 15-minute touch-in, every Sunday, of writers digging into a particular topic. Very nitty-gritty stuff for writers!

Thank you for all this! Where can people connect with you and find more about your work?

I’m most active on my Instagram, which is writing and audio focused: @elishiasbooks.n.bobs. My website, which includes my portfolio as well as a connect button, is An English Girl in New York.

Shannon C.F. Rogers is a playwright and author of books for young adults. Her work has appeared in Bodega Magazine, on the Lunch Ticket blog, and on stage with Tricklock Company, Lady Luck Productions, and with Vintage Theater Collective’s Sonnetfest. She earned her B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico in 2009 and is pursuing her MFA in Writing for Young People at Antioch University Los Angeles. An educator with a passion for literacy, Shannon has served school communities in Albuquerque, Chicago, and New York City.