Actress Vanessa Johansson recently found herself in the middle of a steamy interracial romance, one complicated by a gunshot and a looming lawsuit. It was also purely fictional.
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Johansson, older sister of Scarlett, was sitting in a comfy recording studio, narrating Sandra Kitt's novel "Close Encounters" for Audible Inc., the industry leader in audiobooks.
In one of six darkened recording spaces at Audible's sleek and inviting Newark, New Jersey, headquarters, the actress read from a glowing iPad, silently swiping pages as she moved through the book.
Across a partition, her director, Ian Hackney, kept an eye on accuracy and a consistent tone during their six-hour sessions. Johansson changed voices for each character — some more sensuous, some flecked with wonder.
She read from page 374: "He was busy consoling himself over losing Carol for this second time. But he was pragmatic. It was Carol who had changed much more than he had in the past few years ..."
Just then, Johansson was gently stopped by Hackney, who had heard a slight hitch. "Let's take that sentence one more time," he said. Johansson paused and then dived into the passage again.
Audiobooks — for so long dismissed as the things on CD you hope keep the kids quiet during long car trips — are all grown up, and lately the balance of power has shifted from the author to the presentation.
Just as the technology has gotten a digital upgrade, the bland narrators of the past have been replaced by theater pros like Alan Cumming ("The Poetry of Scotland"), Jim Norton ("Dubliners") and Michael C. Hall ("Breakfast at Tiffany's") and A-list actors like Nicole Kidman ("To the Lighthouse"), Jake Gyllenhaal ("The Great Gatsby"), Matthew McConaughey ("White Man's Problems") and Reese Witherspoon ("Go Set a Watchman").
Seasoned actors bring an assortment of voices into the booth, a history of being comfortable handling large chunks of text, flexibility in approach, stamina and an ability to give life to characters.
"I think there's a level of interpretive experience that a great actor or a great director-producer can bring to this that causes the greatest scripts arguably of all time — like a great novel — to then be refracted through a brilliant performance," said Donald Katz, founder and CEO of Audible, owned by Amazon. He calls what he does "theater for your ears."
Vanessa Johansson has had such a good time in the booth that she recently recruited her younger sister to narrate Lewis Carroll's playful "Alice in Wonderland" for Audible, due out in February.
This time, she was in the director's chair and Scarlett Johansson voiced the likes of Alice, The White Rabbit, The Cheshire Cat and The Mad Hatter.
"Obviously we know each other very well and we've been doing silly voices with each other since we were little kids," said Vanessa. "It didn't take any convincing, really."
The increase in celebrity interest is mirrored by soaring profits. The Audio Publishers Association estimates that audiobook sales in 2014 totaled more than $1.47 billion, up 13.5 percent over 2013, a bump attributed to easier digital downloads and higher quality.
The number of audiobooks published last year was 25,787, more than four times the 6,200 titles in 2010. According to the independent Edison Research firm, some 55 million people listened to an audiobook in the last year.
"To millions of people, it's their preferred way of experiencing literature," said Katz. "And it has this massive utility in a busy time because you can't use your eyes to read or look at a screen or watch a play if you're in a car or on a StairMaster."
Vanessa Johansson, an actress and artistic associate with the Scandinavian American Theater Company, said narrating audiobooks has been a way to practice her skills while earning a reliable paycheck.
"It's one of the best things that's happened to my career," said Johansson. "To be a working actor, you really need to have a lot of pots simmering at the same time. I see audiobooks as on that same stovetop."
Other celebrity readers include Damian Lewis, Diane Keaton, Claire Danes, Anne Hathaway, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Kim Basinger and Jennifer Connelly.
Stage and TV star Bobby Cannavale, who read all seven Harry Potter novels aloud to his son, recently narrated "Lush Life" by Richard Price and "The Family Corleone," a prequel to Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."
"I'm pretty fast at it. It's another form of acting. It's like doing a radio play," said Cannavale. "And I can take smoke breaks. I can wear a hat."
For actor Kevin Weeks, narrating is "the closest thing to a day job I've ever had." He reads everything from Westerns to juvenile fiction, a book about the Pentagon Papers and one about mushroom foragers in the Pacific Northwest.
"We're paying attention to story and plot. A lot of things that actors do when we're working on new things onstage, we're doing to make things work on the page," he said. "We're tying up loose ends and we're adding inflections to things so you can hear what's happening."
Johansson prepares for each reading like a stage role. She reads the book with attention to how the story flows and adds texture to the voices. She looks for clues in the text about her approach and even sends an email to authors to ask if they have any particular requests.
"When you're reading, you cannot hesitate. You really need to be just in the moment," she said. "It really makes you free up because if you're hesitating, you're not reading."