Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
With their company Talking Book, Ben Matchar and Kris Hartrum are on track to become the audiobook industry equivalent of indie rock stars. (Pictured above: Asheville poet Nickole Brown)
It began with the spoken word.
Before long, words evolved into sentences, and sentences grew into stories. As the stories became longer, the storytellers began notating them on clay tablets. Eventually, paper was invented, and then ink, and a couple of millennia later, a hand-written Latin manuscript called The Book of Kells made its appearance. Fast forward another 600 years to 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type: People learned to read; books began to circulate. By 1830 paperbacks made their appearance, and books were everywhere.
As technology moved on, the tape recorder opened a new frontier. Books moved onto tape, onto compact discs, and finally onto digital platforms, where they evolved into electronic impulses: no pages to turn, nothing to touch, nothing to see. We had returned—finally—to the spoken word.
And that brings us to Asheville, where a young company is busily publishing digital books for a young audience born and raised in a digital age.
Talking Book is the brainchild of Ben Matchar, a 32-year-old entrepreneur with a creative streak and a liberal arts degree from Bennington College in Vermont. As a student of dramatic arts, he took his degree and his ambition to Hollywood, where he managed to get some work in television and film productions—and where he discovered the relatively new field of digital audiobooks. He realized that producing a digital voice recording was a lot simpler—and cheaper—than trying to make a video, so he established himself as a freelance producer, recording books for publishers and audio production companies. By the time he was ready to leave Los Angeles, he had produced 50 audiobooks and was ready to do more.
Asheville beckoned for both its creative buzz and its affordability. “I had gone to UNC Asheville for my first semester in college,” he says. “I felt connected to the area. I saw it as kind of an up and coming town—on the verge, so to speak—and that’s how I felt things were for my business at the time.” Ben arrived in 2014, initially establishing himself under the name Spoken Word, and picked up where he had left off in Los Angeles. He continued to produce audiobooks under contracts with production companies—but soon his business began its own slow process of evolution.
Enter Kris Hartrum.
Kris is a partner in Talking Book, but his route to audio production is even longer and more twisted than Ben’s. After he graduated from Appalachian State, Kris gravitated to Japan, where he lived “for most of my twenties.” He pursued a variety of careers, including “teaching and writing about mixed martial arts and kick boxing for American magazines. I also started a literary community and a magazine.” Now Kris smiles at the recollection of his years in Japan and in his, quiet, offhand manner he adds, “and during lean periods I tended bar.”
Years in Tokyo, Nagoya, and then in New York City left him “just a bit exhausted of constantly moving around, and I wanted to get back to a more relaxed North Carolina existence. While he was a student at Appalachian State, among his friends was Dani Harris. During his year in New York, they reconnected, took a previously platonic relationship in a more romantic direction, and by the beginning of 2015, they had moved to Asheville. Now he’s sitting on a sofa in his Asheville living room, leaning back, relaxed, wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt. Dani is keeping their 2½-year old son, Max, quiet in another room. (Max was too shy to say hello to the visitor, but he happily offered an enthusiastic high five.)
By the kind of coincidence that nudges evolutionary change, Ben and Kris both happened to sign up for an acting class in Black Mountain. Neither of them had any grand ambitions as an actor, but the class attracted their creative impulses—and it was something to do on Wednesday nights. Kris explains that one night, Ben needed a ride to the class. “I picked him up. We started talking. He said, ‘I have an audiobook production company.’ I thought, ‘Aha. I like audiobooks.’”
Ben grins at the memory and shakes his head as Kris continues. “My mind was churning. This could be a cool intro into the publishing game. Because there’s all kinds of cool people who know a hell of a lot about books and writing who were starting as independent publishers, but I couldn’t think of anyone who was doing something weird and cool like that in audio, which I knew from news articles was the fastest growing format in publishing. So I started working with him.”
Spoken Word was still producing books on contract, but Ben and Kris also began talking about expanding their role into a full-service audio publishing house. Sign up authors and publishers, turn their printed books into audio productions, and release the audio versions on websites such as Amazon, iTunes, Audible, Audiobooks.com, and Downpour, among others. Kris says they now work with as many as 12 to 15 distributors on any given book.
These two liberal arts, creative types were playing with the idea of launching a serious business—with no real business experience. They recognized that condition as a tried-and-true formula for bankruptcy, so they registered for a class in entrepreneurship through area nonprofit Venture Asheville, which connects startup entrepreneurs with experienced mentors to help them navigate the real-world hazards and unanticipated complications of running a business.
Enter Jeremy Purbrick.
Jeremy is a successful entrepreneur in the tech industry who came to North Carolina from England via Canada and who connected with the duo via Venture Asheville.
“They were one of the first companies I worked with,” Jeremy says. “What struck me about Ben and Kris was the thoughtful way they approached their business [and] the flair they showed for various detailed publication and promotional ideas. But what struck me most was the way the two of them worked together. I thought back to my partners at their age, and we were nowhere near as good as they are at working together.”
Jeremy worked with them as a mentor, and as the decision to evolve the business became more viable, he joined the company as a principal. His role, as he puts it, was to be “the voice on Ben’s shoulder. There are thousands of distractions in starting a business, and because of my experience I was able to remind him to stick to his vision.”
Ben and Kris both say they feel a deeper comfort level in facing their new challenges, knowing they have Jeremy as a seasoned backstop. Ben smiles at the recollection of the meeting they had to discuss a business plan. “Jeremy expected me to have that ready to go,” he recalls, “but I had nothing on paper. He said, ‘We’re going to sit down and make a real plan,’ and it took us about three weeks. He kept us focused, and by the time we finished, it had everything from projections on sales and profit to every line item in the budget.”
Enter Dave Burr.
Sitting across from Ben is the fourth member of the company, the essential hands-on participant: the audio engineer. A self-taught techie who records and edits the productions, Dave is responsible for making the book sound like the author wrote it. When asked about the engineer’s challenge, his conversation quickly goes into professional jargon. “Using various plug-ins, qc-ing it (quality control), compressing the sound…” The words cascade out as Dave loses himself in the intricacies of his craft: “Is the narrator too soft-spoken or too dynamic? You have to watch that it doesn’t go too far. I try to find the narrator’s reading level. Does he have too little pauses or too long pauses? I fix that kind of thing in post (production). Then you gotta lay in the music. The editing system we use is Adobe Audition. As the narrator records a book, I’m listening, and in my head, I’m thinking, ‘At some time this has to become an audiobook that someone wants to listen to.’ We take care of that in the editing.”
By the end of last year, they had the elements in place to make the leap from simple production facility to full-fledged studio, buying books, producing the audio versions, and marketing them to the major distribution websites. Ben Matchar’s little Spoken Word company was ready to change its name and evolve into Talking Book.
The secret ingredient to their venture was Ben’s vision of a company specializing in what he calls “edgy” authors, the alternative, trail-blazing writers working with independent publishers to reach audiences that fall outside the mainstream. Ben sees Talking Book as appealing to a niche market of “twenty-somethings trying to adjust,” and he returns to that word, “edgy,” to describe the kind of writers they are seeking.
Kris describes their niche in terms of the overall audio market. “There are many large audiobook publishers—Recorded Books, AudioBooks.com, Audible Studios. What they do is they buy very large, sweeping chunks of all books being published. What we’re doing is finding the coolest, most interesting publishers, the small independents that have a very literary focused angle. The reason we’ve been collaborating with them is not only because our missions are similar, but also because our business models line up.”
As an example he points to Darcie Wilder, whose day job is writing for the MTV News Twitter and Instagram accounts. She has more than 70,000 Twitter followers, which, in itself, is a great start for marketing her novel, entitled in lower-case, literally show me a healthy person. Ben and Kris can’t hide their enthusiasm for Darcie. She’s one of those “trailblazing young writers who are changing the way stories are told,” Kris says.
Ben adds a personal note. “I’m realizing the dream of collaborating with artists who are doing things that excite me.” (A roster of their authors and titles is listed on the company website, TheTalkingBooks.com.)
“As time goes by and audiobooks become more popular, we have to stay ahead of the curve and get things before everybody dives in,” Ben says. “We’re looking for titles where the competition would want to get in but hasn’t gotten there yet.”
In pursuit of that alternative vision, Talking Book has also acquired the rights to works by big-name authors who are now dated but were once considered the avant-garde revolutionaries of the lit world. They are producing two erotic novels by Anais Nin, along with works by Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Arthur Rimbaud, and Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector.
“The reason we’re also focusing on those writers,” Kris says, “is because for their time, they were those people, the revolutionary writers. They were thought of as experimental, insane people, but they obviously helped change the game back then. Those books have never been in audio, so we’re tipping the hat to those writers who were trailblazers back in the day.”
The trail to those early trailblazers brought them to the Anais Nin Foundation, where they secured the rights to A Spy in the House of Love (first published in 1954) and Little Birds (which appeared posthumously, in 1979), and to the back catalog of New Directions, a renowned independent publishing house founded in 1936 by James Laughlin, who published early works by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, and many more.
“The catalog has about 1,000 books that never made it to audio,” Ben says. “We’re in talks to produce dozens of them, and we’ve already struck a deal for the first eight.” Ben and Kris are aware that other audio producers are plowing the same field. “As time goes by and audiobooks become more popular, we have to stay ahead of the curve and get things before everybody dives in,” Ben says. “We’re looking for titles where the competition would want to get in but hasn’t gotten there yet.”
The early authors represent a classic niche within Talking Book’s broader niche, and it is a potentially lucrative area both Ben and Kris intend to pursue. But it does come with a small drawback. Those earlier works are, as Ben puts it, “not quite as much fun because we don’t get to meet the author. It’s really exciting to get to work with the artist. We miss out on that with those earlier authors.”
Sitting on the coffee table in Kris’ living room is an open book, The Setting Sun, by Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai, originally published in 1947. He’s reading the book as a possible addition to the Talking Book repertoire. When he considers the challenge of reading the enormous volume of books the company is considering, he admits, “Dani helps, and sometimes I even outsource a book to some of my readerly friends.” He gestures to a tall bookcase crammed with volumes that he’s considering. “I’m always reading—and I love it,” he says.
Ben sees his company as a prime audio vehicle for that alternative market. His short-term ambition? “That all the publishers who are putting out this exciting, trailblazing work know who we are by name, and that people understand that these experimental or literary works are best left in our hands. And the work will speak to that.”
As for the long-term, Ben’s dreams are no less ambitious. Looking down the road a few years, he grins at the thought. “We’ll be a household name. The door will be open for all kinds of creative projects. We’ll be involved in new media, other languages, maybe virtual reality. Our goal is to stay on the edge. That’s what keeps me excited.” He sees the gateway to the dream already swinging open: “We’ve seen some movement with authors who are requesting us.”
Today, Ben is wearing a short-sleeve T-shirt, and showing beneath the left sleeve is the bottom of a tattoo that looks like musical notes wrapped around his arm. Music notes? His voice grows quieter, reaching a shy, almost embarrassed tone. “I play classical piano,” he says. “The tattoo is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, the second movement. It’s a funeral dirge.” A funeral dirge tattoo? His response maintains the somber tone of the conversation. “It’s a commemoration for a friend who died as a kid.”
At this point, less than a year into this latest stage of evolution, Ben and Kris sound optimistic, even somewhat confident that they’re on the right track. But at the beginning, the evolution was laden with anxiety. “Oh yeah,” Ben says. “It took me two months and a lot of heartache to shift the focus of the company.” He can smile now at his worries, but they still remain a vivid memory.
“The start of 2017 was the moment of tension,” he continues. “Running sales, marketing, and developing the website, in addition to acquiring the books and producing the audio, we had to devote full-time to the new projects. We didn’t have time to continue doing projects for other producers. It was hard for me to let go of something I’d worked on for two years. And it wasn’t clear how we were financially going to do it. We had to commit, and that was a difficult choice. I had a constant headache for a month. I was in a lot of agony about that decision.”
Ben was worried about raising the money to acquire the rights to marketable titles, but he had the experience and know-how of his mentor, Jeremy, to guide him through. They set about looking for backers. “Our first investor was another entrepreneur in the Elevate program,” Ben says. “Jeremy was one of the early investors and helped get the ball rolling.” They ultimately raised $100,000 from nine investors.
With part of that money, they sent Kris to New York to acquire some books. Sitting in his living room, Kris loses his laid-back attitude, rolling into a fast-paced monologue as he recalls those early meetings.
“The most shocking thing is how receptive people have been. Like, I remember the first time I’m sitting with some of these publishers that I’ve been reading their books since I was a kid, and I’m just star-struck, and why in the hell do I deserve to be sitting here. But just how receptive they’ve been, how welcoming, how interested they are in a slightly new retake on the way things are done—how quickly it’s moved has been the most surprising thing.”
He pauses for a breath, glances around the room, and returns to his rapid-fire thoughts. “When you’re the new kid on the block, the rookie, there’s an element of intimidation, there’s an element of, do I know what the hell I’m talking about, are they buying this bullshit that’s coming out of my mouth? But my policy has been extreme honesty, explaining to these people, like we haven’t been doing this for super long, please give me any tips that you think I need. I’ve been very, very open about that. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful so far.”
“We’ve always had independent bookstores. Now we need to have independent audio publishers.”
To Kris and Ben, and to their mentor/partner, Jeremy, “successful so far” can be measured in their production numbers. By early summer 2016, they had 25 titles in some level of production. “We’ve gone from two books to 12 books a month in just the past two months”, Kris says. “We had a meeting about that yesterday, about how are we going to make more books without losing part of who we are. That’s an ongoing challenge, but it’s all about balance. Where that balance is, we’re still trying to figure out. But it’s kind of a good problem to have.”
The “good problem” is keeping the Talking Book studio running in high gear. Between authors reading their own works and outside narrators adding to the output, the studio is a busy place—despite its location in Asheville, 700 miles from the publishing houses of New York City. Kris says the distance has not hindered their operation; in fact, it may even be helping.
“I think Asheville has been a big part of our brand and our image so far. The amount of people who are coming here to us to record to get this intimate experience and see the city and hang out with us, that’s changing in a good way. I just got off the phone with an author the other day. I said, ‘Either I can come to New York and we can work in a studio there, or you can come to Asheville and we’ll hang out.’ He said, ‘No question. I’ll come to Asheville.’ The kind of relaxed mentality of what we’re trying to do is very much part of the culture here. I think its part of our DNA.”
One of the authors who came here to record his novel is acclaimed “indie-lit” star Scott McClanahan, who spent what he calls “two long weekends” recording his new, semi-autobiographical The Sarah Book. A resident of West Virginia, Scott says he had previously visited Asheville “six or seven times, and I always enjoyed it there.” Despite the heavy workload, he says he had a good time doing the narration. “It was nice getting to know the guys and hang out. They’re super personable. It could have been a nightmare scenario, but it was something I really enjoyed. It was nice.”
Scott sees independent audiobooks as part of a bigger picture. “The important thing is independent literature has been around forever, but in the course of the last ten or fifteen years, it’s really grown, thanks to the internet. We’ve always had independent bookstores. Now we need to have independent audio publishers.”
The Talking Book studio does have the unpretentious feel of an independent publisher. It occupies a two-bedroom apartment on the edge of downtown Asheville. In an arrangement that seems deceptively simple, one of the bedrooms is outfitted with an acoustical announcer’s booth in one corner, and a sound engineer’s station along the opposite wall. It is a far simpler tech operation than one might imagine.
A comfortable couch comes in handy for the many hours spent listening to narrators. A metal shelf unit contains a framed cover of Clancy Martin’s Bad Sex, one of their books, plus stacks of papers and magazines (a copy of Variety is visible on top), an electric household drill, and a vinyl record turntable. The repurposed bedroom strikes a visitor as primitive, but this configuration is a major improvement of the original set-up, which used the small bedroom closet as the speaker’s booth.
The new acoustical booth is a snug enclosure equipped with a chair, a microphone, and a stand for an iPad that contains the copy. Manufactured by a Tennessee company called WhisperRoom, the booth is made of fiberboard and lined with acoustical foam. Prices start at around $4,000. The other component of the booth is the microphone itself, a Neumann U 87, a professional-grade instrument that currently retails new between $3,200 and $3,600. “We bought it used,” says Dave Burr. “Got a great deal.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, two candidates—a man and a woman—came in to audition as readers. Ben conducted a short interview, they filled out a rudimentary form, then Dave gave them some audition copy to read and set them up in the booth. Ben explains, “We’re looking to build a talent pool of local readers. We’re looking for people who can massage their reading, who can evoke an emotional performance. Then we work with the composer to weave in the music.”
The woman, Kim Wilde, steps into the booth. Dave tests her voice for volume levels, everyone agrees that they’re ready to go, Ben closes the booth door, and she begins to read. Her voice translates to dancing images on Dave’s computer screen as it translates her inflections and her pauses into a visible graph, looking somewhat like an EKG on steroids.
She finishes her reading. Ben and Dave seem happy with her performance. “I’ll play it back for you,” Dave says. They all stand there, staring into space as they listen to the playback. It sounds fine, and Kim seems satisfied. It appears Talking Book’s talent pool has added another narrator.
The next audition is David MacDonald, an actor with several television credits. He follows the same routine, sitting down in the booth and reading his script, a selection from Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. As he reads, Ben is taking cell phone pictures through the window in the booth door. Ben and Dave like his reading, and after he leaves they agree: “This was a good day.”
Sitting in an Asheville coffee bar sometime later, Ben reflects on the evolution that got him here and smiles at the question: If someone had predicted all this five years ago, your reaction? “I would have said, ‘I can’t wait.’” The smile becomes just a shade reflective.
“It’s been a long road to get here, but we’re really in a great place now.”
Ben Matchar and Kris Hartrum don’t just oversee the Talking Book audiobook empire—they also helm The Talking Book, an online magazine and, as of last month, a podcast of the same name. At TalkingBook.pub the mission statement is stated quite, er colorfully:
“The Talking Book is dedicated to promoting thoughtful discussions on the subjects of literature, art, culture, and the beautiful absurdity of existence. Our small team of contributors, lovers, and drunkards do our best to bring you random-ass thoughts on the state of books, existential dilemmas, audio-lit, dreams, and inter-dimensional travel.”
Indeed, recent posts at the site are all over the map, style- and topic-wise, from a commentary by poet Melissa Broder about her latest collection Last Sext, along with a brief reading of the poem “How I Get Over My Life”; to an essay about Hungarian playwright and author Géza Csáth by journalist Sean Kilpatrick; to an excerpt from the novel West Virginia by Joe Halstead. In addition to numerous excerpts and readings, the site also features news, book reviews, interviews, and—as Talking Book describes it—“mumbo jumbo.” You can also scan the company’s Twitter feed.
The recently-launched podcast should prove equally interesting to the Talking Book community and for fans of independent publishing in general. The initial installment is a 42-minute reading from a new novel from edgy (and, to some, controversial) indie author Scott McClanahan; at presstime, his new The Sarah Book was slated to appear in print from Tyrant Books and as an audiobook from Talking Book on June 20.
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