Celebrating University Press Week’s Theme Of The Day #Collaborate with Jim O’Connor

University Press Week November 8-12, 2021 image

We’re not aware of other university press partnerships like these producing their own audiobooks, and the value in doing so is revealed not only by the final products, but by the experiences we create that connect students with industry professionals.

—James O’Connor

Early narrated recordings like excerpts of stories, speeches and monologues from classic plays emerged popularly around the turn of the 20th century, but what we could most accurately call the first audiobooks came about as a matter of inclusion and accessibility. Congress established the “Books for the Blind” program in 1931 with the Pratt-Smoot Act, funding the printing of books in braille, then amended it a few years later to include narrated recordings of books via the Talking Books Program.

SU Press has been around nearly as long as audiobooks, almost eighty years, publishing over 1200 titles. And, as of 2020, two audiobooks. Access Audio is a storytelling initiative of the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. Our audiobook offerings of SU Press books have yielded, I think, beautiful listens. But during the course of these individual projects, we have also endeavored to make the collaborative processes themselves accessible and inclusive.

Reservoir Year audiobook

Reservoir Year, a year-long recounting of walks and personal growth along the Catskill region’s Ashokan Reservoir, is a terrific example of a well-curated collaboration. One look at the print version reveals a truly pretty book, with illustration and other artwork throughout by a host of artists from the Catskill region, home of the book’s author Nina Shengold. The layout is thoughtful, with animals mentioned in the text appearing on the printed page. We hoped to transfer the home-spun charm of tone to our audio production, and to create an audio aesthetic that would match what the author, a group of artists, and the team at SU Press had achieved.

As a production team we’re very familiar with the Catskills. I only love them, but my frequent collaborator and Access Audio production partner Brett Barry ’97 G16 actually lives there. He and wife Rebecca own Silver Hollow Audio in Chichester, NY. from which he produces compelling work, my own personal biases exposed. A naturalist to his core, he produces and hosts the Kaatscast podcast, a biweekly show celebrating the region. Said Barry, when questioned by me for this post: “I’m personally drawn to books about nature and place; so it was fortuitous when Reservoir Year came up –– a book about the place where I live, published by another place that’s so close to my heart.”

In addition to his proximity to the Ashokan, we capitalized on Brett’s experience as a natural sound producer to incorporate some sound from the area into the audiobook…those leaf-crunching steps and the roaring quiet of the woods. We also rounded out the natural sound by licensing some birdsong from the Cornell Ornithology Lab.  

With each of the other collaborative partners (author, narrator, and composer,) we saw opportunities for student engagement. Intern David Ross worked with author Nina Shengold to create a pronunciation list to aid narrator Kathleen McNenny in her performance. Ian Coe identified places in the recording where he thought music, or natural sound, might augment the listening experience. He shared that information with the composer Steve Koester, along with identifying and suggesting key words from the text to help in the creative process. As Brett put it: “Audiobook production timelines and budgets don’t often allow for “extras” like music and sound effects, and student contributions to those elements –– identifying passages to underscore and working with our composer on selections –– were integral to this uniquely collaborative production.”

What’s innovative about this, otherwise? We’re not aware of other university press partnerships like these producing their own audiobooks, and the value in doing so is revealed not only by the final products, but by the experiences we create that connect students with industry professionals. Put better by Brett:

“Students can intern with any number of audiobook publishers, but how many of those internships put the students in direct contact with narrators, composers, and editors; and solicit creative input along the way? Access Audio’s partnership with InclusiveU is another unique attribute, with benefits all around. Access Audio productions are all about accessibility, participation, and unique opportunities for students. These priorities aren’t generally in sync with the goals of commercial publishers, and that sets AA’s productions apart in many ways, for the production team, for the students involved, and ultimately, for the listeners.”

Photograph of Jim O'Connor

Jim O’Connor is the producer of Sound Beat and Access Audio. Their production of the Syracuse University Press book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, was recognized by Audiofile Magazine with the Earphones Award in January 2021.

Image of Reservoir Year and Harry Haft Audiobooks produced in partnership with Sound Beat: Access Audio

#Keep UP! the 2021 University Press Week theme, celebrates how university presses have evolved over the past decade. #UPWeek

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