By Karen Heller

The Washington Post

Jonathan Maberry, a fiercely prolific author of often frightening novels, hears voices rattling in his head. Specifically, one voice, that of actor Ray Porter, who narrates his audiobooks.

A five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, Maberry would “imagine how Ray would inflect certain things, and I started to write toward his performance.” Be it horror, thrillers, science fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, almost three dozen novels since 2006 — this is not a typo, and excludes anthologies, short stories and comics — Porter, without contributing a word, has helped Maberry accomplish the goal of most writers: selling more books. Says Maberry, “We’re very much a team.”

An exceptionally busy team. In November, Porter recorded three new Maberry titles. They shared Thanksgiving together. “He’s a brother,” says Porter, who has narrated “The Big Sleep” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory.” At one book signing, Maberry stepped aside and let Porter read. Why not? Porter’s the professional performer, the guy with the voice.

Audiobooks were once clunky and overwhelming, a failed tech experiment, encumbered by multiple discs or cassettes. To cut costs and shelf space, audiobooks were sliced, too, abridged into versions that rendered some authors apoplectic. “It was a great trial by fire,” says Dan Zitt, senior vice president of content and production for Random House Audio Group.

Smartphones changed everything. Once audiobooks slipped into a listener’s pocket, they became ubiquitous, allowing fans to “read” while cooking, hiking, gardening, cleaning. Says urban fantasy author Kevin Hearne, “audiobooks have made traffic and workouts more bearable.”

Growth in audiobook sales and volume has been seismic. The Association of American Publishers reported a 37 percent increase in downloaded audio sales during the first 11 months of 2018. Audiobook sales were an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, according to the Audio Publishers Association, with 46,000 new titles released.

We like to hear stories. Fiction accounts for more than two-thirds of all audiobook sales. Members of Amazon’s Audible, with a library of more than 475,000 titles, listen to an average of 17 books each year.

“I’m thrilled if people listen to my books, especially if I have great narrators,” says best-selling author Chris Bohjalian. “I really agonize over my sentences. I care deeply about my dialogue. Whenever I’ve listened to my books on audio, I’ve been thrilled.”

“Writing is about one thing: control,” says thriller author Brad Meltzer. “Here is this universe where I control everything. I decide who lives and who dies, whether the book will have a happy ending or not.”

A professional narrator, a partner in the production of his books, would yield a larger audience — as long as he agreed to cede some of that control. His publisher presented sound clips of 10 potential narrators, but “no one could make me happy.” Meltzer couldn’t tolerate some candidates for longer than two minutes.

Then, he heard the euphonious tones of Scott Brick. “This is it. This is the guy. He sounded like I wish I sounded like if I had a great baritone,” Meltzer recalls. Brick has been Meltzer’s guy ever since. “It’s like Bernie Taupin and Elton John. I can write the words. He supplies the melody.”