Is That Claire Danes Reading 'The Odyssey'? Stars in Demand for Audiobooks

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As Audible and others ramp up efforts to grow a $2.5 billion market, A-listers are striking narration deals even though "it's not television money" yet.

When Claire Danes wrapped filming on the penultimate season of Showtime's Homeland, she did what many TV actors do during their hiatus and booked a new project. But instead of walking onto another set, Danes narrated a new version of The Odyssey for audiobook giant Audible.

The recording of the first English-language version of the Greek epic by a female translator, due out Nov. 20, ?is the second such project the actress has taped in the past year and a half, following her 2017 take on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. "I found that ?I loved the experience," she says. "It's a great exercise."

Danes is one of a small but growing group of actors who have taken to recording audiobooks ?in between film and TV projects, lured by the flexible schedule and potentially sizable checks. What was once a cottage industry for book publishers and distributors like Amazon's Audible as they sought to attract more listeners through household names has become a much bigger business.

Audiobook sales totaled $2.5 billion in 2017, according to the Audio Publishers Association, spurred ?by the increased availability ?of downloadable content and the popularity of podcasts. "With the proliferation of podcasts, audiobooks and just more venues to take their voices, it's only expanding," says WME voiceover agent Cody Irizarry.

To meet the demand, Audible — the largest audiobook retailer, with more than 425,000 titles — has ramped up production on its so-called Star-Powered Listens, exclusive recordings from ?well-known narrators. Offerings range from literary classics (Anne Hathaway's reading of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Laverne ?Cox's upcoming take on Valley ?of the Dolls) to self-narrated star memoirs (Trevor Noah's Born a Crime).

The number of celebrity-performed recordings has tripled in the past five years, and Audible publisher Beth Anderson says the company would like to double its current output, especially as it ramps up audio-only originals with such partners as Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine and David Spade. “We’re trying to find content and the right performer to connect with our members and bring more people in,” notes Anderson. 

As the audiobook market booms, publishing houses are also cashing in on the craze. Simon & Schuster’s summer rollout includes self-narrated projects like Guy Branum’s My Life as a Goddess and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged. Meanwhile, Penguin Random House enlisted an ensemble of Hollywood’s leading men (Nick Offerman, Michael Shannon, Dermot Mulroney, Will Patton and Liev Schreiber) to bring to life the late Denis Johnson’s final short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and tapped Academy Award winner Viola Davis to narrate her self-penned sequel to the children’s book Corduroy.

The medium has proven popular with actors because it provides them with the opportunity to assume roles regardless of their age, race or physical appearance. Most publishers reach out directly to talent and their reps, allowing them to skip the audition process. And the money, typically a lump sum for a multiday recording session, is getting better. Public figures who narrate their own books can earn as much as seven figures, per sources, while original audio projects can command advances reportedly worth six figures. "As we always say to their agents, 'It's not television money,' " says Anderson, but "they don't have to do their hair and makeup."

For Danes, who completed her work on Emily Wilson’s 592-page version of The Odyssey in six, six-hour recording sessions, the appeal was in finding a way to connect with increasingly distracted and fragmented audiences. “We are all multitasking now, and who really has an hour to sit down with a book on the couch. Not that many people,” she says. “It’s nice that you can digest stories and also fold your laundry.”

Natalie Jarvey contributed to ?this report.

A version of this story first appeared in the August 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.