An interview with Catherine O’Brien – Creating Essential Audiobooks

18th January 2017

Get to know Essential Audiobooks better as Maxine Lennon asks founder, Catherine O’Brien, some key questions about the company.


So Catherine, what made you decide to create Essential Audiobooks?

I began Essential Audiobooks after working as a narrator for about 6 years. I really loved recording classics and decided I’d like to publish my own recordings. Audiobook publishing is now the fastest growing sector in the publishing industry, and I saw there was a gap in the market for very high-end audiobooks – the best books carefully matched with the most talented professional narrators. After assembling a team of voice actors, editors, composers and artists, Essential Audiobooks was born.

Catherine O'Brien

Essential Audiobooks CEO, Catherine O’Brien


What makes Essential Audiobooks special?

We meticulously pair scripts with narrators. The narrator, of course, has to be exceptionally talented, but they’ve also got to be the right voice for the text in order for it to be believable and enjoyable. I’ve cast narrators for books that I’ve always wanted to record myself, but I know they’re much better suited to the job.

We also produce deluxe CD editions of our audiobooks, as well as audio downloads. A huge amount of care and attention goes into every audiobook we publish – from sound quality to the cover artwork and specially composed music – and I think that makes us stand out.


How has Essential Audiobooks grown and developed?

When I first had the idea for Essential Audiobooks, I envisaged it as just a platform for me to publish my own things. Now, just one year on, we have a team of over 50 incredible narrators, producers, editors, artists and musicians, and a handful of award nominations as well. I’m thrilled by how rapidly it has grown.

We began recording classic stories, but have recently branched out into modern novels. We work with a brilliant publishing house, Claret Press, who have provided us with some of our bestselling titles, including the beautiful Brushstrokes in Time, the fictional memoir of an artist in post-Maoist China, and Blackout, which is a gripping young adult action novel – a kind of young James Bond meets Breaking Bad. We’ve got some more of Claret Press’ titles in the pipeline, so there’s lots to look forward to.

By the sounds of things, you’re already making a great name for yourselves. What successes have you achieved so far?

Well I’m very fortunate to have to seriously talented friends who are invaluable to Essential Audiobooks, and despite only officially launching in October 2016, we’ve already had some fantastic successes.

A few of our narrators were nominated for awards, including Gregg Rizzo and Anna Parker-Naples.

Gregg was nominated for a Voice Arts Award for his reading of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which was an Essential Audiobooks edition. We were thrilled for Gregg, and it was an incredible honour for us, as such a new publishing company, to have been recognised so early on in our lifetime.

Anna is a bit of a superstar in the voice acting and voiceover world, having already won an award for excellence in narration, so we’re very proud to call her a member of the Essential Audiobooks team. In 2016, she was a finalist for two Voice Arts Awards, as well as the prestigious Narrator of the Year award, and I’m sure there are more big things in store for her.

I’m also delighted to have been nominated for an award myself – the National Association of Professional Women’s Woman of the Year. You could say we’ve had a pretty good year, and we’re looking forward to the future.


Essential Audiobooks are available as CDs as well as downloads. Why did you decide to publish physical editions?

CDs are still a very popular means of listening to audiobooks, and one of the largest global audiobook retailers has said that they have no intentions of stopping CD production any time soon, so we’re confident that there’s still a big demand for them.

I can see why people love CDs – they have consistently higher audio quality and are far better than, say, streaming, where you can lose signal or experience the dreaded ‘buffering’ message, which makes CDs perfect to listen to whilst travelling.

CDs, and our CDs in particular, are also lovely objects. Our beautiful covers make them great collectors’ items, which are ideal as gifts, and they look wonderful in a bookcase or CD display case.

We do also produce high quality digital downloads, so you can listen to our unabridged audiobooks anywhere you want, any time you want.


How did you find the transition from narrator to publisher?

Despite the rather large workload that comes with setting up and managing a company, I do still narrate when I can, although it’s a very time-consuming task.

Working as a narrator is one of the best jobs in the world – I absolutely love it. I’ve always loved telling stories, and who wouldn’t want to just sit and tell stories to people?

My job is even better now though, because I get to listen to all sorts of other people’s stories, it is fascinating hearing the different styles and voices. The team are so talented, it’s always a pleasure to listen to their work.

I’ve always edited my own books, up until now, as I like having control over the final product, but I’m persuading myself to relinquish control. I now have a fabulous editor, Sean Toole, who works on the Essential Audiobooks recordings, which takes a huge strain off me, and frees me up to do other tasks.


You spoke previously about pairing texts up with the right narrators. How do you go about finding the perfect match?

When I’m selecting a narrator, having read the script, I can tell immediately what sort of voice I’m looking for. Sometimes finding the perfect voice proves to be a rather difficult task.

I met Caroline McLaughlin at the Audio Publishers Association. I heard this wonderful voice, and I just knew it would be perfect for Brushstrokes in Time, but I didn’t see where the voice was coming from. I walked around listening to people and eventually I found Caroline! I approached her and said “I need you, you’re doing a book for me”. Caroline looked at me as if I was completely insane but agreed!

I listen to people all day, my ear is tuned to voices. For Brushstrokes I was after an American-Chinese narrator because the story is about an American-Chinese lady, and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. It’s a wonderful story and Caroline is absolutely perfect for it.  She did ask whether I wanted her to narrate it with a Chinese accent, but that wasn’t the point – her voice simply fitted the book.


So what is next in store for Essential Audiobooks?

We’re always adding to our growing catalogue, and we’ve got some brilliant new scripts from Claret Press which we’re working on.

We’re also teaming up with an Australian audiobook narrator, who has got some fascinating Australian classics that we’re going to produce. Audiobooks are incredibly popular in Australia, because, if they’re not living in the bigger cities, Australians are about 5 hours’ drive from anywhere, so they have to do something on those long drives.

2016 was such a great year for us, in terms of recognition, so we’re also hoping to achieve some more award nominations in 2017. The Audies (the audio version of the Oscars!) is coming up, so we have our fingers crossed for that!


Watch Catherine discussing audiobooks on That’s Oxford here and here.

Catherine has narrated a variety of classic stories for Essential Audiobooks, including:


Written by Bryony Robertson

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