Winter 2010: Register

Portrait of Erin O'Briant

trendsetter: Author Erin O’Briant 95C released her first novel straight to audio.

Photo courtesy Erin O’Briant

Audio Sparkles

First-time author finds audience for novel through podcasts

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By Mary J. Loftus

San Francisco author Erin O’Briant 95C decided to read her debut novel aloud, bit by bit, to anyone who wanted to listen—for free.

“It’s funny how the new digital media goes back to old-fashioned storytelling,” says O’Briant, whose novel, Glitter Girl, debuted as an audiobook on Podiobooks.com in early December.

O’Briant began the novel, which is about two very different sisters searching for a way to reconcile, six years ago as part of an MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College. She assumed she would take the traditional path of trying to sell her book to a big publishing house. But after a few bad experiences with agents, she decided to take the digital route.

“In an era of small advances and limited support from publishing houses, many authors are going directly to audiences through technology: audiobooks, Kindle, and iPhone apps,” she says. “The publishing houses are the gatekeepers, and these technologies allow authors to sneak around behind the gates.”

Free audiobooks are available on websites like Podiobooks.com, which offers more than three hundred serialized titles, and LibriVox.org, which enlists volunteers to read books already in the public domain.

The born-digital book, which has never been printed on paper but goes straight to podcast, is fairly new, however.

A few pioneers in the form are thriller novelist J. C. Hutchins, whose 7th Son: Descent serialized podcast found thousands of listeners as well as acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal; and horror/sci-fi podcast novelist Scott Sigler, whose 2005 EarthCore may have been the first podcast-only serialized novel. (EarthCore was later offered as a paid download on iTunes.)

As for O’Briant’s novel, it falls more into the category of family drama or chick lit than technology/sci-fi. Glitter Girl tells of two estranged sisters—one gay and working at Macy’s after losing a high-prestige writing job, the other a Christian fundamentalist waiting to marry her pastor—and their attempts to reconnect from one Christmas to the next.

While the story is not autobiographical, O’Briant says, she did gain inspiration for the audionovel from her own life.

“I really was a glitter spray salesgirl at Macy’s after I moved out West and couldn’t find a writing or editing job. Some of the dialogue comes directly from notes I took during that experience,” says O’Briant, who now teaches writing at City College of New York. “And I am a lesbian who lives in San Francisco, with a sister who’s a right-wing Christian. But we aren’t estranged—the story is completely fictional. I just took the characters and asked, ‘What if?’ ”

The only new technology she had to invest in to create the audiobook was a high-quality microphone. “Reading it aloud has been good for the book—I hear things I was missing on the page, so I make changes as I go,” she says. Each weekly episode runs about thirty minutes, the time of an average commute.

“It launched about a week ago, and I’ve had 350 listeners,” she says. “That’s when I felt like a real author—to see complete strangers commenting about my work online. I mean, that’s what’s cool about putting it out there through a podcast instead of a publisher: you can let the people decide.”

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