It’s a tale as old as time—author meets narrator, narrator reads story, a few editing and mastering techniques later and behold! An audiobook is born. Sometimes, though, the audiobook journey includes a number of twists and turns before the narrator even steps into the booth. Here to tell a tale of one such story brought to audio for the first time is David Niall Wilson, mastermind behind Crossroad Press, a publishing house founded to bring forgotten or undiscovered out-of-print gems into the limelight.
As a publisher and author, I find that sometimes between the marketing, the writing, the craft, and the sheer volume of energy that is expended just living your life, you need a few moments to remind yourself that there’s more out there. Some stories find their way to just the right situation that allows them to reach a level that no one vision or voice alone could have created. That’s where this story begins—with a novel titled Case White by Thomas Sullivan. Over a period of many years, I fought to bring it to publication. I’ve been privileged to bring many of Sully’s novels back into print, but Case White is different. It’s an original, and I believe it’s his finest work.
It began as an eBook, then a print edition, and when the time was finally right to bring it to audio, I simply put it up for auditions on ACX. Even now, this incredible story has barely begun to find its way into the hands of readers, so I wasn’t sure who would be interested in taking a very long royalty share project with a less-than-stellar sales record. I was not prepared for one of the most talented voices I have worked with to come to me, ready (in his words) to “fight for this book.” The material covers the time leading up to the Third Reich, and the way madness can take control of a nation, and the narrator who took the project is Joshua Saxon, whose own family fled the Russian pogroms in the early 1900s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-20th Century to avoid the persecution that would inevitably claim millions of lives.
The synchronicity of this book finding its way to Joshua and linking him to his own past would have been enough to make a great story, but in this case, it’s only the beginning.
To add a twist to this plot, sometimes the reader must find and chase the book. When Case White had wrapped up, Sully, Joshua, and I all moved on to other things, but one day, out of the blue, I received a message: Joshua had discovered that a book he has always loved, published back in the 1960s, had never been made into an audiobook. That book was The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis. The idea seemed crazy. The book was hugely popular, published by a major New York House. If the rights were available at all, I was sure they would be with an agent, or the original publisher, and priced well out of our range. After I got done laughing at the idea of Crossroad Press being able to produce something like that, he let it go.
But I couldn’t. I checked to be certain he was right, and he was. There were many printed editions of the book (it’s still in print), there was a movie adaptation that turned the world on its ear for a while, but there was no audiobook. The currently available trade paperback is a reprinted edition from Simon & Schuster, and it’s been on sale in that same format since 1988. Experience told me that if Simon & Schuster had the rights to the book, the odds of getting to do the audiobook had just toppled off a cliff. More likely I’d give them the idea to do it themselves if I brought it up.
Maybe I just needed a little more faith. During that same period, I was negotiating for rights to some books by author Leslie Alan Horvitz, and corresponding daily with his agent, Cynthia Manson. I happened to mention my “quest” to her, and she happened to have connections at the publishing house, so she said she would check with them and see what she could find.
What she found was that Simon & Schuster did not have the rights to the audio. What they did have was an e-mail address they hadn’t used for a very long time for the author’s heirs, and they shared it with me. Still not hoping for much, I wrote to them, explaining how much Joshua wanted to perform the novel, how our company works, and my desire to bring it to audio. Then I waited. And waited. I was about to shrug and let it go, when I woke up one morning to a long, very cheerful note from Greece: the rights holders were very pleased at the idea of an audiobook! Then came the next bump—the book we need to use for the script was a translation, and the contract stated I had to have permission to use the translation, which I still needed.
The book was translated around 1960, and the translator was listed as P.A. Bien. Initial searches had Google trying to translate the name into French, found other books he’d translated, but no real information on the man himself. Then I found an article that mentioned that his full name was Peter A. Bien. Once again, I had picked up the trail. Peter is a Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth, and still attached to their Creative Writing department. When I found the e-mail address, I was not sure what to find, but again, I wrote my note, made my introductions, and waited.
There was no answer to the e-mail, but there was also a phone number. I called it. Peter was on vacation at his home in the Adirondacks, the message explained. At the end of that message was another phone number.
I wish I had time to explain the wonderful phone call I had with Peter, about Kazantzakis’ works, of which he’d translated several, and about translation in general. He gave his blessing, and even said that Joshua could, if he wished, reach out with any questions on pronunciation. I know that the two talked, and it felt like generations merging. The contract was finalized and signed. Original cover art was commissioned from West Coast artist Steve Smith, who outdid himself, and the production that has just now been completed began.
Chasing the rights to books can be frustrating—the older the book, the more popular, the more editions, the harder it becomes. This one felt like a marathon, but in the end, the journey through the words of Thomas Sullivan, the passion of a narrator to perform the book he’d always dreamed of producing, through agents, other authors, across an ocean and back to the Adirondacks, lead to an unforgettable audiobook.
Now I’m going to find my Indiana Jones hat and set out after the next one. I hope some of you will come along for the ride. Remember—audio is still a fairly young medium, and no matter how unlikely a project may seem, it never hurts to ask.
David Niall Wilson is a prolific author and the founder and CEO of Crossroad Press, a publishing company that specializes in giving out-of-print stories new life through e-book and audiobook publication. The publishing company’s work can be found at crossroadspress.com, and the author’s own work can be found on his website, davidniallwilson.com.