In Philip Pullman’s wildly popular fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Marisa Coulter is the brilliant, beautiful, ruthless mother of protagonist Lyra, and arguably one of literature’s best villains. In the new Audible-exclusive story The Collectors, narrated by favorite Brit actor Bill Nighy, Pullman weaves an eerie ghost story about Mrs. Coulter’s mysterious past. It’s the first story set in the HDM universe since the 2008 prequel novella Once Upon a Time in the North, and a big get for Audible’s push into original audio-first content.
The story is set in an Oxford University common room in 1970, where two new characters, Horley and Grinstead, talk about two mysterious works of art that have landed in Horley’s collection: a painting of a beautiful young woman, and a bronze statue of a malevolent monkey. The story stands alone for those unfamiliar with His Dark Materials, but for fans, also draws connections to the universe’s daemon companions and breaches between worlds. Pullman tells Fast Company he was attracted to “the idea of writing for a voice” as opposed to a reader, and the opportunity “to tell a story of the sort that the great English writer of ghost stories M.R. James might have thought of.”
Audible nabbed the exclusive because it was already in talks with Pullman to license new audio adaptations of his work, which turned to an original project. Founded in 1995 and acquired by Amazon in 2008, Audible is the Internet’s largest seller of downloadable audiobooks, and has more recently become the largest producer of audiobooks as well. But like Netflix, which made its name delivering other people’s content, Audible is seeing big success and potential in producing its own. Audible’s originals so far range from a behind-the-scenes look at Golden Globe-winning Amazon series Transparent to The Starling Project, a thriller by bestselling author Jeffery Deaver, starring a cast of 30 actors including Alfred Molina.
“We’re going to keep experimenting with originals, because it’s not only a way to please current members, but also to bring in new listeners,” says Audible publisher Beth Anderson. And the time is right–even before Serial became a runaway hit at the end of last year, portable spoken-word entertainment in the form of podcasts on every imaginable subject has exploded in recent years. And unlike the typical audio adaptation of a longform book (remember those boxes of 12 cassette tapes at your local B. Dalton?), many of Audible’s originals are closer to the length of a TV show–Pullman’s new story itself is only 32 minutes long.
Audible is also going outside traditional readings or discussions for its originals. As with The Starling Project, many of the recordings are full dramatizations with large casts. Last month, Audible released Christmas Eve 1914, a one-hour production with an elaborate sound design and music score commemorating the 100th anniversary of the World War I Christmas Eve truce. And beyond print authors, Audible is working with Hollywood writers and directors for a number of upcoming originals not yet announced. It’s a direction that holds a lot of promise for engaging storytelling, but also has creative challenges.
“We have to remind them that there’s no screen,” says Anderson about working with screenwriters. “It’s tough to distinguish between a lot of characters; there needs to be an omniscient narrator or a limit on characters. Hollywood writers are used to being able to tell between the short blonde and the tall brunette.”