Audiobooks – Part 4

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1.   a soundproofed workspace;
  2.   differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.   learning how to edit and master.

In Part 3, I talked about the workspace and how I had set up a ‘recording studio’ (such a grand title doesn’t fit the reality) in my younger daughter’s bedroom at the back of the house, away from the main road. Nothing’s changed there—this is the best I can do.

Time to talk about the second of my concerns. As anticipated, it turned out that my difficulties would amount to more than merely trying to differentiate between characters, so I’m going to look at the process of narration as a whole.

There are various aspects to consider before starting to record, such as the positioning of the microphone, and the time of day when your recording environment is likely to be quietest and your voice at its optimum.

Here’s something I learned the hard way: it’s vital to ensure your recording software is set to record using the correct microphone. Since my professional microphone ‘lives’ in the recording studio, I can only change the default setting once I’m all set up and it’s connected to my laptop.

One evening I recorded four short stories, one after another, while ‘in the zone’—my pronunciation and enunciation were top drawer, my pacing felt spot-on, I barely made a mistake. When I was back downstairs ready to start editing, that something was wrong became evident as soon as I opened the first recording. The wave pattern was peculiar: all spikes and no flat lines, not even on the silences. The sound coming through my headphones confirmed what my eyes had already told me: my voice sounded distant and tinny, overlaid by crackles and hums and weird popping noises. All four recordings were the same—worthless.

It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong: I had forgotten to set Audacity to record through the USB microphone. The stories had been recorded through the laptop’s inbuilt microphone, which I hadn’t been speaking directly into and which, in any case, is unsuited to capturing sound to the standard required. Live and learn—I haven’t made the same mistake since.

Another time I sat down to edit a new recording, only to find my voice overlaid by a distant humming noise that I hadn’t noticed while recording and which rendered another lengthy effort useless.

It again took me a while to work out what had gone wrong. One of my daughters had been charging her electric toothbrush in the bathroom next door to my recording studio. We live in a modern house where the internal walls are slightly thicker than cardboard and the microphone had picked up the electrical hum. Again, it’s now something I make sure to check before starting to record.

Onto the recording process itself and my physical limitations.

Over thirty years ago, when in my early twenties, two of my teeth—one of the front incisors and the tooth next to it—were snapped at the roots. My dentist was able to straighten them, but warned that I was likely to lose them one day. ‘One day’ turned out to be around eighteen months ago; since then I’ve had to wear a denture that affixes to the roof of my mouth. It was only when sitting down to attempt narrating for the first time that I realised the effect the denture has upon my speech.

Where the fake teeth butt up to my real teeth, there’s a gap which occasionally, especially on words with a pronounced ‘ess’ sound, causes me to whistle. My tongue sometimes slaps against the plastic denture plate. The denture causes me to slur or mumble certain words. (I’ve tried narrating without wearing the denture, but that’s worse—without it, I struggle on ‘th’ and ‘ff’ sounds; I can’t say fairer than that, boom boom.)

It’s a disadvantage for audio work. When I realise I’ve whistled or mumbled during recording, it’s fine because I simply re-record that part, knowing I can remove the bungled section during editing. It makes the recording (and editing) process longer, but it’s something I accept I have to put up with until I can get implants to replace the denture. It’s more problematic when I whistle/mumble but don’t realise at the time—more on that when I come to talk about editing in a future instalment.

As for my inability to perform accents, I’ve tried and failed, and concluded that it’s not something I can learn to do, except perhaps by having professional voice acting lessons, and probably not even then. I can do an identifiably Irish or Scottish or Australian accent for the odd stereotypical phrase or two (“G’day, cobber!”), but it lasts as long as the average sneeze before deteriorating into some weird intonation that sounds like a cross between Welsh and, I don’t know, Martian, or something off-planet.

How, then, to differentiate between characters holding a conversation, especially when there are only two speaking and so there may not be many dialogue tags in the source material? I experimented with having one character speak deeper and/or quicker than the other, but found it difficult to be consistent, and the finished recording usually sounded ludicrous and amateur. After many, and I mean many, hours of trial and error, I settled on not trying to differentiate between them at all and relying on the listener to know who’s speaking from context. Now and again, I might throw in an extra dialogue tag during recording if I think the listener needs an additional cue.

Then there’s lack of knowledge about pronunciation. I’ve blogged about The Avid Reader’s Curse, where a reader might only have encountered a word through reading and so has no idea how to pronounce it. There are a surprising number of them.

And there are words I know how to pronounce, but that nevertheless keep tripping me up. ‘Anemone’, for instance, and ‘algae’ (I keep wanting to pronounce it to rhyme with ‘guy’, instead of the correct ‘ghee’). Or ‘pasty complexion’; I know that ‘pasty’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tasty’, but my traitorous brain insists on making me pronounce it during recording as the meat-filled parcel of pastry.Some word combinations I stumble over for no apparent reason. ‘Smoky oakiness’ is one. ‘Or harpist’s’ is another. There’s a story in Pond Life with a character named Jake; at one point of the story, I kept calling him Jack, usually without noticing. Fortunately, it was during the practice phase and the recording would be deleted anyway. By the time I came to record the final version, I knew what to look out for.

The practice phase. Yeah, that lasted weeks. Hour upon hour of recording the same material, experimenting with distance from and angle to the microphone, voice tone, pacing, breathing. I kept at it until I could no longer stand reading the same stuff aloud knowing it would be deleted. It was time to start recording in earnest and get to grips with editing.

Editing, hmm. More on this in Part 5. Till then…

Audiobooks – Part 3

A brief update on my progress on producing my own audiobooks. There is so much to learn about the process, so much trial and error involved, that it has been all-consuming for the past few weeks and I haven’t made time to write any regular blog posts. So a hasty update it will have to be.

In Part 2, I mentioned my three main concerns. In ascending order, they are:

  1. I have no space in which to work that’s ideal for soundproofing;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master (and discovering what the heck ‘mastering’ even means) the recorded audio is going to be so steep a learning curve, the top is covered in cloud.

I’m only going to look at the first of these today—numbers 2 and 3 are very much still works in progress.

We have a small room at the front of our house next to the living room. We call it the study, a rather grand name for a space that’s big enough to hold a few slim bookcases, a small desk and not a great deal more. But it’s perfect as a workspace for a writer. It would also be the ideal space to record audiobooks, if not for one major drawback.

Our house fronts onto a busy road, separated only by a narrow path, some railings and a pavement (that’s a sidewalk for American readers). Vehicles go past with monotonous regularity. When it rains, which it does a lot here in Wales, the noise of the vehicles’ sloshing tyres is louder. Also, the wind tends to throw heavy rain against the study windows with the sound of hurled gravel. The noises don’t bother me when I’m writing, but would be a problem for recording clean audio.

I knew the study would be unlikely to work as an improvised recording studio, but nevertheless decided to give it a go. First, I taped up the windows with duct tape, hoping that would reduce the traffic noise.

Next, I thought of filling the window space with books, the idea being that any intruding traffic noise would hit the biblio-wall and die. I have enough books in the house to completely fill the window space, but the problem was that once I’d reached a certain height, the wall began to become a little unstable, being constructed as it was of books of varying dimensions and with only a narrow window cill (or sill, if you’d prefer) as a foundation. I didn’t like the thought of the wall toppling onto me in mid-narration so stopped construction when it was high enough to shield my desk and recording equipment, but with only about half of the space filled.

Finally, I draped a spare duvet over the window and biblio-wall, hung blankets on the wall behind me and came up with a nifty temporary blanket-hanging solution to cover the door so that it was a simple matter to uncover it to get in and out.

Then I was ready to record.

Yeah, it didn’t work. The road is too busy, my attempts at blocking the noise too ineffective. The sound of passing vehicles could be clearly heard on my first recordings. I began to pause narration whenever a vehicle was approaching but had to do that so often it was probably doubling the recording time and frustrating any chance I had of getting into a narration flow.

Time for Plan B. My younger daughter and her boyfriend have been living with us since graduating last year while they sort out permanent jobs and get themselves into a position where they can afford to get their own place. In the meantime, they’ve taken over the spare bedroom and my daughter’s bedroom has been used pretty much as a dumping ground. Her bedroom has one huge advantage over the study as a potential recording studio: it’s at the back of the house, away from the main road.

Long story short, we cleared the room sufficiently that I could position a desk with my back to a wall over which I could drape blankets or duvets and with space to do the same to the sides to provide an improvised sound booth. There’s room for a foldaway table to hold my laptop. I have surrounded my desktop sound booth with spare pillows and cushions to provide more sound insulation.

It’s still not a professional recording studio, obviously, but without the constant noise from the road, it is far more effective as a home sound studio and, apart from the occasional boy racer going past with an unmuffled exhaust, the roar of which reaches even my daughter’s bedroom, I no longer have to worry about external noise while I record my books.

That still leaves my narration and editing abilities. Hmm, perhaps lack-of-abilities would be more accurate, but I am improving. More on these in future posts.

Till then…

Audiobooks – Part 2

When I posted about audiobooks last year, I didn’t anticipate writing another so didn’t call it ‘Part 1’. Well, here’s Part 2 and there will be more parts to come.

Part 1 can be found here: Audiobooks. In it, I explain the process that went into having The Cleansing produced as an audiobook—in short, I hired a narrator and the book went live in November. I bemoaned the fact that I could not accurately estimate how many sales I needed to achieve in order to recoup the initial outlay but guessed at a ‘few hundred’. And I could not afford to begin the process of having the sequels produced in audio format until I’d at least recovered that up-front cost.

Almost a year on, I can now say that my estimate was a little short of the mark. The true figure is somewhere (due to the way ACX calculates author shares, I still can’t make an accurate estimate) in excess of 400 sales—I’m a little over a quarter of the way there so, at this rate, I’m not going to be in a position to have the sequel made for another three years. Oh, man.

Time for another rethink. I wrote this in Part 1:

I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

You can probably guess what comes next. Yep, I’ve decided to narrate my own audiobooks.

From a financial point of view, it’s a no-brainer. My outlay on the necessary equipment will be a fraction of what it will cost me to hire a narrator for just one book. To have all my books produced in audio format could cost up to £10,000 and that’s if I limit myself to low-end narrators.

I have also been influenced by other authors who have narrated their own books, such as one of my guests, A. R. Kavli. Here’s his post: A. R. Kavli

I began to look into what I need. As always, there’s a bewildering choice of items like microphones and in a huge range of prices. Long story short, I have purchased a microphone, a pop filter*, a set of headphones and, suspecting I need all the help I can get, a desktop sound shield**, all for comfortably below £200. I have downloaded the free sound editing program Audacity and am ready to go, at least equipment-wise.

But I’m not ready any-other-way-wise. I have three main areas of concern. Here they are in ascending order:

  1.  I have no space in which to work that’s ideal for soundproofing;
  2.  differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.  learning how to edit and master (and discovering what the heck ‘mastering’ even means) the recorded audio is going to be so steep a learning curve, the top is covered in cloud.

Yes, I’m concerned. At the same time, I’m as excited as a child at Christmas. Despite what I said in Part 1, I’m determined that my productions will not sound amateur. No matter how many YouTube videos I have to absorb about vocal and breathing techniques, no matter how many hours of practising and trial-and-error it takes to sound professional and get to grips with the software.

Here’s a snap of the equipment I have so far.

I shall report in Part 3 how I deal with those three main concerns (and the other issues that I don’t even know about yet but which shall, no doubt, arise). Keep your fingers crossed for me.

* I didn’t know what a pop filter was when I embarked on this process—it’s the black mesh, circular thingy in the photo that will go in front of the microphone and which apparently cuts down on the explosive sounds we naturally make when we say certain words; it also prevents the microphone becoming covered in spit, whilst presumably becoming rather damp itself.

** As I understand it, which may not be very far, a sound shield doesn’t aid soundproofing as such, but helps to dampen the voice and limit echoing. My sound shield doesn’t appear in the photo because, at the time of writing, I’m waiting for it to arrive.

Guest Post – A. R. Kavli

Today I’m pleased to host American author, A. R. Kavli, who is going to talk about narrating his own audiobooks. Around a year ago, I was dipping my toes into the audiobook market for the first time and faced the same considerations he’s going to discuss, so it’s a topic I find particularly interesting. Over to A. R.

DIY Audio

Let me start by saying that I’m at the beginning of my audiobook production journey. An audio amateur, if you will. But I can explain what seems to work for me, and sometimes it can be helpful to hear what others have experienced.

I was recently convinced by various articles and podcasts to try my hand (mouth?) at narrating. Audio is a growth market worthy of investigation for indies. Initially, royalty share options sounded like a dream: get an audio book made with no down payment and no work. Royalty share comes with two big drawbacks, as it turns out. One being that your book is locked in a seven-year, ACX exclusivity contract. The other is that narrators will have to believe your book will make money.

Both were issues for me, so I looked into DIY audio. Any endeavor requires money or time. I’m short on both, but I can wrangle more time than money at this point. So I bought an entry-level set up with mic, mic stand and preamp, and proceeded to learn what I could about the craft. I purchased a couple of online courses and have spent many hours on YouTube learning all about mouth clicks, mic position, and using Audacity to record, edit and master my audio.

There are some steep learning curves. And it is hard work. But I kept my goal in mind and when I gained some competence, I found recording enjoyable—despite my profanity-strewn outtakes. At this point I’ve only recorded my own work, but I think in the future, and with a bit more experience, I might put my toe in the market as a narrator.

Recording a full-length novel is a marathon. That makes it harder to maintain a constant sound day-by-day or month-by-month. I have two main, non-American accents in my novel, one Slavic, one French. On those days where I was struggling, my characters sounded like Count Chocula and Pepé Le Pew.

Less is definitely more when it comes to accents.

Editing the audio files is relatively easy. You have to listen and watch the track to each file, though. I’ve found noises I could hear but not see, and noises that showed up in the waveform that I couldn’t hear. It can be laborious to listen to the same track again and again, but think about how the listener will feel. When you have to later record over something to fix a mistake, it can be difficult to match the original voice qualities.

I still struggle with mouth clicks, both while reading and while mastering. You can’t get rid of them all, but I’ve learned how to adjust my speaking in a way to reduce the problem. Thank you, YouTube.

My cozy recording booth consists of a laptop set on my dresser surrounded by a PVC frame draped with a thick comforter.

I work in my bedroom corner, with roads nearby outside. It doesn’t keep out the noise, so I have to pause whenever someone wants to show off how loud their truck gets. Nor does my booth keep out the stomping kids, barking dog, or my own gastrointestinal misadventures. But it treats my recording space enough for a good, clean background noise level.

I enjoy the process, despite the extra work and frustrations of my DIY set-up. I think you have to enjoy it to keep at it for the long run. It is time-consuming and surprisingly exhausting. Oh, and my air conditioner has to be turned off, too. Very noisy.

I made the rookie mistake of deciding I didn’t need a final edit, then recorded my audio. In the course of that read, I came across many mistakes. I hired a final proofread and it turned up more word changes than I expected. My work was riddled with overused and improperly used words. Or, more accurately, it was a handful of words misused throughout. I knew there were comma issues, but dang. I’ve decided it would produce a better product—and probably be the same amount of work—to record the book over. And, I could apply the things I learned along the way to the beginning chapters.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I love the work, and I think you really must love it to be able to stay in it for the long term. Just like writing.

I’m hoping to finish the audio production in time to match the ebook and paperback release of my novel, With Our Dying Breath. It is already up for pre-order (reduced price for pre-order) in ebook format, with a release date of Aug 31, 2019.

A.R. Kavli is a U.S. Navy veteran, author, gamer, and long-time fan of all things science fiction and fantasy. His first paid writing projects were for role-playing game companies and his first book was published in 2011. He lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife of 24 years and four children.

Please visit arkavli.com/my-books to purchase and for more information on his work.

 

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)