An author wrote to me this week because her publisher sent her a list of items to be done before they could produce the audiobook. She wanted to know if these requests were typical. She complained that the publisher is only uploading the audiobook files and taking her royalties, but she had to design the cover and market the audiobook. She concluded, “I feel I’m doing all the work for someone to just read my book out loud.”
I’ll answer her question, but, more importantly, I also want to address the erroneous statement that the narrator is “just reading the book out loud.”
Narrators following industry best practices read the entire book before recording the first word of it. We make extensive notes about characters and pronunciations.
During my prep of fiction books, I look for clues about the characters or people in the book, including:
- their age
- their socioeconomic standing
- their native region and/or specified accent
- their physical traits and attributes
With this info, I can develop a convincing voice for each character based on the author’s clues and present the characters as real people in real circumstances, not a caricature in a cartoon. If the character has an accent, I may need to learn it.
In non-fiction books, I research the author and the content of the book so that I understand the subject and message to be conveyed. I’m standing in for the author when recording the book, and I want to speak with her passion and authority.
In either case, I’ve done copious research on correct pronunciations. Anyone who has ever heard a GPS mispronounce the name of their town will be annoyed to hear mispronounciations in an audiobook. Mispronunciations take the listener out of the story.
I don’t know the type of material the publisher requested from this author. The goal of the publisher and narrator is always to realize the author’s vision of the book, so it’s perfectly reasonable to ask the author to supply additional info to aid in achieving that goal.
I am confident that no one is asking the author to do extra work. Instead, the publisher and narrator are trying to understand her preferences so they can interpret and deliver them in the audiobook performance.
For instance, authors of fiction books are commonly called on to submit character lists. While the narrator does take notes during the pre-read, we may miss details. We’d love to see the author’s description of each character to include any personality quirks and back story affecting the character’s POV.
It’s also very helpful to hear from the author about things that ARE NOT in the book, like:
- whether the book is part of a series with recurring characters
- whom the author would cast in each role if they were producing the movie version
- if any pronunciations are made up, not easily researched (such as names of private citizens), or are preferred when multiple ways exist to say something
Authors of non-fiction books could be asked to write clarifying transitions or descriptions of material shown in charts and images. Many publishers create PDFs to accompany the audiobook, but the narrator still needs to say something about diagrams as she comes upon them in the text.
The author’s chance at direction occurs during this preliminary stage. Once the narrator starts recording and passes any initial checkpoint, such as the first 15 minutes on ACX or Findaway, she usually doesn’t accept artistic or directorial changes.
Not Just “Reading”
An increasing number of authors and publishers hold the misguided view that the narrator is “just reading out loud.”
An audiobook is a performance art based on the narrator’s interpretation of the author’s words. We do MUCH MORE than just read!
People buy audiobooks because they want to be entertained, informed, and inspired. Consequently, most narrators have acting experience and obtain ongoing performance coaching to create highly-nuanced narrations.
Although it seems like we’re only reading aloud, narrating an audiobook is an extremely challenging and demanding performance medium!
It requires intense concentration. We must be in the moment for every word of the book and respond to the demands of the text. Fiction books require us to perform all the parts like a 1-person play. Non-fiction books dictate that we find ways to keep the read lively and engaging so that we aren’t speaking a monotone core dump of flat information.
Audiobooks are also an incredibly intimate medium. People are listening with earbuds. The breath or silence between words can convey depth of meaning.
As I wrote in this article, here are 9 things professional narrators naturally do:
- Understand the subtext and add the appropriate emotion, inflection, and tone for each word without speaking in aural pattern like a newscaster or a children’s sing-songy rhyme.
- Be like Goldilocks when setting a reading pace. The tempo can’t be too fast or too slow; it needs to be right for the material.
- Read all of the words on the page in the order they are written, without adding, subtracting, or transposing any of them and still tell the story in a convincing way while maintaining the right accent, character voice, and/or tone. Whew! Even writing that list was tiring!
- Develop believable character voices and maintain consistency of those voices through multiple recording sessions spread across a number of days. All voices and tone should sound the same throughout the entire book so that it sounds like it was recorded in a single session.
- Record in an ultra quiet environment free from extraneous noises like children, pets, appliances, aircraft, and lawn tools. The microphone hears all of those sounds. If they make it into the final recording, listeners are annoyed by the poor production quality. You even need to wear quiet clothes!
- Minimize lip smacks, tongue and teeth clicks, breathing noises, and stomach rumbles while still sounding natural.
- Re-record any sentences that have mistakes. If I make a mistake in words, inflection, or character’s voice, we stop the recording, and I say the sentence again. If I decide I want to play a different emotion, we stop the recording, and I say the sentence again. This process occurs constantly during the original recording sessions.
- Finish the recording sessions in the time allotted, which can be an aggressive schedule. The industry rule of thumb is that it takes 6 hours in real time to produce 1 finished hour of audio. A 10-hour audiobook therefore may require 60 or more hours to record, edit, proof, correct, and master the audio files.
- Ensure that any corrected recordings will have the same sound, character voice, and energy as the original recording. I play back my original recording so that I can reproduce it when recording the correction. The new audio is seamlessly inserted into the original. The whole book should sound as though I read it in one sitting.
While some narrators pay hourly rates for studio rental and an engineer, many professional narrators create audiobooks in our own studios. Doing so means that we overcame a minimum of 4 additional technical challenges:
- Established a dead quiet space for recording.
- Purchased and learned how to use an appropriate microphone, hardware interface to the computer, and computer. A telephone headset microphone is suitable for telephone audio, not an audiobook.
- Selected recording software and survived the steep learning curve in understanding how to use it to record and save audio files.
- Studied the techniques of editing and mastering the recordings to eliminate mistakes and make the audio sound pleasing to the ear, or hired a freelance editor to perform these tasks.
Say No to Artificial Intelligence
Admittedly, many of the activities above associated with the recording process extend the time needed to record, edit, and proof the audiobook to make it both a faithful rendition of the author’s words and its own art form. More time equals greater expense, so many small publishers and authors are considering using artificial voices to reduce expenses.
As a professional audiobook narrator, I’d like to offer some important points that authors should consider before embracing a synthesized voice to record your books.
One’s voice conveys the essence of being HUMAN. Nothing expresses our thoughts, feelings, and emotions better than the human voice.
Calling Alexa and Siri “artificial intelligence” is really a misnomer. These devices and apps may sound sort of like humans, but they truly “just read.” They are not capable of thought and do not have life experiences that will shape and color a performance.
Devices do not take breaths. Without breath, you have no life. In fact, listeners have said they grow uncomfortable if they cannot hear the voice taking a breath.
These 2 simple but profound differences prevent artificial voices from being a suitable choice for any long-form narration, but especially not for an audiobook that is competing with other forms of entertainment for consumer dollars.
Technology is ideal when robots replace humans in soul-sucking jobs like installing computer chips on a circuit board. It will never replace a human’s ability to convey emotion.
Authors carefully choose every word they write. Audiobook narrators work to understand each word and make organic acting choices that convey the author’s intent. We can change our rhythm, volume, pitch, intonation, tempo, and pauses. We give fictional characters a unique inner life and instill vibrancy into non-fiction texts.
In contrast, an AI voice can’t imbue any word with meaning. It can’t detect the SUBTEXT in a single sentence, much less over the trajectory of an entire book. Experienced narrators actively mine the subtext for clues and create a more expressive, layered performance based on it.
Words on a page can fall flat and be interpreted in different ways. A narrator can say the same sentence in a number of ways to impart different meanings. For example, the listener can actually HEAR THE DIFFERENCE when I smile! How would an artificial voice understand the underlying humor in the text and say the words so that the joke lands? It can’t.
When an author considers everything she’d lose by choosing an AI voice over a human voice merely to save a little time and money in audiobook production, I’d hope she’d realize that the true value in an audiobook is in the human narrator’s ability to TELL THE STORY and take the listener on the journey with us.