Understanding Audiobook Production: an Interview with Rich Miller

From  Kristen Tsetsi via Jane Friedman:

What I didn’t learn until recently was that the $100-$200/PFH I had seen offered by many narrators at ACX and therefore thought was reasonable compensation is, according to seasoned professionals who frequently discuss pay issues in a Facebook group for audiobook narrators, woefully inadequate. Had I done more research in my earlier audiobook days, I’d have learned that other production companies, such as ListenUp Audiobooks, charge $450 per finished hour.

. . . .

You’re both a stage-and-screen actor and a book narrator. Does narrating take a special skill, or could most actors also be audiobook narrators?

I’d actually answer “yes” to both questions.

Stage actors who cross over into film learn that the mediums are very different, so they learn how to use the skills they already have in a different way. So it is with audiobooks: having a background in any form of acting gives you a leg up, you just have to adapt the tools you already have for use in a different medium.

When going from stage to audiobooks, an actor needs to learn how to be “small”: you have to be able to portray the same level of intensity as you might do on stage moving around expressively and shouting, but without moving your mouth away from the mic too much and without actually shouting. This is similar to going from stage to film, with the added constraint of knowing that you can’t rely on facial expressions to convey anything to your audience: they may help you deliver lines believably, but alone they don’t add to the listener’s experience.

With fiction, there’s usually also the need for the ability to portray a character who is not the same gender as the narrator without taking the listener out of the story. There are a few narrators who can do this so well that it’s easy to believe that the audiobook is actually a full-cast production, but most listeners are fine as long as the characters are clearly differentiated without the narrator resorting to methods that make it obvious they’re faking something (e.g., a male narrator using a falsetto for all female characters). Subtlety is generally a good thing.

. . . .

 Jess Herring says in a conversation about sound quality of audiobook recordings, “Some authors want to record their own books.” In response, you almost inaudibly murmur in the negative. She goes on, “…which is a bold choice…”

Though it could easily be argued that you and Herring are right to warn authors not to read their own material unless they have an acting background (whether stage or straight voice), it could also be argued that there is legitimate concern on the author’s part that the narrator won’t correctly deliver a certain line of dialogue or the personality of a character. All writing is of course open to personal interpretation, but a silent reading allows for any number of interpretations; a voice reading, on the other hand, determines a single interpretation for all listeners.

What would you say about this to an author considering audiobook production for the first time and uncertain about whether to hire a narrator?

I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an author to consider narrating their own work. The problem is that most authors are not familiar with all of the elements that go into audiobook production.

In addition to the performance aspect, there’s understanding how to properly set up and treat a recording space; mic choice; mic technique; and recording software proficiency, to name a few.

There are certainly ways to deal with a lack of knowledge in those areas, such as hiring a director and an engineer and booking time in a professional studio, but many authors are not thinking along those lines, they’re thinking about self-producing. So whenever I hear that an author wants to narrate their own work, I try to caution them about everything they need to know before going that route.

I think that it’s also perfectly reasonable for an author, especially one who has never had an audiobook produced before, to have concerns about how a narrator is going to interpret their text. But a well-selected audition piece and open communication with the selected narrator should allay any fears. It’s also important to remember that while an author knows the characters that they created, it’s possible to get too close to one’s own work: a character that is portrayed differently than how you hear them in your head may resonate more with the audience.

. . . .

An author might be of the mind that s/he is the creator of the characters and may be uncomfortable with someone else re-creating them, or re-envisioning them. Actors are used to taking direction when performing on stage or set, but novels don’t have directors—only their authors. Is feedback/guidance from authors received as it might be from a play or film director? That is, do you welcome their input or their suggestions about delivery, or are they generally not trusted because they’re writers and not actors (or not otherwise involved in the acting world)? Is there a commonly understood “just right” amount of input?

Unfortunately, there is no “just right” amount of input. I know narrators who are very explicit with rights holders when starting on a project, and go so far as to send a detailed description of how they’re going to work, including a statement about the fact that they will accept no creative or directorial change requests once the first fifteen minutes have been approved. In a recent podcast episode, I had a chat with an author/narrator pair who knew each other prior to audiobook production, and it was clear that the author gave a great deal of direction during the process. So it really depends on the people involved.

I think the important point is that the author is not the director: either the book is being recorded in a studio with a director and an engineer and a narrator, as often happens at the major publishing houses, or the book is being recorded by a single person who is self-directing (with an occasional outlier, e.g., an engineer is hired but no director), but in neither case is the author the director. That doesn’t mean that an author’s input can never be considered; it simply means that how much input will be welcome should be determined by the parties involved before embarking on the journey.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

5 thoughts on “Understanding Audiobook Production: an Interview with Rich Miller”

  1. not rue

    look at pro podcasters who record from insulated closets with high quality sound

    no engineer
    no director

    just your voice tellin your story

    dont make it complicated

    have it mastered if you want for sound eveness/control

    done

  2. Now that I’m knee-deep in learning this stuff, I suspect a lot of it is a lot like the learning curve for ebook/print formatting. Yes, the first times you do it, you make a million mistakes and spend hours fixing things. But by the time you’ve done it thirty times, you’ve ironed out the process, identified your typical mistakes and addressed them, and can now basically do it in your sleep in a quarter the time.

    This is not to say actors and engineers don’t deserve compensation, because they manifestly do. But I also hear a little ‘Star Trek Scottying’ of the timelines here. :,

  3. I hope authors will consider these points carefully before allowing themselves to be pressured/drumbeat into issuing audio versions of their books. Both options–recording your own, which is a major project with a huge learning curve, and spending thousands of dollars to hire a professional narrator/producer–should be carefully considered in terms of Return on Investment and your personal abilities.

    Many sites/voices/platforms today loudly instruct authors to do a number of very expensive and/or time-consuming things with our books, implying that we’re missing the boat if we don’t. I was urged several years ago to create audio versions of some of my (more than 100) books. After looking into the options and what was involved, I decided that at present it would be a very bad idea for me. Everything I have read since, and I follow industry news closely, has supported this conclusion.

    A friend of mine with acting training and a voice perfect for her heroine has done an excellent job of issuing her own audiobooks, so I’m not saying no one should do this. But it could be a serious time and money suck for many.

    • I’m curious to know what your general opinions of the ROI involved are, and was it just audiobook, or audiobook vs more writing.

      • Dave, I read one author’s analysis that you need to have earned about $40,000 for print/ebook sales for a title before you were likely to earn out your expense for issuing an audio book with a professional narrator.

        To me, ROI means just that: money earned has to at least equal money spent, preferably in less than a year.

        As for the time and energy, each author needs to decide if that is taken away from more writing. To me, it certainly would be.

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