Ninety-percent Mistakes: Recording an Audiobook

‘...when suddenly I blubberdy-dubbledy bum-bum bugger,’ I said, having made yet another error in my narration. ‘Sorry Jon, let’s pick that one up…’

It was reminiscent of Bill Nighy in the opening scenes of Love Actually where he’s making mistakes singing, ‘Christmas is all around you…’

It was a common slip of the tongue, and even professionals are prone to it. Show me Stephen Fry or Lindsay Duncan doing a complete read-through without stumbling and I’ll eat my microphone. Well, maybe just the pop-screen, just to hedge my bets.

I was well into half-way through recording my travel book Against The Current, which would, in the end, take me over 20 hours – not because I’m an amateur, but because perfection takes time; and that’s coming from someone who is trained as a professional broadcaster and has decades of experience doing narration and pieces-to-camera.

I'm lucky I saved recording an audiobook until the digital age; thirty years ago my sound engineer would have had to physically rewind the quarter-inch tape through the recording heads and line up the spools to the point where I’d made my mistake, then play the last few words leading in, hit ‘record’ at the appropriate moment, and then cue me in to pick up where I’d gone wrong.

Today it’s much simpler, at least for the audio engineer, who can physically see on their screen where the edit point should be, though the technique of doing pick-ups for the narrator is very similar… you listen to the words leading in to the appropriate pick-up point, and – matching the tone speed and style of your previous piece – continue the narration as though nothing had happened.

How many times does this occur while narrating? How long is a piece of string? Of the 50 chapters in my book I would estimate I got through only about five without any mistakes, and in some of the others there were many, many slip-ups, so there is no definitive answer. If I’m typical then let’s say only ten percent of a book is error-free during narration. Or, turning that on its head, 90 percent of the time there are mistakes.

Which is something many authors can’t comprehend when asked to pay for hours and hours of professional recording time; it’s just not easy or straightforward. And that’s not including the post-production work such as ‘de-breathing’, where the audio engineer has to eliminate the audible intakes of breath, along with tongue clicks, or bilabial plosives (don’t ask!).

If you go online and search ‘how to record an audiobook’ you will find multiple sites telling you how you can do it. Many of these advise that it’s perfectly acceptable to download some sort of recording app and just DIY – Do It Yourself – say in your bedroom or study. Others suggest engaging the services of a professional recording studio. So what’s the difference?

Two key differences are evident: one is that recording it in your own home is cheap but it also means you have a lot less control over sound quality, ambient noise, and extraneous intrusive sounds (lawn mowers, the next-door neighbours fighting, dogs barking, your beloved children walking in while you’re recording, etc…). The second is that a professional production will cost you more (well, will cost you, let’s put it that way; it doesn’t have to be prohibitive) and should be of excellent quality.

As mentioned, I have a background in broadcasting, in both radio and television. I also have access to professional-quality audio recording gear, yet I knew just from a simple trial that what I needed was a professional sound studio and engineer. My home-made ‘audio booth’ just didn’t cut the mustard, and the boatyard opposite had no sympathy for me when they needed to water-blast the hull of a recently lifted-out yacht half way through my riveting opening chapter.

So I scouted around the Internet for a local professional option. Because I was always going to be my own narrator, I knew that all I needed was a studio and a competent sound engineer, and after a couple of false starts I found exactly what I wanted: Jon and his well-equipped studio with sound-mixing desk for £20 per hour. Bargain.

I nevertheless tried to reach an agreement with him whereby he would give me a discount if I mentioned his studio in any promotional material or articles I subsequently wrote, but he wouldn’t come to the party, which is why you’re not learning the name of the studio here. His loss, but mine also, as I had to pay full-rate. Turned out he was in such high demand that he didn’t need my help in promoting his studio, or any sort of endorsement, so I have offered to buy shares in his business instead. (I can smell success from a mile away!)

Anyway, he was great to work with. But, I hear you cry, that’s all very well when you can record your own narration; you don’t have to go to the expense of paying for a narrator!

True, I am lucky to be able to do that, but it doesn’t mean you can’t at least try it yourself. If you’re going to, here’s a tip: don’t read your book aloud, tell the story. But practise first, listen back, critically analyse it, play it to a sample audience and listen to their feedback. Rather like an editor is removed and dispassionate when editing your written material, so too is a narrator, and you might just have too much emotional investment in what you’re reading to ‘perform’ it properly.

Why? Well, in the end you are going to be asking people to pay for your finished audiobook, and yes you will be competing with Stephen and Lindsay, names that can sell audiobooks because of who they are. It’s entirely likely that nobody knows you at all (but then nobody knows me either, so there goes that argument…). The point is, your customers deserve value for money, and often an audiobook retails for more than the eBook or paperback versions.

There are companies online that offer the full service and can find you both a narrator and an audio production company. Amazon’s ACX offers a range of options, including the chance for narrators to ‘bid’ for your job, but they aren’t the only ones in the game.

Then there’s also the ‘relationship’ you have with your narrator: do they get a one-off flat-fee agreed between the two of you, or a part-payment plus some royalties on sales, or just a percentage of royalties? Some narrators can be persuaded to charge only by the finished duration of the audiobook too, not by the number of hours it took to record. It’s a minefield, but one that many other authors have soldiered through before, so visit forums and do some research. There are some good case studies to be found.

It’s entirely possible you could find someone in your local am-dram theatre group who has a fantastic voice and narrating style, so don’t be afraid to hold your own auditions; they will appreciate the work and exposure, and you might get a top-quality job from an amateur for not very much outlay.

In the end I spent just over £500 to get my audio files recorded and post-produced to perfection, which included buying the rights to a lovely piece of French accordion music that serves both as the opening and closing themes and as a shortened ‘sting’ between each chapter. The music rights cost just £12.

I am now at the point of choosing which system to use to market my audiobook, but that’s a whole other minefield. I’ll let you know if I’m in one piece when I reach the other side!

Mike Bodnar

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