Last month I released the audiobook version of Ever Rest, my third novel. All creative collaborations bring surprises. There are things we’re glad we did and things we’re glad we didn’t do. Here are the lessons learned.
Meet my narrator
My narrator was Sandy Spangler, who narrated my other two novels. Sandy is a longtime friend who designs computer games, but I didn’t know she had also trained as a voice actor. In 2014 I had a generous sponsorship offer from Amazon’s ACX to make the audiobooks of my first two novels, but couldn’t find a suitable narrator – you can read about the struggles here. Then I discovered Sandy could do it. She was perfect.
We recorded My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three in 2014. You can read about our adventures making those audiobooks here.
We talked about doing Ever Rest if I could get another sponsor. And, late last year, I did. (You know who you are and… thank you.)
So if you want to know how an audiobook is made, here’s the complete guide.
How do you get the audiobook to customers? You need a sales platform or distributor. I chose Findaway Voices. It reaches a huge range of retailers and libraries and has a good rating from the Alliance of Independent Authors watchdog. When my ACX contract expired for My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three, I moved the books to Findaway.
If you don’t already have a narrator, Findaway has a process for putting narrators and authors together.
There are two possible ways to make a book with Findaway. You can upload a finished set of files, or you can use Findaway’s author/narrator portal to share and approve files. There’s a small fee for this. There’s no fee if you upload a finished book.
Sandy and I decided that, as we’d already worked together well and were used to working in creative teams anyway, we could figure out our own sharing and approval system. I have a Dropbox subscription so we used that for sharing files.
Here’s one we made earlier.
Set up your system and stick to it obsessively
You need to keep track of where each file is in the recording and approvals process. Is it waiting to be reviewed? Does it need corrections? Is it passed for final production?
I created a set of folders in Dropbox.
- For Roz to approve
- Corrections for Sandy
- Pickups for Roz to approve
- Passed by Roz
- Final mastered files ready for upload
This is very bossy, but Ever Rest has 86 chapters. We needed to stay completely in control of where everything was. Also, I thrive on control and detail.
So many weird names
All audiobooks need pronunciation guides. Ever Rest has a really chewy vocabulary. There are Nepalese place names. Argentinian place names. Mountaineering equipment (karabiner: where does the stress go? KaraBEEner? What vowel sound? KAHRaBINer?)
None of this mattered when the words were shapes in a reader’s mind. Now, there were pitfalls galore. Sniggers or scorn if we got it wrong.
I wrote a pronunciation guide, using phonetic spellings and links to YouTube videos.
Closer to home, there was another troublesome name: the Long Mynd, a hill in Shropshire. The local pronunciation is ‘minned’, not ‘mind’. On the page, it looks like it could be ‘mind’ and I wanted the reader to feel both versions. At times, this was an important resonance, so how would we handle it in the narration? I added some lines to the text to make the reader aware. Then Sandy, in her narration, judged perfectly when to say ‘mind’ and when to say ‘Mynd’. It’s a joy when your actor is so in tune with the book.
Style of narration
Our next task was to establish the style of narration. How fast should it be read? How emotional should the reading be?
Sandy sent samples at different speeds and emotional registers. I’m glad we did this, instead of plunging straight in, because the book didn’t work as we expected.
At first we kept it low key because the prose has a lot of emotion. That approach is good for some audiobooks and lets the writing do the work, but Ever Rest sounded flat. So Sandy went the other way and it came alive – a rich, expressive reading that we could dial up and down for the different characters and tones.
Once we had the energy and emotion, we thought about the space between the paragraphs. When I was writing, I used paragraph spacing very precisely as a poetic device. I realised as I listened that we sometimes needed a longer gap between paragraphs to let a moment settle. Sandy gave me several versions and we found the perfect paragraph pause.
It’s essential to tackle these questions at the start. Even if you’re not used to directing actors or listening critically to audio, you’ll have a feeling when something is off. You might not know what it is, but discuss it with your narrator. If you make a suggestion that’s dumb, the narrator might have a good solution to the problem. Listen to your gut and discuss any concerns as early as possible, before you’ve got a heap of chapters you’re not happy with.
We had found the novel’s style and voice.
Leave room for the reader: 1 Regional accents
One of the characters, Elza, has an Australian accent. We wondered: should Sandy do that?
My instinct was no. And anyway, if we’re getting picky, all the characters have accents. Elza’s is the most striking, as she’s Australian, but another has an East London twang. Another has Shropshire, probably with layers of Nepal, where he’s lived. Another is French.
But accents can be intrusive. And in an audiobook, the narrator doesn’t need to ‘do’ the characters’ voices to make us feel their reality. Their presence is so much more than accent. Their natures are expressed through word choice, thoughts, feelings and reactions, especially when they’re pushed out of their comfort zones. What makes them real is their inner life.
We wondered, though, if Elza might need different treatment because characters occasionally mention her Australian intonation. Her boyfriend, Elliot, talks about the ‘amused lilt of her accent’. What should we do about that? We certainly don’t want Crocodile Dundee. Perhaps an upward inflection, just on the preceeding line, which is a very Australian characteristic?
I’ll leave it to you, I said to Sandy.
When I listened to that chapter, Sandy read those lines exactly the same as the rest of the text. They worked perfectly.
Leave room for the reader: 2 Song lyrics
Ever Rest is a novel about a rock band, Ashbirds. Where there are bands, there are songs. So how should we read the lyrics?
Did they need a melody?
I did have ideas of some of the melodies. They came as I wrote the lines. But I never intended to share them with the reader.
As usual, Sandy made a sound judgement. She read them with a light sense of rhythm, as though they were lines of poetry, to let the listener imagine as much or as little melody as they liked.
Once you’ve made a decision that feels right, you realise what the wrong decision would have done. To add melodies might make the songs feel less serious. It would break the spell of the reader’s personal version, what they were imagining.
I had an example of this at a recent book event. Readers asked me who was the real-life original of the band, Ashbirds. Absolutely nobody agreed with my version. Some thought Ashbirds were heavy rock. That wouldn’t work for me because I mostly dislike guitars – cries of horror from some readers. My Ashbirds would be a bit Peter Gabriel, with his intricate samples. A bit Massive Attack with their soulful synths and beats. A bit Pink Floyd with their introspective darkness. A bit late Police, seething with anger. A bit Simon and Garfunkel, with their voices that sounded like one.
Howls of disagreement from everyone, who all had their own Ashbirds.
That’s the value of not saying too much, not adding too much.
Big lesson: in voicing the book, you must leave room for the reader.
Oh dear I forgot to mention… words I invented
As we worked, we realised I left some important info out of my pronunciation guide.
Some characters had unusual names that could be pronounced in several ways. Paul Wavell… was he WAYvell or WaVELL? said Sandy. It wasn’t important, but it held Sandy up while she wondered which I wanted.
Also, band names. Ever Rest is a complete ecosystem of rock bands. I had such fun inventing names that looked great on the page. Sandy had to figure out how to say them.
‘Roz, about Vidalvine. Veedal Vine or Vyedal Vine?’
‘The rap star Hobemian. Hoe-BEM-ee-an? Hoe-beh-MY-en? Hee-beh-MEE-en? Rhymed with ‘bohemian’?
Big lesson: add your made-up names to the pronunciation guide. I’m looking at you, fantasy and sci-fi authors, and absolutely everyone else too. We all invent names. Your narrator doesn’t need to play guessing games. They already have enough to do (see below).
Oh dear I also forgot to mention…
Some English place-names.
Sandy is American, so names that were familiar to me were not familiar to her. The London region of Holborn. The Yorkshire town of Scarborough, which is not Scarburrow.
Even if your narrator speaks the same variety of English as you, you might want to add pronunciation notes for any name that has right and wrong options, or options that indicate the character is local. For instance, Shrewsbury – locals call it ‘Shroo’ and everyone else calls it ‘Shreau’.
Clicks and repeats
The chapters read beautifully, and occasionally I glimpsed the hard work under the polish. In one chapter, Sandy accidentally left an outtake where she was surprised by a line of adjectives. I could hear her faltering as her brain said, blimey, when does this sentence end? Then I heard a couple of hard clicks, her code for a retake. A breath, she repeated the line, back in the flow, perfectly inflected.
Big lesson: when listening back, stay alert for moments that have been accidentally left in. Every hour of finished recording takes several hours of preparation, recording and editing. Mistakes can happen.
I discovered only one such instance in the entire book, which is a tribute to Sandy’s careful work, but you don’t realise what can go wrong until it does. Watch for outtakes!
When you write a big book, it’s big work
This audiobook took a long time. Eighty-six chapters, about 110,000 words. It was a huge undertaking. Sandy remarked that whereas she’d usually take four to six hours per finished hour of work, she was taking six to eight.
We discussed why this was. The amount of dialogue? The shifting tonality of the different scenes? The changing narrators? All of these gave Sandy a huge range of emotions to express, sometimes all in one chapter. The book took me, as the writer, seven years and 23 drafts (here’s a post about the seven steps of a long-haul novel). Sandy had to digest that complexity in just a few passes.
Sandy tells me she often recorded several versions of a line, then decided later which to use.
‘I did this very often with dialog. As a reader you can get to the end of a character’s sentence before you realise that you have read it with the wrong tone, or sometimes even the wrong character voice. Even if you aren’t doing strong voice differences such as accents, a well-written character has their own communication style and when reading aloud you want to keep that consistent. Or sometimes I would get to the end of a conversation and decide the energy or pacing of the exchange felt wrong, so I would do it again. The majority of the time the later version was the better one, like a tiny rehearsal followed by a performance. This book had a lot of intense dialog, which made it especially challenging.
‘I also recorded multiple versions of the more dramatic story passages whenever it felt necessary in order to get the emotion across – or at the end of a chapter. For those I always recorded multiple takes to sum up the energy of the moment. I feel words followed by silence need to hang in the air just right.’
In case you’re wondering what takes all the time.
The preparation showed. I remember when Sandy presented the final chapters. ‘That argument really took it out of me,’ she said. ‘I kept wanting to scream at her.’ This was exactly what I needed the reader to feel. And the pent-up pressure comes through in the performance.
Endmatter– to record it or not?
Ever Rest has a discography after the final chapter. We wondered: should we record it? Several readers told me they’d enjoyed it as an unexpected bonus. But it was devised for the page, not for the ear.
Sandy recorded it. It didn’t work. We didn’t include it.
Ever Rest also has the usual endmatter. Acknowledgements, a brief piece about the author, teasers for my other books. We decided not to record them. On the printed page they’re nice as a leave-taking. But read out, in the voice of the story, which is so intimate, they would be jarring.
That’s just my opinion. You may think differently about your book.
Titles and other bits
Audiobooks need various official bits of start and end matter. The title, a copyright notice etc. To make this simple, Findaway Voices suggests a format that’s accepted by all the retailers. This is the recommendation for endmatter:
This has been [Title],
Written by [Author Name],
Narrated by [Narrator Name],
Copyright [Year of Manuscript and Name of Rights Holder],
Production Copyright [Year of Audiobook Production] by [Rights Holder]
The audiobook cover has to be square, so I pulled up my design file for the paperback and prepared to tweak. I saw this, the record sleeve visible in its entirety, before I cropped it to book proportions. (See the blue outline.)
Gasp. When I was designing the cover, I dearly wanted to use all the record sleeve. If only the book could be square. Now it could be. Did I dare? It would be quite a departure from the actual cover. Did that matter? And the titling would be small. Did that matter? It might not. The sales platforms would show the title and author anyway.
I put it to my Facebook friends.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, they said. It’s unusual. It’s got impact. Do it.
So I did. I also added the rosette for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize.
Choosing a sample for the sales page
The sales platforms give readers a sample, as they do with ebooks. For ebooks it’s automatic – the beginning of the book. For audiobooks, you get to choose an excerpt.
With choice comes… dithering.
We deliberated about the sample for all the time we were making the book.
There are seven POV characters. Who gets to be on the sample? Will listeners think the book is only about that person? There were many chapters that seemed to transmit the book’s themes and dilemmas, or so I thought, as the author. What would someone think if this was their first taste of the book? I found it impossible to tell, I was too close.
There were some chapters that worked well as standalones but were far too long – the limit was 5 minutes.
Eventually I chose one, which was an important interior struggle for one of the main characters.
Nooooooooo, said Husband Dave. It won’t be memorable enough because it’s so interior. Can you find something where two characters meet or do something weird?
Eventually we got it. You can listen to it here.
Check everything madly, a lot of times
When all the content was correct, Sandy did her post-production work, then messaged when there was a complete set of files in the Dropbox folder, ready for me to upload.
Then came an orgy of checking. I double-checked I had all the chapter files, and the beginning and end credits. As there were 86 chapter files I checked them twice. If one was missing, now was the time to know, not when a hugely stressful error message came in from Findaway. Or from a reader.
I uploaded the files. Immediately we had a formatting glitch. However, Findaway’s help pages are so clear that I was able to discover the reason, told Sandy, she sorted it out and sent the files back to me.
Comforting note – Findaway’s help pages are really good. Their help team is also very responsive.
I checked again I had all the files. Any time you’ve done a mass upload, download or anything, something could go missing. You can never check too many times. It’s always worth it.
When I uploaded the novel, I saw its length for the first time. A whole 11 hours, 45 minutes. Again, no wonder it took a while.
When you upload the files, Findaway Voices suggests a retail price and a library price according to the book’s length. I saw no reason to argue! You can set discount pricing for launch offers and generate codes for review copies.
A few nailbiting days while Findaway did some technical checks of their own. Then hurrah – we passed. Findaway has a page with all the retail links. There are loads of them, as there are with ebooks. I have a universal link for each of my titles via Books2Read, and hurrah it as a section for audiobooks.
I also updated pages on my website and my newsletter welcome sequence, to let people know the audiobook is available. Now I keep coming across other random mentions on my website and blog that need updating.
Note for next time – make a comprehensive list of links or pages that need updating whenever I have a new release. Try to streamline where possible. We live and learn.
Those audiobook lessons
- Set up a workflow process and stick to it obsessively.
- Create a pronunciation guide – any names and words you’ve made up, technical terms, foreign words and names.
- Do a trial run to establish pace, level of emotion and pauses between paragraphs.
- Look out for instances where important resonance might not translate. Perhaps adjust the text – remember mind and Mynd.
- Discuss a policy about accents, unusual text like song lyrics but remember less is more.
- Leave room for the reader!
- Get your cover adjusted – and perhaps explore exciting possibilities that weren’t possible in the paperback or ebook edition.
- Watch out for repeated sections and other kinds of outtake.
- Check and recheck everything madly.
- Make it easy for people to find your new audiobook – update your buy links and any pages or newsletter materials that mention your books.
And here they are, the magnificent three. My Memories of a Future Life. Lifeform Three. Ever Rest.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.