How to be a star Rights Holder

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I often hear from Rights Holders "I'm new at this, can you tell?!"  That's no surprise.  Most authors aren't churning out dozens of books and becoming old hands at being self-publishers on ACX. 

Here’s a few suggestions for how to do your end of things well, especially if you’re taking your chances in the Royalty Share pool, because of course you want to give your book the best chance:

When listing the book:

1) Short and sweet!  A short audition script might mean you get more candidates auditioning. I personally like it when the excerpt is right in the field rather than provided an attachment, because downloading is extra clicking.  My next favorite thing is when the entire book is attached as a pdf, because then a) I know the author has no expectation whatsoever that I’m going to read the whole thing for an audition, and b) If I love it I get to read it, and then you win a Goodreads review:)

When 3-10 pages are attached …. well, on the plus side you’ve given enough material to give some character and tonal clues, but then I wonder if the author thinks I’m going to read it all for the audition? I’m not. Two to five minutes is all you get (we all know that you are going to listen to only a few seconds before you know if it’s no or maybe, and also those two to five minutes take at least 30 minutes work). If you want to post several pages, a note indicating that you’re only expecting an industry-standard two minute audition clarifies your expectations.

2) Give your sample script file a name that includes the name of your book. Not "audition", or “audio script for acx”, or “sample”. Because once I go looking for the audition scripts I was interested in in my downloads folder, they pretty much all have the same title (“AuditionACXScript.pdf”)

3) Keywords for characters and performance are important, especially if accents are involved! On the other hand, I don’t need to know the entire life story of a character that speaks two sentences in the sample. That comes later:)

4) Mentioning that you appreciate the work involved in producing auditions (there is quite a lot of work in each audition) or books is a nice touch. Barking about your unrealistic expectations is not, but it does provide entertainment as we narrators pass by your posting:)

5) Please don’t list your book for “$XX PFH OR Royalty Share”, when there’s not the faintest chance you plan to pay PFH for it. That’s fakery. Not cool.

wHEN The auditions pour in:

Karen Commins has a great and comprehensive blog post on all the things you should consider when listening to the audition, and more about this whole process as well.

1) Use headphones to be better able to assess the sound quality, hear background noise, loud breathing, mouth clicks and noises, and also, because your customers at the end of this road are very often going to be listening to the finished product with headphones.

2) The narrators don’t know if you click “dislike” on their audition :)

3) If you’ve got a short list, by all means ask for another sample or a reading of a different important character, if you need more information to make your decision.

4) When you make an offer to someone and they accept, all the other candidates get a boilerplate message that says the narrator has been chosen (and it’s not you, better luck next time). You don’t have to write to anyone.

5) Is someone ghosting you? Unfortunately, the ACX messaging site sometimes fails to send messages, and the only way to be positive your message sent is to check your sent messages. This has bitten me more than once:(

it’s on!:

1) Communicate!  Provide the pronunciation for those names and worlds you made up. Please don't vanish, ignore all emails, and just click "I approve".  If you’re super busy, rarely see your emails, or you don’t have much attachment to how it sounds, including whether or not John sounds anguished enough in chapter 12, just say so at the outset, and we’re cool.

Can't offer money?  Hoping for the best Royalty Share has to offer?

1) Be flexible!  Some of us fill our menus with royalty share between paid work for many reasons (to keep busy, to stretch one’s range, for low expectation fun, gambling that it might do well, actually really like the book...).  Books for pay get priority, so if you have a RS book, be amenable to a long and vague deadline, and be understanding if you get bumped.  You might get a real pro for free if you're willing to wait.

2) Can't pay? Lay on the praise.  That's useful, seriously.   Really, I can use praise - it goes in the bank of accolades for bad days and when I need a website quote.  Beyond that, hearing good things motivates me to invest more in your book, because you're so nice.  It's a circle of positive niceness. 

3) Prooflisten!  Proofing is a significant step in the process, and if you aren’t sharing the cost of post-production, you can contribute by doing the prooflistening.  Rights holders that care about their books tend to be eager to listen anyway, but if you're not paying for your audiobook, it will help if you can find the time to listen to the whole thing, in case any edits slipped through (they can do that).

Hope this helps on your journey to getting your audiobook made!

 

My process of narrating

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My first step is to pre-read the manuscript. Any surprise reveals? Is there a bad guy hiding in plain sight? An Irish brogue mentioned for the first time on the last page? And also, is the manuscript ready, ie, not riddled with typos or grammatical errors? Every mistake in the manuscript costs me time in the booth, pausing over it and making a note of it. A few is fine - I’m probably the last editing comb going through it, but more than one per page is not fine.

If there are any names or unusual/made up words, words I don’t know how to pronounce, and some words that I think I know how to pronounce but I’m not 100%, I will be making a list, and researching them, and asking the author how the invented words should be said.  There are many excellent resources and most narrators employ the same set of online sources; I like Cambridge Dictionary, because it compares both British English and US English. Where I’m Canadian, I’m always getting surprised when I get caught out with common words that are said differently in the US (“foyer”) and sound incredibly strange to me. Worse, there are regional differences in how words are pronounced in different parts of the States, and I must defer to the preference of the author (or publisher)

Languages and accents are a whole ‘nother level of research and preparation!

Characters, especially when they’re written well, have a voice that just comes out through my mouth. I trust that. The words that have been put in their mouths and the adjectives that describe them go a long way to creating a voice for them.

After preparation, I record the “first 15 minutes”, not necessarily 15 nor the first minutes, but a sample that represents the book.

After approval that I’m on the right track with tone, pacing, and the main characters’ voices, then work proceeds apace. I send the audio files off to my sound technician for things to happen to it that I don’t understand (sound is a complicated energy with its own language and there’s a reason people go to school for years to learn how to manipulate it), and this mastering makes it sound as good as it possibly can.

I always work on one book at a time, not switching between books (except for doing pickups).

After the book is complete, or as chapters are completed, it must be proof-listened to to catch any sound flaws, edits that may have slipped through, and more. Any of those “pick-ups” must be fixed (back to the booth!), repaired seamlessly in the audio file, and then a final file is submitted to go on sale.

After final checks, a quality control delay, and the fulfillment of the contract, the book is released for sale on Audible, iTunes, etc.

My voice sounds different in my head too

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Everybody's does.  There's a scientific reason for that, too.

Because my voice sounds different in my head, though, it's not much use for me to just listen back to prior recordings to see what I made different characters sound like (say, for a sequel).

Instead, I have to get back in touch with what attributes I had in mind with that character, that came through in their voice. 

I love how this guy (exceptional at voices, all genders) has a "fleet of actors in his head" and he casts them in the roles that come in the books.

It's not like that for me. 

I get the sound of a character by pinning some quality to them. Qualities like "Always expects the best of everyone", "aggressive to be taken seriously". 

It's even better if I can boil it down to one word.  Caffeinated.  Skeptical.  Serene.  Snob.  Tentative.

These cues almost always come out of the narrative.  I pre-read the story, and just like everyone else reading a story, I get an imaginary vision of the characters.  But in my case, I have to get the imaginary voice.  Sometimes the author provides helpful character notes, but the story is most important.

Usually, it just starts the first few words that they speak.  I can get a little bit in and be like, no no, that's all wrong for her, and start over.  I can tell right away if I'm forcing a voice.  Good writing gives good voices- voices fall on the characters and drape them completely. 

To remember what I made a character sound like, I have to remember them, not their voice.

What I've learned about making audiobooks from listening to audiobooks

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I listen to a great many audiobooks.  I recently made the leap from the page to ear, thanks to the many digital resources available - happily! I wouldn’t be able to read 100 books a year any more if I had to sit down to read them. 

I've observed a few things from my listenings.

1) Production quality is less important than the performance.  I can easily forgive a dull staticky background (sub-standard booth or mastering) in exchange for a voice that makes me feel the story.  I was heart broken when one of my favorite authors went (mid-series!) from a native Icelandic narrator with middling production to a "beloved" English narrator backed by swish production values.  I’m still holding a grudge about this.

2) There's some very, very bad production out there.   I get many of my audiobooks from the library collection, many of which are classics apparently recorded before digital media, in a time where production standards must have been different. I hear page turning.  I hear swallowing.  I hear near stumbles.  I hear people talking in the next room.  Any amateur starting on ACX would be destroyed for such poor production, and this is from Random House!  Speeding up, slowing down (varying pacing is far worse than just reading faster or slower than you’d prefer).  Volume up, volume down.  Mic bumps. I swear once I heard the narrator take a sip, and in the same book, read right over a burp (the two might have been related).  It's like they locked him in a room and said “You can't leave until it's done!  No breaks!  Have to pee?  Read faster!”  This kind of crap always makes me feel better about my early mistakes. Standards are much higher these days:). 

3) Using unusual emphasis keeps the listener alert.  There's ten ways to read every sentence using different emphasis.  Even a three word sentence.   Say, "I love you".  Three ways, with emphasis?  Add a question mark, exclamation mark, anger, sadness, resentment, hope, hopelessness, or distance.  Considering just emphasis, though, placing it slightly on a word unexpected makes a little hop of cognitive dissonance in the listener, and I find it keeps me very tuned in.

4) It's obvious when the narrator doesn't know what the sentence is saying.   When they don't, they aren't able to communicate the meaning to the listener.  Maybe you (listener) can get it, if you remember the words of the sentence and reassemble them in your head retrospectively, but maybe the narrator carries on and does it again with another sentence, and then you can't catch up.   I think this is the essence of the job of the narrator, and the difference between reading a story and telling it.  As the surrogate voice of the author, the narrator is supposed to be communicating meaning with all the nuance available in speech, not just vocalizing words in the order they're on the page. It’s easy to tell (and frustrating) when the narrator doesn’t get the point of a sentence.

 

A few things I've learned about good writing from narrating audiobooks

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Never start a sentence with "So".  No.  No, never.  "But" can be even worse, in immoderation.  (I totally do this -gulp-!)

Good writing is easy to read aloud.   There are all those things they teach you about writing - vary the length and complexity of your sentences, utilize assonance, sibillance and alliteration, etc - but all of those things can be intuitively understood by doing one thing: reading it aloud.  Can you read without effort and running out of breath?  Does it have a natural cadence?  Does it feel smooth, or do certain words lurch?

Speaking as the narrator, I "feel" good writing flow before I "notice" it.  Like when I have been reading without fault for minutes and realize, "Hey, this YA romance author has silky smooth writing!".  

It's easier to describe what happens with bad writing, which is difficult to read aloud.  Breath control becomes difficult ("longest sentence ever no human could possibly say in one go" gaaaaasp!).  I falter.  Certain words are just not meant to be next to each other, and take many tries to twist out of my tongue.  Everything is lurching.  My brain gets tired trying to interpret the intention of the punctuation a split second before I get there. 

This is a situation where the narrator hopes to "elevate the manuscript", making it a better listen than it is a read. They try to inject flow where there is none, and to some extent this is possible.  But it is one heck of an effort. 

I have an idea that J.K. Rowling's flawlessly smooth writing (I've read all of H.P. aloud with zero fatigue) is that excellent because she wrote it for her kid!  To be read aloud!  I'm betting she read the drafts to her very first critical audience with a pencil in one hand to make edits on the fly.  She was writing with the voice in her head narrating it. 

Good writing makes the character.  Characterization is what makes books memorable.  As the narrator, often charged with giving characters different voices, I know the authenticity of characters exists in their dialogue.  I can tell when a character has lived inside an author's head, and when they are faking it.  Faking is bad. 

Sure, I can slap a voice on someone, but it's like throwing a can of paint at them (you're blue, blue is the simpering soprano, and red is the gruff grumpy guy).  They aren't really red, or blue.  They've just been tagged.  In good writing, the voice is already there, existing and waiting, and it comes almost immediately to me when the character starts to speak in the book (super neat, I don't even understand how sometimes).  As organically, the other characters sound different from each other because they speak differently, on the page, before I "slap a voice" on them. 

In poor writing, all the characters speak with the same vocabulary and style regardless of age, gender, personality.  When characters are bantering without any he said, she said's, and I lose track of which is which, and have to go back and count lines?  That's a bad sign.  Characters should be distinguishable by the words they choose, just like real people, beyond the order in which they talk.

 

What I learned from my first 50 books

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50 books is a big deal for me.  I feel like a salty old dog in the audiobook game now...

Hardly!  So far from it, it took a stack of books to learn how much I didn’t know.

I've figured out a few things, some of which I had to on my own because I was reluctant to take the advice of others in the first place. 

50 books: 3 years, 150 hours of audio.

Meeting ACX quality control means nothing.  You can pass QC and still sound like garbage.  Pay for sound expertise early! If you’re trying to do a good job narrating, that will go to waste without good mastering.

There's a reason sound technicians go to school: there is a vast pool of knowledge about sound, not even counting all the software and equipment used to manage it.  It has its own vocabulary!  If you want to get down to reading books aloud, and not spend all your time learning about sound, then assistance from someone who has done that time is NOT OPTIONAL (this is the more obvious piece of advice I ignored at the outset to my later chagrin).

It's ok to turn down books.  Struggling through a poorly edited ms takes time and effort.  Just about every spelling error and punctuation fault means a stop and start, which means an edit, and it all means time.  An ms that's not in shape to be read isn't worth trying. 

It’s ok to back out of books you don’t want to give your voice to. The one time I declined to do a book for moral reasons, was, naturally, the time the author asked me "Hey, how come?"  I answered, and I learned about my discomfort lines (they don't have to do with sexuality - I have no problem voicing eroticism that doesn’t represent me because sexuality is as diverse as snowflakes in a storm.  The wild diversity interests me). 

Sales aren't fair.  Sometimes garbage sells, and quality doesn't.  Not all the time, but too often, I see no correlation between good writing and a good margin.  Two of the most poorly written, riddled with errors, popsicle stick characters, zero plot books I voiced (which shall not be named and came before I learned the last point about freedom to bow out), remain my best sellers.   I can't comprehend how this is possible!   Maybe I'll get some illumination in the next 50 books.  Then I'll also be able to explain to the world why 50 Shades happened.  Just for instance.   But since this isn’t all about the money, but about enjoying the process, getting to do books I appreciate, and working hard to do a good job on them is satisfying no matter the payout. The quality books are what makes this job worth doing.

Like most things, tenacity matters.  I'm going to learn more in the next 50, I know there's more to learn, but I have to show up to them in order to learn it.  I don't think it's talent that matters as much as work.  "[N]othing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent" - Calvin Coolidge.  Work, over time = growth.