DID YOU KNOW...? with Andi Arndt (Vol. 7)
This week, Andi Arndt is taking over our Did You Know...? series to drop some knowledge about what happens before your audio goes to retail. Read below to get the juicy details…
AUTHORS AND THE PRE-RETAIL AUDIOBOOK REVIEW PROCESS
By Andi Arndt
Unsexy? Perhaps. But the audiobook review process, the last step before your audiobook goes live, is really important, so grab your coffee or tea and settle in.
Having narrated and produced audiobooks for dozens of authors, I’ve noticed that there seem to be two camps when it comes to listening to the finished product. Some authors set aside time to listen to the audiobook of their upcoming release, while others delegate the task. What are the pros and cons of each approach? How can you be an effective partner in this final step?
To listen or not to listen
First, let’s establish that there isn’t a right or wrong here. Some authors enjoy audiobooks as a medium, and have a long TBL list in their queue. It feels natural to them to listen to their own audiobooks, to make sure everything is as it should be before hitting “publish.” Other authors, including very successful ones, have great difficulty listening to their own work, either because the voices will never match up to what they imagine, or because they recoil at their own writing and immediately start wanting to make changes to a book that is supposed to be in its final form.
If you fall into the author-listener category, you do have one advantage, and that is direct knowledge of the menu of voices available to you. For authors just getting started, listening to a lot of audiobooks means that you have a chance to discover promising newer narrators who are building their portfolio. They likely have more flexibility in scheduling and rates or willingness to take a chance on royalty share with you. I can think of a handful of authors who reached out to me early on, and our careers have grown up together. Because we developed a strong working relationship in the early days, we have a special connection now and I will pretty much always make time to work with them.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to listen to your audiobooks before they go live, you likely delegate that task to what we might call a “beta-listener” or “QC (quality control) listener.” This may be your author assistant, a blogger, even a super fan you’ve connected with via a facebook group. They may listen for free or you might pay them a set rate for their time. They have the thrill of being among the first to hear a new title, and you have hours of time to work on your next book, win-win!
Regardless of whose ears experience the book, though, here are some good guidelines for the pre-retail listener. Let’s talk about what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds. In general, errors are your territory but interpretation is not, generally speaking.
What happens to audio before it even gets to you?
After narrators record what is commonly called their “raw” audio, it goes into post-production. The editor and proof-listener (sometimes the same person) go through the files and remove clicks, pops, distractingly loud breaths, thumps and other noises. The editor and/or proof-listener checks the performance against the script, noting any misreads, use of wrong character voice, incorrect emphasis in a sentence that changes meaning, noises that can’t be fixed with editing (hello tummy gurgles), or stumbles / slurred words. I was a proofer for a couple of years before getting my start as a narrator and I can tell you it is a very thorough process.
At this point, the narrator gets a “QC pack” with a list of corrections, or pickups, that he or she must record and return ASAP. Along with the list and the marked-up manuscript, the narrator gets audio reference files to listen to, in order to match the rhythm, mood, and character voice from the original performance as closely as possible. The pickups are sent back to the editor, who drops them into the edited files.
The final step is called mastering. In mastering, the editor’s true art appears. The audio levels are tweaked so that the overall volume of the file is consistent. That way, when you’re driving down the road, you don’t have to turn the volume up during a quiet scene only to spill your coffee and rear end someone when a character starts shouting. In addition to the volume treatment, the editor can “sweeten” the audio and also make the sounds of two different narrators’ home studios as consistent as possible.
Your job / Not your job: Errors v. Acting
All of this happens (or should) as a matter of course in the audiobook production process. What this means for the author or beta listener is that you shouldn’t have to listen with the script in front of you. You should listen as the first audience for the audiobook. Do you hear any noises that slipped through the process? Is there a chapter that begins without the narrator saying the chapter number? Did the editor miss something along the way? It does happen; editors are human too. So this is a good opportunity to catch anything that might’ve been missed that would distract a listener.
What about WhisperSync? The good news is that the system is not as 100%-picky as you might’ve been led to believe. The audio of CD Reiss’ Marriage Games does not contain many of the he said / she saids, which were dropped due to the duet-style recording, yet the title still qualified for WhisperSync.
So now, let’s talk about interpretation, aka acting. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the single most important decision you will make as an author is your selection of narrators. The more familiar you are with those actors’ styles, the more confident you can be in your choices. Yes, choosing a narrator who will bring an established audience to your books and help your sales numbers is a big consideration, but if their style and your style don’t match, you may end up unhappy with the result.
If you use the ACX platform to work with narrators, there is a built-in checkpoint at which you can back up and head in a new direction: the 15-minute sample phase. Here, you have a chance to listen to the first 15 minutes of your book, edited, proofed, and mastered, to get a sense of what the final product will be like. If you have two narrators, it’s fine to ask for 7-8 minutes of each voice to be included in that sample. Once you give the green light, your opportunity to fine-tune the narrator’s interpretation has passed. That’s your chance; use it. Your ACX agreement includes one round of corrections, and you don't want the project delayed because the narrator's initial interpretation was flawed. Catch the situation early and everyone will be a lot happier with the process.
Otherwise, when you entrust your book to your chosen narrators, you are also letting go of a certain amount of artistic control, in the same way that a playwright has to let go of her finished script and accept the way the cast will color the words, relationships and scenes. It can be revelatory. You may hear new dimensions in your own work that you didn’t realize it contained, but which the actor discovers in the moment of performance. Other times, a line may not be spoken in the way you heard, but in a way equally valid in meaning.
Avoid line readings at all costs
Every once in a while, not often, an author or beta listener who is new to the task will overstep boundaries and give what is called a “line reading.” I have had the note “this sentence should go up at the end, not down” or “this sentence should sound like you are crying.” Here’s the problem with that: think of a narrator’s performance as a piece of knitting. It is created in real time, and everything that happens is connected to everything else about that performance. Each moment comes from the moment before. If you cut sections of that knitting and attach new sections into the work, it can be ok here or there, but too much cut and replace, and the whole thing starts to unravel. There is an element of trust and letting go, just as you experience working with your editor while writing the book. It’s highly likely that the “improved” sentence will not sound like it matches the rest of the scene.
There is an exception to this no-line-reading rule, however. If you find yourself wanting a different melody or feeling from a particular sentence or scene, it may be an error in comprehension. Was a line meant to be joking or sarcastic and the narrator delivered it in earnest? Did the narrator misunderstand the meaning of the line in terms of rhetoric or the line’s reference to a previous scene? The thing to do here is make a note about the line’s meaning or function, and let the narrator make the fix in his or her own style.
Thanks for taking the time to think about your role in the audiobook production process. If you delegate that beta-listen, we hope this article will be a useful guide to best practices. Best wishes for a smooth audiobook creation experience and Happy Release Day in advance!