Anatomy of an Audiobook Project

Often when I finish a particularly difficult audiobook project, I resolve to give myself a break before taking on another project. Invariably, however, I become restless and feel like I want to have something in the pipeline so I can keep the process alive and ongoing.

This sends me to the listing of books seeking a narrator on the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) website. There are always numerous projects to take a look at. They could involve anything from sci-fi, mystery, romance novels, and contemporary fiction and non-fiction to exotic self-help books, treatises on crackpot theories and even explicit X-rated fiction. (That last one is often offered in the guise of non-fiction.)

In my short career as an audiobook narrator, I have landed and completed projects that ranged from very complicated explorations of decrypted ancient systems of knowledge to advice on how keep your pastor from fleeing due to impossibly demanding parishioners. I had also recorded treatises on the connections between drug kingpins and celebrities, and read sophisticated philosophical treatises on the nature of human existence.

Because I often drift toward more scholarly works, I decided this time to look for something in the area of history.

My search led me to a book that was described as scholarly in approach, but accessible to a general audience as well. An outfit called University Press Audiobooks held the rights to the audiobook rendition of the book, an examination of the French and Indian War from the perspective of the French government under King Louis XV.

Just what I was looking for. I recorded and submitted the audition.

I was offered the project last spring, and worked on it through the summer and fall of this year., . I completed it in early October and it is now on sale through Audible.

The finished project runs for a total of 17 hours 9 minutes and 11 seconds.

The time allotted for production was substantial, so I reckoned I would have no problem reading through the Introduction and 13 chapters that lay ahead of me back on June 17 when I got underway.

Despite a summer of steady work on the project, I would still miss the September 30 deadline by a day. Fortunately this was not a problem for the rights holder.

When I began I recalled the rights holder’s caution about pronunciation. Be sure you get them right; don’t guess.

I knew there were websites where I could look up pronunciations, so I wasn’t particularly daunted by this warning, and I launched into the narration without trepidation.

I quickly became intimately familiar with these websites as I found myself wandering through cyberspace looking for the sites that would best recognize the name, the place or title that I need to pronounce as though I had been familiar with it all of my life.

Here’s a sample of one of the less lengthy passages that sent me to the pronunciation websites:

“Accompanying Montcalm were Colonels Gaston, duc de Lèvis, and Françios Charles de Bourlemaque, the second and third in command, respectively with the general’s aide, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and engineers Captain Jean Claude Henri Lombard de Combles and his assistant Jean Nicolas Desandrounins. In addition around 1200 troops of the second battalions of the Royal Roussillon and La Sarre Regiments crammed into the ships.”

Such passages would recur with regularity throughout the 411 pages of the manuscript. To make it through such passages, I estimate that it would typically take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more to determine how to render the reading in an acceptable manner that sounded natural to the listener.

I also came to realize that the author of the book was a meticulous historian. He had a penchant for leaving no detail out of his accounts of events depicted in the book. His obsession with detail took the form of exhaustive listings like this one:

“’We captured also, 7 vessels of war; one of 18 guns, one of 14, one of 10, one of 8, three mounted with swivels, 200 barges or bateaux, 7 pieces of bronze, 48 of iron, 14 mortars, 5 howitzers, 47 swivels, a quantity of shot, bombs, balls, powder and a considerable pile of provisions. ‘ When those supplies were tallied, the French had taken 28,000 pounds of powder, 8,000 pounds of lead and balls; 2,950 shot of various caliber; 150 shells of 9 inches and 300 of 6; 1,416 grenades; 730 muskets; 340 grapeshot; 704 barrels of biscuits; 1386 barrels of pork; 712 barrels of flour; 11 barrels of rice; 1 garret full of vegetables; 32 live oxen; 11 hogs; and 3 chests of specie.“

It was my job to vocally interpret these recurring lists in a manner that somehow kept the reader from fleeing to the nearest mindless romance novel for relief. So I varied the pacing, the pitch of my voice, and the rhythm of my speech to break the monotony that otherwise would characterize the performance. And if I accidentally said there were 152 9-inch shells instead of the actual 150 as indicated in the manuscript, I rerecorded, inserting the correct figure, even though I surmised that the slip-up would never be noticed, let alone seriously affect the veracity of the account.

I gradually became more adept at getting through such passages with a degree of appropriate vocal interpretation and in a not unreasonable amount of time.

Each chapter in an audiobook project is a separate digital file, with a limit of 120 minutes for each file you eventually post to the site for uploading by the production team. Each file must be edited to close gaps where edits are made and to vanquish mouth sounds or other extraneous noise that finds its way into the brief pauses in the narration. The editing process can take as much as two or three times longer than recording the material in the first place.

Once you have a “clean” recording, it has to be proofed for accuracy, which means that someone has to listen straight through the entire chapter and note any problems on the manuscript, indicating the time marker in the recording where the error occurred so the passage can be located in the recording and fixed.

Unlike most of the manuscripts narrators work from, this one was not available as a Word file or pdf.; I worked from the physical printed pages of the actual book.

This was easier to do using separate pages, which meant using a box cutter to slice the individual pages out of the bound book one at a time.

Turns out that reading from pages that have two sides is somewhat problematic. The mic picks up even the slightest crackle of a bending book page, so I had to learn how to deftly flip the page, let it gently come to rest on the table top settling gently as a feather. While the page was airborne, I would utter the three or four words at the top of page two which I had previously memorized while my eyes searched frantically for the point in the text where the unmemorized portion began.

I got so that I could do this successfully roughly 80 percent of the time, reading smoothly through the flip without missing a beat or audibly flicking the page. Sometimes the page I so adroitly (and silently) flipped would take flight and flutter to the floor, or land too far away on the table top for me to read it without drifting seriously off mic.

While you are doing all this paper shuffling and taking care to locate the text you need to find quickly, you must continue to sound like your attention is focused entirely on the subject matter.

Some version of this process goes on day after day, week after week until you finally emerge from your dark little “booth” one day and discover that you have finally produced an edited, proofed, and processed, “clean” recording which now comprises an audiobook that is ready to go out into the world and face the marketplace.

Next step is to find the screen on ACX where you will upload those completed files containing the chapters and other elements of the audiobook. When you have uploaded everything, you locate a button that says simply “I’m done.” When you click on it, your work of many months is delivered to a digital location where only the rights holder can access it.

There’s nothing else for you to do now, but wait and see what the client thinks about the work you’ve done

The rights holder will usually do a spot check of the recording, listening for problems like mispronunciations, poor edits, extraneous noise, or misreads.

While this process unfolds—a matter of a week or two—doubts inevitably begin to creep into your mind. Will they reject it out of hand because I just didn’t get the pronunciations right? Or perhaps they’ll compile a long list of corrections that have to be made before the work is approved. Or maybe they’re thinking that they made a terrible decision when they picked you in the first place.

The worst is highly unlikely to happen. If there are small corrections to attend to, you get a list from the rights holder and set about recording the necessary passages and editing the new material into the original recording. These are usually few in number and relatively easily fixed.

When it is determined that all is as it should be, the final event is a message saying the project is approved and will soon be available for sale on Audible. ACX will check the audio standards of the project, and if it checks out, you’ll get word in about ten days to two weeks that the project is now “Available for Retail.”

Only then will you relax, grab a scotch, and swear never to put yourself through that particular version hell again. Until, that is, you one day wander back to the list of available projects…because you just can’t seem to feel comfortable or productive unless you’re working on an audio project of some kind.

As General George Patton once put it when talking about the experience of doing battle, God help me, I do love it so.