By John Pellegrini
There comes a point in everyone’s career – usually shortly after the second time one experiences a layoff due to budgetary cuts or other corporate whims – that most professionals start to take stock of their abilities and knowledge and try to figure out if there is any other field in which their technical skills could be utilized (especially if that field happens to be more stable than the field in which the individual is currently employed). My route as most of you know took me to the world of surround effect development. But that wasn’t the only area that I explored, and it occurred to me that one other avenue I looked at might be interesting for some others to read about. If not, then this article makes great fire starter so you’ll get something out of it one way or another.
This other profession that I’m referring to is the world of Audio Book production. Formerly known as “Books On Tape” the name of the industry was changed to Audio Books to recognize that, along with everything else these days, tapes don’t get a whole lot of use any more. Most audio books are now delivered in downloadable MP3 for your iPod or other media player. However some libraries and stores still carry the old cassette tapes, and for that matter a fair share of audio books are also available on CDs – and with MP3 coding, that allows for nearly 6 hours of audio time on a single CD at 256kbps stereo.
Nonetheless as an experienced person in radio production (or at least having 30 years in the biz whether I learned anything or not) I thought that my skills in audio editing would translate well into audio book production and that my ability to read copy fairly well would enable me to try my hand at being a Narrator as well. Turns out I was half right, and even then, partially half right. I had the good fortune to meet a couple of people who were already in the audio book industry and had some long chats with all of them. I also heard an interview last year on NPR (Dianne Rheem’s show) with Jim Dale -- the Narrator of the American Harry Potter audio books -- when The Deathly Hallows came out. While it turns out that radio people have a great chance at getting started in editing and recording audio books, your ability to read sixty seconds worth of copy is nothing to boast about against the professional audio book narrator.
Here’s the best way I can describe to you what’s expected of a Narrator. Pick up any book you have near you -- doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or a textbook or whatever. Open it up to the very first page and begin reading out loud – and don’t stop until you’ve read out loud without making a mistake for three hours straight! I’m not joking, and that actually is a little shorter than what’s really expected. Most audio book Narrators routinely read four to five hours straight without stopping or making a mistake.
Why? Time. The average book takes between eight to twelve hours to read. Some go much longer. The last five Harry Potter books each take over 20 hours to read individually. And that is why someone who makes a lot of mistakes will never get work as an Audio Book Narrator.
In radio production I was used to the luxury of having only 60 seconds of copy to read. So if I blew three or four lines during a read that I otherwise liked, no problem, just go back and redo the five lines. Not a chance of that happening when you’re dealing with TEN OR MORE FREAKING HOURS OF COPY!!!
This is the major distinction: audio books are always released on the same day that the paper books are released. And most audio book production companies get about two weeks OR LESS from when they get the final copies of the book to when they MUST have it completed. And by completed, I mean recorded, edited, and proof-listened. Yes, just like proofreaders, there are “proof-listeners” at all audio book production companies -- very skilled listeners whose job is to listen to every final book recording and check for mistakes in pronunciation and grammar. And woes betide the Narrator who makes any of those mistakes.
In order to get work as a Narrator you absolutely cannot make mistakes. With anywhere from eight to twenty or more hours of audio to record AND edit (which must be done in real time) the Narrator who makes a lot of mistakes makes a lot of extra work for the editor and delays the completion of the audio book which delays the release time of the paper book which pisses off the publisher. Not a great way to ensure that your services as a Narrator will be used again.
Then, there’s the whole aspect of “acting” and “characterizing the story.” While you’ll never have any chance of accusing an audio book Narrator of being the next Mel Blanc, the fact of the matter is most Narrators try to inflect their voices differently for most of the characters in the book. Obviously the more characters there are, the more of a challenge this particular issue becomes. Here is where I’d like to mention Jim Dale again. Mr. Dale just broke the Guinness World Record he set for the most characters created in an audio book. His old record was 134 for Order of the Phoenix. But with The Deathly Hallows he created 146 different characters.
Now, set that amazing record against these other facts. In the interview on NPR, Mr. Dale stated that because of the tremendous secrecy of each book, he and the audio book company he works with did not receive the book pages to be recorded until the night BEFORE they were to begin recording. That’s 600 to 800 pages for most of the books! Dianne asked him how they were able to do it. He replied that they would record 100 pages per day so he would only pre-read those 100 pages the night before each session and make his notes. Dianne also asked him how he kept track of all those characters. He said he kept a small dictation recorder with him in which he would read a few lines of each character so he could go back at later points in the recording to listen to the voice again to get it right.
That’s the amazing thing about doing audio book recordings: they’re recorded in real chronological order, page by page. From an actor’s standpoint it would be so much easier to go in and record all the lines from one character at once, then the next character, and on and on, and then have the different voices inserted where needed. But that’s not how it happens – they don’t have enough time to do it that way when there’s less than two weeks to get the recording done. No time for any post production at all apart from the minimal amount of editing needed.
Obviously not all book Narrators have to go through this much work. In fact Mr. Dale mentioned that Stephen Fry, who reads the UK version of the Harry Potter audio books, only does the narration and they have several other actors who do the character voices during the recordings. However, if you want to make a career out of being a book Narrator, you’d better be able to do something pretty close!
What about other radio related jobs in audio book production? Of course the recorder/editor is a pretty good place to start and the most closely related. But this is also the lowest paying job because we’re talking the most basic of production skills: recording and editing the Narrator and adding perhaps just a snippet of music to start the book and close the book. Not much else, they don’t often use sound effects or background music. The reason? The audio book audience doesn’t want it. They just want the story read. All of the people I talked to at the various audio book companies said the same thing: when they try to boost up the production values with added music and sound effects, the result is those books don’t sell. Word gets out pretty fast; there are blogs and chatrooms where the fans of audio books write about what they like and don’t like about a particular book and the way it was done.
Eventually with experience you might find yourself becoming a Director. This is the person who is responsible for the entire audio book project. They work directly with the author, the publisher, and they are the ones who hire the talent and assign the recorder/editor to the project. They are among the highest paid people (sometimes earning more than the Narrators) because the Director has to take care of everything. And by everything I mean EVERYTHING. Here’s an example: one of the people I met is a Director for an audio book company. One of the authors she works with writes fiction set primarily in Middle Ages Great Briton. This author loves to add authentic Middle Ages Gaelic language to his books, and the more obscure the phrase or wording the more he likes it. The problem is that while he can write Middle Ages Gaelic – he has no idea how to pronounce any of it. He just looks up the wording he wants at his nearby library and puts it in the books. Guess who has the responsibility to find out how to pronounce those words? The Director. She told me she’s had to call libraries and universities in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and France to find anyone who can correctly pronounce Middle Ages Gaelic – which can be entirely different from the Gaelic that is spoken today. Of course, she lives here in the USA, which makes those calls rather expensive. After doing this for a few years she’s built up a pretty good network of people she can call for help, so it’s become easier than it was in the beginning. However it made for some very hectic days when she was first getting started with this author’s books. The author is now trying to work with her on the Gaelic pronunciations a bit and when he looks them up he tries to find out how to pronounce the words and phrases in advance, though the truth is, with all the resources the Director has found over the years, she is better suited to find this out than he is.
Why so much attention to what would seem to be relatively trivial linguistics? Because if you get it wrong, the book won’t sell. The number of people who know how Middle Ages Gaelic (or Latin, or Sanskrit, or any other language that comes up in books) is correctly pronounced is small – but they’re very vocal when it’s not correct and many of them are quite influential as reviewers and critics of audio books. As the internet proves every day, word gets out fast when something’s wrong.
Jim Dale put it best in the interview with Dianne Rheem. During the program a caller asked him why he pronounced Lord Voldemort’s name with the hard “T” at the end instead of the correct French manner with a silent “T”. Mr. Dale replied, “You know, I never really understood the meaning of the word, minutiae, until I started reading audio books.” It is in that minutiae that most audio book Directors must dwell, and do it under seemingly insane deadlines. Remember, the Director doesn’t get the book any sooner than the Narrator or anyone else involved in the audio book production world and all these pronunciation problems must be sorted out immediately because the recording sessions typically start a day or two after the book is delivered.
And for those of you wondering, yes the book arrives on unbound pages with the text only on one side of the sheet. They are not reading from an actual printed and bound book. Typically the pages are double spaced at 14-point font size to allow room for notes to be made by the director, Narrator, and editor. This also means that a “page” from a printed book roughly equals a page and a half in the form used by the audio book companies. When a Narrator finishes a page they simply and as quietly as possible, drop it on the floor of the studio. That can be a bit of a special joy when the realization comes that a page needs to be re-recorded… but that doesn’t happen too often.
What I’ve learned is that audio book production is an entirely different discipline, which, though some of it is related to radio production, requires an equally different method of skills and training. Yes, those of us who work in radio can get work in audio books but we’ll mostly start in editing where the pay can be as low or lower than what a typical radio production person makes. But with patience and the ability to learn you can make more money as you take on more responsibility. The other thing to remember is that audio books are selling almost as well as the paper books, and it is expected that very soon (perhaps this year) audio books will outsell paper books. There is also considerable demand for older books to be recorded as well, and textbooks for colleges and schools are being recorded. Someone has to do the work – and if you get to be really good at it, you can make a very decent amount of money in a (dare I say it) slightly more secure environment (with the caveat that almost nothing involving any business climate can be considered secure anymore). It’s not uncommon for some Narrators and Directors to make in the low to mid six-figure range or even higher because of their reputations, the demand for their work, and royalties on audio book sales. There are authors who refuse to allow their books to be done unless a certain Narrator and Director are the ones who do it. The Director whom I spoke to is at the point where she only takes audio book projects that interest her, about two or three a year. Also, most book reading jobs are AFTRA, so you can get fairly decent benefits. Not a bad way to work. Additionally, there are some directors who are capable of recording and editing as well and they get paid even more. So far no one has been able or wanted to do all three jobs: narrator, director, recorder/editor, just because it’s too involved. That’s not to say someone couldn’t do it all, but why would anyone want to take on all the headaches?
One other caveat that may or may not be very important to you: Because of the immense amount of audio that needs to be recorded for each book, the editor, narrator, and director MUST be in the studio together. No doing this from your home studio setup, even with ISDN. You must be in studio because if something needs to be redone it has to be redone immediately and in the real-time location of the audio narrative. This also means that if you want to get work in the audio book industry, it would be a very good idea to be within a short driving distance of the places where you want to work. Yes, some narrators and directors are flown in from across the country. But not when they’re just starting out. The audio book industry is still operating as the commercial voiceover industry used to, with everyone needing to be in-studio at the time of the recording. And in the case of a very popular book, such as the Harry Potter series, the publisher needs to get the scripts to everyone involved at exactly the same time. Being in the same town is very beneficial to gaining employment.
If you want to learn more, the Audiobook Publishers Association website is an excellent resource – www.audiopub.org. There are also some books about the industry; do your searches under Audio Books, resources and production, and you’ll come up with stuff.