A Year In Narration

The last time I wrote in this blog, I did actually plan for it to be a blog… You know, something that I updated regularly with reports on productions, auditions, audiobooks, or whatever else constituted the business of audiobook narration. Those things did happen, certainly — I was lucky enough to land several books (11 to date) and finished one every month or so. I’m also lucky enough to have a day job, so I could turn out a few audiobooks without worrying about the financial impact of taking on so many royalty-shared projects would have on my family. I’ve upgraded my hardware, established a sound-proofed studio in my home. I’ve worked hard on my acting chops, cornered and tamed the residual Appalachian twang in my reading voice, spent uncounted hours learning the ins and outs of audiobook production.

But y’all. This pandemic. Ye gods. I’ve spent a year learning audiobook narration, but I won’t remember 2020 as the year I went into audibook narration. There were plenty of other things happening — daily, it seemed — that demanded our collective attention. There were masks to wear, hands to sanitize, presidents to vote against, dooms to scroll. So as my hair grew and belly expanded in the COVID-ian limbo of my apartment, so this blog was left to gather virtual dust in its own kind of quarantine. I would say this post marks an honest-to-goodness attempt to re-launch it (or, perhaps, launch it), but if I honor my 2021 project list, getting a haircut and losing about 15-pounds of dread-weight are higher on the list.

That being said, a year in audiobook narration is enough time to see what a tough business this is! Reading, editing and mastering an audiobook is life-consuming work with no guarantee that you’ll break even on the end product. I’m lucky enough to be able to do this job for fun. But in this year I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen how hard it would be to make a living at this job. I’ve read books I didn’t like or believe in. Once I had to stop production on a book that seemed to be a scholarly literary biography from a reputable publisher and turned out to be an patronizing and uncountered nostalgia-tour of old Southern cultural biggotry. In 2021, I’m gonna lean into the freedom I have to choose which books I read, but I’m aware that’s an exercise of my own privilege. There’s not a lot of quality control in the world of audiobooks — any book can become an audiobook as long as it’s been published on Amazon. And any book can be published on Amazon.

Royalties in this business — especially if you’re working through ACX — are hard won. After a few books and not much money to show for it, I began to wonder if the ACX royalty schedule (which I completely misunderstood at the beginning of the process) favored the writer rather than the producer. So, as an experiment, I self-published a short story on Amazon as a Kindle and hired myself to read it through ACX. I did everything myself — the art, some intro music — so there was no overhead and I would be making royalties at both ends. That’s when I came to understand that the folks who are really winning in this game work at Amazon. (Check it out here and/or here if you like Appalachian magical realism and atmospheric, slow-burn horror!)

And all that was before Audiblegate even got rocking.

So, if you found this post because you’re thinking about becoming an audiobook narrator/producer, that’s great! It can be really fulfilling. I’m gonna share a few things I had to learn the hard way. Please take them for what they’re worth:

  1. Don’t rely on editing to make an audiobook good. Editing is not a quick process. It takes exponentially longer to edit and master an audiobook than it does to read it. If you’re looking at the bottom line and considering how much you’ll be paid for the amount of time you put into producing an audiobook, the editing is the biggest slice on that pie graph. You can outsource it, but that costs money you might not make back from sales. The less time you spend editing the better. Also, there are some things — mouth noises, volume changes when you pull away from or adjust your approach to your mic while you’re reading, extraneous sounds that interrupt your narration — that you’re just not going to fix with editing no matter how hard you try. Also, too much editing and too many takes on a single line can affect the tone of the audiobook. Editing should be in the service of your performance, don’t rely on it to create the performance. That way lies woe and travail and many, many thankless hours of work.
  2. Performance matters. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. The audiobook is a record of your performance, your reactions to the text. You’ll have to make lots and lots of choices about what it is that you’re reading, and you’ll have to make them quickly to keep your performance coherent. Know what you feel about this book and what the characters feel as they act it out, then make those feelings clear to the listener. But just as important to remember here, if your performance is good, you won’t have to edit it as much! You’ll save SO MUCH time.
  3. Equipment matters. Your performance is going to sell the text to your reader, but your mic is going to sell your performance. You could read a book, connect with the story and every character, make the words on the page dance through the air of the studio, but if your mic is janky it won’t matter to the listener. Nothing is more dispiriting as a narrator than to kill it in your soundbooth and play back a recording of your triumph that sounds like it’s coming through a clock radio. Andafter mastering it, you’ll sound like a tiny version of yourself reading from inside a box of q-tips. And speaking of editing, a good mic makes finding those elusive tongue clicks, lip pops and glottal shifts so much easier to find! It will increase your editing speed in ways you wouldn’t even expect. Your mic doesn’t have to break the bank — I’m very happy with my SE X1 A mic and Scarlett pre-amp.
  4. ACX isn’t the only game in town. And thank baby Buddha it’s the case. I’m shopping around for companies that won’t just straight-up steal my earnings, and the last two books I’ve recorded have been for these guys. Their royalty schedules seem to be very generous (with these last two books I get all the royalties up to $300 and half the royalties thereafter) and they distribute the books to all the places ACX would and some places it wouldn’t (like Kobo). I have yet to be paid by Audiobooks Unleashed, but my first audiobook for AU is just out and hasn’t had any sales as of yet, and the second is going through AU’s quality control process (more rigorous than ACX’s) so it won’t hit the Internet for a few weeks. But in general, Audibooks Unleashed is a faster, more responsive and potentially more economically feasible choice for audiobook producers than ACX. We will see!

I hope you’re doing well in your pandemic bubble and I hope it’s full of audiobooks! Incidentally, if you would like to add any of mine to your roster, just let me know here and I’ll be happy to send you a promo code.

–Wes Freeman

Published by 3rd Dub Recordings

A Chicago-based audiobook producer.

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