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

“While time is withdrawn”

In a singularly pro-move from where I’m sitting, the governor of Illinois closed all the schools. My wife, a schoolteacher, was able to enter quarantine before getting sick, which means that her parents (who are over 60 and live in our building) won’t get sick either! We’re quarantined, but sans virus (hopefully) and avec many digital streaming services. We’re very lucky.

In the meantime, 3rd Dub Recordings has relocated to our bedroom closet, where I’m working on reading the first volume of a stellar biography of William Faulkner by Carl Rollyson. More on this later. I’m wrapping up the editing for From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950 by Albert Monshan Wu. From Christ to Confucius has been very eye-opening. It’s a deep dive into the history of the Protestant and Catholic missionary movements in China; focusing specifically on the efforts of conservative Germany missionary societies the BMS (Lutheran) and the SVD (Catholic). Their stories in China reflect the changes that were happening in Europe from 1860-1950, and watching the decline of colonialism and the rise of secularism, Communism and Fascism as they ripple across the Chinese religious landscape is FASCINATING. The key events Wu relates all happened almost exactly 100 years ago, but they continue to resonate.

I reached out to the author through his American University of Paris email address but haven’t heard back. The virus is not good in France. We hope he’s all right.

It’s hard to think of this time in quarantine — which is so different from my normal Chicago life of walking to and from the office where I work all day — as actual time. It feels like a liminal time, some time between this and that, as we wait to see how bad the virus gets. This morning I remembered the third part of T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” which I recorded and posted on SoundCloud. It’s the third of his Four Quartets, all of which are about time; they are meditations on the past and the future to find some way of reckoning with the present.

This quarantine time is a time between times, a time dedicated to waiting. But maybe all times are like that. The Four Quartets has something to say about that idea, and T. S. Eliot uncovers some memorable truths as he goes about saying it. Check them out! Much-needed, under-valued wisdom in there for our own chaotic and reactionary time.



We’re based in Chicago, where things are getting eerie.

Yesterday evening the governor and mayor held a press-conference advising the residents of Illinois to avoid large gatherings and suggesting private businesses encourage staff to work from home. Our studios are underneath the O’Hare flight path and there seem to be fewer planes in the sky than usual.

After the press conference my wife and I went grocery shopping. The air was heavy and still under that newly subdued sky. We talked about how we’re probably going to get this virus, because she’s a special needs teacher in a public school here. Covid-19 is moving through the schools in the neighborhood where she teaches, and even though she’s been teaching her students about hygiene, it’s not reasonable to expect her autistic and cognitively-challenged students to wear face masks or gloves or follow the WHO standards for hand washing — these are jarring and off-putting requests for most of us neuro-typical folks in the U.S., and we have much more agency in the world than her students do. We talked about the logistics for getting food and supplies if we go into quarantine. It’s all speculative, of course. We haven’t lived through a plague before. No one we know has. Here in the U.S., we’ve been lucky that way. On the way to the store we saw fewer people on the sidewalks than usual. The line at the liquor store, on the other hand, was longer than usual.

It reminded me of the beginning of The Decameron.

Reading this excerpt felt cathartic. Not hopeful, exactly, but confrontational — though viruses probably aren’t intimidated by our human prose. It was like reading a kind of prophecy. It’s not unusual for us to reach for books when we feel lost or confused, and that feeling certainly prepares us to find wisdom in the pages of those books. When we’re lonely, everyone we meet might seem like a potential companion; and when you need advice, everything you read can sound like a proverb. This morning, that 100-year-old translation of a 667-year-old account of a 672-year-old plague episode felt like it was written just for me. Just for us. There must be a name for this feeling: Horoscopes can can bring it on. And fortune cookies. But it is a peculiar trick of literature that it can sit, musty and moldering, until we need it; then all its must falls away and it feels immediate and contemporary again. Maybe great literature is just a kind of horoscope.

Except it’s not. What makes this reflection on 14th-century Florentines in the grip of doubt and fear isn’t that it’s prophetic. If it feels prophetic, it’s because the author remembers so clearly what it felt like to experience that doubt and fear. He remembers what people did and why. And now that we seem to be on the verge of experiencing the same things, we see how this moment he reported on so vividly is now our moment. Good literature doesn’t tell us our future. It tells us our present.

Maybe we don’t need to know the future now. We just need to know that we are not alone. And we aren’t alone.


Here We Are

They were called books-on-tape when I first heard them. My brother and I were sullen, dyspeptic travelers, and so when our mother drove us to the family reunion in Kentucky every year, she set space in the car aside for large, black-and-yellow, hard-laminated plastic binders full of cassettes. Each one was a “book” and they all had the same hybrid smell of library shelf and 1980s car interior (stale smoke and spilled soda), shot through with the tang of off-gassing plastic. They were bulky and ugly. The binders were functional, brutally so, cased in plastic so hard it could cut your finger. Some of the tapes inside them played at the wrong speed or not at all, so that you missed whole chapters of the story. I loved them SO MUCH. I listened to my favorites over and over and over again. They made anything more interesting — chores, drives, homework, video games. They even made stories you already knew more interesting, and not the least because of unpredictable flaws that turned up in cassettes that had the reached the end of their library shelf-life; after enough people have checked out The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, you’re going to start hearing the narration on Side B playing ever so softly beneath the narration on Side A.

Books-on-tape were a new art form when I was young. Production values were sketchy, their audience perhaps still undefined. I remember a Winnie the Pooh book-and-tape set my mother played us at bed time; the narrator read along in his flexible, well-worn actor’s voice as my brother and I followed the words in an accompanying book. But halfway through side one, a drowsy child’s voice, faint and off-mic, asked, “Why?” And today I remember that child’s sleepy, unselfconscious monosyllable more than the actor’s contoured narration or the story itself. And I have questions. I had them even then. Was the narrator reading to a child on his lap (just as he was reading to me as I sat on my mother’s)? Was the narrator reading the book in his house? Was this his grandchild? Why didn’t anyone take the child’s voice off the recording? I didn’t know the answers, but it was my favorite part of the book; the part where the narrator became a person, someone who was reading to someone else. It made the listening experience intimate and personal. And it was a shared experience. The child on the recording knew the same intimacy that I did, hearing the story from the same person, wondering why things happened in that story the way they did.

I grew up with audiobooks. That is to say, audiobooks grew up and so did I. I went to high school and got my own car. They moved to CD, got sleeker binders. I went to college and got a library job. My hometown library had a small and arcane collection of audiobooks, but at college the library’s audiobook shelves teemed with possibility. I remember listening to George Guidall read John Irving’s A Widow for One Year or Theodor Bikel’s The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco or James Mason’s narration of Graham Greene’s The Third Man while I reshelved books or roamed the stacks.

And on and on. Audible.com popped up about the time I got my first real job and for us both, still on our parallel tracks, the horizons seemed to expand. My new job involved a lot of travel, so I logged many in-flight hours with John Lee, Wanda McCaddon, Juliet Stevenson and Grover Gardener (still my favorite).

Then I started recording my own. There were a lot of books I wanted to read (and re-read) and no audiobooks available for them. I had a USB microphone already and I reasoned that if I were to read them into the Audacity software, and then edit the files, I would have the books when I wanted them. I would have to listen to my own voice reading them and not David Colacci’s, but (so went my reasoning) don’t you read books in your own voice when you read them to yourself? Isn’t the reading voice that lives in your brain your voice?

Well, the jury that lives in my brain is still out on that. I’d much rather have Grover Gardener’s voice in there, and I think he guest reads. In any case, I had no idea what i was in for. The amount of editing for a perfectly narrated book is still daunting. And I was not a perfect reader. But it turned out that reading books into a microphone was intensely satisfying. And I still remember the moments of voice-editing victory with Audacity — learning just what compression to use, mastering fades, locating mouth sounds by sight. It’s all a fiddly and intensely-focused business, but it’s hard to qualify how rewarding it is. I started recording books for Librivox.org and now I’m recording for ACX. I always have audiobooks with me, but now the mic tags along, too.

The microphone poses with friends.

I’m still new to the business end of this, but my first commercially-produced audiobook will be coming out any moment now, and I’m recording three others as well. I’m also working on individual projects, and I hope to get the audio rights for those by the end of the year. I used to think I knew what that child on the Winnie the Pooh recording was feeling when I heard his stray voice on that tape. It’s encouraging to find that the same intimacy is available to the narrator, too. Audiobooks should always be available for that kind of intimate connection. I’m glad it’s my job now to make sure that they are.