I finish narrating, turn off my “RECORDING” sign, and step out of the booth for the day. Time to make dinner, feed the dogs, and relax a little. The operable word here is “little”. After tending to family and animal obligations, I sit down to enjoy some TV with my husband, pull my laptop onto my lap, and open the pdf for my next project. Yes, I’m only 1/3 of the way through narrating my current book, but if I wait until I’m finished to begin prepping the next book, my schedule will be impacted and I’ll be punishing myself to meet deadlines.
I’ve been asked many times if I read the book before I begin narrating. Resoundingly, yes, and the rest of this blog focuses on the pitfalls of not doing so, plus what “prepping” a book entails.
OH SHIT. A RABBIT HOLE.
Say I have a non-fiction book on high density animal operations. This is a high-level book with many technical, medical, and latin words describing zoonotic infections, infections with AMR bacteria, and respiratory disorders.
I don’t pre-read and prep… I haven’t even made it through the introduction and am now stopping mid-sentence, going online to research pronunciations. I go to YouTube to find examples of lectures on this topic in order to hear the word spoken. You know what happens then? YouTube suggests another video for me to watch. And oh, looky! A cute kitten video! Aawwwwwww, puppies! Oh, I should really check my email while I’m at it. Rats, did I forget to pay off my credit card? Hey, what’s going on in that FaceBook group? I’d better chime in and add my two cents to that flaming thread on outsourcing. What was I doing in the first place? I really ought to get back to narrating… wait…. How do I pronounce that word again? Shit. Back to YouTube…. This is known as “falling down a rabbit hole”, and is one of the biggest productivity killers I’ve faced. I have a precious recording window of quiet time during the day; I cannot afford to spend half of my time in the booth falling down rabbit holes. I need to look up all of these words BEFORE I begin narration so that I can perform the audiobook smoothly, maintaining pacing, energy level, and vocal quality throughout. Interruptions damage this consistency.
OH CRAP. A SURPRISE ACCENT.
A fictional romance comes into my queue. I figure, “I don’t need to pre-read this book; I’ve already narrated three books in this series, I know the characters pretty well, and I really don’t have time to spend on it. I’m just gonna get in there and do it.
You know what happens then? I narrate happily away and learn that the female protagonist has a new boyfriend, and cool, everything seems to be going well. Yay for her. Until the second half of the book, when the author reveals that this boyfriend has a strong Irish brogue. Crappola. The time it will take to go back and re-record all of the dialog involving this Irish fellow, giving him his accent, is going to blow my schedule out of the water. Not to mention hampering the aforementioned consistency of energy, pacing, and vocal quality.
Not prepping a fiction book is detrimental in other ways, as well. Authors will sprinkle clues and background throughout that define and refine a character. You may learn that your heroine’s little sister has a lisp. But without pre-reading and absorbing the other characteristics that flesh out their personalities, the narrator cannot climb into that character’s skin and perform AS the character. Maybe you assume “lisp” means shy or reticent to speak up, when in reality, the little sister loves the limelight and is a child prodigy who discusses Einstein’s theories with anyone who will listen. In a recent coaching session, I asked a beginning narrator how he arrived at his decision to voice a character the way he did. He replied “I pictured her as an actress in one of those old-timey movies. You know, a real grande dame.” We then explored the pitfalls of playing a stereotype, rather than inhabiting the character’s true self. Without pre-reading, a narrator misses out on the hints embedded throughout the book that help form the character.
WHAT SKILLS ARE NEEDED TO BECOME A BOOK-PREPPER?
If you are interested in becoming a part of the thriving audiobook industry, but not as a narrator, maybe becoming a professional book-prepper is for you! Here is what a prepper is expected to do:
-Research pronunciations of all unfamiliar words and proper nouns and acronyms (are they spelled out or if they form something pronounceable, is it commonly spoken as a word? Example: “ARF” is known as “arf” but the acronym stands for “Animal Rescue Foundation”). My blog “How Do Narrators Know How to Pronounce Stuff?” would be a great help to read before you start.
-Give not only a synopsis of the book, but of each chapter.
-Give character breakdown, including physical attributes, significant events about their past that contribute to characterization (example: she grew up in South Carolina, has a heavy accent, and was kicked in the head by a mule and has a perpetual stutter. Or, he was in the military for most of his life and his speech patterns are stilted and formal.) I recently asked my prepper to give me suggestions of movie characters he thought might be similar to those in my book. He made several helpful suggestions such as “his personality is similar to ‘Chunk’ in The Goonies. This is applicable mainly to fiction, but depending on the nature of the non-fiction book, it may occasionally pertain.
Be able to create a spreadsheet and populate it with words, their phonetic spelling, and a link to a site where the pronunciation is audible
Be able to write coherently enough to compile a character list, including any history or attribute that would contribute to knowing how a character would speak (accents, posture, tics, or the way they speak or interact with others… is she always rushed? Is he a surfer-dude? Does the father work 18 hours a day and come home exhausted?)
Be able to write a clear, concise, brief synopsis of each chapter and/or the whole book.
Be technically capable of email correspondence and file sharing.
Be reliable and don’t miss deadlines!
Book preppers charge between $25 and $45 per hour. It is important that they be thorough, but also fast. Of course, each book is different, and non-fiction technical books will obviously be more labor-intensive, as will books with lots of foreign phrases and words. I narrated a 10.5 hour audiobook that took the prepper 12 hours to prep. It was a simple historical romance, so it did not require the heavy lifting of foreign words or technical jargon. A narrator or publisher who depends on prepping services must be able to afford them, and falling down rabbit holes and charging for that time is not a tenable business practice.
Once you’re adept at these aspects, join audiobook social media groups and learn all you can about the industry. If someone posts inquires about needing a prepper, you could respond with your credentials/availability/rate, and whatever you’d like them to know.
In conclusion, hiring a book prepper is not “cheating”, rather it’s another avenue for doing due diligence and delivering an informed performance. If you’re considering becoming a book prepper, you’re welcome to reach out to me and I’ll be happy to chat with you. email@example.com
Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts, Rock Creek Station, Nebraska (photo credit Linda Dahlberg)
The career advice that has helped me the most…
When I began pursuing audiobook narration, I was no stranger to the ways of being an independent contractor (freelancer). I had just come off of a four-year stint as an after-market sales person in the automotive industry. I like to think of it this way: I did the impossible, I sold things to car dealers. It entailed traveling over 500 miles per week in the San Francisco bay area, visiting some very upscale, high-line dealerships, as well as some tiny used car lots in some very sketchy corners of places like Oakland and Richmond. Once I acclimated to the environment and learned how to “speak the language” I was able to move past my trepidation of doing my job in a male-dominated industry, and to serve my clients with efficiency and competency with a caring, personal touch. If my client asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer, I figured it out quickly and helped them solve their issue. I made it my goal to know every dealership personally, including the departments with which I interfaced. I knew the rates my company charged them on which products, I knew the intricacies of their insurance policies, I knew the demographics of their clientele, and I knew each dealer principal, general manager, finance manager, detail department head and service department manager by name (as well as many receptionists and janitors). I visited close to 100 dealerships a month. I knew how to hustle, and I grew a thick skin. I also learned to treat my career with much respect, and not settle for mediocrity. If I needed an answer, I went to the best possible sources to discover it. If I wanted to present a product to a dealer, I learned not to begin with anyone less than the ultimate decision maker. I did not trust leaving my materials or messages with subordinate employees to pass along to the owner. I did not trust second-hand answers, and I did not make excuses for not delivering what was needed or expected.
How does this translate to audiobook narration? It’s all about integrity and developing good habits. If you treat your narration career as if you are the best of the best and adhere to a few simple principles, you will go far. We all have what I like to call “wheel ruts”. (Did you know that the Oregon Trail’s wagon wheel ruts are still visible in at least nine places in the US?)
Practice makes Permanent, not Perfect (only perfect practice makes perfect)
If you audition on a casting site, and you are not ready to deliver an awesome product on time (i.e. recorded on good equipment, edited and mastered up to industry standard, performed to your best ability for which you’ve been trained) you are forming those wheel ruts. You make excuses like “I wasn’t happy with my audition because my new mic had not been delivered yet” or “I think there was some background noise in my audition because my two toddlers were wrestling with the dog” and you submit it anyway just to see what happens, then you’re etching those ruts deeper. You’re allowing yourself to turn in sub-standard work and it becomes easier each time you do it.
Or you don’t take the time to make an excellent demo to post on your website or profile on the casting sites. You instead post a sample you thought turned out “pretty well”, or you even sink to the level of posting or submitting a commercial demo. Nothing screams “I’m unprepared, I’m a newbie, I haven’t taken the time or care to do it right and I won’t when it comes time to voice your book, either” like poor presentation of your skills. And those wheel ruts get cut deeper.
Say you post a question in social media group, and you begin with the phrase: “I did a search of the group but didn’t find anything, maybe it was because the UPS man delivered my new hula hoop and I got distracted, so anyway…” and you query something for which you haven’t even tried to research or figure out on your own. You’re not only digging those wheel ruts deeper, but you’re now broadcasting to peers and potential clients that you don’t care enough to put in the time and effort to figure it out on your own.
Set high standards for yourself and stick to them!
This is manifested in the following ways:
Don’t audition if you don’t have the proper equipment, recording environment, performance skills, or ability to deliver on-time. I know it’s hard to restrain yourself when you find a project that you feel would be perfect for you, but if you want to avoid digging wheel ruts in the wrong direction, you’ll hold yourself back until you’ve made sure you’re able to deliver the best you are capable of. I recently saw a quote somewhere that said “You wouldn’t criticize a flower bud for not emerging fully bloomed” and this is salient here. No one expects you to be stellar right off the starting line. But if you know your efforts are half-baked and you’re turning out a product that you know you can do better, then don’t do it! Wait and work toward achieving the best you can, and THEN submit it.
Don’t trust your career to social media. Be aware that if you want your career to skyrocket to success, you have to feed it only the best things. Seek out professional coaching if you have a performance question or issue. Contact the organization you’re having trouble with (for example a question on a casting site, or professional association) before you take it to Facebook and complain to the group. Hire a professional engineer/editor when you have technical issues. By posting your question on social media, you have no control over who is responding. John Doe may respond with astounding authority, and you feel your question is unequivocally answered, but if you do a quick search on him on Audible, you discover he’s narrated three 45-minute cookbooks. Not exactly the top-of-the-line advice you need.
Ask yourself: Would you want to work with you?
When performing, communicating with clients, or posting on social media, are you living up to excellent standards? Or do you find yourself continually making excuses as to why something you’re doing is not up to par? Do you regularly miss deadlines? Or are you conducting yourself in a professional manner that encourages repeat business? This entails learning and practicing thoughtful responses, posts and emails. You should conduct your business as if it’s the white-glove service those ritzy hotels provide. These are good wagon ruts to form and stay in.
You’re only human; you have to start somewhere and you will make mistakes. But if you strive to be the best, continually reassess your actions and reactions, and seek out the very best when you need an answer or advice, then your trajectory cannot help but shoot skyward. Perfect practice makes perfect.
This summer, my dear husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in Sedona, Arizona. We love the area, the food, and the activities. We took a “Pink Jeep” tour into some Indian ruins and did a little hiking. Our guide, Don, was articulate, genial, knowledgeable, and devoted to his occupation. We enjoyed the short drive to our destination as we each introduced ourselves and shared a smidgen about ourselves. The other couple was a teacher and her husband who loved woodworking. My husband was able to share some discussion about his affinity for woodworking, and when it came time to tell about myself, I said I was an audiobook narrator. To my delight, the Jeep was full of enthusiastic readers and listeners! Don took us on a lovely tour of the ancient ruins and really piqued our interest in the local history. As he dropped us off at the end of the tour, he asked for my business card, and indicated he’d like to listen to one of my narrations. So, I gave him one and told him to email me and I’d help him pick one he’d likely enjoy.
About 2 weeks later, Don emailed me, and I helped him find an audiobook he’d be sure to enjoy. The classic “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” by Kate Douglas Wiggin, was what he settled on, and I mentioned how much I enjoyed narrating it. I mentioned, however, that I had never been able to find the original print book in any bookstores or antique malls, and then wished him happy listening.
Fast-forward to December 31, when I drove to the post office and picked up my mail. A package was waiting for me, and lo ‘n behold, it was an old hard-back copy of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” sent by my friend, Don! He’d vacationed in New England over the fall and came across it in an antique store and remembering my lament at not being able to find one, he picked it up and sent it to me. How cool is that!?
That is just the tip of a HUGE iceberg of nice people I’ve gotten to meet and know over the years I’ve been a narrator. The overwhelming good will, camaraderie, and generosity of my peers, clients and listeners have kept me afloat many times when I felt like quitting.
Other side effects of being an audiobook narrator? Learning new words (at least to me) like “hirsute”, and “floccinaucinihilipilification”, and then trying to use them in casual conversation; knowing the proper way to say common abbreviations out loud, such as “I.E.”, texting shortcuts like “IKR”, and many Latin phrases, and TONS of biblical words. (All of this would make me seem a bit hoity-toity, if only I could remember them long enough to use them.) And the obvious draw, I got to read. All. Day. Long. I got to read the most fascinating books I would not have chosen for myself and broaden my horizons.
But one of the coolest side effects of being an audiobook narrator has been the ability to work from home and somewhat control my work schedule. I was able to be home in the afternoons when my boys came home from school, ready with a snack to get a recap of their day. I could take the dogs to their vet appointments mid-morning, and I could occasionally take off on a spontaneous afternoon fishing trip with my husband (knowing I’d be recording while they slept, to catch up and meet those deadlines.)
Aside from these wonderful benefits, I get the peace and joy of bringing an author’s words to life. That is really good for my soul.
I could see the puffs of my breath in the light of the streetlight, as I quickly trotted two houses down to my neighbor’s home, awkwardly juggling a Christmas gift tucked under one arm, a bottle of wine under the other, and a fruit tart in my hands. The women in my close-knit cul-de-sac have been gathering together for years now for our monthly bunco night, reveling in each other’s company and catching up on milestones and events around the ‘hood.
I knocked on her door. A rush of warmth, laughter and delicious smells met me as I stepped into her beautifully decorated home. Exquisite desserts and appetizers covered every available inch of space on the counters and kitchen table, and the livingroom table was heaped in anonymous gift bags and boxes to be exchanged later, in lieu of our usual bunco game.
The laughter and stories around the dinner table made the food taste even better, somehow, and there was no rush as we moseyed into the livingroom, dragging kitchen chairs in and squeezing all of us around that pile of unmarked gifts. A quick group photo, and then the game began. Our hostess read a special poem with directional words included in it, and upon hearing those words, the gifts were passed around sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. At the end of the piece, we each had a different gift than when we’d started. One at a time we opened them, and if we wanted, we could “steal” someone’s gift instead of opening the one at our own feet, and so it was that I was the owner (briefly) of a plush, furry blanket, an electric wine bottle opener, a Moscow Mule set (alcohol included!), until finally, with one woman left, that was stolen from me, too! I’d had my eye on another decadently soft, fluffy blanket, and had every intention to steal it, when I saw there was one unopened gift bag left and felt compelled to choose it instead of the petty larceny I had planned.
Out of the bag came a very beautiful angel, crafted skillfully from a book, it’s gown and wings formed by the folded pages. I, and many of my neighbors marveled at the coincidence of my ending up with that particular gift, since I am an audiobook narrator and thus, an avid book lover. Now, the premise of the gift exchange is anonymity, but I looked around those lovely faces in the circle and asked who made this gift that fit me so perfectly. The artist was across the room and raised her hand. She said, “I was thinking of you when I made that.” I got a little choked up as I thanked her, and with blurry eyes, looked it over again, and then gently placed it back in its bag.
The gift exchange over, we began to disperse, some of us refilling a wine glass or nibbling on an hors ‘d oeuvre, or just moving to chat with someone we hadn’t had a chance to talk with yet. The artist came over to sit by me and explain how the angel was made, and another neighbor came over and asked what book was used to make the angel. I brought her out of the bag and as I turned her over in my hands I froze, my heart stopping for a moment when I read the title of the book, “The Christmas Box” by Richard Paul Evans. In a flash I was transported to 1995, sitting by my father’s bedside in the hospital. The flashing lights of a heart monitor and the rhythm of the respirator breathing for him weaving a sad background to my voice, as I read this very same book aloud, to his unresponsive face. I remembered the smell of sterile equipment and the faint aroma of the peach lotion my sister and I had massaged into his feet and hands earlier in the day. But in the wee small hours of the morning, there I sat in his darkened room in the ICU, tears streaming down my face, as I read him this beautiful Christmas story about a widow and a young family that comes to live with her.
Quickly refocusing my attention on the here and now, and the book-angel in my hands, I couldn’t contain the sob that escaped me, and tears began to course down my cheeks. I was so embarrassed to be crying at this happy gathering, and felt my face grow red as I tried to squelch the emotions that overwhelmed me. My angel-maker gracefully and perceptively distracted me by describing how she crafted the gift, and I was so grateful for the chance to regain my composure, if only for a moment. I wanted to share with everyone how touched I was by this poignant coincidence, but every time I opened my mouth, my voice quavered in a high-pitched choking sound, and I would break down again. I think word eventually made it around the room, and my dear friends who were not clustered around me as I blathered, now all know the reason for my emotions.
The day after the party, as I write this, my emotions are still raw and near the surface, and I feel a headache coming on from the effort of keeping them under control. I need to get into my recording booth and finish narrating a book whose deadline is a bit too close for comfort, and if I cry, I lose half an hour of valuable work time, due to the drippy nasal tones that will be audible I my voice. I have placed my book angel outside my booth on my great grandmother’s antique sewing machine, which houses my recording equipment. There she will stay, long after the Christmas decorations have been put away in the garage. I am so grateful to have been in the presence of dear friends when this happened, and I am also grateful that the memory of my father is present with us this Christmas in a new and beautiful way.