Prickly reviews are no fun.
This blog was difficult to write and has taken me more than two years to complete. This is because I firmly believe that what you focus on and look for will inevitably become reality. I combed through most of the books I’ve narrated, whether under my own name or my pseudonym, and culled out some of the worst comments reviewers made about my work. Now if you don’t think a steady diet of degrading, negative comments about your work will damage your outlook, you’re a bit naive, in my opinion. I had to put this blog on hold several times to lick my wounds, but I’m feeling confident now and want to post something that can potentially help others, so here goes!
Most seasoned narrators will tell you they’ve quit monitoring their reviews, mostly because they’re too busy narrating, but also because after a while one realizes that reviewers can be uneducated, mean-spirited, or maybe they’re fair and qualified to write a thoughtful review, but just don’t like the sound of your voice. These are things beyond a narrator’s control. But new narrators are prone to hanging on every word written about their work, and often ask mentors or coaches how to handle poor ones. Almost without exception, we tell newbies first and foremost, “DO NOT ENGAGE WITH A REVIEWER”; that never ends well. Next, we advise growing a thick skin and just keep on keepin’ on… UNLESS evaluations of their work contain a repetitive theme. For example, if several reviews cite a narrator’s unusual lisp, or preponderance of odd pauses, or excessive lip-smacking, THEN it’s time to work on those things with a professional narration coach. Lastly, when a new narrator is crushed by harsh words and begins to doubt their capabilities, or even if they should come within ten feet of a mic, we try to refocus them by pointing them back to a qualified opinion….”What does your coach say about your narration?”
A narrator can make or break an audiobook. A good one can tremendously improve a poorly-written book, and a poor performance can suck the life out of a well-written one. Every narrator I know works hard to make sure they’re being true to the text, not bringing it down. There are three people who really care about the narration of an audiobook: the author, the narrator, and the listener. We all want the very best audio production possible, but that’s not always the case. The following are some common, basically objective complaints about narrators:
-reading too fast/slow
-performing a bad foreign accent
-females poorly-performing the male characters
-males poorly-performing the female characters
-merely reading instead of performing, or not engaging with the story
-not differentiating between characters by changing voices, even slightly
-over-the-top characterization, or a repeating pattern in their vocal inflection
-noticeable background noise/poor recording environment/loud breathing/mouth noises.
And then there are the truly horrible comments that seem to purposefully stab at the narrator with a laser-focused intent to damage:
“The narrator’s voice is so whiney I couldn’t finish the book.”
“Narrator is terrible: So….a fifty year old narrates a female who is mid-twenties. In order to combat that, she speak softy [sic] all. the. dang. time. NOPE. The constant flashbacks were ANNOYING as HECK. JUST ALL AROUND…NOPE”
“Too long: It was difficult to follow when the narrator went from present to past. The narrator voice was annoying.”
“I’ve had to struggle to get past the narrator’s 20’s movie era whiny voice, don’t waste your time.”
“Terrible narrator. Horrible story line. Don’t waste your time, money, or credit. Couldn’t even finish it.”
“Narater [sic] was a massive let down. made no effert [sic…well, the whole review is one big “sic”] to try to do a male voice and tried to hard on the female voice over done and undergone I was dizzy shame as the story line was awesome.”
“NO! NO! NARRATOR ALERT!!”
“The only thing disappointing was the narrator. I will never listen to another audiobook by this narrator.”
OK, my feelings are beginning to feel sore, so I have to put a couple of positive reviews (for the same books garnering the poor comments above, by the way)…
“I loved the narrator; she has a lovely voice that is very smooth and enjoyable. She even had the whinny brat down to a T. There are no background noises just a rich enjoyable listen. It was easy to tell who was talking. Here male and female voices were very enjoyable. You could not tell if any breaks were taken. There were no high or low changes in her voice it was just a very pleasurable listen. For me she bought the story together as I could feel the pain or surprise of each character.”
“This narrator, as always, creates a cast of characters that are fun to listen to. Her voice is warm and sultry.”
“The narration was very good. The narrator was able to convincingly portray some immature college girls, their friends, and kids. Determination and strength came through very well. PLUS a lot of secondary characters were each given their own voice. Very good job, in my opinion.”
Now, here are some head-scratchers I’ve borrowed from fellow narrators, slightly paraphrased and names omitted, of course, because no one wants their poor reviews repeated all over the place.
“…the narrator in this book was so much better than the narrator of the other ones in the series – thank you for changing the narrator.” (The narrator was the same for all the audiobooks in this series.)
“This narrator did an adequate job, but their Irish accent was horrible. I don’t know how they let this get onto Audible.” (The narrator is actually native to Ireland.)
“The male narrator was fine, but the female narrator was horrible.” (It was narrated by one narrator…a female.)
“Narrator kept mispronouncing ‘mischevious’.” (This just stands on its own.)
“This narrator really needs to find another job. She ruins every book she narrates. But she’s not as bad as ________. SHE sucks!” (It is important to note that when a review is especially vicious, one can click on that reviewer’s name and see other reviews they’ve written. More often than not, they’re serial trolls who get some sort of twisted gratification by trashing narrators and/or authors.)
I could go on and on sharing terrible reviews, kind of like celebrities sharing their own “Mean Tweets” as they’re often humorous, beyond comprehension, and frequently like watching a train-wreck that we can’t look away from… but like I mentioned before, I don’t believe in focusing on negativity.
RECORDING BOOTH WEIRDNESS
Each narrator’s journey is different and interesting, and many remarkable adventures happen in our quest for pristine recording environments. I recently went to social media to ask my audiobook narrator colleagues to share with me their stories from the booth. I hope you find these as enjoyable as I do!
RECORDING ENVIRONMENTS EVOLVE: COMING “OUT OF THE CLOSET”
Many narrators these days start out narrating in a closet, surrounded by clothing. This is a perfectly viable “recording space” provided no sounds from the surrounding house bleed through into the recording. However, it comes with inherent challenges. I recorded my first handful of books in our walk-in closet, and performed a variety of steps before each session to ensure my recordings sounded consistent from session to session. Because I had to move my equipment out at the end of each session and set it up again the next day, I learned a LOT about my equipment and mic technique. Step one was to make sure my mic stand was in the exact same spot as the day before. Black electrical tape on the floor marked where the feet of the mic stand went. Step two was to make sure my chair was in the exact same position, again using electrical tape to mark the floor. Third was to make sure my mouth was in the same proximity to the mic as always. I had a Sennheiser “shotgun” mic, which has a very specific pickup pattern that minimizes background noise. But what I discovered was that if I was even slightly off in proximity or angle when I began to read, the sound was noticeably different. Now, this is going to sound silly, but I was just starting out and my intuitive, discerning listening skills had not developed enough for me to hear where I should be. What a noob! So I unbent a wire hanger (plenty of those in the closet!), wrapped one end around the mic, attached a little bit of sponge to the other end, and positioned it so that it barely touched my cheek when I was in the proper recording position. This way, if the sponge was touching my cheek, I knew I was good to go.
Fast forward a year or two, and my loving husband had built me a booth in the upstairs hallway. Being the meticulous engineer he is, he researched everything exhaustively and I was able to “come out of the closet” and move into my very own, beautiful, sound-deadened 3’ by 5’ recording booth, replete with Auralex foam and a pass-through for the cords to connect with my laptop outside the booth. I was in absolute heaven, and still am; just this week I wrapped up recording my 200th audiobook.
GETTING (and surviving) A RECORDING BOOTH
The importance of a silent, dedicated recording environment cannot be emphasized enough, and as can be expected, it’s a blessed event when a narrator finally gets one. The delivery of a dedicated recording booth such as a “Whisper Room”, “Studio Bricks” or a custom-built, can be an event in itself, as Jack de Golia relayed: “My booth arrived midday last summer, when it was ‘only’ 108 degrees. The delivery guy managed to get the 1200 lb. crate onto his lift gate, nearly falling off of it, got it to the ground and we pushed (sweated) it into my garage. Then 5 VO friends arrived with tools and in 3 hours we had it set up. Whew. It was a family barn raising, led by Dustin Ebaugh.” (a fellow voiceover artist).
Receiving a new booth can even qualify as a near-miracle, just ask Stacy Gonzalez: “I just received my booth today, in the middle of a Shelter in Place order during a pandemic.”
Once you get your booth, it can still be difficult, sometimes dangerous, using it. Amy Rubinate described how she ended up in a boot: “I recorded barefoot and was always so happy to be freed from the padded room that I would sort of hop out onto the same spot every time. I broke the 5th metatarsal in my foot…ended up in a boot.”
Another friend, Amy Farris-Stojsavljevic, was in her booth, happily recording away, “…when my overhead light fell down on my head. Fortunately, it was (at the time) a long, fluorescent tube in a plastic housing, so it didn’t hurt too bad. And yes, I saved the audio.”
Andrea Emmes Cenna recounted: “It was a hot summer day, you know, the key time for barely wearing anything in the booth, loaded with ice packs and frozen bras to stay cool and I was home alone. I was about to head out of the booth when the door knob fell off from the inside and I was stuck inside. Thankfully, I had an allen wrench in the booth for some reason and was able to MacGyver my way out.”
IT’S LIKE BEING IN A WOMB…
Not all challenges in the booth involve annoying noises that halt recording or need to be edited out. Sometimes the hurdles we face in our silent, almost air-tight booths is something that has plagued the best of us. The soothing, warm, quiet place is like a womb, and if one is narrating more sedate or calm material, or operating on a lack of sleep….zzzzzz….zzzzzzzz….
Clayton Laurence Cheek was working on a tourism project for an international client a few years ago: “I had worked steadily through the day and wanted to finish because of two social events scheduled for the weekend. It was late Friday evening and I was making mistakes. I paused and thought, ‘Okay. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Then get back to it.’ When I awakened, I had recorded seventeen minutes of breathing. I went to bed, arose in the morning and finished in about an hour. I don’t record sitting down these days.” Been there, done that, Clayton!
Elizabeth Holmes shared: “A few years ago, my partner Fred Campbell and I offered audio engineering services to others. One of our clients was a hypnotherapist who needed a series of CDs mastered for distribution. Fred took on the job of cleaning up her raw audio. A couple days into the project, I asked Fred how things were going, and he said, “She’s good! When I worked on her ‘Restful Sleep’ series, I was out cold in no time.”
Shannon Elizabeth Parks: “Here’s one- I was in tech rehearsals for Macbeth- tough show, crazy fabulous role playing lady M and on a vicious book deadline… getting home late from the theatre, narrating 6 am to noon before rehearsal, and one morning, I actually fell asleep while recording but had continued narrating while almost dead asleep… several pages!!! Talk about boring yourself to sleep with your work!!!!
I’ve done that while reading my boys bedtime stories, but I got nudged and jostled to wake up; I’m pretty sure I sounded like a drunken sailor.
Amy Rubinate commiserates with Shannon: “I did that once on right deadline late at night! Listened back and apparently had kept reading for 20 min but with the wrong character voices!”
Andrea Emmes Cenna described her own encounter with narrating in altered states: ”I have a pain disorder, CRPS, and most of the time my medication helps stave off the pain flares and doesn’t interrupt my life too much, but during this one time, it was just unbearable and it was affecting my work. My husband suggested that I try eating an edible, explaining that since I don’t smoke, there are many other options that I could take to help assuage the pain. I said sure. He bought me a chocolate bar and I broke off a small section to eat and then went into the booth and began recording. Hours later, I woke up, face smushed against the wall, drooling, still recording. I don’t even remember feeling groggy or anything. Just BAM, nap time! Gotta say though, I wasn’t in pain! 🙂
Another aspect of recording in a womb, is….oh, the HEAT!!! Think about this: Once you get your fancy-schmancy sound-treated recording booth, it will keep your voice in, and the noises out. And the cool air out. And the oxygen out. When temps soar past 100 degrees in the summer, and narrators keep forced-air conditioning off so that the noise doesn’t infiltrate the narration, it’s a constant struggle to stay cool. Narrators are known to bring ice packs for groin and armpits, frozen bandannas for the neck, and I’ve made use of my son’s frozen gel shoulder-wrap from his baseball pitching days. We need to endure, persevere, and meet our deadlines. But it’s often not pretty.
“ I was recording a book in which a teenager starts suffering from overheating in a space suit, as well as shortness of breath due to his oxygen running out.” said Mark Turetsky. “I thought I was just really getting into it, but in fact I had not turned on the booth’s ventilation system. It turned out really great!”
ODD NOISES EXPLAINED BUT STILL WEIRD
Even with a luxurious booth, unexpected, and sometimes unexplained things can still happen. Here are some incidents of odd things that have caused anomalies in recording.
Jim Seybert wasn’t sure his experience qualified as “weird” but shared it anyway. We’ll file it under the category of “odd noises to edit out”: “In 7th or 8th grade, I broke my ankle riding a toboggan that slammed into a tree. It still has a “click” when I move it a certain way and at least once in every book an editor will ask for a pickup because of a “background click.”
Another odd noise that is surprisingly more common than I would’ve thought, is the presence of other items in the booth: Again, Jim Seybert, with the odd noises: “…just recently I started to hear this unusual echo-y sound. Discovered the nearly empty plastic water bottle was resonating perfectly to the sound of my voice.” And Amy Rubinate, owner of Mosaic Audio, a busy audiobook production company with several recording booths, agreed: “We get that with peoples’ metal water bottles”. But something truly odd, is Melissa Kay Benson’s experience: “When I first got my booth, I was working and I kept hearing “fwiht, fwiht”. After investigating all possibilities, I realized it was my eyelashes brushing the inside of my reading glasses.” Think your mic might’ve been a tad hot, Melissa?
Amy Rubinate shared another favorite: “Before I owned Mosaic, way back when it was a one booth operation in a third-floor apartment in K-Town, we used to pick up a pirated Mexican radio station. You could hear them announcing the soccer games and yelling, GOOOOOOOOAL! We worked around it and finally fixed it, but it drove us all mad.
Todd Menesses: “I was recording away on a book and making great progress in the booth when I paused for a second because I could hear breathing that wasn’t mine. Granted of course it was a horror book so at first, I thought I was imagining it but then I heard it again as I held my breath to make sure it wasn’t me that was breathing. I knew I was alone in the house this day as my wife went shopping with her sister, it went away and then I heard it again louder this time and raspy and evil sounding. I took my headphones off and turned to open the booth door to get out…and that is when I noticed my little dachshund was curled up by the door snoring. She was the source of the strange breathing. I’ve got two French mastiffs, Todd. The “Darth Vader” breathing outside the booth is real!
Elizabeth Holmes: “I was auditioning for a video game character when my cat strolled under my copy stand and startled me. I was sure I’d locked him out of the room! It caused me to deliver the line in an altered voice that the client loved. I got the job!”
Carla Mercer-Meyer: “This may not qualify, but I was working in the booth. It was around three am and there was a weird sound picking up on my audio that I could see but couldn’t hear. I looked out my tiny booth window to see that my entire family of five was standing outside the booth, kind of looking at me…. at three am!! Which startled the crap out of me. I guess we had just had an earthquake. No clue why I didn’t hear or feel it.”
I would’ve shat, Carla.
Marni Penning Coleman shared that her husband snores SO LOUDLY that she could hear a difference in the room noise through THREE closed doors – including the heavy-duty studio door!
My own experience with odd noises happened when I was recording one day, really in the zone, enjoying the peace and quiet of being alone in the house, when the toilet just down the hall flushed. I froze, the hairs on my arms pricked up, and I sat there petrified for about a minute. Then I ventured out, thinking logically, that my dogs would’ve made some noise if there were someone else in the house with me. I made the rounds, couldn’t find anyone, and then went out to the mailbox to get the mail. On my way back into the house I noticed a doorknob hanger that let us know that the water company was working on pipelines in the neighborhood and it would be affecting our water pressure. I decided that’s what caused the flush.
WHEN THE WEIRDNESS GETS REALLY WEIRD…
It’s surreal, sometimes, how the text can affect how we feel in our booths. Over the summer I narrated a holocaust diary almost entirely at night (kitchen renovation was happening during the day) and I felt eerily like I was up in the girl’s small bedroom at night, while she wrote it. It was truly transcendental. But things can sometimes get a little more…. out there…. and defy normal, logical explanation.
Ray Porter answered my Facebook call and shared this story:
“This is weird. And I’m not really given to paranormal things. I was recording a book about the Iraq War. Just about to start the chapter where a lot of the people we had gotten to know were sadly killed in combat. I felt…odd that whole section. I looked at the file and there were odd looking things in the waveform. So I listened. Over my narration was the sound of a group of men quietly talking and then, clear as a bell, like someone leaned over me and whispered into my mic, “Christ is with you”. I checked every possible technical thing. Eliminated everything it could be. RF bleed over, etc. No explanation for it and nothing like it has ever happened again. Thing is, it was freaky to be sure but it didn’t feel scary. Honestly it felt more like ‘hey thanks’.”
I had something similarly weird happen when I was narrating a Christian book on battling spiritual demons. Things were going along swimmingly, then my throat began to constrict. I chalked it up to seasonal allergies, and I took a break. When I resumed, I began to stutter and stumble over my words with unusual persistence and frequency. So I sipped my Throat Coat tea, took another short break, and came back at it. Soon my vision began to swim, and taking off my glasses, administering Visine eye drops, and closing my eyes for a brief rest did nothing to mitigate the blurriness. Something weird was up. I’ve had all of these things happen independently before, but never all in the same session like this. So I began to consider the subject matter, and then I called my mom. I described my challenges and asked her to say a quick prayer for me. Moms are great, and I know she did as she promised, because within 10 minutes, everything was back to normal. I continued narrating and was a bit shocked when the very next chapter described each of my symptoms just as I’d experienced them. The chapter was on a certain demon the author had encountered.
AND SOMETIMES THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO…
Ever since I’ve been recording in my lovely booth, I have been especially appreciative of the “passthrough” my husband included near the floor in a corner. It’s a small plate the size of an electrical outlet, with simply a small hole in the middle. This allows you to run cords through a wall to the other side. This allows me to keep my MacBookPro outside the booth (along with the noise of its fan), and control it with a mouse, keyboard and monitor inside the booth. One day I was alarmed and frankly, kind of pissed, when I noticed my mouse was all over the place! I watched as the cursor scrolled across my menu bar, then up into the browser, then over my waveforms…. several cusswords later, I stepped out of the booth in utter confusion and found my husband, pranking me, leaning down into the cabinet and playing with my laptop.
We’re still married.
In these unprecedented times of turmoil and “shelter in place”, many people suddenly find themselves with loads of free time on their hands. The search for temporary employment done from home can be daunting but take heart! There are some opportunities in the audiobook world that don’t require a degree, large muscles, or driving. Narrators are beginning to farm out an important step in the audiobook creation chain, in an effort to support unemployed friends, as well as keep themselves on schedule. A quick background on the audiobook narration process… In order to turn out a top-notch audiobook, a narrator must “pre-read” the manuscript before stepping into the booth, and be prepared to inhabit the story, whether fiction or non-fiction. Much of this prep-work is done at night after we’ve already spent the day sequestered, narrating. As one can imagine, this doesn’t leave much time for family or extracurricular activities. If your spouse, offspring, or best friend suddenly needs income and something to occupy their mind while they’re not mingling in public or touching their faces, amidst the current Covid-19 crisis, it could be a win-win situation if they could prep a manuscript for you!
How much to pay a prepper? You might want to barter with family members (cleaning the garage or walking the dog can be more valuable than money sometimes), or you might want to pay friends/associates the going market rate for this service. There are organizations that specialize in manuscript preparation for audiobooks, and the first one that comes to mind is Rip City Research. But for this article I’m focusing on the individual who is new to prepping. Preppers usually charge by the hour (independent of the runtime of the audiobook) and rates range from $25 per hour to $45 per hour or more.
How do you communicate exactly what you need to a person new to prepping? The process will flow smoother if you’re both on the same page, and headaches will be avoided if details are established up front. Plus, you don’t know what you don’t know (or what THEY don’t know) and it’s best to be specific with your needs. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention that Karen Commin’s website NarratorsRoadMap.com has a section dedicated to the subject of prepping an audiobook, and it even includes comprehensive guidelines to her iAnnotate process. But for brevity and ease of quickly sharing, following are two guides I’ve put together that a narrator can share with someone new to book prepping. One is for non-fiction and the other for fiction. Obviously, there is overlap of information, but I felt the need to create two separate guides, given the stark differences between the two types of literature, so they can be shared separately.
How to Prep a Non-fiction Manuscript
- There is no need to give a synopsis of each chapter or a description of characters, unless it’s a fictionalized, story-style learning text.
- Skip the Table of Contents, any indices and glossaries as well as footnotes
- Do include research on call-out boxes, tables, graphs, charts, unless otherwise specified.
- Pronunciation research should include all foreign words, proper nouns, and any seldom used words that are outside common usage, with links to audible pronunciations. You may need to consult several sources in order to find an authoritative answer. The first pronunciation listed in a dictionary may not be correct for this book. Also, names of cities, towns, and streets should be pronounced the way the locals say it. For instance, Milan, Georgia is pronounced “MYluhn”.
- Submit only completed research in one document/spreadsheet, unless otherwise discussed.Think like a narrator as much as possible. ALL of the words will have to be spoken, and every one of them must be pronounced correctly!
Valuable research sites*:
https://www.Forvo.com and https://www.audioeloquence (for foreign words)
*Note: you may not find the pronunciation on any of these sites. You may have to do further research online or consult a local establishment via phone or find another creative way to get the correct pronunciation.
Pronunciation Spreadsheet example:
Example of words to research in a non-fiction manuscript:
“…psychologists call working memory and executive functions—how a person plans a strategic approach to a task, controls what is attended to, and how he or she manages the mind in the process, so it doesn’t become flaccid. Psychologist Chandramallika Basak, then at the University of Illinois, and her colleagues showed that training in a real-time strategy video game that demands planning and executive control…Some studies have also increased the amount of practice provided. For instance, Florian Schmiedek and one of us (Lindenberger) of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and Martin Lövdén of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm asked 101 younger and 103 older adults to practice 12 different tasks for 100 days….”
How to Prep a Fiction Manuscript
- Story synopsis can be from inside cover of the book, or back flap or Amazon listing.
- Chapter synopsis should be brief yet comprehensive. Acting suggestions are not necessary, but rather focus on significant developments in each chapter including main plot points and all spoilers.
(Example: Chpt 1 – Introduces main characters John and Jane Doe, who live in a suburb of Chicago during the Great Depression. John gets laid off and comes home to Jane, who is reluctant to share that she just discovered she’s pregnant.)
- Character descriptions should include name, relation to other characters (especially if this is revealed in a plot twist later in the book), any significant physical descriptions or descriptions of vocal qualities. Any other hints that would help a narrator solidify a character’s voice would be helpful, such as if a character was hard of hearing, or a high-ranking military officer, or was an abused wife with low self-esteem. List any factors that will help a narrator make a voice choice.
(Example: John Doe – main character, married to Jane Doe, brother to Tom Doe. Snide personality, selfish, rushes to judgment. Was a drill sergeant before being dishonorably discharged and treats others like the newly-enlisted.
Jane Doe – Married to John Doe, grew up in deep South, only daughter with seven older brothers, meek, subservient. In chapter 34 it is revealed that she was adopted and is actually the kidnapped heiress of a wealthy department store owner.)
- Pronunciation research should include all foreign words, proper nouns, and any seldom used words that are outside common usage, with links to audible pronunciations. You may need to consult several sources in order to find an authoritative answer. The first pronunciation listed in a dictionary may not be correct for this book Also, names of cities, towns, and streets should be pronounced the way the locals say it. For instance, Milan, Georgia is pronounced “MYluhn”.
- Submit only completed research in one document/spreadsheet, unless otherwise discussed.
Pronunciation Spreadsheet example:
I hope that this health crisis soon resolves, and life gets back to mostly normal. It would be nice if we learned, by living through this experience, how to shop smarter, be kinder and more conscious of how we interact with and support each other even when contagious illness is not looming over our heads. In the meantime, hopefully this article helps facilitate us supporting others by sharing some of the work, if we can. I invite you to visit my blogs on my website for more information on what it takes to be a successful narrator, outside of the booth. https://www.annrichardson.com.
Herbie ate my book-prep notes.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.