by Barb in sunny Key West.
Some of our readers know that my daughter-in-law Sunny Carito works in audiobook production. In a career that spans eight years, she’s worked at Talking Books, Audible, Visual FX and is currently at Tantor Media.
I thought it would be interesting to hear from someone in the industry how audiobooks get made and what makes a good one.
Hi Sunny. You currently work for Tantor Media. For context, can you give us some background about Tantor?
Tantor is an independent audiobook publisher. They’re unique among the places I’ve worked in that they have everything all in one place: acquisitions, audio production, graphics for covers, marketing, sales, burning and assembly of discs, etc… Other companies I’ve worked for were working on contracts from publishers for just the audio production or they farmed many aspects out to other companies and freelancers. It’s been fascinating for me to see all of these other parts of the industry that I hadn’t thought about much, having most of my experience in audio production. By working at Tantor I’ve really seen the publishing world.
Tantor has also started to expand into print and ebook publishing so that authors can have Tantor publish their works in all three formats. They’ve had success in launching several books already.
For people who don’t know, can you describe the process of recording an audiobook?
Once the recording rights for a book have been acquired the narrator is cast and the text is prepared for production. The method for casting varies, some projects have narrators audition for the print publisher or author, other times recommendations will be made by the producers from a company’s talent pool. In order to pair the right narrator with material, Tantor collects and cross references feedback from trade reviewers, customer reviews and those of us who listen to the books throughout production. Genre, characters, accents, and special terminology or language are all factors. We know which narrators are great at Spanish, can handle the heavy medical jargon of a medical thriller, or make all characters under eighteen sound like they’re three. Budget is usually the first constraint on what narrators can be used for a project.
The text goes through different degrees of preparation. For nonfiction a lot of prep work goes into guiding the narration through footnotes, navigating strange formatting, etc… Some projects have director or other person go through to research pronunciations. Most narrators read through a book before recording and make notes, some markup their copies heavily for inflection and direction during recording. It’s best to know at the beginning of recording that Sally has a heavy Long Island accent that is only mentioned in chapter 22, for example.
The actual recording can involve as many as three people at a time: a narrator, director, and recording engineer. Most books are just the narrator and the engineer, though many narrators record on their own in home studios. Directors follow along in the text and coach the narrators like actors in any other kind of performance. The recording engineer primarily operates the recording equipment, sometimes just making sure the everything goes smoothly while the narrator reads through, repeating lines for extra takes. More often the engineer will stop the recording and back it up when a narrator stops or makes a mistake, so that the final recording is complete. When there isn’t a director, the engineer will follow along in the text so they can tell the narrator if they’ve made a mistake and the narrator might use their help in figuring out phrasing.
You sometimes call yourself an audio “proof reader.” Why do you describe yourself that way? Can you tell us some interesting mistakes you and your team have caught? Are they usually in the narration or in the original book or both? What do you do when you catch an issue in the original book?
Once the book has been recorded someone will listen to the audio while reading along, checking for text accuracy, correct pronunciations, and consistency with character voices. They also listen for any distracting background noises that may have been picked up in the recording. Several of the places I’ve worked refer to this stage as “proofreading” or just “proofing” and there are some people who only do this part. Most of the errors found are simple misreads by the narrator, but it’s not uncommon for text errors to come up, usually typos, which you can find in most books. Sometimes, though rarely, a proofer will find a large mistake in the continuity of a scene. One of the biggest mistakes anyone I know has found was in a mystery where a point was made that the victim’s cell phone was never found, then in a later scene the police are getting information off of it. Something of that magnitude will generally be brought up to the author, though generally even books that haven’t been published yet have long gone to print by the time the audiobook is being recorded. Narrators catch these kinds of mistakes as well when preparing a text.
Though I’ve been a recording engineer and a proofer in the past, I’m currently an editor. The narrator re-records sections with mistakes or noises in them. Then I insert these corrections into the audio and I find the best spots to break up the book into discs, as well as taking care of a variety of formatting issues for the book to be delivered as CDs, MP3s, etc… This is editing in the vein of a film editor, rather than a text editor.
At four different companies you’ve worked with scores of narrators. What, in your view, makes someone a good narrator for an audio book? What makes a successful audiobook?
There are a lot of narration styles, ranging from dramatic character voices and accents to more straight reads. The most important thing to avoid in narration is sounding like you’re just reading out loud, in a rote tone. Listening to an audiobook should be like someone telling you a story. It’s important to bring to life the tone and emotion of the text, this is what makes a successful audiobook. The rest is very subjective. When I worked in New York City, all of the narrators I worked with were actors, mostly on the stage with some tv and film work as well. But being a good actor doesn’t automatically make you a good narrator. I’ve listened to audiobooks read by Hollywood stars that have wonderful emotion in the dialog but have muttering or whispering that don’t work as well in an audiobook as they do on the screen. My favorite narrators make use of gentle inflection to differentiate characters more than broad accents and voices. This comes together to make an exceptional audiobook when it’s matched with a writer that creates distinct character voices in the text. Scott Brick’s reading of In Cold Blood has held the place as my favorite audiobook for many years because of the combination of his inflection and Capote’s skill at capturing characters.
I have to admit that I generally don’t listen to author narrated books on my own. Some authors have great vocal skills, like Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, and Neil Gaiman. But I feel that narration is a very different skill than writing. I enjoy hearing the interpretation of a book that a great narrator can give. On the other hand, I have worked with authors on a number of successful projects. These are ones where the content resonates personally with them in a way it would be very hard for a narrator to capture, such as a memoir. I read an interview with Tupelo Hassman in which she said she couldn’t imagine anyone else narrating her book because she felt it was like handing them the manuscript and saying “Please, italicize whatever you’d like.” The performance of her novel just wouldn’t have worked if anyone else tried it.
Some of the writers who read this blog have their audio rights managed by their agent or a publisher. But others own their rights. What advice would you give them if they were looking to have a company like yours record their audiobook?
Building an audience for your work is the best thing you can do. There are many factors that go into the decision to acquire audio rights, like sales, awards, positive reviews, etc. If you have the audio rights to your book, you can contact independent audiobook publishers directly, most have a section in the “Contact Us” portion of their website specifically for rights holders.
Sunny, thanks so much.
Readers, what makes you love or hate an audiobook? Do you have any questions for Sunny?