How to make great audiobooks

How to make great audiobooks

It might seem strange to leave the process of making of an audiobook to the last session of this Audio Revolution conference, said Nicholas Jones of Strathmore Publishing, introducing his panel. But thinking about your audience, the best format,  the narrator and the marketing is essential long before you go into the studio.

Roy McMillan, actor, narrator, writer and in-house producer for Penguin Random House Audiobooks, explained what happens when he receives the manuscript of a book that is going to be recorded. He decides who the narrator(s) should be (gender, age, origin, etc), then, through his wide experience and network of agents, tries to find the right actor(s). Given that it is usually one reader who has to interpet all the characters, McMillan says: “We might find ourselves looking for an actor who could narrate in RP but also do a Portuguese man who had lived in Iran for 30 years.”

McMillan will then send samples of possible readers to the author. Panellist James Oswald (DI McLean series, and Sir Benfro YA titles) says he is a great audio fan, having spent many hours driving a tractor on his sheep farm, but “I am not a producer, so I trust them with what they think best for my books, and I am very pleased with what I have heard, though I have never listened all the way through my books, since as part of my final pass when I write, I read out loud anyway”.

For the actor who reads Oswald’s books, fellow panellist Ian Hanmore (Pyat Pree in "Game of Thrones", among many stage and screen roles), it is “a luxury to be presented with the chance to personify so many characters. Apart from the producer, who can guide you, you’re alone in the world of the book and you have to convey it to the listener. It’s more like stage acting than film or television. I love it.”

Before the recording, both producer and reader will read the book thoroughly – it will take about as long as the time needed in the studio, or about a day for each 30,000-35,000 words. McMillan says he notes all the difficult prounciations, foreign expressions, proper names, marks the different characters, makes sure things are consistent: “There’s no better copyeditor than an audiobook reader.” Audio has problems that don’t occur in printed books: what do you do if the murderer in a crime novel has a distinctive voice but has dialogue that would identify him before the solution? What do you do about illustrations? Or footnotes?

McMillan continued: “I have the headphones on while the reading takes place, essentially to check that the words are read in the right order and that there are no strange noises. Sometimes I might offer a suggestion. But once the reader is “in” the book, everything is usually fine.”

The other author on the panel, Michelle Paver, is even more hands on: when the first book in her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series was about to come out, her agent met Ian McKellen, and one thing led to another. She came to the recordings: “I was very excited to have Gandalf read my books!” She may advise on pronunciation of character names, but she trusts the actor to interpret her stories. While respecting the book to the letter, some actors bring emotions and depth that can surprise even the author: Daniel Weyman read her latest novel Thin Air, and “he brought so much to it that I got scared and sad listening to his voice, even though I know the story by heart!”

Then the recording goes out to the audio editors who join all the takes – there will inevitably be some fluffs – into a smooth whole. Then it is proof-listened and mastered and sent for distribution.

If there is one take-home message from this session it is that the process of making good audio involves a lot more than meets the ear. And the book people should talk to the audio people and send manuscripts as early as possible. But when you get it right, the results can be quite magical.

Claire de Pourtalès is an MA publishing student at Kingston University and Chris Beer works at Strathmore Publishing.