This article by Steven Womack is from the October 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
When the Nink assistant editor asked me to write an article about DIY Audio Production, my first thought was why me? I’m a total newbie audiobook creator. I’ve produced and narrated a couple of podcasts and one short story that’s a freebie on my website. I’m working on producing audiobook versions of my rights-reverted backlist, but as one of the IT guys at the college where I taught for 25 years once marvelously said: I’m just starting to start.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt this might be exactly what this article needs: somebody who can demystify the process for beginners and point aspiring audiobook creators to resources that will be helpful when starting this journey.
So that’s where this is going. If you’re an experienced audiobook producer, feel free to pass this one by. But if you’re looking at the audiobook world and pondering how to get started, read on.
Here’s the best reason for taking the plunge: there’s an incredible demand for content. Jane Friedman, in her newsletter The Hot Sheet, predicts that audiobooks will overtake print by 2023. Even if she’s off just a little bit, this still represents a lucrative revenue stream and I want to wade in it.
When considering jumping into the indie audiobook business (especially self-narrating), there are two things most people find daunting: 1) the technical demands and skills needed and 2) what consumers really look for in an audiobook.
So if you’re looking to produce your own audiobooks, the two biggest anxieties are:
- Can I handle the technical aspects?
- Does my voice suck?
Handling the tech
Randy O’Brien is a Nashville-based novelist and a retired radio journalist with over 40 years of experience in broadcast journalism, voice-over acting and audio production. In 2008, he self-produced an audio version of his novel Judge Fogg. He’s also a huge audiobook consumer; he’s been reviewing audiobooks for Audiophile Magazine since 1997.
I asked him about the costs and expertise needed to create a home studio.
“A home studio,” he said, “that 10 years ago would have cost $100,000 can be built today for less than a thousand dollars. What was once a luxury for rich rock n’ rollers is now accessible to even a poor-assed novelist.”
The important thing, O’Brien added, is to have a good microphone and a computer with an adequate sound card.
“The heart of any studio is, of course, the microphone,” he said. And people think a good microphone costs thousands. I’ve seen $150 microphones that are as good a quality as the $3,600 microphone I have in my studio. What people have to remember is that every microphone is different and every voice is different. Your voice is like your fingerprint—totally unique. The trick is to find just the right combination of voice and microphone that works.”
Both O’Brien and Loesch agree that this means trying out multiple microphones. Retail audio equipment dealers are usually open to this.
The other key component of the audiobook recording process is the editing software and its accompanying learning curve. Even that’s gotten cheaper and simpler over the years.
“High-end software packages like Pro Tools and Adobe Audition are overkill for audiobook production. You don’t need multi-track recording and sophisticated music and sound effects,” Loesch said. “I use a simple program for Macs called Twisted Wave. It costs about $80 and is very intuitive.”
Both O’Brien and Loesch agree that if you’re on a PC, the go-to app is a free shareware program called Audacity. There’s a huge community of developers and users who have taken this app a long way in the last twenty years. There are tons of resources for learning Audacity on YouTube, Lynda.com, and a variety of other places. It’s not hard to find tutorials and help.
I’ve found the Audacity learning curve very manageable. There are a dozens of plug-ins and add-ons that are more than sufficient to get a good product out.
The last big hurdle is your recording space. The physics of sound is way beyond the scope of this article, but the key thing to remember is that sound bounces off flat surfaces. Almost any good microphone is going to pick that up. So just recording in your home office with flat walls is problematic.
The other issue is ambient sound. A car going by outside, the hiss of your HVAC system as it kicks on, the phone ringing or the kids getting in an argument, are all going to cause problems.
To complicate this even further, you don’t want an environment that is too dead. This creates a hollow, empty room sound that doesn’t work well in audio production.
The most innovative solution I’ve seen, and one that I’m using now: a walk-in closet, preferably one without an HVAC vent. Clothes hanging in a walk-in closet are natural sound baffles.
Now here’s the art part
You may wonder if you have the right kind of voice for audiobook narration. Or even worse, like me you may hate the sound of your own recorded voice.
The key thing to remember, Loesch says, is that listeners don’t want to be read to.
“I don’t want you to read me a story,” he said, “I want you to tell me a story. There’s a difference.”
Loesch adds that for anyone interested in really pursuing this industry, it’s extremely helpful to take voice-over classes and acting lessons.
“That’s why they call it voice-over acting,” he maintains.
O’Brien adds that the kind of voice that works depends on the book and the genre. A mystery or suspense thriller will require a different voice from a romance (although gender is pertinent only in that the gender of the audiobook narrator generally should match the gender of the narrator or protagonist in the book).
“What the listener wants is authenticity,” he maintains.
One important thing to remember, both Loesch and O’Brien agree, is that audiobook narration is hard work. A nine-hour audio book requires 30-40 hours of raw recording. You’ll need stamina, breath control, and preparation. You’ll need to stay hydrated and lubricated with whatever works for you.
There are many resources available online if, after reading this, you still want to wade into that stream:
- Los Angeles-based author and audiobook producer Derek Doepker has a marvelous beginner’s course that I took at a discount after watching one of his webinars.
- AudibleACX’s YouTube channel has almost 100 videos that cover everything from the beginning technical aspects to the business itself.
- Aliso Creek has a series of videos on YouTube that cover many aspects of voice-over audio production. Just search for her.
Like any other aspect of the indie book industry, producing audiobooks is a journey. It doesn’t require a lot of money. The investment is almost all sweat equity and time. Doing it right, though, will be very rewarding, not just in terms of that revenue stream, but in finding yet another way to connect with readers.
Former Novelists, Inc. president Steven Womack is the Edgar and Shamus Award-winning author of the Harry James Denton mystery series, as well as a few other books. A screenwriter as well, he co-wrote a couple of television movies a long time ago. For 25 years, he taught screenwriting in the film program at Watkins College Of Art in Nashville, Tennessee. When the college went out of business in May, Womack ecstatically went back to full-time writing.