Approaching an Audio Book Narration
Ah, that exciting moment of looking at the book for the first time! If you don't have time to read the entire manuscript before giving an estimate or accepting the job, still have a good look through it and read all of it that you can. This is going to be a big undertaking, so you'll want to be enthusiastic about the story or subject.
Questions you might want to bear in mind while weighing it up are:
- How long is the book?
- If it is non-fiction, how heavy is it in technical vocabulary?
- If it is fiction, how many characters does it have and what voice types and accents do they have? (This is covered later in Narration Style, but if you're planning on performing different voices for each of them, then this will affect how long it takes to record the book, which leads us to...
You may be recording the book purely for the fun of it: Librivox is a lovely example of a vast library of free audio books read by volunteers. There, you can opt to read a full book or just a chapter.
Otherwise, some audio books are paid on a royalties (percentage) basis, others on a one-off fee.
Royalties rely on numbers of downloads, which are always uncertain, so you have to go on your instinct for the book.
One-off fees are a little different. You may have to estimate the fee, or decide whether the fee on offer is enough, so in that case a little maths is required:
If you've not done any long narration projects before, it's worth recording a random, full page aloud. Do actually record, because once the microphone is on you may find you make more stumbles than when it's off! Also you will find how well-written and typo-free the book is, as that will also affect how long it takes to complete.
Now take that recording time and you can probably multiply it by two and a half to include time to edit it down if you've stumbled or decided to re-record lines, especially if there is character dialogue. Now multiply that new number by the number of pages and you have a good idea of how long it will take.
For example, if it takes 8 minutes to read one page of a 200 page book, then it might take 20x200 minutes to complete, so, approximately over 65 hours if it goes smoothly. See later section on working with your editor, as they may trim out stumbles if there aren't too many, but you will still want to listen through first to make sure it all recorded and there are no puffs, odd noises, or breaks in the recording etc.
Now you have a number of hours, you can decide how much you can do every day/week and settle a deadline with your editor or publisher. It's a good idea to break up recording time with listening/editing time to give your voice a rest.
As an extra tip: people with dyslexia can find that a tinted page helps to stop the words from appearing to move around. In the same way, while I don't have dyslexia, I have found that I stumble less if I tint the page background a very light blue, grey or green.
With a large project it can help to break it down, to organise your time and see your progress.
On the first read-through, I make two tables: one for the overview of the book itself and one for the characters.
For the book, I make a calendar-style table, assigning a chunk of chapter or editing slot to each day that I can work on it. As I finish elements I colour the blocks in, as it helps to see the progress! I don't always work in strict order, so use colours to denote 'done' 'overdue' and 'done in advance'.
In the table it can help to put a brief description and number of pages involved, if you're dividing it by chapter rather than equal sets of page numbers.
Listening to audio books, you'll hear that readers vary quite considerably in their narration style. Some narrators keep the same voice throughout, narrating character lines with perhaps more animation, but with no change of pitch or accent. Others change pitch a little depending on gender, or they may give a very light suggestion of accent. At the other end of the scale, they will try to distinguish between the characters with pitch, accent, rhythm, etc.
In my own case I tend to fall into the latter style, as much out of necessity as choice: I have mainly narrated American fiction with quite distinctly-written character voices and references to the characters' home towns or countries. As my narration voice is a general Southern English one - a little different from my natural accent in the same way people often have a 'telephone' voice - it would sound downright peculiar if I didn't change it to read the dialect-heavy dialogue of a New York detective.
So I have to do a lot of research and practice. And that brings us to...
This can be the most challenging part - if you do decide to go down the route of differentiating the characters from your own voice. While I try my hardest to get an accent as authentic as I possibly can, I don't pretend to be expert at this. It's a question of trying to listen carefully and practising to improve, but in the meantime I focus on narrating, and then in trying to get a flavour of the characters' voices, and to be consistent in their pronunciation, so as to avoid, as much as possible, native speakers of that dialect cringing!
There are some fantastic resources on the Internet for accents. First of all, I visit the Speech Accent Archive. It boasts a very full library of examples of native speakers from many countries and areas, with details of their age and sex.
They all read the same text, which is designed to contain every sound you might encounter, so it's extremely useful. It also has a transcription for each accent that you can use if you're familiar with phonetics.
A similarly useful resource is the International Dialects of English Archive.
It can also help to visit youtube. Type in '___ accent' and you will often find people have uploaded samples of themselves speaking. There are also videos where their friends with different accents may make fun of them. These can actually be quite useful because they highlight, in an exaggerated way, some of the distinctive sounds and phrases that make that dialect unique.
For foreign languages, you can often find pronunciations just by searching online. Forvo is a site devoted to this and is, again, invaluable.
Then it is a question of trying the accent yourself, copying phrases and sounds as you hear them - and then finally moving on to reading different texts, trying to take the accent with you. In a well-written book, the author has also written the characters voices in that dialect, so you should find it flows once you start reading the dialogue.
I record each line of dialogue more than once, often up to a couple of dozen times. Then later, when editing, I try to listen for the best of the efforts. Alternatively, if there are many people in a scene with different voices I have recorded all of one character's lines separately in one session, while 'immersed' in the accent. It makes more work in editing, but it can help when working on a new accent among many others.
Your editor - if you are not self-editing - will check for errors, edit and mix, unless you have another arrangement, and they will ask for any retakes. Once you've completed all of that, then your book is finally clear to be released.
Different editors have different levels of involvement in projects: You may be sending files into the ether with little feedback, or you may find yourself working more closely with them and spurring each other on to finish the project.
I found that sharing files via Dropbox or something similar is an easier way to work collaboratively than sending files back and forth. That way, you're both aware of files being updated and can both edit plans or notes without needing to save and upload each time.
If you are self-editing then you may deal directly with the publisher or writer, or with an agent. You will check your own files for errors, pops or puffs and either redo or edit them out with your audio program. There is debate as to whether you should edit out breaths (replacing them with the same length of neutral background noise): in a long book it can be a mammoth task. Otherwise, you'll want to perform noise reduction and possibly de-essing, some light compression and anything else such as equalisation, depending on your microphone and recording environment.
If you are new to audio editing, there are superb resources online that you can find by searching those terms. Communities such as those at Audio Drama Talk forums are always friendly places to read interesting posts and ask for help if you get stuck. As with all jobs working from home, developing positive, supportive relationships online can ward off the loneliness of the long-distance reader and really help to make the marathon of audio book narration a fun and rewarding one.