Narrating your own audiobook? Yea or nay?
As I have said previously, producing audiobooks is expensive. You may economise on it by finding a cheaper narrator, but it is still a fair chunk of money. If you have a large back list, especially one that is not breaking the bank in sales, even that maybe too expensive if you add all your books up.
Having these books in audio can still be very good, because the more books you have in audio the more they will sell, the more fans you will have, and the easier it is to advertise. At this point in time, in January 2021, we have more options to advertise our audiobooks than we have had in the past, so it would be worth putting out your entire back list in audio. The problem is, if you have 50 books, even if you could find the cheapest possible narrator (and honestly, you don’t want to underpay them too much, because they do their work fairly), it still would cost you tens of thousands of dollars.
So what gives?
The solution is fairly simple, you could narrate them yourself.
I started on this adventure last year, and it has both increased my income, and completely transformed my attitude towards audio.
I started with my non-fiction books, because I figured that readers’ tolerance to having an author read their own books is the highest for non-fiction. After all, it’s fun being given the author’s advice in the author’s voice, isn’t it?
To take the step into recording audio is quite a big one, but most of it is mental. Yes, you have to learn new things, but not half as much as you think. There are some technical issues that you have to overcome. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology, these are fairly minor compared to what it used to be like in the past.
This post will set out the basics.
I also want to dispel some notions about why you shouldn’t record your own audio.
People say oh, but I hate my voice. I did this as well, but it was a choice between me paying $60,000 to have my books put in audio or doing it much more cheaply, and I chose the money. Once I started recording, I found that I got over this hatred of hearing my own voice in about three seconds flat.
You may feel that you don’t have a voice for audio. I think this is tied in with the first objection. While some people do have annoying voices, the funny thing is that what I find an annoying voice is not the same as what the next person finds an annoying voice. There are very well-known, well-paid professional narrators whose voice I simply cannot stand. They sound too American, too fake, too squeaky or whatever for my liking. The operative in this sentence are the last three words.
If you can read a piece of text in a clear voice, enunciate all the syllables properly, and do this for a limited period without mistakes, then congratulations, you can at least read a short story or a piece of non-fiction.
There are roughly two types of audiences in audio. There are the ones who go for the celebrity big name narrators. These are people who have a following of their own, and listeners buy the audiobooks because of the performance. Most of these people are either professional performers or they’re well-known identities. These people are also very expensive to hire, and the fact that you don’t have that kind of money (because otherwise why would you be reading this) means that you can’t afford them.
But a very large section of audio listeners are people who just like someone to read the book to them so that they can look at the traffic while driving (always a good idea!) or listen on the train or while they’re walking the dog or doing anything else that does not allow them to sit down and look at a screen or paper.
As long as you don’t make too many mistakes, your voice is not too much of a monotone or annoys too many people, you will be just fine.
So get over the stage fright.
You’re expanding your catalogue into different formats for material you have already written. That will increase the audience for your existing books. If you so desire, you can at a later date hire a professional narrator to re-record the material. However, don’t be surprised if a sizeable portion of the audience prefers your voice.
With that out of the way, let’s get started on the details.
In order to record in audio, you will need several things.
You will need recording software. You will need a decent microphone and you will need a set of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. Most importantly, you will need a space to record. I will now go through these things.
Software to record in audio can be free or paid. The paid versions are better than the free ones because they have more options. The recording quality is the same for each and does not depend on the software. If you have a Mac you can use free software already installed on your machine. It’s called GarageBand. The options are fairly limited, but I put out several full-length audiobooks before I upgraded to paid software. ACX has a program called Audacity which is free to use. The advantage of this software is that it will work with some important editing plug-ins. ACX also has its own user library of how-to articles and videos, and Audacity is dedicated to recording audio books (unlike Logic, which is what I use, which is much more multi-faceted). Other options are Reaper and Studio One. It doesn’t really matter what you use.
This software’s function is to record the audio files and do some basic editing. The level of editing necessary to pass audiobook quality standards is not huge, and if you have the time and are still experimenting, a lot of the necessity for editing can be eliminated by simply re-recording the offending paragraph.
You will find in the audiobook narrator community a lot of dogma about which type of software you should use, usually based on the preference of the group’s moderator. It doesn’t really matter.
You are going to need a good microphone. If you get a USB microphone, this may not be terribly expensive. I got a Blue Yeti Nano podcasting microphone that I plug into the computer, simple as that. If you google “recording audiobooks”, you will often see people recommending that you get extra hardware, but at the level that you’re at, presuming that you’re not turning into an audio engineer, you don’t need this.
You do need a decent set of over-ear headphones. Noise-cancelling headphones are the best, because you will often find that there is a very short lag between your speaking and hearing your voice recorded through the microphone in your ears. You can also pick up slight background noises or rustles of your clothing or tummy rumbles, and when you hear it in your microphone, you know it’s on the file, so it’s best to re-record while you’re still in the booth.
By far the most important thing you’re going to need is a decent recording space. Fortunately, most houses come with one of these pre-installed. It’s called a closet. A good recording space is a room that sounds muffled, where there is no echoing of sound. Large cavernous rooms with hard floors as are popular in modern houses are terrible for recording audio. You need to be in a space that’s covered with soft material. Closets are ideal.
Famous Podcasters have made a recording cubby by putting up a beach umbrella in the middle of the room with a doona over the top. It really is as simple as that. Of course, your recording space also needs to be quiet. Things like traffic, planes, dogs, a busy road, a washing machine or renovations next door will interfere with your recording. You can choose to do it at a time when it’s quiet, or you can insulate your room. Sound recording booths are extremely expensive, but again, the good old closet with the door shut dampens a lot of sound. Some sounds, like the rumbling of air-conditioners, can be edited out if they’re not too loud. But it’s preferable by far not to record the background sound in the first place.
The final component is your performance. You have to put energy into your voice that reflects the material you’re reading. You may need some practice. Record a small piece and listen back to it to see if you like the sound. If you do, ask a couple of friends. They have to be audio book listeners, because those are used to listening to someone reading a book rather than talking in a conversation. An audiobook is like a lecture, it’s not a conversation. Make sure that you enunciate clearly and that you do not miss any words or syllables. This may take some practice. Also, if you’ve been reading for a minute without making any mistakes, you’re doing well. Don’t expect to read a 4000 word chapter without mistakes. You will need to edit them out.
When I make a mistake, I leave a silence of a couple of seconds, and then repeat the sentence that contained the mistake. I find it easier to do this as I go, because if I stop the recording and listen back to it, often the sound of my voice changes. Experiment with this and see what you like best.
Should you do “voices” in fiction?
Most books were not written for audio, and you will find this out for yourself if you start recording. Editors encourage us not to use too many dialogue tags. But when you have more than two characters speaking, this very quickly becomes confusing on the page. Audio can become confusing even if there are only two characters. You will find you may need to add some dialogue tags to your text.
Of course you can do this by changing the sound of your voice, and this is why listeners like it when people do “voices”. This is not as much about acting ability as it is about clarity. If you’re determined you’re not going to do voices, you definitely need the extra tags. But you may be like me.
I was all like I’m not going to do voices because I’m not an actor, I was never trained, and I have no illusions about my ability in acting. But when I came to read some fiction after I did my non-fiction books, I found that I enjoyed it a lot more than reading non-fiction. Fiction allows you to put a lot more emotion in your voice and perform the book rather than simply read it. Non-fiction read with an extremely emotional voice becomes ridiculous, so non-fiction narration is usually much more like a lecture read from notes. Which of course is exactly what it is.
With fiction there is so much emotion that happens off the page between the words, that you can express this in your voice. You may find that you really enjoy that process. At this point, you may also decide that you want to take some acting classes or voice coaching. But at that point you will transition into a different world.
The last issue is meeting the retailer sites’ quality parameters.
They all spell these out clearly on their websites, and ACX has detailed instructions on how to edit your recording. If you have recorded correctly in your audio cubby, without too much extraneous noise, with a decent microphone, you should be able to meet these specifications. If you have trouble, there are online communities where you can get help, but do make sure you read the instructions for your chosen software first, because editing recorded speech for an audiobook is really quite simple. I can’t include instructions, because I can only do it for the software I use, which is not the most common, and each software package is going to be different. If you can google and read, you should be able to master this. There are some Facebook groups like Authors Who Narrate Their Own Audiobooks where are you can ask questions, and someone will point you in the right direction.
As it turned out, my jump into audio has been very good. I got the equipment in December 2019, and then started recording my non-fiction in December and January. In January I went on a trip, and when I came back, coronavirus hit and closed the airport for months. In fact, it is still operating at a far reduced capacity. We are under the flight path and planes interfere with my recording. I’ve had a great time in my audio booth. Find your own journey and have fun.
Many of my books are out in audio, read by others or myself. You can see them here.