Audiobooks: How Are They Made and What Makes Them Good? An Expert Tells Us

by Barb in sunny Key West. 

Sunny, Viola, Fiver and Rob

Sunny and crew

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?

21 thoughts on “Audiobooks: How Are They Made and What Makes Them Good? An Expert Tells Us

  1. What an interesting interview. Thanks for sharing with us, Sunny. I rarely listen to audio books, although my sons and I have fond memories of car trips listening to E.B. White narrate his own Charlotte’s Web (on four cassette tapes!).

    Here’s a question: How would one approach Tantor about audio publishing – with a query letter as if to any other publisher?

  2. Fascinating information, Barb! I am a huge listener to audiobooks. It brings me back to childhood and being read to by my grandmother, both of us tucked under an afghan she crocheted. Performance is what makes me love an audiobook. Everyone is talking about “Gone Girl” these days. Amy and Nick each were narrated separately and they came alive immediately, Even though I was skeptical, I became invested in their story because there is something personal about voice that captures me.
    I can still actually hear the words, “Do it again, Mama” from “Prince of Tides.” I listen to books I would never read because performance adds an entirely new dimension to the book. I listen while driving, gardening, walking, cooking. If I could find a way to listen to great books while sleeping, I probably would. I really enjoyed learning more about the production behind the scenes. Great post!

  3. Fascinating post! I listen to audio books all the time and often wondered how the publishers handle them. Although there are just as many great female readers, these four men come to mind as my recent favorites: J. B. Adkins, Dylan Baker, Neil Gaiman, and Peter Altschuler. Peter was spot on with his narration of Major Pettigrew. Readers I don’t care for as much, often have a catch or oddity in their voice that carries over into each character and makes for a distraction.

  4. I have never listened to an audio book (gasp), but I have one (Buried in a Bog) coming from Tantor at the end of this month and I can’t wait to see what the reader made of it (it is set in Ireland). Can you comment on the sales price of audio books? Are these mainly for the library market, or are there individuals who pay for them for their own use?

    • There are actually different editions for libraries, so most of the time when you see the sales price for hard copies they are for regular consumers. There are still people who like to listen in their cars but don’t have mp3 players or smart phones. The number of discs for a book still has a big impact on the price of the physical format. Not to outright advertise, but Tantor has a $6.99 bargain bin on their website that currently has over 1,600 titles that you can buy the CD versions of, which is pretty cool if you like to have something in hand. With all the different devices people use to listen to books now, I think most people do purchase downloads over the physical discs, for ease of use as well as cost.

  5. Like Sheila, I’ve never listened to an audio book, either. But when my husband was recovering from eye surgery last year, he became a huge fan of them. Thanks to Barb and Sunny for this fascinating post. Much to ponder about new ways to market my Baby Boomer Mysteries.

  6. Hi Everyone–

    Glad you found the topic so interesting. Sunny’s hard at work now, but can chime in when she gets home.

    Edith, my kids listened to E.B. White read Charlotte’s Web on long car trips, too. It was one of Sunny’s husband Rob’s favorites.

  7. Sunny thanks for joining us today and providing all this great insight. I am another person that hasn’t ever listened to an audiobook but know a lot of people who have vision problems that depend on them. I think I will have to give one a try.

    • The first company I worked for actually produced books for a government contract that makes audiobooks available for free to people with vision problems, the Talking Books program by the National Library Service. It was very rewarding to be making so many different kinds of books accessible to readers who couldn’t enjoy them otherwise, many of them were books that were never published as commercial audiobooks.

  8. Thanks for the post, Sunny and Barb. I am a major fan of audio books, and always have one going in the car, though that’s the only place I listen. I “read” books I am not likely to read in print, esp nonfiction. Malcolm Gladwell is another author who narrates his own work well. Thanks for clueing us in on some of the behind-the-scenes details.

  9. Thanks for this very informative post. I could never have survived commuting to work two hours each day without recorded books. If I can’t sleep at night, instead of putting on a light and disturbing my husband, I put my headphones on and listen to a recorded book–which frequently lulls me sleep. Once I get my unpublished mystery published, my number one goal is to have it recorded. That would give me as much pleasure as holding my printed book in hand. Thank you for your description as to how the process works.

    • Thanks for your comment, Grace. In a session at Bouchercon this year, an agent said she thought publishers and agents tend to under-appreciate how much customers val audiobooks because they all live in New York City and don’t have cars!

  10. Hi Barbara and Sunny,

    Great information about how audiobooks are made. I have one pet peeve about audiobook series’ that migth be helpful and/or informative for authors. It is when multiple narrators read different books in a series and they pronounce people or place names slightly differently. This can be maddening for a listener, especially for fiction stories where there is no prior art in the real world for the names. For any author intending to have a series of their books made into audiobooks I would highly recommend making a pronunciation guide for narrators to create greater consistency for listeners.

    • That is a very good point. I’ve worked on a number of series where there was a glossary in the back of the book or the author maintained a guide online and it was invaluable as a resource in production. There are times that we will go to an author for help with names, especially terms that are made up for fantasy series, but generally we rely on research we can do outside of contacting them.

  11. Hi Barbara and Sunny, Thanks for the helpful info on audio book production. My favorite way of reading is to have both the paper and the audio version. When I’m in the car, I pick up where I left off in the book, and vice-versa. I get through my reading a lot faster that way. Of course, it takes a minute for me to find the right spot when I switch between paper and audio, but now Amazon has a new option that allows someone who buys a Kindle book to add the audio version for a few dollars more. Both the audio player and the Kindle e-reader automatically know where you have left off in the other medium. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds great. The best author-narrator I’ve ever heard is Bill Bryson. HIs book, At Home, is also a wonderful resource about domestic details for anyone writing a historical novel.

  12. I began listening to audiobooks a number of years ago, when I found myself with an hour commute each way. Sadly (!) these days my commute is only 20 minutes, but I still love audiobooks. I had to laugh when I read Sunny’s comment that it should be as if someone was reading a book to you — this is exactly how I describe the experience to others. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Jim Dale as a narrator. For me, his narration of the Harry Potter series was so outstanding, that I turned down offers of the printed book, because I was waiting for the recorded book.

  13. My biggest question, after listening to over 200 books, (my audible library has 387 books, not sure I’m ever going to catch up) is with narrators like Jim Dale, who have so many distinct voices on their characters.
    1-Do they read straight through the book and change into each voice as they go.
    2-Read straight through but pause, get into a voice, then do the character and have audio engineer fix the timing later.
    Or 3-Just break the book down and read a characters lines, then move to the next person and the next, plus do all the non character parts also separate and then an audio engineer had to put it all back together?

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