Audiobooks offer writers new options for sharing stories. They also introduce a particular set of challenges and considerations. How does someone writing with print in mind adapt their words to audio? How does someone writing for audio maximize the advantages of the format? Here are some ideas for writing and recording an audiobook in 2020, based on my own experiences creating Puddle Is an Ocean to an Ant.
Write for sound
Writing for sound requires a different approach than writing for the page. When writing for sound, avoid sibilance and plosives if you’re planning to record on your own. “S” and “P” sounds are notoriously harsh on amateur equipment. Cutting these problematic phonetics when you’re writing serves as a creative exercise too. In a climate where a book is an open field, some fences are helpful. Take as an example Gadsby, the only novel that I know that doesn’t contain one instance of the letter “e”.
Edit for embarrassment
It’s a common editing tip, even outside of the audiobook: read out loud. Read to old friends, strangers, and acquaintances. Read into microphones, pillows, and smartphones. Prepare for embarrassment. A better editor might say “edit for clarity” but I say “edit for embarrassment.”
When you’re recording an audiobook, this preparation for embarrassment serves you. Most people claim to hate the sound of their voice. But this notion only reinforces a self-conscious narrative. To other people, your voice probably sounds fine. It’s likely that if you heard your voice without knowing it was yours, you may even like it.
In this 2013 study, researchers Hughes and Harrison had participants rate the attractiveness of various voice recordings, oblivious to the fact that their own voices were mixed in throughout the recordings. Results showed that participants often preferred their own voice to the voices of others.
Prepared for embarrassment, you’ll surmount any apprehensions about reading in front of a studio engineer or a quality control team once it’s time to finalize your audiobook.
Repetition and attention
Hold conversation with anyone long enough and you’ll notice human attention wavers. When writing for audio, think about repeating key concepts and proper nouns more frequently than you might in print. Even a phenomenal audiobook can’t compete with the manifold concerns influencing a listener’s day. People multitask while listening to audiobooks. Give listeners’ attention an anchor by repeating important ideas throughout your story—this will improve their likelihood for enjoyment and understanding.
The “A” word
You probably know which organization I’m referring to with the “A” word: a multi-billion dollar company whose empty boxes and bubble mailers litter curbsides across the world. The “A” word’s audiobook platform Audible offers new users a free 30-day trial that includes a free audiobook.
When distributing your audiobook through Audible, note that your publisher must first upload a print or eBook version. Prepare to submit your audiobook for distribution in advance of your release date. Quality checks, uploads, and platform distribution take time.
Recording yourself vs. recording in a studio
Recent widespread access to audio equipment has created an atmosphere more friendly to writers looking to record themselves. Gear is affordable. Recording techniques and tutorials are freely available online.
Still, it’s preferable to involve professionals in the recording process. A good studio engineer enhances recording conditions. They monitor your reading for misreads, false starts, and mouth sounds. A good quality control team reads along to ensure your jawboning matches the text. When I recorded Puddle Is an Ocean to an Ant, a team of engineers were helpful in optimizing sound quality.
Nutrition and recording
The physical environment of your recording space matters. But so does your gastrointestinal environment. Mouth sounds caused by dehydration create problems and delays in reading and recording, as do stomach sounds. Sad to say, but coffee and booze amplify the problem. Eating the wrong foods threatens your recording window, a potentially substantial time/money suck, especially if you’re paying for studio time.
Save your embarrassment for the sounds of your sentences, not the sounds of your stomach. Eat a banana before recording. They’re filling and starchy and they digest slowly and don’t make much noise. Figs contain high calcium content and they’re excellent hunger suppressants. Knowing your diet may be as beneficial as knowing your sentences. Commit to arranging nutritional details before recording.
Onwards with audiobooks
In the present day, most writers and publishers see the audiobook format as secondary to the print version of their title. I predict that soon, many of these same writers and publishers will approach the audiobook as an independent form.
In 2020, people consuming books have more options for entertainment and intellectual engagement. Distribution platforms through libraries and booksellers are working to champion audiobooks. For many audiobook proponents, the convenience of listening trounces the drudgery of reading.
If you enjoyed this blog on audiobooks, check out an interview with the people behind the podcast “Ear Hustle.”