Why Prep Work is Essential to Audiobooks

Another discussion on one of my LinkedIn groups prompts me to write yet another article. This one’s not so much of a hot button issue, but it’s something anybody working in audiobooks should consider. It’s also coincidentally relevant for me at the moment, as I’m just starting work on a project for Audible: The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway. It’s a big gig for me, as I haven’t worked directly with Audible before, and if you didn’t know, they’re kind of a big deal. This project rivals my biggest career highlights to date. But, enough about me. On to the topic of audiobook preparation.

I didn’t know this until very recently, but it’s apparently rather common for audiobooks to be produced under a huge time crunch. So much so that the narrator is given no time to read the book in advance. Some experienced narrators have actually developed a common practice of, essentially, cold reading for the final product. Simply jump in the booth and read the book for the first time in front of a microphone. If you ask me, to do that is a huge disservice to the book, the author, and perhaps most importantly, the audience.

When you read a book, a good book, you get the sense that the author is completely in control of the story. Even though you probably have no idea where it’s going, he/she does. The author is in the driver’s seat the whole way, and you’re just along for the ride. Similarly, when you listen to a good audiobook, the narrator is doing the driving. Well… maybe a flying metaphor would work better, as the narrator’s kind of the author’s co-pilot, but you get my meaning. It’s hard to drive (or fly) somewhere when you don’t know the destination or the route. If you get into the booth with merely a synopsis on the back of the book to guide you, you’re not properly prepared to lead the audience on that journey. If you’re taking a tour of the rainforest, you don’t want a guide that’s never been into the rainforest before.

I take great pride in my ability to bring uniquity to each and every character. But this isn’t something I do by simply guessing at who each character is. A lot of characters in books are introduced through dialog long before the reader gets important details about them. The first time you’re reading a book, you may imagine a French character with a German accent, or a heavy smoker with a smooth and velvety voice, until you get to chapter eighteen and discover more information. If the first time you’re reading is in the booth recording final narration, you’ve now got to go back and re-record every inch of dialog that character’s had for the last seventeen chapters. But even if you’re not doing any character voices at all, familiarity with the story is essential to quality narration.

How many times when you’re reading a book to yourself do you stop and say, “Wait a second, did I miss something?” and go thumbing back through stuff you’ve already read to figure out exactly what’s going on? Sometimes, the author intentionally leaves the reader a little bit in the dark about certain things for a while. Other times, especially with books that aren’t as well written, there are situations that are inadvertently a little unclear for one reason or another. As the narrator of an audiobook, you have to know what the author means by the words you’re reading at all times. If you don’t, the listener will be able to tell that you’re just as confused as they are, and that’s not good. You’re the co-pilot, remember? How would you feel if the co-pilot on a commercial airliner came on to the intercom and said, “Good morning, folks. It’s my first time today, but don’t worry. In theory, I can land this thing if the pilot has a heart attack mid-flight.”

Preparation becomes even more of a necessity with books involving unusual character or place names, or words that don’t actually exist in the real world. It’s kind of a given that when you come upon a word you don’t recognize during your narration, you stop to look it up. But when that word is fictitious, invented by the author, you won’t be able to do that. Yes, the author will explain what his fictional word means somewhere in the book, but if that doesn’t happen for a while, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Furthermore, you may not know how to pronounce the fictional word, character name, or location. Sure, you’ll be able to make a pretty good guess, but what happens when you deliver your finished audiobook featuring a main character named John Howe, pronouncing the last name “how-ee” all the way through, only to have the publisher tell you the “e” is silent? If you take the time to read the book before recording, you can write down all the words you have any inkling of uncertainty about, then ask your publisher if they have a preference on the proper pronunciations for any of them. In a lot of situations, they’ll tell you to use your best judgment. But it’s better to figure that out ahead of time than during or after recording.

I was going to smoothly transition from the subject of preparing yourself for an audiobook to my personal method for doing so, but this article is already way too long. So, I’ll save that topic for a follow-up article tomorrow. Stay tuned for part two!

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