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Reflections on my first Audiobook: An Interview with Myself

Line drawing of woman interviewing themself with a microphone

Me: I hear you’ve got an announcement to make!

Myself: Yeah! So, earlier this week, I achieved a long held goal of narrating an audiobook. As of this post, I’ve actually narrated 3 audiobooks, with a 4th in the works, but this is the first one that’s been made available to the public so far.

Me: Wow! How exciting! An audiobook!

Myself: To be clear, this one is a novella, about an hour and a half long, and by an author you’ve almost certainly never heard of. But I did it! I jumped through the hoops, read the story, communicated with the author, recorded my reading, edited and produced the tracks, and got it all approved by the author and the QA team at ACX. They, in turn, made the completed audiobook available on Audible and Amazon where anyone with credits or dollars can purchase it. Pretty neat.

Me: Let’s back up a bit. Audiobooks? ACX? I thought you were a paper artist?

Myself: I am, and will be for the foreseeable future, but last year’s Crafterall sales really tanked and I need to find other ways to make money.

Me: Why not just do more marketing for Crafterall? Get your name out there? Do a social media blast and really own those SEO strategies?

Myself: That’s a fair question, but I don’t think it’s a lack of eyes on my art that’s the issue. I actually had more views in my shop this past year than ever before, but fewer sales. I think there’s more competition for what I make these days, whereas, 3 or 4 years ago, I was still a pretty niche shop. I also have deep concerns about the continued availability of the colored cardstock I use for my work. If I can’t get my hands on even one shade of the 4-shade sets of paper I use, I can’t make pieces in that color set, and I’ve had to deal with incomplete sets, discontinued paper lines, and difficult wholesale purchase requirements.

Me: Is Crafterall dead?

Myself: No, no. Not yet. It’s just not looking at a bright or reliable future.

Me: So, a bit of an existential crisis?

Myself: Yeah, kinda. It’s been tough just accepting defeat here as I’ve made Crafterall a big part of my identity and the sole means of my contribution to our family funds over the last 15 years.

Me: That’s rough.

Myself. It is.

Me: But becoming an audiobook narrator seems like an odd and unrelated choice.

Myself: Maybe to some, but I’ve been an avid audiobook listener for decades, and have always enjoyed reading aloud, whether it was to my kids when they were younger, to my students when I was teaching, or to myself just for kicks. A large volume of the work I’ve created for Crafterall took place while I was concurrently listening to audiobooks, so I could certainly argue that this is a fairly logical next step.

Me: Logical in theory perhaps, but how steep has the learning curve been for you?

Myself: Not too bad, actually. It definitely helped that my sweetheart Matthew had invested in some top-notch recording equipment for his podcast and yoga and meditation teachings, and that he isn’t currently using them. He also helped me set up Audacity on my computer, and with the aid of some YouTube videos, I was ready to rock and roll with recording and editing audio files. Unlike when I started Crafterall and Etsy was still a relative unknown, with audiobook recording, I’m jumping into a well-established vocation, with all the tutorials and recommendations a few mouse-clicks away.

Me: Now you’re making it sound easy. Is it?

Myself: Yes and no. In addition to the equipment and software I had at the ready, I also already have a designated office space to do with as I please, a quiet household in which to work, and the time needed to try things out and tweak as I go. Those are less easy and accessible for many, so I acknowledge that head start. I’m also drawing from my background as a competitive speech nerd, as a teacher, and as a program presenter, as well as the things I love about good audiobooks, so for better or worse, I feel like I have a good instinct for what sounds good. That, too, can take training and time for others. On the flip side, unlike my daydream of simply reading a story into a microphone inside a padded soundbooth for a few hours and calling it a day, there’s a ton of work that goes into producing a high quality audio file, and I don’t have a sound dude to do the work for me. I took a lot of notes during my first two recordings, and have learned a lot, mostly through experiment and accident, about what it takes to create a cohesive and pleasing sound, and I’m still not there yet.

Me: What are some of the biggest struggles you’re facing with this work?

Myself: Well, from a purely technical standpoint, I’ve been working on trying to minimize the “mouth noises” in my recordings -- those tiny clicks, pops, and wet noises that happen when I speak. The mic I use is wonderfully sensitive and picks up these tiny sounds fairly clearly. I hope it’s not terribly noticeable, unless you’re listening for it as I am, but it’s still not at the level of quality of more professionally produced audiobooks. There’s also just the sort of grunt work involved in editing out breaths, clipping mistakes, and generally creating a “clean track.” I’ve found that a finished hour of work takes 2-3 hours of editing. It’s been interesting measuring time with these projects.

Me: What about less technical struggles?

Myself: Mostly, I’ve been working on sounding less nasal overall, and in breaking through my confidence barriers so that I can really let loose with voice characterization and dramatization. If I pretend I’m not in my office, sitting in front of a microphone and screen of text, but instead, sitting on a rocking chair, reading to my kids, I start to feel more comfortable, more free to explore where my voice can go, and more willing to experiment a bit with characterization. The more nervous I feel, the tighter my nasal passage and/or vocal cords get, and the sound quality and vocal range suffers.

Me: How did you figure that out?

Myself: My dad actually helped me with this one.

Me: Sage advice from an experienced radio announcer, eh?

Myself: Exactly. I remember many, many years ago, feeling surprised when my Dad, who at the time was one of most recognizable voices on the radio in north-central Minnesota, said that he still got nervous before going “on the air.” More recently, in response to my self-critiques, he said that nervousness can affect the voice by constricting the vocal cords, and this totally made sense to me. Lo and behold, when I chillax more at the mic, I sound better.

Me: Cool.

Myself: Yup.

Me: So tell us more about this ACX thing.

Myself: It stands for Audiobook Creation Exchange, and it’s linked with Audible.com, which is owned by Amazon. I know, ick. But it’s pretty much the only platform available for folks like me who want to make a little coin by narrating books. There are other websites that connect work to voice over artists, including narrators, but there’s often a fee to join, or you have to have a handful of completed audiobooks or even years of experience on your resume already to be considered. So for me, for at least the time being, it’s a starting place.

Me: How does it work?

Myself: Book authors and publishers, working through Amazon, list their projects on the website, stating, to varying degrees of specificity, what sort of narrator they’re seeking, and what sort of book they’re offering. Some want specific accents, multiple voices, or just narrators willing and able to perform horror, romance, or erotism. They also say how they’re willing to compensate the narrator for their time. Most offer a share of the royalty from sales of the completed audiobook, and a few offer stipends for a set amount.

Narrators can select the genres, vocal styles, length, and subject matters of the books they’re seeking, and then audition for ones they find promising.

Me: What are the auditions like?

Myself: A good audition is 1 - 3 pages of readable text from the book, with some direction from the author or publisher about how the characters should sound. I download it from the website, record my reading of it, edit and produce it, and then upload the finished mp3 file to the website.

Me: And then what, just wait?

Myself: Yup. Sometimes, it takes a day or two, sometimes weeks, to hear back from them. In most cases, I’ll get a form letter from ACX via email stating, “Sorry, you weren’t chosen for this one, but try again with another book!” In some cases the author stops accepting new auditions, pulls the book from the pool, and makes a decision later. The book I mentioned that’s just been made available, was one that I auditioned for in the morning, and got an offer on that same afternoon. It was a super fast turn around.

Me: What’s an offer look like?

Myself: Nothing fancy. It’s basically just, “will you narrate and produce this audiobook by this date, and accept this compensation?” You click accept or decline, and go from there.

Me: And that is… where?

Myself: I send a thank-you note to the author/publishing company, and request the manuscript for the book as well as any vocal direction they might have. Once I get the manuscript, I give it a read and then record and produce what they call a 15 minute checkpoint. This is essentially a taste of what the whole book will sound like, with all the quality and energy I’d put into the entire book. Once they approve that, I get access to a page with little boxes to fill with my finished audio files for each chapter or section of the book. I try to record in as few sessions as possible to maintain consistency, and, when that’s done, get into the nitty gritty of editing each file -- the longest part of the process, by far.

Me: So you’ve said. Does that make the whole thing less enjoyable for you?

Myself: Yeah, for sure, but, so far, it’s been kinda fun, too. It’s repetitive, sometimes arduous, sometimes frustrating, but overall, pretty easy. And I do like to hear certain parts that I think I did pretty well, and to get the whole thing neat and tidy -- like cleaning off my workspace at the end of the day. Ironically, I sometimes find myself wishing I could listen to an audiobook while I edit my audiobook, just because it sometimes seems like the sort of work you could almost do while listening to something else… but, of course, you can’t. I mean, I can “see” breaths on the digital spectrum visualizer, so, technically, I could just go through that without listening to it, and just pull out all the breaths by sight.

Me: But you don’t do that.

Myself: Nope. Some breaths, like ones spoken in the middle of an excited bit of dialogue should probably stay. And, there’s more than just breaths I’m listening for, cutting out, and minimizing, so not listening to the file is not an option.

Me: So, you finish recording, editing, producing, and uploading all this work. Then what?

Myself: I click a button on the website that literally says, “I’m done.” From there, the author/publisher has to approve the files. Then it moves into the headphones of the ACX Quality Assurance folks who have digital ways of checking the sound quality, but I think they also have to listen to the files as well before putting their stamp of approval on the work. If they find something not right with the work, they send me a note and tell me what needs fixing. I’m hoping that the other 2 books I’ve submitted for review, especially the longer of the two, pass as well as this first one -- my fingers are crossed. Finally, they stitch it all together and put the book up for sale.

Me: A Published Narrator!

Myself: Is that what they call it?

Me: I have no idea.

Myself: Me neither.

Me: That’s o.k. So… then the money starts flying in?

Myself: Totally… if people buy the audiobook. It’s listed on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, I think. And, as you can imagine, Amazon takes a sizable cut from any sales. What’s left get’s split between the author and the narrator. In most cases this amounts to a buck or two my way per sale.

Me: That’s it?!

Myself: Yeah. Whoop-dee-doo, Tarantula Town.

Me: Nice Simpsons reference. But, hey. A buck or two here, multiplied by lots of sales over months and years is nothing to sneeze at.

Myself: Surely after Covid, we try not to sneeze at anything, but the books offered up on ACX probably aren’t going to be blockbusters. Those are already handled by the bigger publishers who have a bank of pro narrators on hand. I mean, there’s a chance something on ACX could blow up, but I don’t think most books get more than a dozen sales after they’re released. I don’t know this for sure, and haven’t had the experience to track this, but from what I hear in YouTube videos and such, this is not a great way to pay the bills.

Me: Ah, shucks. That’s a buzzkill.

Myself: Kinda. I could and do try to view this work as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. But, I’m not sure that full-time voiceover actors get paid much, either. If you look up some of the most well known narrators, you’ll find that many of them are TV and film actors already, and audiobooks are just something they do between likely better paying gigs. And, in my opinion, some of the very best narrators are the authors themselves -- lookin’ at you, Neil Gaiman!

Me: What else can you do?

Myself: Short of writing and narrating my own bestseller (sigh), I could look into the broader field of voice acting and voiceover work. People hire voices for tutorials, podcast intros, commercials and radio ads, and even IVR (interactive voice response).

Me: Is that like an automated voice messaging system?

Myself: You got it. “If you know your party’s 3-digit extension, please press the pound key.”

Me: Oooo! You’re good at that!

Myself: Meh. Maybe. I’m a good mimic-er. But my heart wouldn’t be in it as much as being a narrator for some good writing.

Me: Speaking of that, how has the writing you’ve read for ACX stacked up?

Myself: Three of the four projects I’ve accepted are really, pretty good. Not like my favorite reads of all time, but good. One, the other novella that will hopefully be released next and soon, felt a bit like I was reading my own writing. It’s a super-cheesy, fairly predictable romance story, but it’s told from a really sweet, affable point of view that I found both easy and compelling to read. The book that’s out now, was less of an easy fit for me, but still well written, and interesting to follow. The book I’m currently working on is a collection of short stories, and they’re fun and well done. I catch myself pulling out little playful phrases that, if I were still teaching, I’d share with the class as examples of clever work. The author uses some carefully crafted details that pull double-duty on the showing, not telling front, and I appreciate that. The collection as a whole is varied in multiple ways from perspective and style, to length and tone, so it should offer plenty of opportunities for me to branch out a bit more.

Me: Do I dare ask about the 4th book?

Myself: Oof. It was rough. I feel like I can’t complain too much, though. I mean, they completed and published a bona fide book! That’s more than I’ve ever done. That said, the world is not a better place because of this book, and I’m a little sad to have spent time with it. I know I’m a tough critic, though, so take my words with caution, but part of my beef with this book is that there were so many errors in the manuscript. Many errors were ones that a simple spelling or grammar check might have overlooked, but too many more were gross oversights on the part of whomever supposedly edited the darn thing. I mean, one of the character’s names CHANGES in the middle of the book with no apparent explanation. Who does that? And who misses that before the book is in print? Yikes.

Me: How did you handle that as narrator?

Myself: I wrote to the publisher and asked for direction. It took about a week, but they finally told me to use the 2nd name for all mentions. Great to get clarification, but a bummer that I had to re-record (and edit, produce, and upload) a 16-minute chapter with his name in it.

Me: Couldn’t you just go back and insert the new name into the original recording?

Myself: Not seamlessly. I recorded that book in multiple sessions, each with a slightly different set up, and I couldn’t achieve the same sound as I had in that file. That’s the book I’m most worried about getting bounced back to me for re-recording from the QA team. I think it’s giving me nightmares.

Me: I’ll cross my fingers for you, too.

Myself: Thanks. Maybe a more experienced and capable producer could have made it work.

Me: Ah, well. What’s next?

Myself: While I will probably keep auditioning for more audiobooks, I may limit them to ones with more promise and maybe only those that offer a stipend as well as a cut of the sales.

Me: And what about your income?

Myself: I’m working on that. And it’s going to have to happen outside of ACX and perhaps outside of audiobook narration in general.

Me: So, where?

Myself: Currently, in addition to continuing to fulfill the trickle of Crafterall orders that still come in, I’m job hunting for remote work related to editing, proofreading, and entry-level admin stuff. I want to be able to continue to work from home, while also using at least *some* of my skills.

Me: How’s the hunt so far?

Myself: Fruitless, but it’s still early days. I’ve got applications in at half a dozen places that I think could be nice folks to work for and with, but I haven’t yet seen or applied for something that gets my blood pumpin’ in excitement. Maybe they’re not as dull in reality as they seem in the description, despite all the buzz words some throw in there. But, c’mon people. Make jobs fun!

Me: Ah, but it’s work, isn’t it? Work is the antithesis to fun.

Myself: Says, who? Working at Crafterall is loads of fun, and even teaching, when I wasn’t buried in grading papers or forced to align curriculum to strict state standards, was fun. Work SHOULD be fun. Sure, maybe not all the time, but why not design jobs that make people look forward to Mondays, rather than dread their approach?

Me: Today’s Job Creators aren’t very creative?

Myself: You said it.

Me: You mentioned teaching. Any chance you’ll get back in the classroom?

Myself: Dude. Have you been paying attention to the news? Schools are freaking scary places, man. Sadly, it’s my understanding that this is by design, so that education can become more privatized, elite, and awful, but what can I do about it?

Me: Seems I’ve hit a nerve.

Myself: I’m just really bummed (and angry as all heck) about that. I used to think I’d worry about my kids being able to shine as brightly as they wanted to at school, but mostly, I worry about violence, intruders, and people with guns. That sucks.

Me: Totally.

Myself: All that nastiness aside, I have looked into renewing my long-since lapsed MN teaching license, and I perk my ears up at the mention of possibly teaching online English courses. It would take some work, some time, and some money, as well as an adjustment to all the changes in education since I took leave in 2007. But, it could be fun, like actual fun, to teach again.

Me: I’m sensing a “but” approaching.

Myself: But, I’d rather not. I’d rather continue to have more autonomy over my day, more creativity in what I do, and more satisfaction in what I offer to the world, not to mention a better work-to-compensation ratio. I’ve been really lucky to have Crafterall do as well as it has over the last decade and a half. This transition time is really tough, but certainly not as difficult as it could be for someone without a stable better half, waning mortgage, or sizable “safety net.”

Me: Any other pipe dreams to pursue?

Myself: Maybe. I’ve got an idea to work with my youngest kiddo, who will be turning 16 this summer (!), on another paper art venture. They can draw, I can tweak and cut paper. Maybe we can take over the world together. We’ll see.

Me: And audiobooks?

Myself: If I could get paid well to do really good work, I think I could really dive into that sort of work. Even the editing part. Is this first book the doorway into a new career? I kinda doubt it, but it wouldn’t be unwelcome if it was. And of course, there’s the threat of AI just taking over everything fun.

Me: True dat. Overall, how are you feeling?

Myself: Unsettled, mostly. I do not handle change well. I like to get comfy, and let routine and predictability radiate through my being. The work required to find a new line of income, though small in steps, is more tiresome and irksome to me than a string of all-nighters to get a bunch of pieces ready for a craft show. It's uncharted territory, it's identity-challenging, and it's just so barren of promise that I fail to find it exciting. Others live for this kind of stuff. Not this land-lubber.

Me: Anything I can do to help?

Myself: Aww, that’s sweet of you. Maybe a fresh cup of tea and some cookies?

Me: I’m on it.

Myself: Honestly, this interview was good therapy for me, too. Thanks for making the time to listen.

Me: My pleasure. That’s what friends are for, right?

Myself: You bet. Can I give you a hug?

Me: You already are.

Interviewer's Note: Because you're curious, here's the audiobook: Mosquito Song: Dreams in Old San Juan If you like Puerto Rico, science-y stuff related to mosquito-borne pathogens, or reflective fiction, check it out.

Interviewee's Note: I'm already a little embarrassed that you'll be able to hear my "audiobook voice" by clicking on the sample button in the link above.

Interviewer's Note: Ah, don't worry about it. You sound great!

Interviewee's Note: ehhhhh...