Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Audible Books, My Memoir, and Me

Before last fall, I never gave a thought to voice artists, those folks we hear in commercials or on audio books. I even know a Portland actor, Sharon Knorr, who does that work but I’d never asked her about it. Now I have great respect for them. I had no idea how hard they work, how exactingand exhaustingthe process is, until I did it myself. 

In late August, I pitched my self-published memoir, Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman to Audible Books, amazon’s audio book arm. My memoir had been a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in 2008 and has sold pretty well. The Audible folks asked for the manuscript and in two weeks, I had a phone call with an offer. Because my book is “backlisted” (i.e., not new), the offer was for a flat sum and no royalties. But it was a nice sum ($1500) and it would cost me nothing to get an audio book made. The one stipulation I made in the contract was that I wanted to try out for the voice work. 

The audition turned out to be simple. I have a link on my website (www.jillkellyauthor.com) to my interviews with Jody Seay on her cable TV author show Back Page. That seemed to be all they needed to say yes. 

In early October, Audible told me that they were arranging for me to do the recording at Rex Studios in Portland. My book is 228 pages long and they estimated 10-14 hours of recording time. We set dates for early November, four afternoons in a row; consecutive reading days help ensure that the timbre of the voice remains the same; afternoons remove the morning “frogginess.” 

My sessions were recorded by Russ Gorsline at Rex. We worked from 1 pm to about 4 pm on those four days. That doesn’t sound too strenuous but it is. You have to sit absolutely still in a chair with a microphone in front of you and a tablet. The only movement you can make is to touch the tablet screen to move the pages. You need to stay the same distance from the microphone at all times and if you fidget, the microphone picks it up, like rubbing your hands on your pant leg as I found out. I began to understand why Russ had said not to wear clothing that rustles or jewelry that clinks. 

Russ sat in the control room and I was in a rather nondescript room facing him through a big window. I’d read a lot in public, to small groups and large, and I figured it would be like that, only into a microphone. In a sense, I was right. You need to be articulate, enunciate well, and read with feeling. But there’s no eye contact as there is with a live group, no facial expressions to aid your intent. Instead, your voice has to make the contact with the listener. Your voice has to create a cocoon of intimacy, as if you’re telling one person your story. And it’s not just the timbre of your voice that needs to be consistent: it’s also the speed, the pitch, the energy, and that intimacy. You have to sustain them for several hours at a stretch and replicate them from day to day.  

Russ is a great engineer. He followed my words on the paper copy and stopped me if I said the wrong word or made an extraneous noise or my voice dipped. He’d listen for signs of vocal fatigue and stop me for a break of warm tea or a chance to move around a bit. He was also a great coach, helping me refine my reading technique as I went along. I’m not sure I developed the highest level of intimacy with the reader but I sure tried. It’s a lot of things to keep in mind at once and I went home each night exhausted both mentally and physically. 

About two weeks later, I got an email requesting that I return to the studio for “pickups.” These are places in the recording where something glitched and it has to be re-recorded. Russ would play the preceding paragraph for me so we could match the timbre, energy, speed, and intimacy of the section. Some I could get right away and others I had to do several times. In another three weeks, I got notification of the launch of my audio book and I have to say it’s a thrill to see my name as author, narrator and to hear my voice in the sample. 

So consider approaching Audible with your book and see what happens. It’s worth a pitch and can be a real adventure.

Jill Kelly is a writer and freelance editor in Portland. Her latest novel is When Your Mother Doesn’t, launching April 7, from Skyhorse/Perseus. She is also the author of four ebooks on self-editing. www.jillkellyauthor.com.