Better Together: Aleron Kong & Nick Podehl on Collaboration: Part 1

The standard ACX equation is words + narration = audiobook. But when is an audiobook more than just the sum of its parts? Aleron Kong and Nick Podehl have teamed up over the course of the author’s eight-book series, Chaos Seeds, to create an audio odyssey that has fans hanging on every narrated word. In 2019 they joined us at the VO Atlanta conference to discuss the audio magic that’s made when authors and narrators collaborate to turn the audiobook into an art form all its own. With VO Atlanta’s Audiobook Academy, their first-ever audiobook-specific virtual conference coming up April 22 – 23, we’re bringing our conversation the blog so everyone can benefit from seeing what wonders true collaboration can yield.

Scott Jacobi: Thank you so much for joining us today at VO Atlanta. I’m joined today by narrator/producer Nick Podehl and author Aleron Kong whose first book together, The Land: Founding, was recently named Audible’s 2018 customer favorite. We’re here today to talk about how narrators and producers through ACX can directly collaborate to create fantastic sounding audiobooks that highlight both their artistic abilities, wow listeners, make money, and just be awesome. Ready to be awesome?

Nick Podehl: Yeah!

Aleron Kong: Whoo!

Scott Jacobi: So let’s start with you, Nick, being that this is a VO-focused event. You have an acting background, but before you got into audiobooks, I understand that you didn’t think you’d be able to do that and make a living with your passion.

Nick Podehl: Mmhm. I was trained in theater in college, but changed my major at the end because all the professionals coming in said that you do theater because you love theater, and it’s got to be the first love of your life—nothing else can come first. And that didn’t jive well with me because I wanted to have a family and I didn’t want to be in a box, you know? So changed my major. After I graduated, I was doing a job that I hated and my mom actually suggested, “Hey, there are these things called audiobooks—we used to listen to them on car rides and stuff. You should do that.” I was like, “Okay, Mom. You’re my biggest fan. You’ve got to say that.” But I thought, “Okay—I hate my job, let’s do it. Let’s put together a demo.” I sent it in, and amazingly enough, they called me in for an audition and I got it.

Then, it was like, “Hey, good! You got a book! You’re probably not going to get another one for awhile. That’s just how this business works. Don’t feel bad.” But I kept with it and then I discovered this platform that was new to me—ACX—after I had done a few titles with some of the major producers and I thought, “Well, okay, this is a great way to work with some more up-and-coming authors and get more consistent projects.” So I gave it a shot—I used the services of some local studios near me and I recorded books there, and after a few of these, I realized like, “okay, this is picking up, like I could actually do this,” so I looked into building a home studio and decided to finally take that plunge. And it’s kind of just been rocking and rolling ever since.

Scott Jacobi: Aleron, can you give us a quick background on you and tell us how you came be an author and got into audiobooks, and then why you were publishing through ACX?

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Author Aleron Kong

Aleron Kong: I had the opposite story from Nick. I had to hide the fact that I wrote my book from my mother. And when I published it, I told my cousin who told his mother who then told my mother. And she called me and said, “Why are you lying to people? People said that you wrote a book. And I was like, “Oh, I wrote a book.” And she was like, “No, you didn’t.” And I’m like, “No, it’s for sale. It’s a book.” And she goes, “I’m going to look this up.” And then I hear in the background, “There’s another Aleron Kong that wrote a book. I can’t believe this!” She’s like, “Why would you take credit for this person’s work?” But she finally put it together and then she was like, “Well, what did you say about me?” I’m a physician by training, and when I decided to focus solely on writing, my dad said, “Son, are you paying your bills?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “Well, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” Then my mom said, “So you’re just going to spit on all your ancestors. That’s the plan right now?”

Scott Jacobi: This, I think, could be its own book.

Aleron Kong: I started writing for me. I never thought it would go anywhere. It was more of a psychological exercise than anything else. But I had found LitRPG, which is my genre—literature role playing games. It’s only been around in the States for about four years and I found it around three and a half years ago. And when I found it though, it was like, “Where have you been my entire life? Like video games and sci-fi fantasy??” At the time, were only like four books available because it started either in Russia or Korea. So I was bemoaning the fact that there was nothing more to read one day and I was like, “Well, why don’t I just give this a shot?” I wrote six books in 14 months, and then the seventh one weighs five pounds and I wrote that a year later. It’s been a year since then. And I’ve kind of just started enjoying my life again, so…

Scott Jacobi: And how did you get to the audiobook publishing side of that?

Aleron Kong: I had never really listened to an audiobook before, but I had fans that were like, “I really enjoyed reading your book, but I really love listening to audiobooks.” I was hearing that more and more, so I thought, “Okay, well, let me figure out how to do this.” I found a narrator who did a perfectly reasonable job on my first book, but the feedback I got was, “Oh, I loved your book.” And I’d ask, “Well, what did you think of the production?” And they’d say, “Oh, it was fine.” And these are my babies, so that wasn’t enough. So I started asking my fan base, “who are some narrators you guys like?” And one of the people they mentioned was Nick.

I reached out and he read a demo for me, and I loved it. For the very first time I got excited about audio. And I said, “Look, man, I just want to be very clear—it’s important to me that we have a collaborative effort, we work together, we bounce stuff off each other…” and he’s like, “Look, man, just so you know, it’s important that we have a collaborative effort, that we work together…” and so on. And then he says, “I’m booked for nine months.” And I was like, “I’ll wait for you.”

Scott Jacobi: And so it’s interesting that you both wanted collaboration to be a big part of this. Do you find that with all authors, Nick, or are there some that really are just like, “Here’s my book—go read it and I’ll pay you and then we’re done”?

Nick Podehl: For the most part, my experience with ACX authors is that they’re invested in their book and they want to be a part of it. So generally speaking, yes. They want to be a part of that collaborative effort. I’m sure that there are some who don’t really care. They’ve written the book and their job is done in their eyes. But most of them want to be a part of it to varying degrees. Sometimes it’s just like, “Yeah I’ll help you with some character choices” or “I’ll help you with pronunciations, but really, you know what you’re doing so go do it.”

Scott Jacobi: What is your preferred level of author involvement? At what point does it get to be too much?

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Narrator Nick Podehl

Nick Podehl: If they’re texting me at three in the morning, it’s too much. I would say that as long as we have ample time before the recording starts we’re good—once the recording process has started and I get some feedback from them on what they’re hearing, we’ll pretty much call it good after that. We do some edits and revisions, and I’m perfectly willing to change things. If they hear something and say, “I really didn’t like what you did with this character,” alright, we’ll do something different.

But this is why, for me, a big part of the process is having them involved as it’s going. I know that a lot of narrators will just do the “I’m going to give you the first 15 minutes and then that’s it until I give you the finished book,” but I don’t think that’s a good idea. Some people are just, “Let’s crank these out guys, come on,” but that’s not how I work. I want to have the author be a part of the process. So I’ll send updates, I’ll send them chapters and say, “Here—if you care to, listen to this. Give me some feedback before we go any further.” Because what I don’t want, because then it really gets into wasting time and money, is to have them come back and say, “I don’t like what you did with the main character. Can you re-record the whole book?”

Scott Jacobi: Aleron, I guess all that struck you pretty well, the collaboration that Nick wanted?

Aleron Kong: Oh yeah. He’s awesome when we work together. And we joke around—in the seventh book, I actually wrote characters intentionally meant to be difficult for him. So that was a lot of fun because he’d be like, “well, how do you expect me to do this?” I’m like, “Sounds like your problem.” I thought it was hilarious. And he wouldn’t talk to me for a week and…

Nick Podehl: Then you go and send me an Edible Arrangement…

Scott Jacobi: Have there been any points during your time working together where you did bump heads?

Aleron Kong: I don’t think bumping heads—and it’s definitely streamlined as time’s gone on—but sometimes it’s as simple as, he’ll be like, “Hey, I have this idea. Let me send you this YouTube clip—is this what you were thinking in your head? And I’m like, “Oh, well, it’s actually more like this,” and that’s about the extent of it.

Nick Podehl: Yeah. I mean, we’ve had those character choices where you’ve heard something very specific in your head and then I have to come back with, “That’s great. I can’t do that.”

Aleron Kong: And I’m like, “You will do it.”

Nick Podehl: And then we’ll go back forth and we’ll compromise on something that I can do that he’s happy with.

Scott Jacobi: So it sounds like it’s important for a narrator to first understand what they can and can’t do, and then have the confidence to communicate that to authors. I can imagine for somebody who’s just picking this up—and maybe you experienced this when you were first getting into the business—I could see there being a desire to just do whatever the author wants, or whatever the publisher wants—and it sounds like that’s not really the best mindset?

Nick Podehl: No, because then you run into some pretty sticky situations. If you’re just blasting out auditions for anything you can get, and for some reason an author picks you to read a book where the main character is a Korean lady and you’re a middle-aged white male, that’s maybe not the best choice. So you do have to be cognizant of what your abilities are. I recognize that I have a much higher register in my voice, so I can’t do those really deep, gravelly, low voices. And we talk about that—we talk about it beforehand.

Another thing that I think is a really big sticking point is making sure that you understand the project that you’re getting into—meaning, read it beforehand. Apparently, there are people out there who don’t read a manuscript before they record it, and that makes no sense to me. I don’t know how you can do a cold read and expect it to be really, really good. A lot of the work that we do comes in beforehand. It’s prepped. If you’re doing a 15-second radio voiceover, yeah, go into it cold. That’s fine. You’ll work the kinks out. It’s 15 seconds. But we’re talking…book seven was 47 hours.

Scott Jacobi: How long did that take you to produce altogether?

Aleron Kong: That was a solid month and a

Nick Podehl: …Half.

Aleron Kong: He had no idea it was going to be that long, and I’m like, “So, I have to send you the book in two parts, because they won’t save that big.” He was like, “Ah, Aleron…”

Scott Jacobi: That naturally leads me into my next point—with a book that big, it’s a good thing to get booked on a month and a half’s worth of work all at the same time, but how did you two work out the payment structure?

Aleron Kong: We were just talking about that. Nick gets contacted by a lot of new authors, and they ask them like, “oh, can we do the royalty share?” Because they don’t really want to invest. I’m like, if you want a top quality thing, you have to invest and you pay the man what he needs to get paid for. Nick told me what his hourly was, and I’m like, “You’re worth it.”

Scott Jacobi: So for you, it’s understanding the value of a good narrator.

Aleron Kong: Yes.

Scott Jacobi: And I guess having the faith in your own work, and that you will earn that back.

Aleron Kong: Yeah. And having worked with somebody else the first time, everything was fine, but I definitely differentiate when I’m talking about Nick. There are narrators and then there are audio performers.

Scott Jacobi: And what is the difference to you?

Aleron Kong: Every character didn’t sound the same, that’s one bomb. That’s fun. I think the professionalism as well. Very simply, Nick will read the book. He has an Excel sheet of like, “these are words that you’ve clearly made up, what do you want me to call them?” And then we’ll go through that, and then he’ll talk to me like, “All right, which of these characters are important, and which ones are a little bit less?” Because if you have a nuance, just in the same way like if you’re watching a really good TV show, and you hear a slight inflection in the actors voice, it makes you excited. “Like, “Oh my God, is he going to be a horrible person later??” The same thing comes through in a book, and maybe it’s a red herring, maybe it’s not, but it makes it more enjoyable, and understanding that I think makes for a better experience for everybody.

For more on how these two use teamwork to make the self-publishing dream work, stay tuned to the blog for Part 2 of this interview!

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