This spring marks 10 years of ACX, and we’re celebrating a decade of authors and narrators telling stories their way by sharing the career journeys of several amazing indie creators. Read this blog series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller—quadruple threat author-publisher-producer-narrator, Tanya Eby.
How did you become a narrator/producer?
That’s a really long story and includes a fair amount of missteps and embarrassment. Once I’d recorded about 300 books at a studio, ACX launched, and I knew I could produce audio on my own. I’d been well-trained by all those previous books, so I became a producer/publisher and created Blunder Woman Productions. Since then, I’ve produced or published over 200 audiobooks, won an Audie, been nominated for 3 Audies, created original audiobooks with large casts, and earned Earphones and SOVAS awards. It’s been a pretty wild ride.
How did you find ACX?
I found ACX pretty early on when it first started. There was a competition for a book I really wanted to record that I’d heard about. I didn’t get the book (it went to a famous actor) but it did get me to jump into producing audiobooks from home instead of always going into a studio.
How has your career grown since first coming to ACX?
When I started ACX, I was primarily a performer. Now I perform, produce, publish, and create original content. It’s a really satisfying career where I have a lot of creative input and control. Plus, audiobooks are now my sole source of income. That’s a pretty great gift.
Are you a full-time narrator?
I am. I’ve been recording audiobooks now for about 20 years, and have been recording from home for about 10.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator?
I can create my own schedule, control my workflow, work from home, and choose projects that really resonate with me. It’s a dream job come true.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
The first audiobook I published through ACX was The Brink: Stories by Austin Bunn. When they read our name at the Audies for Best Short Story Collection, I know that I’d arrived as a publisher and producer. This gave me the courage to create and produce original content including short story collections and also Nevertheless We Persistedand Nevertheless We Persisted: Me Too, collections of poetry and prose that talk about getting through the hard stuff. These books involved hundreds of writers, narrators, artists, composers, musicians, and a wonderful production team. We were nominated for Audies for both productions, proving that small companies with big ideas and a community working together can have real impact on the industry. I’m so proud of those productions.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
You need to be self-motivated and a real entrepreneur in this career. Don’t wait for people to give you work. Create it.
If you could narrate any book ever, what would it be?
Ooooooh! I love this question! I would love to narrate The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and anything by Shirley Jackson or Stephen King.
What do you aspire to next?
I’d love to work on some more original content. I have a lot of connections with the writing community and the audiobook community, and it’s a wonderful thing to bring these two worlds together.
You can find Tanya Eby on her website, Facebook, or on Twitter and Instagram @BlunderWomanPro. Return to the blog next week for more stories of ACX creators making their mark on the world of audio.
It’s ACX’s 10th anniversary this spring, and we’re marking the occasion by sharing the stories of amazing independent creators that make this a milestone worth celebrating. Start reading this series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller, author Aleron Kong.
How did you become an author?
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, it was like, “Where have you been my entire life? Like video games and sci-fi fantasy??” At the time, there were only like four books available in English 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 – I wrote that a year later and it weighs five pounds.
You went from being an audiobook skeptic to being a champion for the audio format, with audiobooks outselling print books! What role did ACX play in helping you to make that leap?
I knew nothing about audiobooks before I became an author. I had only listened to one—Lord of the Rings—in my life, and honestly, while it was nice hearing the story, it felt a bit dry. And at the time, that felt right because that was just the accepted “right way” to create an audiobook. The more British the better. Because of that, I thought audiobooks were just a different way to read a book. I didn’t understand yet that audiobooks could be an artform in and of themselves, the same way music videos in the 70s and 80s could transcend the song. Nick[Podehl – narrator of The Land series] was able to elevate my words and worlds in a way I could not do alone. That is the blessing and wonder of working with another talented artist who is willing to share their gift.
I didn’t have a master plan when I started, but the worlds I create are as precious to me as a family member. One you actually like. It was only because of my partnership with Nick Podehl and ACX that I was able to push boundaries and make something incredible. Even including sound effects, something that has become the standard for my genre of LitRPG, was considered a big risk several years ago. It had been done before, but I was told I might alienate half of my listeners, as it wasn’t something they would be used to.
The people at ACX have created a model that provides the opportunity and support a motivated person requires to reach great heights. Rather than try to convince me of the “right way” to do things, the feedback I got was that if I wanted to take a chance, ACX would help as much as they could. The connections I’ve made with ACX have played a huge role in my success. Whether it be advice, internal support, marketing, or hard work, it has been a joy to have a partner in connecting with my fans.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
It’s an interesting question. I have hit several big milestones because of my awesome fans—The Land saga is a WSJ bestseller, has sold over a million copies, has more than 100,000 five-star reviews, and became Audible’s Customer Favorite of the year, reaching the Top 5 on both Audible and Amazon.
But with all of that, I remember sitting on a panel with Jim Butcher—I introduced myself, sharing all of those facts, and the fact that I was a physician, and I got applause from the crowd. Then I handed the microphone to Jim. He said, “I’m Jim Butcher,” dropped the mic, and the crowd went wild like Aerosmith just rocked the Garden, lol.
So basically, I feel very happy with what I’ve achieved, but I know I still have miles to go before I sleep.
What important connections have you made on ACX?
I have met many amazing people, and Debra in the ACX call center would be towards the top of the list. Not only is she amazingly helpful, I always end our calls with a smile on my face. It’s nice to have our interactions be friendly as well as professional.
What’s your most essential piece of writing “gear?” What do you have to have around when you’re writing?
From what I hear, I’m very different than most authors. I write anywhere, at anytime, and have no issues devoting three days to perfecting a cookie recipe or hiking instead. My fans do not generally like that I have an active life outside of the books (lol), but the energy I can bring to the page is fueled by the moments of my life that I’m not typing.
Any particular or weird habits you have while you’re writing?
Too many cookies. Cookies feel like love. Cookies are evil… and I love them.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent author?
What does being an independent allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?
There is no oversight on your words, and you don’t have to delay a launch by 1-2 years like many traditionally published authors.
If you could have anyone in the world narrate a book of yours, who would it be?
What’s your dog’s name?
What do you aspire to do next?
I would love to make the leap to the screen—either big or small, live action or anime. I feel that my story would translate well to nearly any medium.
How do you define success in your career?
I have two definitions: 1) Am I making enough money to live the life that I want to live? 2) Am I making a difference in the world in a way that I am proud of? And the answer to both questions for me is yes.
You can find Aleron on his website, and check out this panel he did for VO Atlanta with narrator Nick Podehl on successful collaboration between authors and narrators. Keep an eye on the blog for the next ACX creator to get the storyteller spotlight!
This spring, we’re saying cheers to 10 years of ACX by shining a spotlight on the amazing creators that make this a milestone worth celebrating. Check out the first post in the series if you missed it, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller, author Amy Daws.
How did you become an author?
My first book was a memoir about my struggles through recurrent pregnancy loss. After that, I got the writing itch and took a turn into the world of romance novels.
Are you a full-time author?
Yes, I have been for nearly four years now.
How did you find/come to ACX?
I’d heard through various author channels that ACX had a royalty share option for authors and narrators to collaborate, so I didn’t have to invest money in a narrator up front for a format I was unsure I’d be successful in. Splitting the earnings with a narrator felt like a win-win situation!
Has your career grown since then?
One hundred percent. I used to only be able to afford narrators willing to do Royalty Share and now I am happy and willing to pay the full per finished hour rate for my narrators of choice. It took some time, but my audio earnings have continued to double every year for the past three years.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
When I had a book make more in one month than I did for an entire year at my day job, I knew things had changed for me.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
Growth takes time. Both in the e-books/paperback publishing sector and in audio. You have to build that audience. Make connections. Write a memorable story and hopefully they’ll keep coming back for more.
Why are you so passionate about advocating for audiobook production?
First of all, writing a book is a lot of work. But once you’ve polished your story and made it shine, why wouldn’t you want to milk it for all it’s worth? That’s why audio is so important to me. I’ve already done the hard part—I’ve written the book. Now I need to get it out to all the major channels so readers and listeners can consume it in their preferred medium.
Not producing an audiobook is like taking a four-course dinner you worked on for hours and deciding not to serve all four courses to your guests. Someone is certainly going to leave hungry and good food will go to waste.
The fact that there’s a service like ACX that’s user-friendly enough for someone with no experience in audio production to publish their own audiobook is all the help I need to serve all four courses to my guests!
What important connections have you made on ACX?
My relationships with my narrators are very special. I’ve been able to meet nearly all of them in person and now we’ve worked together on so many books, it feels like they wrote the story with me. And sweet, kind Debra in ACX customer service has a special place in my heart!
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent author?
The flexibility of my job is wonderful. I work from home, which I very quickly realized was extremely valuable during a pandemic situation. I love that I get to make my own covers and choose my own release dates. I’m not just an author, I’m an entrepreneur and I can take my career in a variety of directions.
What do you aspire to do next?
The movie/television industry is always a big dream of mine. And with one of my books (Wait With Me) optioned for film by Passionflix, I’m super excited to see what comes of that. I have also been trying to manifest my Harris Brothers series into a TV show. I’ve been telling people that I want it to be picked up by Netflix, HBO, or Showtime and I want it to be like Ted Lasso meets Grey’s Anatomy but with more HEAT! HAHA. It’s good to have dreams!
You can find Amy & all her audiobooks on her website, check out her ACX University episode here, follow @amydawsauthor on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to join her in the fun. Tune in again next week when the ACX anniversary spotlight shines on another celebrated creator!
This spring marks ACX’s 10th anniversary as a hub for self-driven authors, actors, and publishers to make connections, produce compelling stories, and distribute their art to a world of listeners. We’re proud to have made it ten years, but ACX would be nothing without the creators who use it to pursue their dreams. So we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary by celebrating you! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing stories from ten years worth of creators that have made ACX special. First up, narrator/producer Janina Edwards.
How did you become a narrator?
My career has a Part One and Part Deux. In Part One, I recorded my first audiobook around 1989 in New York City for the American Foundation for the Blind. I was and am pretty shy, and although my undergrad degree is in acting, I couldn’t handle the theatrical audition process. AFB was mentioned in a voice over class I took. I inquired, and was hired to do about 5 books. Then life happened. Part Deux began around 2010, after my daughter graduated college. I always wanted to get back to voiceovers, specifically audiobooks. I got some coaching (Paul Armbruster and Diane Cardea), took some classes in audio recording and basic editing, met a demo producer (Eileen Kimble), and she mentioned ACX as something to investigate. I also went to APAC (the Audio Publishers Association Conference) and networked with narrators and publishers I met there. When I returned from the conference I started auditioning on ACX, and pay2play sites. Started getting experience. It took about a year before the traditional publishers started hiring me.
Are you a full-time narrator?
Yes. But I didn’t go full-time until 2019. There were a couple of years when I worked full time as a grant proposal writer, and then recorded in the evening and on weekends. I went full-time when I had enough publishers hiring me regularly, and paying me a livable rate (I had joined the SAG-AFTRA by then), and I’d paid off all my credit card debt.
You’ve been with ACX since the beginning! How did the platform help you build your career in narration and where have you gone since?
ACX was instrumental in creating the initial body of work that launched Part Deux of my career. While there are publishers on ACX, at that time the traditional publishers didn’t know me and weren’t yet ready to take a chance on me. Further, ACX allowed me to try different genres and styles, from romance and mystery, to how-to and academic history, to memoirs. Working directly with authors on ACX, I learned how to develop a relationship with the writer, understand their goals for the project, support them, and be responsive to their needs.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do? When did it click for you?
1989. The booth is my stage. It just took a while for the dream to fully manifest.
Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?
Other narrators who introduced me to their contacts. Narrators and engineers who allowed me to pester them with questions about equipment, software, and everything I didn’t know. Producers who gave me a chance.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
It’s exhilarating when I see my name placed with the same prominence as some of my idols and peers. The other week I realized that Andre DeShields (the original Wiz in the stage production of The Wiz, and part of the original Ain’t Misbehavin cast) was a co-narrator for The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. I was floored. The first time I ran into January LaVoy at a recording studio I was like “Ms. LaVoy, so glad to meet you…” And she was like “Oh, you’re Janina, right? I couldn’t believe she knew my name.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
It’s all about relationships. I recently heard the wisdom “don’t be a jerk.” Though a lot of folks are joining our ranks, in the upper echelon, all the narrators know each other. There’s about two degrees of separation between folks. If you’re a jerk, it’ll boomerang eventually.
Any particular habits you have while you’re recording?
I try to limit myself to 4-5 hours of recording a day. Usually from 11-5, with a break in the day somewhere. Beyond that, my productivity is compromised. Sometimes I have to go longer, but I really try to respect those limits. My goal is to do great work. That means I have to allow time for rest (vocal and body), creativity, life and play.
What’s your most essential piece of studio gear? What do you have to have around when you’re recording?
A big glass of water (room temperature), and a hot cup of ginger tea (Yogi brand: Mango Ginger, Lemon Ginger, or plain ol’ Ginger), or warm lemon and honey or agave.
How do you define success in your career?
I want to do projects about things that interest and excite me and do great performances. I want every project I do to be great. When authors/producers see your great work, then great(er) work is offered to you. I think that’s also a lesson from ACX. Do the work that allows you to shine, and make every project great.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator?
Re: Independent—I love working for myself. It’s a lot, but I don’t have to answer to anyone but my own conscience. Re: Narrator—I love that I get to do all the characters (in a traditional 1-person narration). It’s just fun. Independent means I can take on whatever projects I want that showcase my abilities. I can take a vacation or break when I want (though you have to be very deliberate and set that time aside as sacrosanct).
If you could narrate any book ever, what would it be?
I would be lying if I said a specific book. When I agree to narrate a book, I’m the most excited about narrating that book (and if I’m not, I shouldn’t be accepting the project). I feel like the Cookie Monster in a roomful of cookies when I’m offered a project. I want to say yes to them all and just wolf them down.
What do you aspire to next?
I made my living as a professional grant proposal writer for about 13 years. I am now writing fiction and essays on things that interest me. I’m particularly interested in creating audio specific content. Who’d a thunk it?
You can find Janina on her website, and you can find her many award-winning and nominated audiobooks on Audible. Stay tuned for another story from a celebrated creator in our next installment of this special anniversary series!
Last time on the blog, we sat down with best-selling author Aleron Kong and award-winning narrator Nick Podehl to talk collaboration, inspiration, and mutually beneficial working relationships that create top selling audiobooks. The conversation continues in part two of this interview, so catch up on part one if you missed it, or jump back in below!
Nick, what was it like to work with somebody who’s fairly new to the process, had maybe been burned in his one time previously creating an audiobook, and just helping him through that?
I mean, he definitely made it easy for me because he was not a complete noob—he had been through the process before, but like you said, Scott, he didn’t have the greatest experience the first time. So I definitely felt like it was kind of my responsibility to try to help him understand the process. And I feel like this is the case with all the new authors that I work with, that it’s like, “I’ve been in this rodeo before.” It’s kind of my job to help them figure it out. And so we worked through the process together. Just be patient and be a decent person, and it kind of pays for itself.
Tell me about that: how does it pay for itself?
It’s just a better experience overall. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the authors that I’ve worked with, I’ve become friends with a lot of them. And you know, not only is that great on a human level, but it’s also great on the repeat business level because they might write a series, sometimes they’ll write more than one series, and if you make the experience awesome for them, they’re probably going to come back to you. So it’s just like any other version of customer service.
And that’s a great way to think about it because as a producer on ACX, you’re your own entrepreneur—your own sort of independent, full-service entrepreneur—so you are your own customer service department, you are your own accounting department, you’ve got to do all of that.
Right. And also, I mean, authors generally tend to be friends with other authors and they talk to each other. And so Aleron, you’ve told me before that you’ve had friends, other authors say, “Hey, who should I go with?” And you’re like, well, “You should check out Nick.” And I have a feeling that wouldn’t have been the case if I would have been a complete jerk and just said, “Here’s your book, give me my money.”
Mmhm. Nothing like, “you should go throw eggs at Nick’s house.”
You two touched a little bit on collaborating and the back and forth during the production earlier in the panel, but I’m curious, Aleron, how much are you bringing to the table in terms of the performance or the way the characters sound? Is it more you saying, “Okay, Nick, this character sounds like this actor,” or is it more you saying, “Nick, do something with this character, I think he’s kind of an older guy and maybe he’s annoying a lot of the time,” but where does that meet in the middle?
For the first book it was very much like I had this vision, I wanted it to be like this, and there’s a reason for this, and there’s a sort of a connotation that I want brought across. But as time has gone on, I’ve been heavily influenced by hearing Nick’s voice in my mind as I write the characters, so I’m almost being guided. Because they had, I don’t know, 80% life—now, now they’ve got 90% life because I’m hearing them differently.
And so, Nick, what’s your end of that? Getting what Aleron brings to the table, are you happy to work all that in? Do you have a lot of your own ideas that you’re kind of pitching back to him?
I think that for me, it’s more that I enjoy that collaboration when he says, “Hey, these characters sound like this—here’s this video clip.”
And that makes it super easy, when you can reference a video or an audio clip.
It does, it does. It gives you something to work off of, if you can emulate some of that. Now, obviously, I’m not going to be able to give a carbon copy of Nick Offerman.
I mean, it’s a sore spot.
It is. That was one of those things that we worked through. We were able to get it to a point where you were happy with how it sounded and it was something that I could do. To be able to get these clips and be like, “Hey, why don’t you give this clip a try—listen to that, see how he gets these words, see how he delivers that.”
Does the collaborative aspect also come up, in terms of character motivations and the emotional wave of a certain scene? Is that something that you just bring to the table with your acting ability? Or has there ever been a time where it’s like, “Oh, you did this scene as this sad character, but really it’s more, they’re just annoyed…?”
Inflection things rarely come up with these. I will say for my own books, I write comedies. I write comedies that have dragons and wizards in them, but I also touch lightly, but consistently, on societal issues that are going on right now.
There are scenes where I’m writing it because I want people to have a visceral reaction, whether it be positive or negative. I want them to react. I don’t believe in preaching to people, but I do believe in exposing people to things and letting them come to their own conclusions. Some of those things get really uncomfortable. My last book touched on sexual assault because it’s something that happens all the time, and we don’t like talking about it, and that’s the problem. I had a conversation with Nick where I’m like, “hey man, I love you and I love what you do, but I know that this is a really difficult scene, so if you’re not comfortable reading this, just let me know and we’ll figure something else out.”
That’s the kind of thing that will come up sometimes. I try to weave that in in a way that doesn’t take people to a horrible place, but at the same time, doesn’t hide from it. Nick has to actually read these horrific things that are occasionally happening in the books. I imagine that’s not just a nothing experience, but he’s willing to. He’s said, “I’ve talked to other authors that just put this in for some gratuitous nothing, but I see why you’re doing this and that makes it okay for me.”
I think that makes a lot of sense. So how do you deal with a scene like that and then leave it behind? Taking on that emotional weight, whether it’s a sad scene or a very uncomfortable scene—how do you emote that but not take it with you?
I don’t know how to tell somebody how to do that. Although, you need to figure it out because especially if you want to get into audio books, there’s a lot of it. Like Aleron said, there’s a lot of content that can be really difficult to deal with and you do have to emote that. That’s why when I talk to friends and they want to do what I do, and they’re like, “Oh, you read books all day. That’s kind of cool! It’s easy, right?” I’m like, “I’m exhausted—you try emoting for eight hours every day. Tell me how you feel.”
You touched on material that’s really difficult or really challenging to deal with as a person. Have you ever had to turn down a project because the material did not line up with you personally? Not with Aleron, but how do you handle a situation like that?
I’m finally at a point in my career where I can just be straightforward at the beginning and say, “I will not do this kind of material so if your book has this content in it, I can suggest some other narrators for you if you would like, but I will not be able to do it.” Early days, when it was just any work I could get—yeah, I had to wrestle with that. I had to struggle to make my peace with it and say, “all right, I’m going to do this for a season and then put it behind me when I can.”
Did you ever use a pseudonym for some of the more adult material you were asked to do?
Yes. I would highly recommend that. Especially in my early career, I did a lot of young adult books, and I didn’t want fans of the young adult material to say like, “Hey, Nick did a new book, let’s go check it out!” and it’s… I don’t want eight year old kids listening to that. So yes, I came up with a pseudonym. I think that it’s a really smart move for any narrator. It does give you a little bit more flexibility in the content that you can put out.
You talked earlier about script prep and how unbelievably important it is to read the book through first. But aside from reading the manuscript, can you tell us what your script prep actually entails? Are you highlighting voices? Are you making Excel spreadsheets? How do you do that?
Before I did it all on an iPad, I had a 36 pack of different colored permanent markers, and I’d mark up the script with different colors for each character so that as I’m narrating and I see like, “okay, pink that’s Stephanie, all right. She sounds like this, great.” I don’t have to stop and look up my notes. I go through and mark the crap out of the manuscripts, highlight any word that I am not 100% certain that I know how to pronounce.
Then once that’s all done, I have, as Aleron said, my spreadsheet of characters, as well as words, and I’ll talk to the author about it and say, “all right, let’s go through and let’s hit all these words first.” With any pronunciations that are real words that I just don’t know how to say, we’ll look them up and figure it out. Oxford English Dictionary. Then characters, we’ll go through the same thing. What does this character sound like to you? How about this one? What do these groupings of people sound like? Do they all sound like they’re from the same region? Things like that. Once that’s all done, then I can start recording.
Once you’re in the thick of things, Nick’s already done his prep, how do you handle suggestions and feedback during recording for fine-tuning the performance? Maybe you talked about this already, but Aleron, what makes you comfortable speaking to Nick in that moment and telling him he needs to change something? Maybe not now, seven books in, but at the beginning, is it just that you’re sure of what your vision is, or is it something Nick’s put on the table?
For me, I’ve never really followed social norms and niceties. I’m always willing to roll the dice. Like, “this could go wrong, but this is something that I care about so I hope that you can take it well, but no, I feel like it’s this other thing.” Also, I’m an insane movie buff so the Easter eggs that I trickle in, it won’t work if you don’t say it in the right way—people aren’t going to pick up on it. I’ve been like that—”you have to put that in, otherwise that’s like a waste of a laugh.” But now, I love when listeners come to me and they’re like, “I can listen to this forever. How did I miss it?” And then everyone jokes around, and it’s a thing that’s part of my community now, and it’s because we took the extra time to make it happen.
It sounds to me like an example of art driving the commerce, right? It was important for you to have the joke land or the Easter egg be noticed. What that ends up doing is creating a situation in which people are really strung along in the series and they want to keep coming back, they want to keep hearing your narration, they want to keep reading your books. I think that’s fantastic.
So Aleron, in LitRPG, constructed languages are a part of your writing—alien languages words that don’t exist in English. Did you hear them in your head or did you know what the pronunciation would be before Nick sort of forced you to put that out there?
Yeah. I didn’t go to James Cameron level, where he literally invented a new language, but for example, there’s a Sprite race in my series which is heavily influenced by Japanese culture. You’ll hear that in some of the voices, but also, if I want to say something in Sprite, I might just Google, “how do you say this in Japanese?” and chop off a little over here.
One of the things that I feel is important for me to do is to not have a set “I’m the artist, I’m right” mentality. You’ve got to be willing to work with them. You’ve got to be willing to say, “okay, maybe I’m wrong. Let’s try it.” I think that in my experience, with working with some other narrators, they’re not always very quick to say, “okay, let’s try it your way,” and you really need to be willing to do that.
As the author… I agree. That’s the number one thing I would say that makes it a not-painful experience. Everyone that’s an artist, gets in their feelings about what they’ve made. That’s just the way it is. But being able to not have it be painful if somebody disagrees with you, that changes everything. It changes the entirety of it. It’s just that humility, but the author should come at you with humility as well. They shouldn’t just be trying to beat down your door for something. But yeah, it’s so refreshing to work with someone that’s like, “okay, well, let’s give it another shot.” Simple as that.
I’m just curious, is this sort of together forever? What happens when the series that you’re working on now reaches its conclusion? Let’s say you decide to write a different series, what are your thoughts about continuing to work with Nick, and how does that strike Nick?
I have seven books and they’re all contiguous. I always wanted him to be the voice of that series. But I’m working on other series now, and I get people that write and thank me, like, “Oh my God, I never would have found Nick if it wasn’t for you,” but I get way more people feeling like finding me through him. So for the rest of this series, definitely. For continuity, and because I just love what Nick brings to it. For a new series, I probably would reach out to other narrators, audio performers, that also have an established audience. Because when I’m working with somebody like Nick, I get access to everything that he has done before, and he gets access to the people that have followed me before. And if you can find other people that are not horrible people, that you can actually stand working with, it makes sense to also branch out. And then you’re sharing audiences, and it’s a mutually beneficial kind of thing.
So Nick, if Aleron wrote a new series and he’d like to expand his repertoire, is that cool with you? Are you sitting there really jealous Saturday nights, all by yourself? How do you make your peace with that?
Very easily. Because just like you said, this is a business, and we are bringing to each other the fan base that we each have. And I think that’s good, because even if you just look at it from a perspective of, he goes to a new narrator and that narrator has a fan base, and they love what Aleron and this other guy do and think, “I want to hear more Aleron Kong. Oh, who’s this Nick guy? Okay. I’ll listen to him.” All of a sudden, if they like what I do, I got a new fan. So it’s mutually beneficial.
I would say that I take my books and whatever very seriously, and Nick’s professionalism has always blown me away with that as well. There’ll be times where he’s like, “Hey man, I was going to work today, but I feel a little scratch, and I feel like it might come across in what I’m making. So I’m just going to take a day off.” Which is also why, again, I think it pays for itself. Because later, listeners are like, “Oh my God, I love what I’m hearing.” I think that, at least on the author’s side, there’s way too much immediate gratification, what’s right in front of my face, what can I get from you right now?
Like, we’re going to be in this industry together for a very long time and your name really, really matters, so you should treat it like gold. And I have no problem with telling everyone I meet about how with Nick, there’s no reservations at all because of his professionalism, because of his talent, because of everything else. If Nick had never read a book before, based on his demo, I would have waited for him.
Why based on his demo?
Based on his demo, yeah. Not his Facebook profile. I just would have waited. He made me excited to hear the same thing that I’ve read a thousand times. Proofreading sucks. I got excited hearing it again, simple as that. I listened to 50 different people and there was some of them, like “Oh, okay.” Then I heard him and I’m like, “Oh my God, this is all.”
I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Aleron and Nick.
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?
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?
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!
There’s no set formula for finding success as an indie creator, but sometimes to see ahead towards where you’re going, it helps to take a look at those who have been where you are now. This year’s Audies saw wins from more than a few friends of ACX – authors and narrators who got their start on the platform or pros who have been featured in ACX educational programs throughout the years – and to inspire your journey forward as an independent creator, we’re looking to a few of our old friends to ask about their recent Audie wins. First up, authors Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, and their narrator Andi Arndt for Best Romance Audiobook, Dirty Letters.
What do you think you did that contributed the most to your win this year?
Vi Keeland & Penelope Ward: Two things make an audiobook stand out: exceptional narration and a unique story that allows the cast to shine in their performances. For Dirty Letters, we believe the heartfelt correspondence between our two characters at the beginning of the book allowed listeners to immediately connect with the unique personalities of the hero and heroine. Jacob Morgan’s portrayal of the charismatic British rock star, Griffin, and Andi Arndt’s portrayal of the quirky and awkward agoraphobic Luca were the perfect complement to each other. Not to mention, their amazing work voicing all of the different side characters truly gave the impression there was an ensemble cast rather than only two narrators doing all the work.
Andi Arndt: Oh my goodness, I have no idea! I’ve been lucky to enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with everyone involved in the project, from Brilliance Publishing, to authors Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, to co-narrator Jacob Morgan. Vi and Penelope had a very strong positive reaction to the way this particular book and audiobook turned out, and asked that it be put forward for consideration. But I prepped and recorded it the same way I approach all of my projects. Learn more about Andi’s production process here.
How can winning an Audie be used to help further your career?
Vi & Penelope: We feel like the benefits of wining an Audie are akin to other titles of distinction such as hitting a bestseller list. These prestigious accolades tell a prospective purchaser that a book has been vetted. The Audie win provides a sort of validation that may encourage buyers to take a chance on a new-to-them author. In turn, if those buyers enjoy the work, they may also go on and buy backlist titles and become loyal readers of future books. We’ve already experienced Dirty Letters climbing back up the charts the day after the Audie winners were announced!
Andi: Beyond the marketing aspect of it, I take it as a challenge to renew my commitment to this work, to deepening my technique, stretching my abilities, and also giving myself permission to rest and refresh. With summer not far off, I’m thinking about things I want to do that are not work, to enjoy the life that audiobook narration has made possible.
What advice would you give a new creator who wants to see their name among the finalists someday?
Vi & Penelope: This may sound obvious, but hire the right narrators for the right roles. Our hero is British, so we knew early on that we wanted Jacob Morgan who does a fabulous accent. Listen to multiple stories by each narrator to learn how versatile they are. Not every narrator with a beautiful voice and popularity is right for every role.
Also, and this may be tough for creators who are just starting out and anxious to get their stories published, but make sure the audiobook is published simultaneously with eBooks and print. When you maximize your promotional efforts and treat audio as important as the other formats, audio will eventually become more important to your finances.
Andi: You never know which book is going to be the book. Details matter, so attend to them.
Are you working on any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
Vi & Penelope: We’re always working on multiple projects at once! Next up, we have Not Pretending Anymore, voiced by Erin Mallon and Sebastian York. Erin is perfect for the project because she voices a young, conflicted heroine like no other. And Sebastian nails the sarcasm and wit of our hero. Not Pretending Anymore will release simultaneously with print and eBooks on April 12th.
Andi: Always! This week I’m working on the first book in Stella Gray’s new Charade series and Louise Bay’s new romance, a co-narration with Shane East. Both of these authors I either work with or connected with through ACX.
Congratulations to all this year’s fabulous Audies winners and nominees, and a big thanks to Vi, Penelope, and Andi for sharing a few words of wisdom about their wins. Stay tuned for more award-winning advice from industry pros and keep your eyes on the prize! We can’t wait to see more indie wins in the future.
Audio: the final frontier. These are the voyages of independent creators. Their mission: to dream up and build strange new worlds. To bring new life to characters and stories from the page—and beyond. To boldly take us where no ear has gone before! Our captain: Eric Jason Martin. Veteran ACX-ers might recognize this Audible Approved Producer from our 2018 post, Doubling Down on Audiobook Success, but not one to be pinned down by labels, this producer/director/narrator has just added another title to his name—author. Martin’s first novel, New Arcadia: Stage One came to audio yesterday, and this multi-cast adventure is full of A-list vocal talent, an original score, and a tasteful soundscape that gives you the feeling if you closed your eyes for a moment, you might just open them in 199X, in the arcade-inspired dystopian world of the story. We were lucky enough to snag a moment of this creative multi-hyphenate’s time to talk sound design, writing and casting his first novel, and the endless possibilities of audio.
What sparked the idea for this project?
Well, I really wanted to write a book! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time—I’ve written some original audio productions in the last few years, but it was a little scary to consider sitting down and writing an entire novel, something that could sit on a shelf and have a bar code and a Dewey Decimal classification and all that cool stuff. I knew I had to write a GameLit or LitRPG novel to get started. I’ve been a fan of video games since I was little, and I’ve since come to understand their potential both in terms of play, and as a powerful learning tool. Playing Roller Coaster Tycoon back in the day was literally how I got into the business of themed entertainment, so it legitimately helped kick-start my career. These days, I narrate a lot in the GameLit/LitRPG genre, so it’s a world I know very well, and I’ve been thinking about using a “beat ‘em up” game as the subject for a story for a few years—the stories these games told were often about fighting criminals in a big bad city. I was really drawn to the idea of doing something with this world in literature.
What was the process for writing this story like, and how did being a narrator/ producer first influence your writing on this project? Did you already have a vision for the audio when you started?
When it came time to actually write the book, it happened very fast. I had already done a decent amount of work imagining the mechanics of a virtual game world like this, because I had developed another version of this project for audio a couple of years prior. Even though the finished story turned into something very different, it helped to have that base to work from. Once everything shut down last year, it got me thinking of this project in a new way. I started imagining this retro game city as a way to bring people together again in a virtual space—people who have been apart for a long time. So I starting writing over the summer, and it was very helpful to think of it as an audiobook. That “one weird little trick” helped me get over a lot of the fear of writing, because I already knew how to do audiobooks, so suddenly I was working from a place of confidence. Thinking of the project in audio also helped me picture certain performers for each role, performers that I actually wanted to cast in the audiobook version we would be recording. Once you can get that specific about a character or role, it takes something that can be really hard—creating compelling story and dialogue—and it makes it a little easier to do. Having narrated nearly 300 audiobooks, I also a had a clear sense of what would work in audio and what would not. I knew I’d be narrating the book as the main character, and that was another opportunity to revise the text, right there in the studio. If something didn’t sound right to my ear, I would change it as I was recording the narration. It’s usually a big no-no to stray from the recordable script… but if you’re the author, nobody can stop you!
Once it was written, what was the process of casting and recording/producing like?
The audiobook production moved very fast. I’d say from my first email to a performer, to the final mastering, it was about three months. That includes recording 19 performers, two incredible musicians writing a full original soundtrack, and a lean post- production team cutting it all together and adding effects. Again, it was easier having written the roles for specific people. I was nervous and didn’t have any expectations, but I was blown away that everybody agreed to be a part of this. It helped that they were all voice actors, so I figured they had home recording setups that would work, although I had options available in case I needed to get them equipment. Technology is so good these days that having a decent mic and recording in a quiet well-padded closet can get you pretty far. And if you have a quality post-production team, as we did here, you can make it all sound fairly uniform.
There are some pretty well-known names in the voice credits for this production – do you have any advice for authors nervous to ask big-name vocal talent to work on their projects?
Yes, be nice! And do everything you can to make it easy for people to say yes. They may not make a fortune doing your project. But if it’s quick, easy, and a lot of fun, and they’ll be with other great people whom they like and respect, that’s a lot harder to say no to. Be clear about the time commitment, make it as small as possible, and be flexible in scheduling, as much as you can.
This production has some great extra audio elements like an original score and sounds – how do you incorporate elements like that without overwhelming the listener or overshadowing the narration?
We were very careful in how we approached the sound design for this project. We worked with the team at Mumble Media to focus on the multi-cast recordings, as well as the original soundtrack, as the primary tools to communicate the story and scene. The old arcade sounds are a lot of fun, but a little of that goes a very long way in an audiobook format. The action could be exhausting if you heard an unending stream of punching and kicking and yelling. So we let the actors and narrator communicate a lot of the action in the performances, we were very sparing with sound effects, and we supplemented the action in places with the soundtrack to give it additional emotional impact. The great Lloyd Cole created our main theme, and it was such a thrill to be able to work with him, I’m a huge fan of his work. For New Arcadia, he has created a beautiful piece, ambient and propulsive and mysterious. He describes it as “Escape from New York meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Dune.” When we incorporated it into the audiobook, it became the de facto theme of the real world. The few times we leave the game world and go back to reality, you’ll hear different pieces of this theme as you re-emerge, which signals to the listener that we are transitioning to a very different place. Casey Trela is a fantastic composer, very versatile, and expert in the chiptune style of these retro games. He’s created some truly catchy tunes that serve the game story beautifully. He had the added challenge of creating special songs that evoke the world of “199X,” songs that sound like they’d actually be coming from your radio back then. These extra audio elements can really help build a strong sense of environment in an audio-only production where visual cues and backdrops are absent.
What makes this production special and how do you see productions like this one carrying audio storytelling forward?
It’s such a blast to bring great talent together on a production like this. I enjoy the traditional one book / one narrator approach very much (indeed, you can find me in my home studio a few days a week telling stories this way). That said, I think there’s a growing space and increasing demand for multi-cast productions, and we’re all just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible. Audio is great for many reasons, and one practical one is that the listener’s mind handles most of the big-budget effects and locations in your story. You can communicate complex stories much more quickly and cheaply with sound alone. It’s a very exciting and innovating time in this medium, and it’s a thrill to be a part of it all. When you work as relatively fast and cheaply as you can in audio, you can get a lot more done than you can in other mediums, meaning you can experiment and learn much faster in your craft. I’ve tried a lot of different things in my time creating these stories in audio, and have made some mistakes along the way. But even those mistakes were instructive, and I can see how they led directly to some of my biggest successes. So that’s why I embrace this lean and iterative style of working, and audio is an ideal vessel for that approach. You can do cool stuff in audio fairly easily and quickly, so maybe you should! Each project you take on and complete can become a stepping stone, every single one can teach you something or connect you with someone. And for this project, in many ways, it’s the apotheosis of all of the different things I’ve done up to this point. But it’s not the end, it’s a beginning. There’s lots more to do. I’m excited for you to hear what we’ve put together with New Arcadia: Stage One, AND I’m excited for what comes next.
Eric Jason Martin is a producer, director, voice performer, and author, based in Los Angeles. He is the AudioFile Earphones and Audie Award–winning narrator of over 275 audiobooks. He has developed several original audio productions, including directing the NY Times Bestsellers Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne’s original series Heads Will Roll, featuring Meryl Streep (Broadway Video/Audible), and Stinker Lets Loose!, starring Jon Hamm (Audible). His production of Mr. New Orleans, starring Westworld’s Louis Herthum, is a 2021 Audie Award nominee.
It’s a tale as old as time—author meets narrator, narrator reads story, a few editing and mastering techniques later and behold! An audiobook is born. Sometimes, though, the audiobook journey includes a number of twists and turns before the narrator even steps into the booth. Here to tell a tale of one such story brought to audio for the first time is David Niall Wilson, mastermind behind Crossroad Press, a publishing house founded to bring forgotten or undiscovered out-of-print gems into the limelight.
As a publisher and author, I find that sometimes between the marketing, the writing, the craft, and the sheer volume of energy that is expended just living your life, you need a few moments to remind yourself that there’s more out there. Some stories find their way to just the right situation that allows them to reach a level that no one vision or voice alone could have created. That’s where this story begins—with a novel titled Case White by Thomas Sullivan. Over a period of many years, I fought to bring it to publication. I’ve been privileged to bring many of Sully’s novels back into print, but Case White is different. It’s an original, and I believe it’s his finest work.
It began as an eBook, then a print edition, and when the time was finally right to bring it to audio, I simply put it up for auditions on ACX. Even now, this incredible story has barely begun to find its way into the hands of readers, so I wasn’t sure who would be interested in taking a very long royalty share project with a less-than-stellar sales record. I was not prepared for one of the most talented voices I have worked with to come to me, ready (in his words) to “fight for this book.” The material covers the time leading up to the Third Reich, and the way madness can take control of a nation, and the narrator who took the project is Joshua Saxon, whose own family fled the Russian pogroms in the early 1900s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-20th Century to avoid the persecution that would inevitably claim millions of lives.
The synchronicity of this book finding its way to Joshua and linking him to his own past would have been enough to make a great story, but in this case, it’s only the beginning.
To add a twist to this plot, sometimes the reader must find and chase the book. When Case White had wrapped up, Sully, Joshua, and I all moved on to other things, but one day, out of the blue, I received a message: Joshua had discovered that a book he has always loved, published back in the 1960s, had never been made into an audiobook. That book was The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis. The idea seemed crazy. The book was hugely popular, published by a major New York House. If the rights were available at all, I was sure they would be with an agent, or the original publisher, and priced well out of our range. After I got done laughing at the idea of Crossroad Press being able to produce something like that, he let it go.
But I couldn’t. I checked to be certain he was right, and he was. There were many printed editions of the book (it’s still in print), there was a movie adaptation that turned the world on its ear for a while, but there was no audiobook. The currently available trade paperback is a reprinted edition from Simon & Schuster, and it’s been on sale in that same format since 1988. Experience told me that if Simon & Schuster had the rights to the book, the odds of getting to do the audiobook had just toppled off a cliff. More likely I’d give them the idea to do it themselves if I brought it up.
Maybe I just needed a little more faith. During that same period, I was negotiating for rights to some books by author Leslie Alan Horvitz, and corresponding daily with his agent, Cynthia Manson. I happened to mention my “quest” to her, and she happened to have connections at the publishing house, so she said she would check with them and see what she could find.
What she found was that Simon & Schuster did not have the rights to the audio. What they did have was an e-mail address they hadn’t used for a very long time for the author’s heirs, and they shared it with me. Still not hoping for much, I wrote to them, explaining how much Joshua wanted to perform the novel, how our company works, and my desire to bring it to audio. Then I waited. And waited. I was about to shrug and let it go, when I woke up one morning to a long, very cheerful note from Greece: the rights holders were very pleased at the idea of an audiobook! Then came the next bump—the book we need to use for the script was a translation, and the contract stated I had to have permission to use the translation, which I still needed.
The book was translated around 1960, and the translator was listed as P.A. Bien. Initial searches had Google trying to translate the name into French, found other books he’d translated, but no real information on the man himself. Then I found an article that mentioned that his full name was Peter A. Bien. Once again, I had picked up the trail. Peter is a Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth, and still attached to their Creative Writing department. When I found the e-mail address, I was not sure what to find, but again, I wrote my note, made my introductions, and waited.
There was no answer to the e-mail, but there was also a phone number. I called it. Peter was on vacation at his home in the Adirondacks, the message explained. At the end of that message was another phone number.
I wish I had time to explain the wonderful phone call I had with Peter, about Kazantzakis’ works, of which he’d translated several, and about translation in general. He gave his blessing, and even said that Joshua could, if he wished, reach out with any questions on pronunciation. I know that the two talked, and it felt like generations merging. The contract was finalized and signed. Original cover art was commissioned from West Coast artist Steve Smith, who outdid himself, and the production that has just now been completed began.
Chasing the rights to books can be frustrating—the older the book, the more popular, the more editions, the harder it becomes. This one felt like a marathon, but in the end, the journey through the words of Thomas Sullivan, the passion of a narrator to perform the book he’d always dreamed of producing, through agents, other authors, across an ocean and back to the Adirondacks, lead to an unforgettable audiobook.
Now I’m going to find my Indiana Jones hat and set out after the next one. I hope some of you will come along for the ride. Remember—audio is still a fairly young medium, and no matter how unlikely a project may seem, it never hurts to ask.
David Niall Wilson is a prolific author and the founder and CEO of Crossroad Press, a publishing company that specializes in giving out-of-print stories new life through e-book and audiobook publication. The publishing company’s work can be found at crossroadspress.com, and the author’s own work can be found on his website, davidniallwilson.com.
The driven artists in the indie publishing community are used to wearing multiple hats. Then there are the independent artists that are pushing the boundaries of their chosen profession to expand even further, following their creative spark to craft projects that expand their careers and enliven the audio storytelling genre.
Erin Mallon is one such artist – you might recognize this prolific narrator from her work with Lauren Blakely, Amy Daws, or Julia Kent, her recently-released audio play, These Walls Can Talk, or her first foray into novel-writing, Flirtasaurus, on Audible. Erin Mallon joined us recently to talk about her ever-expanding career journey.
Erin, you’re known for your work as a narrator of romantic comedies, but we heard you have two exciting new projects to add to your resume – a play and a novel, both written by you! Can you tell us a little about both of these?
Sure! The first project is These Walls Can Talk, a six-character comedic audio play about intimacy and communication in marriage. And get this – the play is set in… the romance audiobook industry! I will tell you, it was a very “meta” experience. The next project is my romantic comedy novel which released on July 15th called Flirtasaurus. It follows Calliope, a young, determined paleontologist and her budding relationship with Ralph, the sexy astronomer who works in the planetarium at the Philadelphia natural history museum where she is interning. Absurd, dino-driven humor abounds!
Have you always been a writer or was it something you got a feel for as a narrator?
I have been writing for the theater for about ten years now – I actually wrote my first play and narrated my first audiobook the very same year! So I’ve been working both careers simultaneously all this time. Flirtasaurus is my first foray into writing a novel though. It’s been a wild ride taking what I’ve learned from creating my own comedic plays and narrating other authors’ great romantic comedies, then sort of bringing it all together in writing my own book.
Has your work as a narrator influenced/informed your writing?
It has to, right? I started out performing on stage, so once I started writing plays I think I’ve always come to it from an actor’s perspective. When I’m on a roll, it feels a lot like playing all of the characters on the page. It’s always been really important to me that the actors who work on my plays feel energized and motivated by the story, the characters, the words, the comedy – so that every night they can’t wait to get in front of an audience and let that energy and excitement bounce.
Also, I’ve narrated almost 500 books at this point, and I’d say about 75% of those have been in the romance genre. It’s been such an inspiration over the years seeing and experiencing how awesome authors put their work out into the world and pondering how I might adapt my theatrical style and put my own voice out there in novel form.
You chose to record These Walls Can Talk as an audio play – was that your plan from the beginning?
No, it actually wasn’t initially intended as an audio play! I wrote These Walls Can Talk back in February through a project I co-produce in NYC called The Brooklyn Generator – an “engine” for creating plays in under 30 days. I always intended it to be performed live onstage (and I hope it still will be), but we had only one public reading in midtown before Covid hit and shut our theaters down. In an effort to bring some laughs to people in quarantine at home, I teamed up with some of my romance narrator friends to do a zoom reading of the play and streamed it on Aural Fixation, an amazing Facebook group for lovers of romance audio. The reaction from the audience was really encouraging and folks kept asking when they would be getting the Audible version, so we made it happen!
Let’s turn to Flirtasaurus, your first novel. Was it daunting to start such a large new project like that? How did you know you could do it?
I think I was pretty much equal parts confident and doubtful when I started this process. After writing so many plays, I knew I could tell a story and I felt that I was strong with dialogue – after all, that’s what plays are – but I had some doubts about how to weave a story over the course of six to eight hours (plays usually clock in around two hours or less). Whenever I felt stuck or insecure though, I returned to my processes as a playwright and that always got me back on track. Slowly but surely, I found my natural style of storytelling in this new-to-me format. I think it’s always a bit daunting when you’re standing at the beginning of a creative project, full of ideas but staring a whole bunch of blank pages. That feeling keeps many of us from even starting, because we think we’re supposed to know what to do at every moment. I don’t think that’s how creativity works, though. You just have to show up every day and play. If you can make a commitment to doing that, word by word, page by page, the story starts to take over and tell you what needs to happen, instead of the other way around.
You chose to narrate the audiobook yourself. Why did you go that way instead of hiring a narrator, and how was it reading your own words?
When I started writing plays, I thought I would be writing roles specifically for myself, but that actually never happened. With this though, I felt like I wrote it so naturally in my own voice that I knew I wanted to give it a shot! Plus, my five-year-old son has made me a bit of an amateur dino-expert, so I knew I could get all the crazy dinosaur name pronunciations right without any additional research.
It was actually an incredibly helpful exercise in catching all those pesky final edits and typos before sending the book off for printing. Narrators are great at catching those, because we can’t say it out loud if it’s not quite right on the page. I don’t know that I will always narrate my future books, but for now I’m really loving the process!
How did you go about marketing this audiobook? Did you reach out to any of your author contacts for advice?
I teamed up with the awesome people at Social Butterfly PR, and they’ve done a considerable amount of hand holding. I’ve also been fortunate to have worked with so many amazing indie authors, particularly in the romantic comedy genre, so I’ve had the benefit of observing how they operate for years. Wonderful writers like Lauren Blakely, Amy Daws and Julia Kent have all been really generous with tips and support as I start to make my way.
So what do you think – can we expect more novels and audio plays from you? What’s next?
Yes, absolutely! Flirtasaurus is actually Book One in my Natural History Series, which will consist of three interconnected standalones. I am writing Book Two as we speak. I’m also excited that The Net Will Appear, my two-character play between a 75-year-old man (Emmy-nominated Richard Masur) and a 9-year-old girl (Matilda Lawler from Broadway’s The Ferryman) is streaming on The Alzheimer’s Foundation’s Youtube Channel July 24th. We put together a really beautiful online production that I’m eager to share with people. Next steps for that are figuring out the best way to bring it to the audio format. And there are a lot more plays where that came from, which I’m planning to adapt and bring to earbuds far and wide.
Are you inspired by Erin’s ambition? Have your own ideas about taking your writing or narration career to new heights? Let us know!