Category Archives: Featured Producer

Flipping the Script: Narrator Joe Arden Takes in the View from the Other Side of the Pen

Narrator Joe Arden’s solo authorial debut, The Chameleon Effect

Creativity is contagious. It’s one of the best things about the indie creator community—how it empowers artists to try new mediums, following what inspires them. The roles here aren’t restrictive, nobody has to “stay in their lane,” and once you get the storytelling bug, there’s no limit to the ways you can go about telling yours.

Meet Joe Arden—one of the industry’s most prolific narrators of romance & erotica. He’s won every major industry award for his smoky baritone voice and this week, he adds romance writer to his impressive list of achievements with The Chameleon Effect. Arden’s first solo project as an author debuted on Audible September 13th to rave listener reviews, proving that in this industry, there’s no need to limit yourself to one forte. We caught up with Joe just before his big audiobook release to talk inspiration, writing as a narrator, and what it means to write romance from a male perspective.

Appropriately, Joe even offered to narrate his answers for us so you can listen along! Enjoy!

First, can you tell us a little about the book? Whats it about? 

The Chameleon Effect is a male-POV rom-com about love, lies and Los Angeles. The story follows a young actor, Will O’Connell, who can’t seem to catch a break in Hollywood. After lamenting that all the “good roles” are going to overseas actors, he decides to pretend he’s one of those impressive foreign talents at his next audition.

Much to his surprise, this scheme takes off, his career along with it! But when he meets Raven Locke, he gets caught in a web of feelings and deceptions that become more than young “Liam” can handle.

Where did the inspiration come from? 

If I’m being honest, Will’s transformation into the Irish Liam O’Connell is something I’ve fantasized about during my own trials as an aspiring actor. And the beauty of storytelling is that you can do whatever you’re brave enough to let these characters do! So, what was only wishful thinking in my own life has become very real for this fictional character. And what fun it has been to imagine his whole journey!

What made you decide to try your hand at writing? Did you have a story in mind you wanted to tell? 

Having narrated over 500 romance novels in a relatively short period of time, I felt uniquely qualified to put my own spin on the form. I feel like I have a pretty firm understanding of the structure of a romance novel.

I wouldn’t say that I had a story in mind before I started writing, but I did return over and over again to one question that acted as guiding principle for my writing process: “Why am I telling this story?” Basically, tons of wonderful writers are out there telling amazing stories, so if I was going to attempt to infiltrate that space, I knew I had to do it authentically. So, as a man with a secret identity, I found myself telling the story of what happens to someone’s own sense of self when he deliberately dons a mask.

A secret identity romance written, quite suitably, by a man with a secret identity.

This might seem like a rather impertinent question, but how did you know you could do it—write a novel, that is?

I did not know that I could do it. But I knew that it wouldn’t get finished if I didn’t at least get started. Once the first few chapters came, then it was a matter of staying disciplined enough to keep grinding out pages. Eventually, I hired an editor, the wonderful Rebecca Hodgkins, and got on her schedule. Once I had a deadline and I was accountable to another human being, I locked in enough to get it finished.

Did you have a writing practice before starting this book—journaling, letter-writing, etc.?

I co-wrote another rom-com, How To Get Lucky, with New York Times bestselling author Lauren Blakely in early 2021. She was wonderful to work with and taught me a great deal. Lauren impressed upon me the importance of scheduling. She also showed me how I could thoughtfully revise my work to add greater clarity and specificity to scenes.

To your question about my background with writing, well, my mother was a prolific letter writer. She was very big on hand-written thank you notes, so I do probably write more letters than most people. My brother is currently serving overseas and I love to write him letters. There’s something special about receiving a piece of physical mail. It hits different than an email or a social media post, even if the content is identical.

As to what my writing process is…Lock myself in a room and pace around until words end up on a page seems to be the way for me.

How did you get started? 

The prologue came to me one night and those first 800 words poured onto the page. Nine months later, I finished my first draft.

This story takes place in Los Angeles, my hometown. Setting this book in the city where I was born and raised was really important to me. That gets back to that idea of telling a story that I, specifically, am qualified to tell. I know LA. I love LA. And that should be very apparent when you read this book. I name drop so many of my favorite spots. My secret hope is that some fans of this story will visit some of the places that Liam and Raven frequent!

How did your work as a narrator, particularly a romance narrator, shape your writing of this book? How did it inform your writing? 

One of the epiphanies I had while writing this book is that the romance genre isn’t simply about telling stories with happily ever afters. It’s also about creating compelling, believable worlds that unapologetically make us feel good. So this genre gives me permission not simply to tell a love story, but to create a world full of love.

I wanted Will to live amongst people that love and support him. Folks that are invested in his happiness and care about his success. So he has friends and family in this book that provide that for him. And I gotta say, it felt damn good to write those moments. 

Did you write with audio in mind?

Oh, absolutely. This book was written to be read aloud. Simple as that. And to your previous question, my background in narration was instrumental in shaping some of that stylistically. For example, there is not a lot of texting in this book. Why? Because text messages are SO DIFFICULT to narrate. Because it’s not actually the characters speaking to each other. It’s actually one of the characters reading in his/her head the words of the other person. So when you’re narrating that, you want to give a hint of the person’s voice, but you don’t really have permission to fully commit to the emotion behind the words because no one reads a text in their head with the full-out emotional delivery that the sender may have intended. That’s just weird.

So whenever possible I would force characters into space together to actually speak to each other. In one spicy scene, they do use their phones, but they allow technology to create a, let’s say, more intimate space…

Why did you choose to narrate it yourself?

In answering that initial question about why I was writing this story, I knew part of the answer needed to be so that I could TELL the story. To that end, I’ve created a world that allows me to highlight some of the things my fans have celebrated in my work in the past. Namely, this book has lots of fun accents and an adorable young child, all of which I get to voice.

That said, I want to give a huge shout out to Maxine Mitchell who has a cameo appearance in this book. Though I tried to always view this story through William’s lens, I found myself needing to hear from Raven on occasion. So I wrote a series of short interludes from her perspective and I knew it was critical to find a grounded, confident performer to bring her words to life. That’s Maxine. And she nailed it. 

What was it like reading your own words for the first time instead of someone elses? 

Joyous. Surprising. Hyper-Critical.

There were moments when I was recording when I felt in total control. I knew this story better than any that I have ever performed before, so my timing, my flow, felt dialed in. But in other ways, interestingly, I found myself having to go back and re-record sections because I would become overly critical of the writing or notice something about my phrasing or word choice that needed authorial attention and so that part of my brain would kick in and take me out of the storytelling mode.

I took a month off after final revisions of the story before I narrated it because I wanted to be able to approach it solely from that narrator/raconteur vantage point, and I think that served the performance really well overall. In addition, it had the added bonus of creating a few moments of surprise for me when I would come across a sentence or phrase or paragraph that I really liked and then I’d think to myself, ‘damn, that’s good. I can’t believe I wrote that.’

I know you have a wide net of author relationships from all the narration work you’ve done—did you consult any authors you’d worked with in the past about writing, editing, or promotion? 

I have often said that the audiobook narrator community is the most supportive and inclusive group of artistic professionals I have ever encountered. They are now in stiff competition with Indie Romance authors for that title. I have been simply overwhelmed by the amount of time, energy and resources that some extremely high-profile authors have shared.

I cannot say this enough: I am a man in a space dominated by powerful, dynamic, fearless women, and I am so grateful that they have made space for me. I’m so freakin’ lucky.

I’m also so curious about what it’s like as a male author writing in the romance space—to my knowledge, many, if not most, of the romance writers out there are women, which makes you unique! Were you thinking about that at all as you were writing, and do you think it impacted your process at all? Is there a different/interesting perspective you think that brings to the book?

Well, my previous answer segues quite seamlessly into this question (go us!).
The fact that I am a man writing in a predominantly female arena was definitely on my mind. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons I wrote a male POV book. Because I wanted to start from a place of strength. Write what I know. In addition, I gave myself permission to write my main hero (and the other men in this story) with as much emotional depth as I share with my friends. I think often there is this notion that men are guarded all the time or that they bury their feelings. Or perhaps, that for a man to be sexy, he must be mysterious.

And while I certainly know some men like that, I also know others… very attractive, very powerful men, who navigate life with an emotional vulnerability that I think gets underrepresented in the romance space. I gave my hero permission to feel his feelings. And to be unafraid to express them. And I think that’s sexy.

Is this the first of more books to come from you as an author?

This has been an extremely gratifying (and exhausting) process…

Ask me again in a few months!

ACX University is Back with New Episodes 3/15

Break out your pens and pencils, students of sound—ACX University is back in session and we’ve got an all-new slate of fresh, essential programming for your continuing audiobook education.

Whether you’re an author, producer, narrator, or director, this syllabus will have you playing, imagining, experimenting, connecting with your community, and springing into action. This season’s all-star roster of instructors includes:

  • Khristine Hvam
  • PJ Ochlan
  • Jorjeana Marie
  • Eboni Flowers
  • Tyrrell Harrell (of TYDEF Studios)
  • Jocqueline Protho (of The Audio Flow)
  • Eric Jason Martin
  • Erika Ishii
  • Matthew Mercer

And more!

We’re releasing three new episodes to YouTube this week, so keep an eye on our channel for details and get to the head of the class by clicking that ‘Subscribe’ button so you don’t miss a lesson. As always, ACX University is free and open to everyone—so join us, won’t you?

Work-Life Balance for Freelancers

“Work-life balance.” “Self-care.” “Unplugging.” “Boundaries.”

These buzzwords have been popping up more than ever the last couple years. Working from home, modified schedules, and career transitions have blurred the lines between work and not-work, and you’ve probably seen more than a handful of articles on leaving time for yourself and not letting your job absorb your personal life.

But if you work for yourself, this concept of work-life balance can be a good deal trickier. For independent creators, the work you do for yourself may be exactly what recharges you or gives your life meaning, so it can be easier to justify working overtime on your passion projects, and harder to put them down. It’s likely too that if you’re self-employed (and especially if you’re trying to get an independent career up and running), any time away from that work is accompanied by guilt—that you’re not pushing yourself hard enough or that you won’t “make it” if you don’t devote every spare second to your craft.

And while it’s true that when you’re your own boss, no one is going to keep you on track if you don’t, it’s equally true that all work and no play makes you a burned-out author, or actor, or publisher, who starts to resent your passion projects and doesn’t have the energy to give them your best work anyway (as someone who spent nearly a decade as a freelance producer, ask me how I know).

Since I’ve always found that balance pretty tough to strike, I thought I’d turn it over to someone who’s always struck me as being really good at this to give you some tips on how to care for yourself, maintain your work-life balance, and still feel like you’re the kickass boss of your own creative destiny.

Khristine Hvam is a narrator, producer, director, voice coach, and the co-creator of the pLAy and play NYCe workshops for creatives with fellow multi-hyphenate voice actor PJ Ochlan. She’s won multiple awards for her many different audio projects and continues to balance an impressive self-made career in vocal production and performance with a full life outside her work.

Here are her tips for finding your own balance and making your creative work, work for you:

  1. Set a “work schedule” that works for you and your life…and then ditch it when a really great opportunity comes up. And then go back to it. It’s fine. I promise. Figure out how much finished time you can realistically record in any given week and don’t over extend yourself. For a long time during the pandemic, I worked in two-hour chunks. Morning, late afternoon, and after the kids went to bed. I hated it, but I reminded myself often, “as are all things, this too is temporary.” Now that the kids are back in school, I have a new work schedule that I feel much more comfortable with. We’ve got to be flexible, otherwise we’re just frustrated.
  1. Give yourself a routine. Mine: wake up, make coffee, feed cat, drink coffee, wake children, feed children, drop off children, work…you see where I’m going with this. Humans need a bit of routine. It helps our ancestral brains function better.
  1. Break the routine once a week and do something different. Different coffee shop, different route to drop off the kids, different workout, trip to Vegas…shake things up. It’s GREAT for the creative brain.
  1. Make a list of your priorities. Balance is about compromise. This list will help you see what you want to give your attention to—OH, and it will change, so re-do this list every few months and check back in with yourself.
  1. Celebrate the little things. Whether it’s with a night out, or an expensive coffee, or a leisurely walk—celebrate your accomplishments. “Hey I made my bed today! Whoot whoot!”
  1. Don’t be afraid to say no. No one is keeping score on how many times you say yes and no. “Booked” is booked, and that’s ok. If you want to take an action, add into those “no” emails when you’ve got avails coming up. That’s helpful. And don’t overbook yourself. Saying no to a project is much better than saying you’re late with it.
  1. Choose “work-free days.” I don’t work on the weekend, BUT there are times when I need to break that rule for the bigger picture. Like, “I need to work over the weekend because the kids have off this Monday from school and I need to be with them.”
  1. Plan vacations well in advance—like a year in advance—so that you’re able to plan projects (and pickups) and finances around them. And plan long vacations. Give yourself a proper vacation. Plan for it. Save for it. And then enjoy the heck out of it.
  1. Put your phone away! Like WAY away. Scrolling is a time suck and social media just makes you think people are doing more/better than you. They’re not. Do what you need to do on there, then kick rocks. 
  1. Take a long hard look at your financial situation. What do you need? What do you want? Talk to a financial expert, get some help and some good advice. Sacrifices will have to be made, but future you will thank you for it. Knowing what you need to earn in order to reach your financial goals will help you choose when to say yes and when to say no to projects.
  1. Set attainable goals. Think big, then work backward to what you can do today.
  1. Find a good therapist, and lean on your support people when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It makes other people feel good and it helps form stronger bonds.
  1. Find ways to PLAY. What brings you joy? Do more of that. Make a list of what you liked to do when you were in Elementary school and find the adult equivalent. Then go do it. Not every day, or every week, but when you can. When it fits.
  1. Be nice to you and don’t “should on yourself.”
  1. Balance isn’t a day-by-day endeavor. Think of it over the long term. In one-year chunks instead of one-day. It’s life balance, not day balance. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Work-life balance is a fairly new concept to be embraced by the mainstream workforce, and many of us weren’t conditioned to think it’s important, much less trained to structure our own lives to prioritize it. So, give it a shot, and don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a little while to figure out a balance that works for you. Self-forgiveness is great for morale and makes it a whole lot easier to get back on track when you get derailed.

Celebrating 10 Years of Storytellers: Producer Joe Hempel

The true story of ACX’s 10th anniversary is told in the journeys of the impressive indie creators who have written their own career narratives via ACX. Read the latest entry from Audible Approved Producer Joe Hempel, below, then catch up on the rest of the series here.

Where have you taken your career since we last spoke?

My career has taken so many different twists and turns. It’s really been a wild ride! When we last spoke, I was working mainly on ACX, with one or maybe two publishers at the time. Now, I do a lot of work for a lot of different publishers, and I’ve even started my own publishing company, Fireside Horror. I barely have time for myself these days, but I tell you what, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I enjoy the pace of this, I enjoy being a workhorse, and I enjoy the grind required to stay at the top of my game.

These days, I’m always paying attention to new trends, not just looking at old ones and staying the course. I want to be at the forefront of anything that comes up—be it with technology, or with new ideas, or what new listeners are wanting to hear.

What important connections have you made on ACX?

I work with so many wonderful people on ACX, I want to say they’re all important! If I were to choose one – and this is no slight to anyone else—I’d have to say author Ambrose Ibsen. We teamed up and we created one heck of a little horror empire. After listening to some of the samples I have on ACX, he approached me to narrate his book, Whispering Corridors, in 2017, and it just took off. From there we’ve sold well over 25,000 audiobooks together. We do Royalty Share because that allows us both to make more money than we would with major publishing companies. I’m not sure what’s next, but you can bet it’ll be a hit.

What was your big “I made it” moment?

I think for me, the biggest thing was being able to move to Texas and buy my own house strictly from being an audiobook narrator. That was something I never dreamed would happen, and when I signed on that dotted line and walked into it, and realized “wow, this is mine, I did this” it was the greatest feeling of all time.

How do you define success in your career? 

This is a tricky one. Success can be many things to different people. I define success as continuously working, continuously grinding, and having the ability to take some time off when I want to without feeling stressed financially.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?

Relationships are EVERYTHING. This community is so small, though it may seem big, and everyone knows everyone, and everyone talks to each other—be it indie publishers, authors, or other narrators. Solid relationships built on trust and mutual respect are indispensable in this industry.

Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?

Hands down my coaches. Johnny Heller, Sean Pratt, Jayme Matler, Scott Brick, and many more that I have had the pleasure of learning with. I wish I could name them all because they all deserve so much recognition. Even all the new people that are coming up, I learn from them too. I think you can get to a point in your career when you begin to miss certain trends, and those that are newer to the industry keep me on my toes and help me look at things differently. And I think that’s instrumental in staying relevant.

What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator/producer?

Networking with authors and narrators. Now that I’ve stepped into publishing as well, I’m connecting with more narrators that are just dipping their toes in the water, and let me tell you, there is an amazing pool of talent out there. It makes me want to continuously keep my eyes up and well coached and trained.

What does being an independent creator allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?

Without a doubt, I’d say “being able to make my own schedule and set my own working hours.” If something happens and this career goes belly up, I don’t think I’d be a good employee anymore!

What would you say ACX means to you?

Everything. ACX means everything to me. I would not have a career without ACX. ACX was on the forefront of directly connecting authors and narrators. So many people get to have such great careers and really turn their life around because of ACX. I haven’t lost sight of that, and I continue to use ACX to this day and will into the future.

Now that I’m a publisher, I use ACX to distribute to Audible, and it makes me incredibly happy to bring some really great horror to the Audible shelves that maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have. While there are other distributors out there, I wouldn’t dream of using anyone else.

What’s your most essential piece of studio gear?

I can’t really say one thing is more important than the other one. Obviously, the booth is what keeps things quiet so that I can work during the day, so I guess having that quiet space is the most important thing of all. Everything just works in synergy to create the audio—from the space, to the mic and interface, to the PC and Reaper, the DAW that I use.

If you could narrate any book ever, what would it be?

Anything by Stephen King. That’s the brass ring for me. I want it so bad, I even went out and bought the audio rights to The Science of Stephen King just so I could narrate in his world! HA!

What do you aspire to next?

I would like my publishing company to become known as THE place to get horror audiobooks into the world. It’s a grind, and things get a little behind because I’m a one man band. But it’s growing, and I’m hoping that, in the next 2 years, Audible will have a lot more horror out there—enough to classify it as its own genre, rather than a sub-genre under “Mysteries and Thrillers.”

You can find Joe Hempel at his publishing company, Fireside Horror, check out his titles on Audible, or learn more about how he got started in narration in his first ACX blog appearance.

Stay tuned for more stories from ACX’s best and brightest!

Celebrating 10 Years of Storytellers: Narrator James Romick

It’s ACX’s 10th anniversary this spring, and we’re celebrating by sharing career journeys from some of the impressive indie creators who have used ACX to share their stories with the world over the last decade. Read this blog series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller—narrator and producer, James Romick.

How did you become a professional audiobook narrator/producer?

The first project that I auditioned for and won on ACX was in 2014. Before that, I had never considered narrating audiobooks. I’d listened to them for years—all of them non-fiction—read by narrators whom I have come to know personally. But I never thought about becoming an audiobook narrator myself.

After I left the Broadway show that I had been with for quite some time, I was finding it difficult to land another who needed a “gentleman of a certain age,” so I sought out (well, needed) another creative outlet. The on-camera commercial career wasn’t gaining any traction, and voiceover was my next trial balloon. I had some limited success at first, but when I focused my efforts on audiobook recording and production, I found that creative acting niche I had been looking for.

How did you find ACX?

Kind of by accident. I started pursuing a voiceover career in 2013. That was also when the SAG-AFTRA Foundation Voiceover Lab (EIF VO Lab) in New York City came into being. I think I first heard about ACX from some of the other attendees and instructors who encouraged me to look into it. I was nearly finished with constructing my first, very tiny home studio, and collecting some professional quality recording equipment. Once that was done, I started auditioning for projects on ACX, and landed a pretty good one right away.

Book one in bestselling author Brandan Zenner’s After War series, for which James has provided all the narration

What was your big “I made it” moment?

The first telephone conversation with the Rights Holder and the first sale of my very first audiobook production—and the faith that Rights Holder (who had been in the audiobook business for over 25 years) had in me to deliver a quality narration of their work.

How has your career grown since first coming to ACX?

The world of audiobooks and narration was a completely foreign world to me, coming from a live theatre performing background of some 35+ years. I attempted to immerse myself in it as much as I could—learning the terms, nomenclature, jargon and such of the business. Attending a couple of the live ACX events at Audible Studios in Newark, NJ and meeting a lot of people who were also in the beginning stages of their audiobook careers opened up this whole new world for me.

I consider voiceover the 4th or 5th phase of my 40+ year acting career. But never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that I would be recording and producing audiobooks at home in my den from a vocal booth I designed and built myself. I have now recorded and produced some 100+ fiction and non-fiction audiobooks.

Why is continual, ongoing education so important to your career, and how has ACX University played a role in that? 

As with fashion and music and other forms of art, the trends change rapidly. Whereas a few years or months ago it might have been fiction or non-fiction books about zombies and spaghetti monsters, now it might be YA (young adult) or alien romance or pandemics. You have to keep up or be left in the dust. I am not the best businessman and I’m self-aware enough to know that about myself—ongoing education that helps you stay current on industry trends, offers suggestions on how to attack that end of the business or how to communicate with authors and convince them to take a chance on you as the narrator of their baby (or take a chance on audiobook narration at all)—that only serves to support the narration community. And hopefully it puts money in your bank account. That, and I was promised a nice, new ACX University t-shirt to replace the ratty old one I got at the last live ACX event in Newark some years ago.

What important connections have you made on ACX?

I got to meet RC Bray and talk with him at the last live event, in 2015, which was great because I am a super fan of his work. And I’ve made some personal connections with other narrators with whom I share information all the time. I also have very good relationships with the authors with whom I have collaborated—many have kept me on for one series or another and multiple standalone books. One of my authors even wrote my wife and I into the story as supporting characters for one book of a murder mystery series.

How do you define success in your career?

When people buy, listen to, and appreciate my work (although I really don’t pay much, if any, attention to reviews).

Book one in C.J. Park’s Park trilogy—another series James narrated in its entirety

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?

There are “industry standards” and “best practices” that need to be understood and met. That, and until you have some experience and a body of work behind you that you are proud of, take the advice of other seasoned and respected professionals, and don’t try to be a maverick or re-invent the wheel. You really might do so at your own peril. Study. Study. Study. Not only coaching for your narration, but also in understanding the tech side with whichever DAW and equipment you choose to use.

Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?

Although I never took his course, David H. Lawrence XVII, because he provided the impetus for me to pursue audiobooks in the first place, Jayme Mattler, for encouraging me to go beyond narrating only non-fiction, and Johnny Heller, well, for being Johnny Heller.

What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator/producer?

People think that I’m crazy. But I actually like editing and mastering my (and other people’s) work. In between acting gigs in the 80s, I went to audio engineering school—that’s when editing analog tape with a block, razor blades, and adhesive tape was still the norm—so the tech challenges appeal to that side of my brain. Digital recording, editing and mastering is so much easier.

What does being an independent narrator allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?

To more or less go at my own pace in my own space with some really good equipment. And to do projects that I (and my pseudonym) choose to do for my (his) own reasons. I do not accept any old thing just to have a narration credit.

What do you aspire to next?

I have been coaching fellow voice artists and narrators on using and configuring REAPER as their DAW of choice for recording their work. Everybody and their relative likes to make videos on one topic or another, but I think I’d like to create a video series on REAPER, specifically geared toward audiobook narration. Of the 8 or 9 DAWs I have installed and played with, REAPER is by far my favorite.

You can find James Romick on his website, check out his numerous titles on Audible, or you might just catch him answering questions and welcoming newcomers to the community at the next ACX University premiere or industry conference.

Keep an eye on the blog for more stories from ACX’s finest!

Celebrating 10 Years of Storytellers: Narrator Karen Commins

We’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of ACX this spring by sharing career journeys from some of the amazing indie creators who have used ACX to share their stories with the world over the last decade. Read this blog series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller—narrator, producer, and expert audiobook educator Karen Commins.

When did you know this was what you wanted to do?

Beginning in fifth grade, I knew I wanted to do voiceover work. I started listening to audiobooks in the 90s when I was already volunteering as a reader for the Georgia Radio Reading Service, and decided to become a narrator. In 1996, I wrote to Frank Muller, who was one of the industry’s titans. I found his contact info and sent him an email with just a few questions, like how he got his work and whether he worked at home or in a commercial studio. He very kindly replied with enough info and encouragement that I knew I could do it.

Fast forward to 2013—after working consistently through ACX for a couple of years, I made what some would call a radical career decision. I wrote to my 3 commercial agents asking them to remove me from their rosters, explaining that I wanted to devote all of my attention to audiobooks. I left online groups that discuss any voiceover topics that weren’t specifically about audiobooks and I changed my website to remove demos for and testimonials from corporate clients.

This eliminated the distractions of commercial auditions, developing marketing campaigns for corporate clients, updating 2 versions of my website, and wasting energy comparing myself to other voice talent and pressuring myself to make my career look like theirs. My life revolves around audio books, and I couldn’t be happier!

Karen’s journal entry celebrating her first ACX contract in 2011

How has ACX affected your journey, and what would you recommend to first-time narrators as far as learning about their craft and the industry?

Although I had narrated a few audiobooks, taken a workshop with Pat Fraley, and attended APAC and two APA job markets, I couldn’t get traction with publishers. Most recorded in LA or NY, cast local talent, and didn’t hire narrators with home studios. I will always remember the excitement I felt in January 2011 when Audible invited me to be one of the beta testers for its new site, acx.com—the fact that I had a home studio was a key reason they chose me. The audiobook world opened up for me that day!

I devoured everything on the site. I didn’t —and still don’t—audition for every title. Instead, I carefully choose the titles for audition to suit my voice, style, and interests. I recommend that newcomers do the same to build a portfolio they’d be proud of. I continue to watch ACX University videos and read all of the help articles to maintain an expertise about the site and narration resources.

I advise newcomers to listen to good audiobooks every single day. Read AudioFile Magazine and choose award-winning audiobooks in genres you like and want to perform in. I’m not just listening for the story or entertainment, I’m critically listening to hear:

  • How is the narrator phrasing the words?
  • Do the character voices sound like believable people or cartoonish caricatures?
  • How did the narrator interpret the book differently that I might have done?
  • Are any words mispronounced?
  • Can I discern where a correction was inserted?

Continuing coaching in audiobook performance is essential regardless of your background. Audiobook narration is an intimate medium with acting requirements that are unlike any other role. A list of vetted coaches is available on NarratorsRoadmap.com.

You can learn so much from being active in the narrator community. I joined the Facebook group Indie (ACX and Others) Audiobook Narrators and Producers and started answering questions about ACX from other narrators. After a while, I created this FAQ for the group. You do need to be wary about the online advice you accept. I’ve seen other Facebook groups and some on Reddit where veteran narrators participate, as well as many more that don’t include any experienced voices in the membership. You need to observe the group interactions to discern the professionals who consistently dispense advice that you can trust.

Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell was a Voice Arts Awards finalist

What’s your favorite thing about being an independent producer?

During my previous 30+-year career as an IT specialist at everyone’s favorite government agency, I arose before dawn and drove to an office 30 miles away in Atlanta rush-hour traffic in all kinds of weather. Once there, I worked diligently on management’s priorities and solved problems with users’ hardware, software, and data.

Now, I’m grateful every day to enjoy such tremendous freedom! I only do work that is meaningful to me. I plan my work around my life rather than planning my life around my work, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to submit audiobooks I’ve published for review and award consideration. AudioFile has reviewed my work three times, my audiobook Road To Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell by Anne Edwards was a finalist for the Voice Arts Awards, and my audiobook So Big by Edna Ferber was a finalist for the Independent Audiobook Awards.

So Big was a finalist for the Independent Audidbook Awards

Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?

I am beyond blessed and exceedingly grateful that my husband Drew, who is the hero of my life story, has been a full partner in my career since day one. He’s helped me in big ways, like agreeing we should get a home equity loan and construct an addition onto our previous house for my recording studio. He’s helped me in small ways, like listening to scenes and helping me select one to perform during classes. He directs all of my recording sessions, he maintains my websites, updates my mailing lists, and most recently, he disassembled my WhisperRoom booth and assembled my new Studiobricks booth!

How has your career grown since first coming to ACX?

Being an audiobook narrator fulfilled a life’s dream, but I’ve learned that it too narrowly defines me and what I’m capable of and interested in doing. In the last 10 years, I’ve become a leading expert on audiobook production, especially when using ACX.

I’ve written articles for the ACX blog about marketing (here and here) and performing audiobooks. I’ve also written my own blog, contributed to other sites, been a featured guest speaker on an APA webcast along with numerous videos and podcasts, and I’ve presented sessions at Johnny Heller’s Splendiferous Workshop and APAC. In 2018, I participated on ACX’s panel for VO Atlanta, where we discussed “Creating Your Audiobook Career,” and later that year, I was a guest on ACX University where I talked about “Acting With Intention.”

In 2019, I launched my own site, NarratorsRoadmap.com, which is the destination for narrators of all levels! It contains original content, a curated list of links to an incredible array of resources, color-coded calendars for eight types of worldwide events, a reviewers directory searchable by genre, and several exclusive video courses.

To celebrate my 10 year ACX-iversary, I developed and taught a three-hour webinar for VoiceOverXtra a few months ago titled “Put Yourself in the ACX Drivers’ Seat.” It includes 90+ slides and an extensive list of resource links to help narrators make an appealing profile, search for and vet titles and Rights Holders in the system, communicate effectively, and establish effective work flows. The recording and materials are available on my Shop page.

Another journal entry depicting Karen’s dashboard when it reached 10,000 units sold in 2014

What important connections have you made on ACX?

The entire ACX staff has been unfailingly kind and helpful to me in all our interactions, and Debra in Support deserves special mention. I’ve met so many publishers and authors through my auditions and narrations on the site that I can’t possibly list them all!

I joined the Facebook group I referenced shortly after it began in 2013. Originally, it was a group devoted to narrators on ACX, and it has grown to over 8000 members. I can’t say I’ve met all 8000+ people, but the number of narrators I know through that group is staggering. A few of those folks are now among my most cherished friends!

How do you define success in your career?

I’m doing creative work that matters to me and helps other people. I would say I’m wildly successful!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?

The audiobook industry and my previous IT career in the federal government share many aspects—you’re expected to conduct yourself in a professional manner, which includes showing respect to other people, keeping the team informed about the status of your projects, undertaking training on an ongoing basis to maintain and improve your skills, and meeting or beating your deadlines.

A major difference for me has been learning to stop comparing myself to other narrators. I admit that I still sometimes struggle with this issue! We may all be headed in the same general direction, but we have different missions and are on completely different paths to get there. I love this quote from Ernest Holmes: “We should never watch to see what another is doing or how he is doing it, for when we do this, we are limiting our own possibilities to the range of another’s vision.”

What do you aspire to next?

I always have short, medium, and long-term goals. As a narrator/producer/publisher, I’ll soon start recording a wonderful autobiography that I excavated from the public domain. Later on, I’m planning to license the audio rights to some more titles that I want to narrate, produce, and publish. I’m also eyeing two books with the hope of producing full-cast audiobooks from them.

NarratorsRoadmap.com is fast becoming my life’s work! Drew and I are constantly updating the site. I’m planning some more articles and video courses, and we’re currently building a mammoth casting directory. Stay tuned!

You can find Karen Commins on her website, or access her wealth of educational resources for all narrators at NarratorsRoadmap.com.

Keep an eye on the ACX blog for more career retrospectives from ACX’s finest!

Celebrating 10 Years of Storytellers: Producer Tanya Eby

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.

The Brink: Stories was Tanya’s first ACX project as a publisher and 2017 Audie winner for Best Short Story Collection

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 Persisted and 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?  

Tanya’s first original content production, Nevertheless We Persisted, was nominated for an Audie and inspired a sequel

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.

Celebrating 10 Years of Storytellers: Narrator Janina Edwards

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?

Janina notably contributed narration for the 2021 title, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

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.

Elaine Raco Chase is the author of one of the first ACX titles Janina narrated, and the two recently reconnected to release two new titles in 2019 & 2020.

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).

What’s your favorite listen?

I’m a longtime Nora Roberts fan. I love Julia Whelan’s and January LaVoy’s performances of her books. I really enjoy Amanda Ronconi’s performance of Molly Harper’s books—vampire, werewolf, human fantasy romance stuff. (I am so ashamed. Not.) Kim Staunton’s performance of Beverly Jenkins’ historical romances—the perfect blend of black history, romance, and mystery. And Karen Chilton’s performance of Alyssa Cole’s books—multicultural, inclusive romances and mysteries. 

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!

Better Together: Aleron Kong & Nick Podehl on Collaboration: Part 2

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!

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Nick Podehl:

Narrator Nick Podehl

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.

Scott Jacobi:

Tell me about that: how does it pay for itself?

Nick Podehl:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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.

Nick Podehl:

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.”

Aleron Kong:

Mmhm. Nothing like, “you should go throw eggs at Nick’s house.”

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Author Aleron Kong

Aleron Kong:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Nick Podehl:

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.”

Scott Jacobi:

And that makes it super easy, when you can reference a video or an audio clip.

Nick Podehl:

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.

Aleron Kong:

I mean, it’s a sore spot.

Nick Podehl:

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.”

Scott Jacobi:

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…?”

Aleron Kong:

The Chaos Seeds series on Audible

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.”

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Nick Podehl:

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.”

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Nick Podehl:

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.”

Scott Jacobi:

Did you ever use a pseudonym for some of the more adult material you were asked to do?

Nick Podehl:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Nick Podehl:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Aleron Kong:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Aleron Kong:

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.

Nick Podehl:

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.

Aleron Kong:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Aleron Kong:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

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?

Nick Podehl:

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.

Aleron Kong:

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.

Scott Jacobi:

Why based on his demo?

Aleron Kong:

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.”

Scott Jacobi:

I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Aleron and Nick.

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!