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!
In 2008, Jason and Emily McCarthy founded GORUCK with two goals: to create a backpack that could survive any environment, and to start a movement that shows people how to get the most out of a life where adventure calls and tomorrow is never promised. Jason joins us today to share how tackling those challenges set him up to self-produce an audiobook based on his experience.
When I began keeping a journal back in 2010, I had no idea that it would become my first book, How Not To Start A Backpack Company. I also didn’t know that I would go on to not only self-publish, but also self-record this very personal story in a small soundproofed room at our GORUCK Headquarters in Jacksonville Beach, FL. Turns out, producing an audiobook is a lot like rucking (aka walking with weight in a backpack). Both can be uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the better it gets over time.
You see, in 2010 my life was a mess. I had just gotten out of the military, I was going through a divorce, and the US financial crisis was in full swing. Back then, GORUCK was little more than a hobby. I was broke and thought I had nothing to lose, so I hit the open road with my dog Java to visit all 48 contiguous states, to meet people and get into adventures. I thought we could sell a few backpacks, too.
Truth is, I lost a bunch of money, didn’t sell any backpacks, and ended up all alone. I had a great front row seat to watch my life burn down before my very eyes. The silver lining was that this trip became instrumental to me turning my life around, because I was motivated to not live in flames. The magical part of the journey came when I focused on building a community of people through rucking and the GORUCK Challenge — instead of just trying to sell gear. I believed in that people-first vision then and have followed it ever since. Ten years later, with thousands of GORUCK events and over $120MM in revenue behind us, what’s abundantly clear to me is that we would not be in business if we weren’t making a real impact on people’s lives, including our own. Serving others is the why that will always drive us forward.
In late 2019, Emily asked me if I had a specific photo – the one of Java in the GORUCK Truck in front of a herd of bison – to put on our Christmas card. I handed her my phone for her to find it as I headed to bed. After some digging, she found the photo and stumbled upon that journal that I had written during the summer of 2010 and completely forgotten about.
Emily stayed up most of the night reading, and the next morning, she came down to the kitchen and implored me to tell this story to the world. She described the journal as an unfiltered glimpse into my journey as an entrepreneur and human being. This was the GORUCK origin story that needed to be told.
I started making the rounds to the publishers in New York. You meet in their office, they tell you what other books you need to copy to sell a few more copies of yours. You have no leverage because you’ve never sold a book. The publishers I chatted with wanted this story to be more of a business book with bullet points and to-do lists. Or they wanted it to be about how my life was like a bad country song where I had a broken heart and a dog and a bottle of whiskey. I wanted to one-up them and show both sides of building a business amidst personal chaos.
So, I decided to go directly to our audience, just like we did with our original backpack, GR1, way back when. Six months later, I self-published How Not To Start A Backpack Company with editorial help from my good friend and the original photographer from that summer 2010 trip, Alex Beck. It was really happening.
Within a few days of the launch, I got a message on Instagram from a member of our GORUCK Tough (GRT) community, Kat Lambrix of Audible Studios. She wanted to know if we planned to do an audio version of the book, because she and others would love to listen to it while rucking. She gave us some quick start tips that I’ve shared below, but her greatest advice, by far, was reminding me that this was my story, and I knew how to tell it best.
Tips for Successful Audiobook Recording
Speak half a beat slower than you think you need to. Remember that listeners don’t have the text in front of them, so they’ll need time to digest what it is you’re saying – especially if listening while training or rucking.
Read off of a tablet when recording. Avoid a laptop because your mic will pick up the fan noise.
Stay hydrated, and if you’re getting really clicky, try a few bites of a green apple.
Don’t eat anything new the night before you record. Your mic will pick up noises from your stomach!
When you take breaks, especially if you’re feeling like your energy is dragging, try a quick round of exercise to regain your focus.
Don’t worry about the first few pages. Record them without going back so you can get into the flow of recording. Then if you listen to it and feel like it doesn’t match the later parts of the book when you’re more comfortable behind the mic, go back and redo them.
Next thing I knew, Emily had bought a bag of green apples from the supermarket and said she’d hold down the fort with our three children. It was a surreal experience to lock myself in what we jokingly refer to as “The Champagne Room” at GORUCK HQ and reread the journal and emails I had written from my rock bottom. Emily narrated her part as well, and we both admitted afterward that tears were shed while revisiting the past.
Without ACX elevating the field of independent publishing, authors like me would have zero chance to tell our story in our way. For us, the goal was to create a calling card. Let’s get the story out there and see what people think. Self-publishing our book, and narrating the audiobook on ACX made that possible.
Above all I hope my story inspires others to NOT wait for the perfect time to follow their dreams, but just to get going and figure it out on the move.
Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? Listen to Jason and Emily’s audio opus on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.
Then, get ready to go ruck on your own journey—creating an audiobook with ACX allows you to put your story out there, engage your audience, and learn a lot along the way. Click here to get started.
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!
Last week, we heard from Audible Approved Producer Hannibal Hills on how he built a successful narration career from square one in three years. If you’re new to narration or thinking about taking it full-time and wondering where to start, be sure to catch up on the first part of this narrative and learn how to set a solid foundation for yourself. And now, with the help of our narrator, we continue on our journey…
Investing in Editing, Coaching, and Mentoring
Like any growing business, your narration career may reach a point where you can afford to hire outside help to so your business can continue to grow. I have now reached the point where I outsource my editing so I can focus solely on narration. Earlier in my career, I felt the need to save on the pennies and stay in control of the whole process. But when income started to come in steadily, being behind the mic became the most valuable use of my time, and the increased output I was able to achieve from outsourcing easily counterbalanced the cost.
Performance coaching was another investment whose value I cannot overstate. Early on, I was beyond fortunate to connect with the great Sean Pratt, and he has been a true mentoring light as I moved from narration as a side-job to a full-time career. Coaching with a true expert is the single most important investment you can make in your narration career. The knowledge and advice they share can save years of trial and (mostly) error, and be the very difference between long-term success and failure.
Choosing the Right Projects
Choosing the right projects is every bit as important as having the performance skills or the right equipment. Sean, whose excellent book, To Be or Wanna Be: The Top Ten Differences Between a Successful Actor and a Starving Artist is a trove of clear wisdom, has given me countless useful pieces of advice and challenges to learn through. An example of the wisdom a coach like Sean can offer can be found in his famous three questions: Of each project ask yourself: will it pay, will it be good for my career, and will it be fun. If all three are true, that project is a clear good choice. If only two are a yes, it should only be accepted if you can comfortably live without the third. If only one (or none) is true you should never accept the project. This simple test is a golden barometer for a narrator in all stages of their career.
I am now careful to evaluate every project I am offered or consider auditioning for—not only for value, but for scheduling. Overbooking is an easy trap to fall into in the early years, but spreadsheets are just as good for calculating reasonable monthly output as they are for projecting income. Don’t undervalue your time and work. When you have only a few books to your name and are starting to realize how much you still have to learn, impostor syndrome can bend your will to accept projects that aren’t right for you and poor rates of return. Though it is hard, you mustn’t stop believing you are worth the accepted industry rates. Too many hours working hard while knowing you are being underpaid will eventually start to poison your heart, smother your passion, hurt your performance, and eventually make you regret your career choice altogether. A good coach will help you to continue to believe in the value of what you do.
Finding My Voice and Building My Identity
With the right home setup, a process you feel confident in, ongoing training that produces real improvement in your performance, and a steadily growing output of titles, it very quickly becomes clear the sort of titles that best suit your voice. I worked to resist the temptation to be an “everyman.” One of Sean’s most valuable contributions to my career was helping me define my niche and refine my identity and brand—externally but also internally, in my performance and approach. I now look for projects that suit that brand. This personal “flavor” can be applied across both fiction and non-fiction, and in my case to horror, comedy, classic literature, and more colorful, opinionated non-fiction. Every narrator will have their own flavor that comes from their own heart and passions, and this should be embraced rather than denied. I have found that taking on projects that appeal to me as a person, and which match my own personality and tastes, makes for a far more fulfilling professional life. My most successful projects have been achieved through forging relationships of trust and mutual understanding, where they know you believe in their work, and trust you to make the right creative choices to best bring their words off the page.
Occasionally, I have taken off-brand projects, sometimes because the money and opportunity were tempting, or because I wanted to experiment with a new genre outside my core brand. For these projects, I have several alternate names—a pseudonym or “nom de vox”—so that my brand remains clear, and I can work anonymously if needed.
Learning and Looking Forward
In creating recent box sets with long-term collaborators—the authors of the books—I have had to revisit some of my very early work. It was fascinating to see how far I have come, and how much coaching has helped me improve. It is good to be reminded of the lessons I needed to know then, so I keep them at heart moving forward. Even if we are not proud of our early work, we should be glad that it helped us take another step toward where we are today.
Goal-setting is essential for moving your career forward. I have two key reminders I look to every day—the first is a small whiteboard of my goals for the year. Some I have already achieved, others still need a lot of work, but they are there in plain sight. Each goal I set can be measured in a very real way, from royalty units sold to number of books completed. The goals cover all areas, and each one nudges some aspect for my narration career ahead one more step—and when it does, it is toasted (perhaps with a glass of something with my wife), erased, and replaced with another goal just a little more challenging.
The Shared Adventure of Audiobooks
The second thing I come back to each day is our community: the indie audiobook narrators Facebook group, narrators I have met through mutual coaching, and those I’ve reached out to via email because I simply admire their work. Many authors and small publishers have also become friends through our collaboration, and I meet with many regularly on Zoom to discuss market trends and new project ideas.
Few industries have such a supportive, positive community of helpful cheerleaders, friends, joke-sharers, listeners, and advisors. We all want to see success in the others and cheer when we do, because we know that there is room for us all, that so many unique voices each have a place, and that what is right for me may be rightly different to what is right for you. We also know that together we are creating libraries of lasting enjoyment for millions of listeners. This really is an industry where dedication, honesty, manners, fairness, trustworthiness, and sharing are the qualities that build success. This is a job where the good guys and dedicated spirits really do win. It may have taken almost 46 years, but I found a home—one where each book brings to life a new adventure to be shared.
Hannibal Hills is the narrator of more than 40 titles. This ‘darkly sophisticated British storyteller’ can be found lending his voice to many a horror, mystery, or thriller novel.
Are you a narration newbie inspired by this career journey? An audiobook veteran who can add some sage wisdom of your own? Let us knowin the commentsbelow.
It’s been quite a year for the ACX community: ACX creators published over 30,000 audiobooks, aided by the launch of some exciting tools and features, like Royalty Share Plus and Enhanced Promo Codes. Thank you for continuing to elevate the field of independent publishing through your hard work and innovation. In this giving season, we’ve decided to honor the tradition of re-gifting by wrapping up a few of our favorite blog resources from 2019 and presenting them to you to help support your continued excellence. Enjoy… or re-joy!
Now Hear This: Promoting with SoundCloud: Audio samples are your best friend when it comes to marketing your audiobook—they’re a great way to grab a listener’s attention and leave them eager to purchase the audiobook. Check out this article for great ideas on leveraging this free audio platform to put those samples everywhere your audience is, so they’ll be sure to give them a listen.
Bonus: Want more content on low and no-cost social media promotion for your audiobooks? Check out this episode from ACX University.
Amy Daws on Her Authentic Social Media Self: Authenticity is the key to a devoted community of fans, and nobody knows that better than this author and social media maven who uses her own genuine energy, fun content, and regular engagement to keep her fans’ attention between new releases. Learn from her social media strategies and fan the flames in your own fan base.
Bonus: Want to hear more on engaging with your fans? This is the ACX University episode for you.
Lighting the Way: An Author’s Journey into Narration If you’re an indie author, you’re no stranger to doing it all yourself, so chances are you’ve considered narrating your own audiobook. Well, paranormal mystery author Mary Castillo decided to do just that for her series, and you can read her full account of the production process from a writer’s perspective here.
Bonus: Interested in narrating your own book? Learn more about the art of audiobook performance here.
Production Pointers from Audible Approved Producers Whether you’re a narration newbie or a production pro, it never hurts to hear from other independent Producers on how they’re getting the job done. In this Q&A with a few of 2019’s newest Audible Approved Producers (AAPs), you can read about their favorite gear, pre-recording rituals, and at-home studio setups—you might learn a thing or two to add to your own process!
Bonus: Looking for more tips, tricks, and technical advice for audiobook production? Check out this ACX University series from our QA team.
A Portrait of the Artist How do you make a big impression and catch the attention of the authors you want to work with? It all starts with a compelling, professional, comprehensive Producer profile. In this article, we walk you through creating an ACX profile that stands out with examples from some of our favorite AAPs.
Bonus: Looking for more advice on your audiobook production career? This ACX University episode is for you.
Whether you’re new to the blog or seeing these articles for the second time, we hope it renews your drive and enthusiasm for creating great audiobooks, and gives you some good ideas for propelling your passion and your work forward into a successful new year. Feel free to re-gift these to the indie author or producer on your list!
Amy Daws is the best-selling author of the ‘Harris Brothers’ and ‘London Lovers’ series whose engaging and authentic social media presence has earned her a devoted fan following. Join us as we find out how she uses social media to connect with fans and grow her listenership, and learn how you can make her strategies work for you.
Q: How would you describe your writing?
A: I would say my writing style is rom-com with heart. Every time I sit down to write a light rom-com, I get deeper than I expected and end up crying through at least one scene. So I always know that no matter what, my characters are going to have moments of pain and sadness too. My readers often say that they’re laughing one minute and crying the next. I love that feedback because it means you’re FEELING.
Q: How did you get your start as a writer?
A: I have a unique entry point into the world of writing because my first book is a memoir about my journey through recurrent pregnancy loss. It’s called Chasing Hope and honestly, it was just something I needed to write for therapeutic reasons. But I’ve been a lover of romance forever, so once I wrote Chasing Hope, I guess you could say I got the itch. I sat down and wrote my first romance novel, and almost five years later I have 13 contemporary romance books published!
Q: Tell us about your online presence.
A: I’m everywhere on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, Book+Main. Instagram is my favorite right now. I’m a silly person by nature and I love sharing random musings in my Instagram Stories. I also have my website that I update regularly and a newsletter that I’m very consistent with.
I think I reach different readers at every spot. Some people only follow me on Instagram. Some only get my newsletters. It’s important for me not to forget any of those outlets when I have a new release.
Q: How does your personality show up in your online presence—or maybe that should be how does your online presence reflect your personality?
A: I definitely think social media should be fun. If you get too focused on sales and promotion, you lose your authenticity with your followers. I’m an open book person by nature. My first book was a memoir, so I’m out there already. I don’t see a need to hide my child or parts of my life from social media. People love my kid, and I love to share her! In a way, my family is a part of my brand now. This isn’t an intentional choice, it’s just something that feels right for me.
Q: What is the strategy behind your social media approach?
A: I post somewhere every day. Not everywhere every day. And I schedule some general promo posts to keep my name out there, but for the most part, I think my social media presence is the most effective when I post something in the moment. Readers care more about a funny interaction I had while writing that day, not a generic scheduled filler post. And you’ll see the difference in that with the amount of interactions you get.
I like authenticity. I like silliness. And I like to be real. I think posting in the moment helps me feel authentic. I don’t worry about having makeup on or that my hair looks good. I just post when I have something to say, regardless of how I look. Pre-made posts and pre-written text have a tendency to dilute your genuine voice.
And you have to find what works for you. I don’t really do a lot of the fancy Instagram pictures because that’s not me. I’m more of a nostril shot, double chin photo, meme myself with something ridiculous Instagrammer. I make fun of myself a lot, which I think takes me off a pedestal and makes me more approachable. Social media is a place I come to for endorphins… something to make me smile, and that’s what I hope people get out of my presence.
Some posts get more engagement than others. The promo posts get the least amount of engagement—if you focus too much on those, you lose that authentic voice with your followers. I keep an eye on posts that don’t get much engagement and try to think what I can do better to bring more reactions to a post next time.
Q:What is the strategy behind the way your website is organized?
A:My website is literally just a WordPress blog website that I’ve set up to look like a more traditional site. I pay $17 a year for it, and it’s simple and I can update it myself because it’s so user-friendly. My new release is always on the front page, loud and proud, and I always include a link to the audio—so I have ‘read’ and ‘listen’ on my front page. I made an ‘Audio’ tab and I break down all my audiobooks for anyone who’s looking to start listening. I have a ‘Reading Order’ tab, too, that talks about where everything fits in—I always try to update my reading order after each new release.
Q: How about your newsletter? What kind of content goes into that?
A: I do a newsletter at least once a month, sometimes two or three times—anytime I have something new going on. I use it to notify my readers of my new releases, any sales I’m doing, preorder links going live, a release date announcement, an audiobook release announcement, and a monthly free book from one of my author friends as a bonus to my subscribers and to cross promote with other authors. Readers feel like they’re getting something with every newsletter, and there’s a call to action in every one. I try to keep my voice the same as it is in social media so it feels authentic. I don’t want them to feel like they’re getting a different version of me that’s just trying to sell books.
I make a habit of sending out a rich text follow up email to anyone that didn’t open up my first email within 24 hours. With many newsletter companies, so many of our emails go to junk and the deliverability for plain text and rich text emails is better for the inbox.
Q: How do you get your fans from social media/website/newsletter to point of purchase?
A: I just make sure that my links are easily accessible, whether it’s my homepage on my website, a link tree in my Instagram bio, or my cover photo on Facebook. I have links everywhere. And I make sure I’m linking to both e-books and audiobooks. I treat my audiobook releases just like an e-book release. All buying options need to be included.
I for sure use my bounty links for ACX, and I have absolutely seen an uptick in my bounties earned since making my bounty links available on my website and social media.
Q: What inspires you?
A: My characters are my biggest inspiration. I’m a series writer and the secondary characters in my books always end up with their own books because I care about them all like real people. I want them to have their own “happily ever after,” so I continue until I’ve got everybody happy and in love
5-4-3-2-1! ACX author, narrator, and master motivator Mel Robbins joined us in-studio to discuss The 5 Second Rule and how her method can help creatives of all stripes achieve success. Writing one of the best-selling audiobooks of 2017 and an Audible Original out this past May, Mel knows a thing or two (or five!) about maximizing your productivity and growing your listening audience. Listen to our interview below or read through the transcript to learn from the path she’s blazed.
Key points from our interview with Mel:
Learn The 5 Second Rule and what went into creating the bestseller. (02:25)
Discover how you can join the indie publishing revolution by publishing or producing audiobooks on ACX. (05:20)
Hear how to connect with your listening audience from the recording booth. (08:15)
Build your social media following the 5 Second way. (09:18)
Learn the role of graphic and video content in promoting your work on social media. (11:40)
Find out how authors and actors can use The 5 Second Rule to increase productivity. (15:00)
How does Mel recognize when she is one the right path to success? (22:15)
Mel has inspired a great number of people, but who inspires her? (29:15)
Read the transcript:
Scott Jacobi: This is Scott Jacobi with ACX, and I’m here with Mel Robbins. Thanks for joining us today.
Mel Robbins: Well, thanks for having me.
Scott Jacobi: We are in our Newark, New Jersey studios and today, Mel and I are going to talk about her book, The 5 Second Rule and how some of her tactics can be applied to ACX authors and actors to find success in their own lives.
Mel Robbins: That’s right. Listen up, baby.
Scott Jacobi: So could you please start by, give us sort of your 60 second elevator pitch on yourself and The 5 Second Rule, just set us up with what we’re dealing with today.
Mel Robbins: Sure. My name is Mel Robbins, and I’m a businesswoman, a mother of three. I’ve been married 21 years, which is a small miracle that Chris stuck around for that long, and I wrote The 5 Second Rule which is a book about a mind trick that I created by accident 10 years ago that will help you change any habit and have a deeper connection with your authentic self. That sounded so cheesy it’s unbelievable, but that’s just what fell out of my mouth.
Scott Jacobi: I don’t think it sounds, I think it sounded authentic. Like you said, authentic self. If you’re doing it without thinking about it, I think it’s coming out just right.
Mel Robbins: There you go.
Scott Jacobi: So there you go. Okay, so to get into it, your book has been a smashing success on Audible as well as in ebook and print. It quickly became one of the best selling books that we have on Audible. It has a 4.6 rating over 17,000 reviews.
Mel Robbins: That’s insane.
Scott Jacobi: Yeah.
Mel Robbins: Can we just stop right there?
Scott Jacobi: And it’s just been out a year, right? Last February?
Mel Robbins: It hasn’t even been out a year. 17,000 reviews, 4.6 stars, that is the thing I’m the most proud of. The fact that it’s not only done well, but more importantly, people fricking dig it.
Scott Jacobi: They dig it. They’re giving it great reviews, and you’re nearing 300,000 Audible units. Okay, all right-
Mel Robbins: No, we’ve passed it. Nearing. Give me all the credit it is due.
Scott Jacobi: I need an updated paper. The big thing there that I find so fascinating is your audiobook sales are more than your print and your ebook sales combined.
Mel Robbins: Yes.
Scott Jacobi: Which blows my mind, and I’m sure it blows a lot of people’s minds that’ll be listening to this. It seems, in some ways, like it came together very quickly, like it showed up on the scene very quickly, but we know that usually, overnight success is a misnomer. Can you tell us about the work that you put into The 5 Second Rule that most people wouldn’t see that they might be able to learn from?
Mel Robbins: Well, I’m gonna answer the question two ways. First, I’m gonna talk about The 5 Second Rule concept, and then I’ll tell you into the work that went into creating not only the book but an audio experience that became the sensation that it’s become.
Scott Jacobi: Give it to me.
Mel Robbins: So first of all, the idea of The 5 Second Rule is super simple, and that is that you can change your life in five seconds. In fact, that’s the only way that you change your life, and I came up with this simple trick 10 years ago to help me beat a habit of hitting the snooze button and oversleeping every single morning.
Mel Robbins: So the idea of The 5 Second Rule was something that I used in private for five years. I then shared it on a stage just kind of extemporaneously. I said that correctly, right? Okay. Somebody taped the speech that I was giving and the speech went crazy viral and then people started to write to me about The 5 Second Rule. The writing and the kind of emails that we got from people that saw this speech online drove me to want to figure out why The 5 Second Rule actually works, and so I did a three year long research project into the science of habits and human behavior. I’m a real nerd. Like I’m super curious about human behavior and life hacks and brain hacks and it turns out The 5 Second Rule is one of the most powerful brain hacks backed by science that will help you make any change happen.
Mel Robbins: So there was eight years of using The 5 Second Rule and three years of research that went into the concept, and I think that’s one thing to understand that particularly simple concepts, the reason why a simple concept can be powerful is there’s typically a ton of work behind it. So that’s how the background on the actual concept, but with the book, okay. You’re talking to a chick that has some dyslexia. I have ADHD.
Scott Jacobi: Same.
Mel Robbins: I have horrendous executive functioning skills, and the idea of writing a book is literally the equivalent of taking a pencil and shoving it into my eyeball.
Scott Jacobi: I hope that’s not how you wrote it.
Mel Robbins: Pretty much, yes.
Scott Jacobi: But that’s a big undertaking to put all that together.
Mel Robbins: Yeah, and my business partner will tell you it was probably the worst six months experience for either one of us, because I was complete jackass to deal with, because I was stressed out all the time.
Scott Jacobi: I’m sure a lot of our authors can relate to that.
Mel Robbins: Totally. So we wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and I also … So the book took about six months to write. Now here’s the thing that happened. We self published the book, and so what happened is we had all this kind of pent up demand because I have a social media following and I have a speaking platform, and when the book came out, it sold out in terms of the print copies, because it was a really small print run in the beginning. Sold out immediately, I don’t know, the 15,000 copies that they printed. The only thing that was available was the audiobook.
Scott Jacobi: Was the audio, right.
Mel Robbins: Or the ebook. Now, the thing about the audiobook that I think was a differentiator is that when you say overnight success usually means 10 years of experience, the one thing that is different about me as an author is that I have five years of broadcast experience. So when it came time to do the audiobook, I just naturally looked at the audiobook as if it were producing a radio show.
Scott Jacobi: Another broadcast project.
Mel Robbins: Correct. So the interesting thing, and I fricking love ACX. The experience that I have had as an author using your platform and, I should say, this platform, has been mind blowing and very eye opening. Number one, we all know that there’s a huge paradigm shift in publishing, and authors make the mistake of letting their egos make big business decisions. There are a lot of authors, and you may be one of them, that feels a little insecure about your work, and so you think you need an agent, or you think you need a big publisher. You think you need some kind of advance in order to validate your work. The truth is, you don’t need … anybody. The only thing that will validate your work is you actually doing your work.
Scott Jacobi: Getting it out there.
Mel Robbins: Yes.
Scott Jacobi: Doing it and getting it out to people.
Mel Robbins: Yes. Regardless of how the book gets published, you still have to market it. So finish the book, but then when you publish the book, it’s gonna be on you to push it. You’re gonna make more money if you are pushing people to the audiobook, because if you do your global distribution, the percentages are fantastic. Now-
Scott Jacobi: Right. Better than you’re gonna find on the print or the ebook side.
Mel Robbins: Better. Are you kidding? 10 times better for crying out loud. I say to everybody that I talk to that reaches out to us about advice about writing a book and publishing, number one, no matter what, sever all audio rights. Do it yourself through ACX. It’s the smartest business move, it’s a long tail strategy, you have all the resources right here, you’re being a complete dummy driven by ego if you do it any other way. Because let me tell you something, that big publishing house that is launching your book for you, you know what they’re gonna do? They’re gonna hire the same actor you could hire. They’re gonna stick him in the booth here at ACX, and they’re gonna distribute it themselves through ACX and they’re gonna give you a penny. Goodbye.
Scott Jacobi: Right. So do it yourself, and that’s a big part of our platform is the ability either to do it yourself as you did, reading it, or to sort of be your own author entrepreneur or actor entrepreneur, take the power into your own hands, put yourself in the booth, or put yourself in the director’s chair, as it were.
Mel Robbins: The other thing that I wanna say quickly is that just like The 5 Second Rule was a mistake.
Scott Jacobi: A happy accident.
Mel Robbins: Seriously, it was a happy accident that changed my life and will change yours. The audiobook experience and us self publishing for the first time on ACX was an incredibly happy accident, and one of the things that I want you to understand if you do narrate your own book, and this is something I learned at radio that you don’t think about. When you’re doing an audio product, it is a one to one experience. So when you go into that booth, one of the tricks that we used to have when I was in the radio business is we would print out the avatars on Facebook of our fans and I would have one person paste it up, their face in the booth, and I would talk to that one person.
Scott Jacobi: And that’s your audience.
Mel Robbins: That’s your audience. It’s an incredibly intimate experience.
Scott Jacobi: Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons that theater professionals, theater actors do so well with this, because they’re used to performing to the last row, and that’s a similar sort of idea to that. I think that’s great advice. You bring up your social media followers, which is a great point for me to pivot into my next question, and it also ties into the idea of no overnight success. You mentioned having a good social media following before you launched the book. You said people were reaching out to you and such about The 5 Second Rule when the video went viral. How did you use, once you had this book, how did you use the content around it to grow your social media channels, giving you a captive audience to then market the book to? What did you do that ACX authors or actors could try to replicate?
Mel Robbins: Well, so I have some particular rules about social media. Number one, it’s not about you. It’s about them. Unless you’re Beyonce and people wanna be a voyeur on your life, nobody really gives a shit, and so your social media is about what the audience that follows you is getting. So before you publish the book, as you’re writing a book, if you have something to say in a book, you also have something to say on social media. You need to start pushing yourself now to start publishing more content on social media. That content should be authentic. It should be personal. It should of value to your audience, and how do you figure that out? Well, you start publishing all kinds of stuff, and then you see what people comment on. You see what they heart. You see what they share. They will give you so much information based on how they’re interacting with you. Do more of what people interact with. That’s how you build an audience.
Scott Jacobi: Right. Test and repeat.
Mel Robbins: Yes, and you need to do it now. Don’t wait until the fricking book comes out and now you wanna sell something to people. Do it now.
Scott Jacobi: Right, get them involved. As we said, build up a little momentum, get them involved in the process early. We always tell our authors, tell them that you’ve cast your actor. Tell them that you’ve stepped in the studio. Share a picture of yourself as you step into the studio. Get people bought in emotionally to that product, so that when it comes out, they raring to buy it.
Mel Robbins: More importantly, as you’re writing it, take a photo of yourself as you’re struggling with procrastination. Write about it. Show people what you’re doing, and what happens is people feel like they know you. They feel like they’ve been along for the ride. They feel like for an entire year, you’ve done nothing but give value, value, value, and then when the time comes to support your work, now you can make the ask.
Scott Jacobi: And they feel like they’re giving you something back for what you’ve given them. I love that idea.
Mel Robbins: 100%. 100%.
Scott Jacobi: So as you’re talking about this social media content that you’ve created and you’re recommending others create, looking at your social media feeds, I noticed that you use a lot of video and image. It’s not just text based. I think a very basic thing people hopefully know about social media is video and pictures are going to get more engagement than just text based posts. They catch the eye. They take up more real estate, et cetera. How do you do that? So maybe you’ll tell me you are also a video producer and you’re also a Photoshop expert.
Mel Robbins: Not me. No, I’m not.
Scott Jacobi: So how do you do that and how could others possibly recreate that?
Mel Robbins: Well, the first thing that you could do is first of all, just shoot stuff on your smartphone for crying out loud. I mean, if you look at the stuff that goes viral, it’s really shady, fuzzy looking stuff that people shoot on their phones, so stop worrying about it being perfect. It’s not a book. This is a piece of micro-content that’s gonna last like 10 seconds. It’ll go viral if you’re lucky. Okay?
Mel Robbins: The second thing is that it’s platform dependent, so people that are on Instagram are image heavy. Things that are on Facebook tend to be either longer form or tend to be natively uploaded video. You don’t wanna just link to YouTube. That’s lazy. You gotta upload the video yourself to Facebook, otherwise you’re gonna decrease the amount of stuff that, the amount of times people share it. With YouTube, obviously it’s all video. If you start shooting your own video, almost like a selfie, just kind of talking to camera and showing people what you’re up to, sharing what you’re thinking about, you’ll see if it resonates with people. If you need to do more video, what you’re gonna do is you’re going to take a video of yourself and you’re gonna say, “I’m looking for an intern. Is there any high schooler out there that understands how to use iMovie or any of the editing tools, and I’ve got an incredible, killer, 10 hour a week internship with you that could turn into a paying gig.”
Mel Robbins: All of your friends’ nieces, nephews, sons and daughters will reach out to you, and next thing you know, you’ve got a couple people that are interested in editing video as an internship. Here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna tell them to take five or six of the crappy videos that you’ve shot yourself and edit together something kind of cool. You give them that project as a way for them to try out, pick the best one, boom. Now you have a video editor. You do this one little push at a time, and so that’s how we started. We now have three full time video editors. We have a creative director that runs social media. We have community managers that respond to all the posts and the comments, and one woman who does nothing but just answer emails all day. Because my brand is all about helping people get the advice and the entertainment and the connection that they need so that they can do a little bit better.
Scott Jacobi: So speaking of that, let’s do that right now. We’ve talked about some of the broad tactics that you’ve used for marketing your books, but I love The 5 Second Rule. I think it’s so fascinating, and I tried it myself the other night. I’ve personally not been going to bed early enough, and I have a little daughter who wakes me up at the same time every morning, no matter how late I go to bed, and I’m playing on my phone too long and I’m staying up too late. So having listened and researched your book, I said, I really should go to bed, and then I said 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, I’m getting up and I’m going to bed.
Scott Jacobi: So it worked for me in that little instance. How can authors and actors apply The 5 Second Rule specifically to what they’re trying to achieve in their day to day lives with their audiobook and writing?
Mel Robbins: Great, well, so let’s talk about the big creativity killer, which is procrastination. So procrastination is a habit. You’re not a procrastinator. You have a habit of procrastinating, and when you look at the research around habits, there are three parts that make up a habit. Then those become like a closed loop that get encoded in your brain, and then you get stuck in the habit of procrastinating.
Scott Jacobi: What are the three parts?
Mel Robbins: The first is the trigger. The trigger is something that is outside of you that triggers you to repeat a pattern, and then when you do the pattern, you get a payoff. So with procrastination, the trigger is 100% always the same. Procrastination is a habit that’s triggered by stress. Believe it or not, when you procrastinate on work, it has nothing to do with work. You’re actually stressed about something else, typically, and the stress triggers you to blow off the things that require focus. And so blowing off writing, blowing off editing a video, blowing off working on your marketing, blowing off watching the videos on the ACX university platform in order to get better at the acting stuff that you need to do. All of that is triggered by greater stressors.
Mel Robbins: The reason why you have the pattern of procrastinating is because when you blow off the work that requires focus, you get a small amount of release from the stress that you’re feeling. So the only way to change a habit is not to worry about the trigger. There’s always gonna be shit that stresses you out. You just can’t control that.
Scott Jacobi: That’s life.
Mel Robbins: That’s life. But you can always choose how you respond to the trigger. So if the habit right now is procrastinating as a form of stress release, what we need to do is we need to actually retrain you that when you’re stressed, that you recognize it and that you actually push yourself forward and do a little work anyway.
Mel Robbins: And so the way that you’re gonna use The 5 Second Rule is when you catch yourself procrastinating, number one, acknowledge oh. Don’t say, oh, there I go procrastinating again. Go oh, I must be stressed about something.
Scott Jacobi: Okay, so link the two together.
Mel Robbins: Yeah, link the two together, and it might be maybe your dad’s … Somebody on our team, she’s worried about her dad’s health. They’ve got a test back that’s a little sketchy and she’s now extraordinarily upset about it. Okay? That’s the trigger.
Scott Jacobi: I hope he’ll be okay.
Mel Robbins: So acknowledge, I’m just stressed about dad. So that disappears the trigger, and then go 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and I want you to just work for five minutes. That’s it. The reason I want you to just start working for five minutes is starting is the hardest part, number one. Number two, we’re not actually trying to turn you into a workaholic. We’re trying to retrain you and your response to the trigger of stress. Your old habit when you felt stress was to step back and procrastinate. The new habit is to recognize the stress, acknowledge it, and lean into the work.
Mel Robbins: So I only want you to work for five minutes because if I can get you started, 83% of you will keep going.
Scott Jacobi: 83%?
Mel Robbins: Yes.
Scott Jacobi: That’s pretty good.
Mel Robbins: Yes.
Scott Jacobi: I have a question about what you just said. I can say in my personal life, I’ve been working to try to do the first step of what you said, which is sort of step back and recognize, what am I actually feeling right now? What’s going on in my head or my body? Do you have a good way to take, is it a physical step back? Is it closing your eyes and taking a deep breath? How do you grab onto that moment and to not let it pass by?
Mel Robbins: Well, first of all, I count backwards, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. That’s The 5 Second Rule, and you’ve got to do that because what you’re doing is you’re interrupting all of the bad habits and reactions that get stored as habits in the interior part of your brain, and you’re awakening your prefrontal cortex. By the time you get to one, your mind is now primed to focus, to act with courage, to do something new. So the counting backwards is essential.
Mel Robbins: You can use the rule, the second that you hit one, you’re in control. So you now have the ability to make a conscious choice, whether that’s pushing yourself forward by speaking up, or by doing something outside your comfort zone, or starting the work where normally you’d procrastinate. Or maybe you’re gonna use it to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and now pull yourself back. You’re not gonna micromanage your team. You’re not gonna snap at your kids. You’re not gonna reach for that Manhattan, that you’re going to redirect yourself away from the thing that you do that’s destructive.
Mel Robbins: So for me, when I first started using The 5 Second Rule, I used it to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, get up on time. Then I used it to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, get to the gym. Then I used to it to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, kinda curb the drinking a little bit. Then I started using it to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, change the way and the tone in which I was speaking to my husband. We were going through some shitty stuff at the time, and I was not being that nice. Now, I use it mostly for thinking patterns.
Scott Jacobi: Give me an example.
Mel Robbins: So self-doubt. Imposter syndrome. Anxiety. Any garbage that you think that’s actually self destructive. It is a habit, just like chewing your nails is a pattern that you repeat that’s annoying, so is self-doubt. So if you catch your thoughts drifting, you can 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, give yourself like a mental … slap, awaken the prefrontal cortex, and insert something that is optimistic or positive or self-serving instead of defeating. In the five years that I have been using The 5 Second Rule to redirect my thoughts and reframe them, I have fundamentally changed my mindset. I’ve cured myself of anxiety. I have no imposter syndrome, and this goes back to the original question, which is how do you, in the moment, figure out how to do this?
Mel Robbins: Well, I think that inside each and every one of us, whether you call it a GPS or you call it your inner wisdom or you call it your soul or whatever you want to call it, that there is a guidance system inside of you.
Scott Jacobi: Something innate.
Mel Robbins: It’s always talking to you. It’s a combination of all the experiences of your lifetime, situational intelligence. It’s your intuition. The fact is that when you start to use The 5 Second Rule to push all the excuses aside, you gain a level of clarity that is very hard to describe. It gives you a direct line to your intuition, because so many of us, our intuition kind of rises up, and then we shut it down with an excuse or with self-doubt or with anxiety. When you start to empower your own intuition, and you start to have a little bit more courage in your life, what happens is your ability to hear those moments, your ability to really know yourself and be able to self-monitor, it’s extraordinary. It’s the most powerful thing that you could learn to do.
Scott Jacobi: So you’re stripping away the self doubt-
Mel Robbins: Yeah.
Scott Jacobi: Which is leaving room for the way you truly want to be feeling and acting to bubble up and for you to be able to recognize it and act on it.
Mel Robbins: That’s a beautiful way to say it.
Scott Jacobi: Thank you.
Mel Robbins: Yeah, really.
Scott Jacobi: Great. So you talk about success and achieving this success based on these methods that you’re talking about. What are some of the metrics that you use to define success in your own life, and maybe also specifically for your book and your audiobook? What are your benchmarks?
Mel Robbins: Well, I want to be the number one audiobook in the world.
Scott Jacobi: All right.
Mel Robbins: There you go. There’s my benchmark. Let’s go. We’re well on our way. I’m just kidding.
Scott Jacobi: So you said, well okay, you set very high level goals. Do you set sort of sub goals under those to hit along the way, or do you just set that stretch goal and you do everything you can to hit that.
Mel Robbins: So I’m what you would call an outcome thinker, so I’m always thinking about where I want to get to. Maybe this is from a lifetime of experiencing anxiety, which is always living in the future and normally the future’s terrible. So that’s why you feel anxious right now. But I’m an outcome thinker, so I think about the things that I want to achieve, and then I always work backwards to figure out, well, what are the steps that lead me there? I measure my personal success by whether or not I’m energized and proud of what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with. I think the single thing that has been a really remarkable tipping point, and this will be another book that we’re gonna write.
Scott Jacobi: Somebody already used the tipping point, so I would suggest a different-
Mel Robbins: Oh, not that one, sorry.
Scott Jacobi: Just a different title, but I love the idea, so keep going.
Mel Robbins: There is this really interesting tipping point in our business where things just exploded. The deals were suddenly massive and the platform was getting bigger, and that was when we stumbled upon this really interesting little tool that I can’t wait to write more about. That is that every single one of us has an internal fuel gauge. If you think about it like a gas tank that has a gauge that goes from empty to full. When your gas tank is empty, you feel depleted. When your gas tank is full, you feel fully energized. I think we discovered this because we were trying to create an online course around passion, and passion is a very difficult topic to teach because at the end of the day, passion isn’t a thing. It’s not a profession. It’s not something that the place that you live or relationship that you’re in. Passion is energy.
Mel Robbins: The way to discover passion in your life is to follow the energy. When you tune inward and you pay attention to the data that your own body is giving you, you actually have the answer to the question that vexes everybody, which is how do I find my passion? You find your passion by aligning your life with the things that naturally energize you. So we made a crazy, lunatic woo woo business decision a year ago, my business partner and I, that we would only do things and we would only work with people that we are energized by. Anything that depletes us … we’re not doing it. I don’t care how much money they offer. I don’t care how big the person is, and when you use your internal fuel gauge as a way to make decisions, what you’re actually doing is you now have found a tool to make decisions that are aligned with the things that you’re naturally passionate about.
Mel Robbins: The cool thing is that when you’re energized, you do better work. When you’re energized by the people around you, you’re a better leader. When you’re energized by the projects that you’re working on, you’re fricking creative. So what that may mean for you as a writer is you might be depleted when you sit down to write at home. You might notice that if you go to the local library or you go to a coffee shop, you’re more energized. So if you make the small shift to write in places where you naturally feel more energized, you will be shocked at how your creativity and your productivity flourishes.
Scott Jacobi: So it sounds like in order to notice that, we go back again to what you were talking about earlier, that need to take a step back, check in with yourself, use The 5 Second Rule to center yourself, if you will. What I’m getting from what you were just saying is it almost sounds like a melding between eastern and western. It sounds like it’s a little bit spiritual, but you also say it’s internally data driven, and I love the idea of taking something that there are people out there that think spirituality is a squishy concept and aren’t super into it. If you can use it for yourself in a way that feels more authentic, as you said, I agree. I think it can be a great driver to success.
Scott Jacobi: I have a quick question for you on what you just said. I imagine that it’s easier to say, I’m only gonna work with people that make me passionate. I’m only gonna take projects, regardless of the money, that I really feel passionate about. I imagine that’s easier when you’ve had a measure of success then when you’re either just starting out or you’re sort of at that pivot point, like you mentioned, just prior to that tipping point. Any tips for how somebody could avoid the allure of, I need the money. I should just take that project even though I don’t love it. Because you went through that.
Mel Robbins: Oh, god. Look, if you’re at the point where you’re trying to pay your bills, take the … project, okay? What I’m talking about is having the awareness so that if you’re in a situation where you work for a company and there are people in the company day to day that deplete you, be aware of that, and take intentional steps not to get hooked into them. So it’s more of the awareness around how people’s behavior is contagious. If there are people you have to work with every day that deplete you, take steps to remove yourself from conversations with them. Take steps not to engage in the passive aggressive stuff.
Scott Jacobi: Minimize the exposure.
Mel Robbins: Yes. Exactly, and spend more time with the people at work that actually do energize you. If you are somebody that you’re starting the process of becoming an actor and you’ve got, it’s a new paradigm and learning something new depletes you, every time you notice that you’re depleted, I want you to redirect your thoughts to the thing that got you excited about wanting to do this in the first place, and anchor yourself there in the part of what you’re taking on now that actually energizes you. Does that make sense?
Scott Jacobi: Yeah, no, absolutely.
Mel Robbins: So it’s kind of the fact that this awareness around what naturally depletes you and what naturally energizes you, how that can give you the beacons that you need to pivot in order to align your life and your work in ways that are more satisfying and more successful for you.
Scott Jacobi: Right. I love it. That definitely does make a lot of sense. As we start to wrap things up here, I’ve got one more question for you and then we’ll go into our little end game here.
Mel Robbins: Cool.
Scott Jacobi: But as you’ve mentioned and as people will see the moment they click on any of your website or social media profiles, you’ve inspired a great deal many people with this 5 Second Rule. I’m curious, who inspires you? Who has inspired you, or who do you currently see as a hero, and don’t say yourself.
Mel Robbins: Well, if I have to be … The first person that comes to mind, as cheesy and as predictable as it is, is Oprah, and there’s a reason why. The reason why is, first of all, I grew up with her. So I’m gonna be 50 this year, and when I got home from school, she would be on TV. It was my first habit that I remember in terms of television-
Scott Jacobi: A good habit.
Mel Robbins: And always looking forward to something. What I loved about her show was the fact that she made the fact that we’re all screwed up normal, and she wasn’t the kind of expert that was talking down to people. She was the kind of person that was right there alongside with you, and that really inspired me. Then when 10 years ago, I first stepped into the media business, and I signed a development deal with ABC, one of the people that was coaching me was one of the creators of The View, and they wanted to turn me into a talk show host. I remember him making me watch all these clips of Oprah Winfrey.
Mel Robbins: One of the things that he said about her that he wanted me to pay attention to, and as an actor and as an author, when you think about your audio experience of the story that you want to tell, I want you to remember this.
Scott Jacobi: Hit me.
Mel Robbins: When Oprah Winfrey opens her show, it doesn’t matter what she’s about to talk about. She exudes a level of excitement about what’s about to go down that makes you lean in because she believes that what you’re about to hear about the brand new microwave that’s gonna hit, that it’s gonna change your life. So she was a master at piquing your curiosity and making you pay attention. She was also a master at being passionate about what she was talking about.
Scott Jacobi: You took the words out of my mouth. I was going to say, based on what you’ve just said, she must be very passionate about what she does, and that makes a great point for especially actors as they step into the booth and they’re preparing to read their tenth book in a row and they’re looking to get those energy levels up. Having that passion and being passionate about it is such a key part in connecting with the audience for that performance. You’ve taught me, I was gonna say, Oprah must be incredibly passionate about what she does to bring that level of excitement every show.
Mel Robbins: Yeah, and when I step on a stage, for example, it could be an audience of 20,000 in a stadium. It could be 500 folks that work in financial services like we had in the audience yesterday in Dallas. The thing that drives me is knowing that there is one person in that audience whose life is about to change because of something they’re about to hear. If you step into the booth before you record your book, and you convince yourself that that one person, there’s one person out there that has to hear this story, and I’ve got to tell it in a way that is so compelling that I reach that one fricking person, you’ll win.
Scott Jacobi: Going back to what you said before about the audio medium being very one to one, being very intimate. Absolutely. I love it. I think that is great advice, and I think that’s a great point to wrap up the meat of this on, and to launch into our end feature, which we normally call the lightning round, but for this session we’ll call it the 5 second round.
Mel Robbins: Okay.
Scott Jacobi: So I have, and you have not seen these, so I’m-
Mel Robbins: I have not seen these.
Scott Jacobi: And they’re not difficult. They’re not gotcha questions, don’t worry.
Mel Robbins: Okay.
Scott Jacobi: But yeah, favorite place to write?
Mel Robbins: My favorite place to write? Into a microphone. I don’t like to write. I dictate everything.
Scott Jacobi: You dictate everything.
Mel Robbins: I’m an editor. I’m not a writer.
Scott Jacobi: So who puts it down for you?
Mel Robbins: Siri.
Scott Jacobi: Siri?
Mel Robbins: Yes.
Scott Jacobi: Okay.
Mel Robbins: Or Dragon Dictate, I use those two.
Scott Jacobi: Okay, all right. Cool. What is your favorite time of day to dictate?
Mel Robbins: Any time.
Scott Jacobi: Any time?
Mel Robbins: Yes, because I’m not a writer. If a thought comes to me, it’s like, I just puke it out right now.
Scott Jacobi: You gotta get that out right away.
Mel Robbins: Before I forget it. Remember, ADHD, dyslexia. You gotta work with what you got, people.
Scott Jacobi: So along those lines, coffee or tea, or no caffeine at all?
Mel Robbins: Coffee for sure with whole milk, except for when I have bronchitis, which I get every fall and spring, and then it’s tea.
Scott Jacobi: Okay. All right. Favorite pizza topping?
Mel Robbins: Mushrooms.
Scott Jacobi: Mushrooms?
Mel Robbins: And sausage.
Scott Jacobi: Together? Mushrooms and sausage?
Mel Robbins: Yes, mushrooms and sausage. More mushrooms.
Scott Jacobi: Okay. Favorite place to go on vacation?
Mel Robbins: Eleuthera. We had our best family vacation there.
Scott Jacobi: Eleu, where is that?
Mel Robbins: Bahamas.
Scott Jacobi: Bahamas, okay. Great. What item would you bring to a desert island?
Mel Robbins: A tent.
Scott Jacobi: A tent?
Mel Robbins: Yes, a water well.
Scott Jacobi: That’s a very … some people would say their favorite book or a locket from their mother.
Mel Robbins: God, no! I want to survive. Are you kidding?
Scott Jacobi: I like that answer. I like that answer. What was the last movie that you saw? Do you have time to see movies?
Mel Robbins: Yes. I watch movies on planes. I watched Wind River last night on the plane here, and it is a very upsetting movie. It’s a riveting story. I bet it would make an incredible audiobook, but it was very upsetting to watch.
Scott Jacobi: Last question. What is one thing we didn’t ask you about today that you would like our listeners to know?
Mel Robbins: I have no idea. Join us on social media. We reach 20 million people a month on social, and we bring you behind the scenes, and I don’t think I’m an expert in anything. I am a professional over sharer. I am intellectually curious. I’m a nerd about personal development, and I love sharing the stuff that I’m learning that’s working, not because I think that it’s what you should do, but because I hope it makes you think about what you are doing and how you could do it better for you.
Scott Jacobi: Great. Well, thank you for sharing that everything you’ve shared today with us. Definitely, definitely, definitely go check out The 5 Second Rule on Audible.
Mel Robbins is a serial entrepreneur, best-selling author, internationally recognized social media influencer, and one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the world.
With over 225 narration credits on Audible, not to mention his work on Broadway and TV, Nick Sullivan is an accomplished actor. The release of his second novel, Deep Shadow, reveals that Nick is a skilled writer as well. Nick recently sat down with us to share how his history as a performer influenced his work as an author.
Actor/author Nick Sullivan
Q: How did you become an audiobook narrator/producer?
A: Growing up, I was fascinated with “radio books,” and listened to the Radio Reader with Dick Estell on my local NPR station. When I became a professional actor and moved to New York, I came across an ad asking for actors to record for the Jewish Braille Institute. About a week later, I was shooting a short film and the actress playing my wife told me about the now-defunct Talking Book Productions, which recorded books for the Library of Congress. I auditioned and within days I was recording my first book, A Day No Pigs Would Die.
I’ve worked in film and TV, toured with a couple of shows, and have even appeared on Broadway a few times, but I always came back to audiobook work. I got into full-service audiobook production via Audible Studios, and I was involved in the first beta for ACX.
Q: What made you decide to try your hand at writing?
A: I dabbled in screenplay writing early on. Then, as my narration career hit its stride, it occurred to me I might be able to write if I put my mind to it. Then one day a few years ago, inspired by the wacky garden decorations in SkyMall magazine, I bought ZombieBigfoot.com and wrote a screenplay. Before I did anything with it, I booked Newsies on Broadway, then a tour of Kinky Boots. Finally, when I got back, I looked at the screenplay and thought: “I’m a narrator. I’ve been recording various authors across all genres for twenty years. Why don’t I novelize this first?” And I did. Zombie Bigfoot hit #1 in Horror Comedy in 2017. My second novel, Deep Shadow, about a team of scuba divers who get caught up in some dangerous international intrigue, just came out last month, and it’s off to a great start. There’s nary a zombie nor a Sasquatch to be found in its pages.
Q: How did your experience telling stories with your voice influence your writing?
A: I think it’s helped with the dialogue. I already have a “visual style” to my writing, with my structure having a lot in common with movies and episodic television. I married that to my desire to have every line of dialogue sound at home flowing from that character’s mouth. There were many times where I’d stop writing and “narrate” what I’d just written; often this would result in “oh my goodness, no…” and I’d go back and tweak the sentences to flow better. Once in front of the microphone, I made a number of changes during the audiobook recording process: I simplified some of the dialogue when it seemed too wordy or made a change here or there to let a conversation unfold more smoothly. There’s also the overall pacing of a scene that I think narrators are very attuned to. The author might be building to a climax, ratcheting up the action, or simmering in a tense situation—the narrator has to be on the same page with that, adjusting their pace and intensity accordingly. I’m hoping I managed to provide some excellent builds, transitions, and even moments of quiet.
Q: Do you write with the audio performance in mind?
A: Oh yes. For Deep Shadow, I picked voices I knew I was at home with and wove them into the characters from the start. I used accents for some characters that I was quite comfortable with; though I did use Afrikaans in Zombie Bigfoot and I’d never done it, so I forced myself to learn it since it was crucial to the character. But some dialects are my kryptonite. You will never hear a Chicagoan in my books. I sound like that “Da Bears” sketch from Saturday Night Live.
Q: Were there any authors that you tried to emulate or use as specific influences?
A: I think I’ve got a fair amount of Carl Hiaasen in my blood—I recorded one of his books long ago and went out and read-for-pleasure nearly all of his works. I love how he can fold absolutely absurd situations and broad characters into serious, suspenseful situations. Stephen King’s work has also informed my writing. He can go full-horror, but he’s not afraid to go all “funky n’ cool” too, inserting levity into the horror. And King’s book On Writing has some gleaming gems of wisdom about the craft.
Q: You wrote an impressive variety of voices/accents into Deep Shadow. Why did you decide to go that route?
A: It’s tricky, because I didn’t want to go overboard, but honestly, the location and nationalities involved in the story required a lot of accents. In fact, I decided to tone down a couple of the accents because there were so many. One example is with Martin, the elderly cook and father figure to Boone. He’s a native Bonairean, and would speak Papiamentu, a creole dialect on Bonaire. It’s a fascinating mish-mash of languages, but I decided I wanted him to have a clean delivery to match his straightforward wisdom. I knew some Bonaireans and Curacaoans who didn’t have strong accents, so this was something I felt I could do.
My general rule is, if someone is “from” somewhere, they need to speak accordingly. That being said, I didn’t want my main character to have an accent, so even though I wanted Boone to be from my home state of Tennessee, the decision to give him a Dutch father (which is part of his connection to Bonaire) gave me the license to have him speak without a Southern accent. Emily, on the other hand… I’ve noticed that the Caribbean is chock full of divemasters from the UK, Australia, and South Africa, so I wanted her to be a Brit from the beginning.
Nick the actor in the booth
Q: Did you find the experience of narrating your own writing to be easier or harder than narrating someone else’s work?
A: I hope it’s not a cop-out to say “both.” Honestly, the dialogue was a blast, because I knew exactly the intonation and intention I wanted. But, since I wrote the material, I knew in the moment if my vocal choices weren’t accomplishing what I intended, so it took longer than usual to record. I didn’t finalize the text for either book until I recorded it, so I was able to change any sentence that struck me as clunky, and I even reordered a few things. I remember a particular section in Deep Shadow where I had a lot of exposition to get through and finally I just stopped and said “No…if I don’t find a way to begin the dialogue earlier, people will drive off the road listening to this.” I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I found a way to introduce a second character earlier, allowing me to intersperse some dialogue.
Finally, no editor can catch typos like a narrator. For both books I hired a professional editor who caught plenty of them, but I still caught quite a few more when I narrated…and then a couple more when I QC’d and edited the audio.
Q: What’s next for Nick the author?
A: After Nick the Narrator finishes up a couple of projects, Nick the Author is going on a scuba trip to Saba in June, then he’s off to Bonaire for a writer’s retreat with two other authors. I’m hoping to have a first draft of the sequel to Deep Shadow by late September.
NICK SULLIVANhas narrated audiobooks for over twenty years and has recorded over four hundred titles, receiving numerous AudioFile Earphones and Audie nominations and awards. He has performed on Broadway and appeared in many TV shows and films, such as The Good Wife, The Affair, Divorce, Bull, Madam Secretary, Boardwalk Empire, 30 Rock, Elementary, and all three Law and Order series. Nick is also the author of Deep Shadow and Zombie Bigfoot.
Audible Approved Producer Eric Martin joins us today to discuss one of the rewarding creative partnerships he’s forged on ACX and how it has grown across multiple audio projects. Here’s Eric in his own words.
Hitting the Jackpot
Audible Approved Producer Eric Martin
I got my start in audiobooks via ACX back in 2012. A lifelong love of storytelling and audio recording led to podcasting in the mid-aughts, which led to audiobook narration and production a few years later. Publishers like Penguin Random House, Hachette, and Tantor Audio quickly found me through my work, and I’ve since gone on to narrate or produce more than 150 titles and counting. I’m grateful to ACX for the opportunity to get my foot in the door and learn what there is to know about audiobook production and narration. Even today, ACX remains an important part of my portfolio. I love being able to work directly with authors and create projects that I’m passionate about. Here’s the story of how I hit the jackpot working with a great author on one of my favorite subjects.
Place Your Bets
When I’m not narrating for work, often I’m reading for pleasure—and I particularly love adding nonfiction titles to my library and learning something new. In 2014, I picked up Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas, and was immediately fascinated by the story of larger-than-life impresario Jay Sarno, the creator of the iconic Caesars Palace and Circus Circus casinos in Las Vegas.
The book was written by David G. Schwartz, who is the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s a prolific writer on websites like Vegas Seven and an engaging public speaker with a dedicated following. The combination of great material, engaged author, and excited fanbase made this a very attractive project to take on. I approached David and asked if I could help adapt the book into audio. He agreed, and we began our collaboration.
A couple of months later, the audio edition of Grandissimo was released. David helped get the word out to his fans and readers via social media, and I interviewed him on my podcast “This American Wife.” Together, we reached a lot of potential listeners.
The combination of a great story and a marketing push from both author and narrator using podcasts and social media helped drive sales, and contributed to Grandissimo being featured as an Audible Daily Deal a few months later.
Let it Ride
Based in part on the success of Grandissimo, I was inspired to create an original audio work of my own about Las Vegas. Hoot Gibson: Vegas Cowboy features an all-star cast including Andy Daly, Weird Al Yankovic, Rachel Bloom, and many others.
We included a lot of real Vegas history in the series, and because David and I had collaborated together and kept in touch, he was able to refer me to the Center for Gaming Research that he directs at UNLV. It’s a big library and an incredible resource for all things Vegas and gambling.
I listened to oral histories at the Center that became a huge inspiration for many characters and scenarios in the finished series. It was an unexpected thrill spending many hours listening to old tapes in the library and hearing such incredible stories that brought history to life.
I did a bit of research and discovered that nothing like this was available in audio. I thought it would be a great way to learn about a fascinating topic, and I knew that Vegas and gaming fans (as well as UNLV students) would be eager to have a resource in audio that could tell the compelling tale of humankind’s relationship to chance. So, I rolled the dice and said yes!
Right away, I knew that I wanted to get David’s voice into the project. I’d previously had authors narrate their intros to include them in the audiobook, and this time, we took it to the next level. The printed book ends at about 2013. We thought we could bring listeners right up to the current moment with a funny and informal audio interview that would end the book.
Plus, it would be a great excuse to get out to Vegas for a trip!
David and I met at a local Vegas studio in late December, not far from the Strip, and recorded a great conversation about the latest trends in gaming, e-sports, entertainment, online betting, and VR. This interview, exclusive to the audio edition, is the final chapter of the audiobook.
Working with David has been a great experience. Bringing these amazing stories to life in audio is a reminder of why I do this work in the first place—to bring projects that I’m passionate about to listeners.
Along the way, I learned a lot about the value of creative partnerships in this business. My advice to those that want to build relationships and further their career is:
Don’t be afraid to make the first move. None of this would have come to fruition had I not taken a chance and approached David in the first place.
Keep the lines of communication open, even after the initial project has been completed. You never know when one good idea might lead to another, or who might be able to set you up with your next big opportunity.
Combine powers. David and I made an excellent marketing team, and together we were able to reach more listeners than we’d have been able to individually.
Get creative. Find a way to offer your fans something of value that they wouldn’t have without you. In this case, my exclusive interview with David made for a unique experience that differentiated the audiobook from other formats.
So, if you play your cards right, you won’t get lost in the shuffle. And you might just win big.
Eric Martin is the narrator of over 150 audiobooks, including works by George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace. He is the director and narrator of Audible’s hit audio show Stinker Lets Loose! also starring Jon Hamm, Rhea Seehorn, Andy Richter, and many more, and co-creator of the original audio series “Hoot Gibson:Vegas Cowboy.”