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Going Beyond the Book with Eric Jason Martin

Eric Jason Martin

Audio: the final frontier. These are the voyages of independent creators. Their mission: to dream up and build strange new worlds. To bring new life to characters and stories from the page—and beyond. To boldly take us where no ear has gone before! Our captain: Eric Jason Martin. Veteran ACX-ers might recognize this Audible Approved Producer from our 2018 post, Doubling Down on Audiobook Success, but not one to be pinned down by labels, this producer/director/narrator has just added another title to his name—author. Martin’s first novel, New Arcadia: Stage One came to audio yesterday, and this multi-cast adventure is full of A-list vocal talent, an original score, and a tasteful soundscape that gives you the feeling if you closed your eyes for a moment, you might just open them in 199X, in the arcade-inspired dystopian world of the story. We were lucky enough to snag a moment of this creative multi-hyphenate’s time to talk sound design, writing and casting his first novel, and the endless possibilities of audio.

What sparked the idea for this project?

Well, I really wanted to write a book! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time—I’ve written some original audio productions in the last few years, but it was a little scary to consider sitting down and writing an entire novel, something that could sit on a shelf and have a bar code and a Dewey Decimal classification and all that cool stuff. I knew I had to write a GameLit or LitRPG novel to get started. I’ve been a fan of video games since I was little, and I’ve since come to understand their potential both in terms of play, and as a powerful learning tool. Playing Roller Coaster Tycoon back in the day was literally how I got into the business of themed entertainment, so it legitimately helped kick-start my career. These days, I narrate a lot in the GameLit/LitRPG genre, so it’s a world I know very well, and I’ve been thinking about using a “beat ‘em up” game as the subject for a story for a few years—the stories these games told were often about fighting criminals in a big bad city. I was really drawn to the idea of doing something with this world in literature.

What was the process for writing this story like, and how did being a narrator/ producer first influence your writing on this project? Did you already have a vision for the audio when you started?

When it came time to actually write the book, it happened very fast. I had already done a decent amount of work imagining the mechanics of a virtual game world like this, because I had developed another version of this project for audio a couple of years prior. Even though the finished story turned into something very different, it helped to have that base to work from. Once everything shut down last year, it got me thinking of this project in a new way. I started imagining this retro game city as a way to bring people together again in a virtual space—people who have been apart for a long time. So I starting writing over the summer, and it was very helpful to think of it as an audiobook. That “one weird little trick” helped me get over a lot of the fear of writing, because I already knew how to do audiobooks, so suddenly I was working from a place of confidence. Thinking of the project in audio also helped me picture certain performers for each role, performers that I actually wanted to cast in the audiobook version we would be recording. Once you can get that specific about a character or role, it takes something that can be really hard—creating compelling story and dialogue—and it makes it a little easier to do. Having narrated nearly 300 audiobooks, I also a had a clear sense of what would work in audio and what would not. I knew I’d be narrating the book as the main character, and that was another opportunity to revise the text, right there in the studio. If something didn’t sound right to my ear, I would change it as I was recording the narration. It’s usually a big no-no to stray from the recordable script… but if you’re the author, nobody can stop you!

Once it was written, what was the process of casting and recording/producing like?

The audiobook production moved very fast. I’d say from my first email to a performer, to the final mastering, it was about three months. That includes recording 19 performers, two incredible musicians writing a full original soundtrack, and a lean post- production team cutting it all together and adding effects. Again, it was easier having written the roles for specific people. I was nervous and didn’t have any expectations, but I was blown away that everybody agreed to be a part of this. It helped that they were all voice actors, so I figured they had home recording setups that would work, although I had options available in case I needed to get them equipment. Technology is so good these days that having a decent mic and recording in a quiet well-padded closet can get you pretty far. And if you have a quality post-production team, as we did here, you can make it all sound fairly uniform.

There are some pretty well-known names in the voice credits for this production – do you have any advice for authors nervous to ask big-name vocal talent to work on their projects?

Yes, be nice! And do everything you can to make it easy for people to say yes. They may not make a fortune doing your project. But if it’s quick, easy, and a lot of fun, and they’ll be with other great people whom they like and respect, that’s a lot harder to say no to. Be clear about the time commitment, make it as small as possible, and be flexible in scheduling, as much as you can.

Now Available on Audible.

This production has some great extra audio elements like an original score and sounds – how do you incorporate elements like that without overwhelming the listener or overshadowing the narration?

We were very careful in how we approached the sound design for this project. We worked with the team at Mumble Media to focus on the multi-cast recordings, as well as the original soundtrack, as the primary tools to communicate the story and scene. The old arcade sounds are a lot of fun, but a little of that goes a very long way in an audiobook format. The action could be exhausting if you heard an unending stream of punching and kicking and yelling. So we let the actors and narrator communicate a lot of the action in the performances, we were very sparing with sound effects, and we supplemented the action in places with the soundtrack to give it additional emotional impact. The great Lloyd Cole created our main theme, and it was such a thrill to be able to work with him, I’m a huge fan of his work. For New Arcadia, he has created a beautiful piece, ambient and propulsive and mysterious. He describes it as “Escape from New York meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Dune.” When we incorporated it into the audiobook, it became the de facto theme of the real world. The few times we leave the game world and go back to reality, you’ll hear different pieces of this theme as you re-emerge, which signals to the listener that we are transitioning to a very different place. Casey Trela is a fantastic composer, very versatile, and expert in the chiptune style of these retro games. He’s created some truly catchy tunes that serve the game story beautifully. He had the added challenge of creating special songs that evoke the world of “199X,” songs that sound like they’d actually be coming from your radio back then. These extra audio elements can really help build a strong sense of environment in an audio-only production where visual cues and backdrops are absent.

What makes this production special and how do you see productions like this one carrying audio storytelling forward?

It’s such a blast to bring great talent together on a production like this. I enjoy the traditional one book / one narrator approach very much (indeed, you can find me in my home studio a few days a week telling stories this way). That said, I think there’s a growing space and increasing demand for multi-cast productions, and we’re all just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible. Audio is great for many reasons, and one practical one is that the listener’s mind handles most of the big-budget effects and locations in your story. You can communicate complex stories much more quickly and cheaply with sound alone. It’s a very exciting and innovating time in this medium, and it’s a thrill to be a part of it all. When you work as relatively fast and cheaply as you can in audio, you can get a lot more done than you can in other mediums, meaning you can experiment and learn much faster in your craft. I’ve tried a lot of different things in my time creating these stories in audio, and have made some mistakes along the way. But even those mistakes were instructive, and I can see how they led directly to some of my biggest successes. So that’s why I embrace this lean and iterative style of working, and audio is an ideal vessel for that approach. You can do cool stuff in audio fairly easily and quickly, so maybe you should! Each project you take on and complete can become a stepping stone, every single one can teach you something or connect you with someone. And for this project, in many ways, it’s the apotheosis of all of the different things I’ve done up to this point. But it’s not the end, it’s a beginning. There’s lots more to do. I’m excited for you to hear what we’ve put together with New Arcadia: Stage One, AND I’m excited for what comes next.

Eric Jason Martin is a producer, director, voice performer, and author, based in Los Angeles. He is the AudioFile Earphones and Audie Award–winning narrator of over 275 audiobooks. He has developed several original audio productions, including directing the NY Times Bestsellers Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne’s original series Heads Will Roll, featuring Meryl Streep (Broadway Video/Audible), and Stinker Lets Loose!, starring Jon Hamm (Audible). His production of Mr. New Orleans, starring Westworld’s Louis Herthum, is a 2021 Audie Award nominee.

An Update from ACX

We’re committed to making Audible and ACX the best experience it can be for our creative community, and we’ve heard your feedback. We have been hard at work building a new reporting system to reflect details on returns, including returned units by title. Starting March 2021, you’ll be able to see this data on your ACX Sales Dashboard. This data will also be included in your monthly financial statements for March 2021 and the following months. We appreciate your patience as we invest the time and resources to make these updates to the dashboard and our backend systems, so that we can expand reporting details for our thousands of creators. As of January 1, 2021, we are paying royalties on any return made more than 7 days after purchase.

We are also making other changes to our ACX policies to provide more flexibility, which we know is important to you. Effective February 1, ACX Rights Holders of DIY or Pay-for-Production titles that have been on sale for 90 or more days can convert their distribution type from exclusive to non-exclusive. In addition, all ACX Rights Holders will have the option to terminate after 90 days of distribution, but Rights Holders with Royalty Share or Royalty Share Plus deals must provide Producer consent when making their request. More details about this update will come in the payments letter that will be sent next week.

We wish you all the best in 2021.

A Note from ACX

Launched in 2011, the Audiobook Creation Exchange has paved the way for exponential growth in audiobook production and consumption, today supplying over 200 audiobooks in store per day to Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. The ACX online rights marketplace and production engine is available to all authors, publishers, literary agents, narrators and studio pros in the US, UK, Canada, and Ireland. ACX.com connects and educates independent authors and rising actors—many of whom are among 20,000 professional actors who have worked with Audible in the past 5 years—in the art of audiobook performance and creation, and provides title-promotion tools and methods to drive sales and audiobook awareness, allowing our creative stakeholders to reach new audiences on Audible and beyond. Free programs, including ACX University and the Promo Code tool, seek to level the playing field and further expand opportunity for authors, narrators, rights holders and producers alike.

As you know, we’ve been working to address some ACX authors’ concerns about Audible’s overall exchange policy, and we appreciate your feedback. The intent of this program is to allow listeners to discover their favorite voice, author, or story in audio. In instances where we determine the benefit is being overused, Audible can and does limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed by a member. But as designed, this customer benefit allows active Audible members in good standing to take a chance on new content, and suspicious activity is extremely rare.

We hope this helps convey perspective to our valued writers and ACX partners as to the impact of our current returns policies. However, in recognition of these concerns, moving forward and effective as of January 1, 2021, Audible will pay royalties for any title returned more than 7 days following purchase. This adjustment does not impact our customers’ current benefits of membership, and we look forward to continuing to welcome millions of first-time listeners, enabling our members to discover new content they enjoy and growing the audience for our valued creative partners.

Raise Your Voice: Narrator Erin Mallon Takes on Authorship

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!

Sound Check: Audio Lab Launches on ACX

Earlier this year, we launched Audio Analysis — a web tool that gives ACX Producers instant feedback on their production audio files, allowing them to identify and correct technical issues before submitting their projects for review. Audio Analysis improves the workflow for Producers during a production, but we want all ACX Producers to feel confident about their sound before they even submit their first audition, so we created Audio Lab. Simply upload your audio files and Audio Lab gives you immediate feedback on how they measure up to our Audio Submission Requirements on seven important metrics, including peak value and RMS. We’re excited about the potential this tool offers for new and seasoned Producers alike, so we thought we’d break down how you can use Audio Lab effectively to hone your sound like a pro.

Who can use Audio Lab?

Audio Lab is open to any ACX user – if you have an account with ACX, you can upload files for analysis on Audio Lab. New producers can create an ACX account and start using it to test their sound progress as they learn to gauge when they’re ready to start auditioning. Seasoned producers can use it to test and calibrate new gear to meet our submission requirements.

How do I use it?

It’s easy! Just upload your audio files to the Audio Lab page – you can find it under the “Production Resources” tab on ACX – and the system will give you immediate feedback on how your files measure up to our submission requirements on RMS, peak value, bitrate, bitrate method, and sample rate. The results are only visible to you.

What sort of files should I use?

Audio Lab is built to analyze any spoken word MP3 audio files, but we recommend uploading files that you’ve recorded, edited, and mastered to our submission requirements as you would if you were producing an audiobook, even if you’re just reading test passages from a favorite book. This will give you the best sense of how production-ready your sound is, and will let you know what you need to adjust to pass QA.

When do I use it?

Anytime you have audio you want to test! Here are just a few times you might find it useful:

  • Use it to test samples for your profile when you first join ACX
  • Use it to make sure you’re ready to take on audiobook projects
  • Before auditioning for a specific project
  • When you’re mid-project, to test your audio before sending it to the Rights Holder for approval
  • Whenever you change your equipment or studio space

Why should I use it?

Periodically testing your files with Audio Lab – whether you’re a new narrator or an ACX veteran – ensures you enter into every contract with the confidence that you can deliver a great production.

We hope that Audio Lab offers the Producer community the resources you need to craft awesome productions. If you’re new to ACX or to audiobook production in general, and you’re looking for more resources to help you narrate, record, produce, and distribute great sounding audiobooks, be sure to browse this blog for more tips, visit our YouTube channel, and check out our Audio Terminology Glossary to get up to speed.


An Update to Audio Analysis

Earlier this year, ACX launched the Audio Analysis tool for Production Manager, a new feature that allows Producers and DIY Authors to upload audio files and receive immediate feedback in a report identifying seven of the most common production issues—all before submitting the project to Quality Assurance.

We hope you’ve been exploring the new feature and are finding it to be a helpful tool in your production process. Now that you’ve had a little time to get comfortable with Audio Analysis, we’re making an adjustment to the ACX submission process: starting today, some accounts will see the new experience, and by May 4, all titles will be required to resolve any issues identified by Audio Analysis before they are able to submit for review.

Need help making corrections? The Audio Analysis tool provides a full report on all your audio files, with details on the issues that need addressing, and links to specific ACX Submission Guidelines and Reference Guides that can help you address them. And as always, if you need more guidance or assistance in getting your files QA-ready, the ACX blog and YouTube channel are at your disposal with further resources on recording, editing, mastering, and more.

Hannibal Hills: Lessons from the First Three Years Part 2

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

Hannibal Hills in his booth

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 know in the comments below.

Hannibal Hills: Lessons from the First Three Years

There’s no roadmap to building your own narration career. Many independent narrators come to narration as a second profession, without a background in voiceover or audio engineering. With so much to learn and master, embarking on a career in audiobooks can be daunting to say the least. So how do you know if that plunge is one you should take? And where the heck do you start anyway? Well, there’s no one right way, but here to tell you how he built a career in audiobook narration from square one to successful Audible Approved Producer of more than 40 audiobooks, is “The Darkly Sophisticated British Storyteller,” Hannibal Hills. You may not follow the exact same path, but you’re sure to find some important road markers for your own journey.

The Inspiration

Audible Approved Producer Hannibal Hills

I was almost forty-six when I first read from a book into a microphone. This isn’t unusual in the world of audiobook narration—many of the voices you hear reading your favorite books came to the job with half a lifetime of experience in very different roles, and so it was with me. Although I trained in theater back in the early 1990s, I left that path. For a time I worked in banking, and for twenty years after that I was a self-employed web designer. I also worked as a wedding minister from my thirties on. Many narrators carry a love of performance from childhood, like a pilot light that waits patiently to be needed. After officiating one summer wedding, a guest made an off-the-cuff remark about wishing I could read them an audiobook. I remember the glimmer of a notion that maybe I would like to try that. Four years later, I finally did.

The First Auditions

In February 2017, on impulse, I decided to buy an hour of time at a small local studio with good, promising reviews—just to read something into a “real microphone” in a “real space.”I came out of that first session longing for something more substantial to read and most importantly, I had finally been behind the microphone, and I liked it. I liked it very much.

I then found ACX via Google, and it was very easy to create a profile. I booked a second hour in the local studio the following week and picked three books to audition for: a comedy, an urban fantasy, and a non-fiction title. I recorded the scripts, paid extra for the studio engineer to tidy up and master the final takes, and uploaded the files with a polite message of greeting to the authors. To my astonishment, forty-eight hours later I had been offered contracts for all three. This was my first major decision point. I knew I enjoyed recording, but also knew I would have to pay for the studio time. For three books, this was a much bigger expense, but I felt it was something I had to do. Recording for two or three hours a week, in a couple of months those books were done. So far, it was still just an expensive hobby. But I loved the process, and by the end of the first book I knew I never wanted to stop.

The Engineering

I made an agreement with my engineer, who would work for a cut of the royalties from the next book. This actually turned out a very good deal for all concerned, and we ultimately did five titles together—one of those books is still my best-selling Royalty Share project—but recording at a local studio had two significant drawbacks: it was cost-prohibitive and studio time was extremely limited.

From the beginning, I had been tracking my audiobook costs and income on a spreadsheet, and projecting probable earnings at various levels of output. I had already figured out this was a long game, and that I would not be making a sustainable full-time income for at least two years, and not unless I could record on my own terms in my own space. Looking back, the first couple of years narrating were primarily about investment: investing in time, in coaching, in a proper recording space and equipment, in learning more and more every day, and sticking with it every day, because momentum is essential.

Choosing and Funding a Home Studio

I live in a noisy location: heavy road and air traffic, many neighbors keen on gardening and DIY projects, and at the time we owned the world’s loudest cat. I realized quickly that blankets would not be enough to dampen the intrusive sounds. Between March and May of 2018, I worked hard at projecting the numbers for costs and income, and started inquiring about loans to cover the cost of a recording booth that would be good enough to beat the local noise pollution. Needing a booth that I could access twenty-four hours a day, in a location already available for free, I decided on our vacant guest bedroom. After gathering quotes for booth construction and some long, frank conversations with my wife, I talked to my bank and they offered me an “equipment” loan, which meant a lower rate than a typical personal loan. With those funds, I purchased my 6’ by 4’ Vocalbooth Platinum. I know that many narrators thrive with a much less expensive space treatment, but in my location I needed more. I have not regretted it a single moment, and in the two years I’ve had it, my beloved booth has given me a consistent,  professional sound quality that has allowed me to audition and perform with confidence, and prevented many noise issues that would have caused extensive and costly edits or re-takes.

Becoming an Editor

Having moved into my home studio, I needed to learn to edit and post-produce my own files—a significant undertaking. I tried months of tinkering, slowly improving, but finally knew I needed a professional to help. The marvelous Tim Tippets helped me create the right effects stack (the order in which one applies effects like EQ and compression to their audio files), and streamline the whole process. Sean Pratt, about whom you’ll learn in the next installment, had already taught me the essential value of “punch and roll,” a recording technique that makes audiobook editing far easier. Knowing that you have your process down means you can concentrate on performance and career-building. For narrators, I now believe the end goal is to outsource editing and post-production, but first we should know how to process our own audio. As with your recording space, the right DAW (your Digital Audio Workstation—the software used to record, edit, and post-produce audio) is different for everyone. I now record in Reaper and edit in Audition. There are a variety of DAWs that will get the job done; it’s about creating a system and process flow that gives you confidence and allows you to get on with the job of performance most effectively. For me, the simplicity and comfort of the Reaper interface perfectly suits my needs during the performance phase, while the functionality of Audition allows me to process every aspect of my recording and easily master files to the right specifications.

At this point, I had recorded over a dozen books, and learned a lot about the technical part of the process. But, I knew I still had a great deal more to learn about performing, and especially how to find work, build my brand, and to take my career to the next level.

Stay tuned for the second part of Hannibal’s narration career journey, where he’ll tackle specializing, outsourcing, and goal-setting.

Routine to the Rescue

We recently read Andi Arndt’s advice for at-home professionals adjusting to a full house and thought it was valuable for the ACX community. Andi graciously agreed to let us republish it below.

This is for you if you’re a home studio narrator (or other freelancer) used to having the house to yourself during the day, and find yourself (courtesy of the pandemic) surrounded by people unused to structuring their time. Routines can be so reassuring, without us having to say a word.

In the last week I’ve gone through what we all have, and noticed how it made my sense of day/time a bit swimmy. Fell into some news/social media habits I don’t want. By Friday I realized that I need structure in my work days, and it is going to be up to me to establish it, and ask my family to respect it, or I am not going to get much done.

Some suggestions:

  1. Get YOUR head together first. Do a brain dump, on scratch paper or in a journal or wherever, of all of your thoughts, fears, hopes, big and small, related to this whole situation. Get all that noise on paper and look at it, own it, set it aside. Not a bad way to start or end each day for a while if it helps…kind of like morning pages in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
  2. Look at your work commitments, schedule, etc. and erase the things that were canceled. You’ve probably already done this. 
  3. With the things not happening, do you have more time to meet deadlines? If so, rather than taking on more projects, can you plan a condensed workday / work week? Consider a policy of not working after dinner, not working weekends. You could do 10 hours in 4 days instead of 5.
  4. Consider your family’s daily rhythms now. Do you have little ones who are up with the sun, or teenagers who sleep in? When you look at your work day, plan work time that is congruent with these rhythms. Save yourself frustration wherever possible.
  5. Plan your in-the-office calendar. When will you be in your office / studio? How much of the time will be recording, how much time for admin tasks? Build in a couple of stretch / walk around breaks as needed. Set TRT goals for each recording block. Make rules for non-work internet use. Use apps that lock you out of news / social media during certain hours if necessary. This version of your schedule is more detailed and it’s for you.
  6. Now look at your detailed calendar and zoom out a bit. What is work and what is not work? This is all that matters to your family. Summarize your workday. For me, it’s 8:30-12:30, 1:30-4 with an option to be done at 2:30 if I was super-productive in the morning.
  7. Post your schedule on the family bulletin board, fridge, wherever everyone sees it. Also post it on your office door. Your detailed schedule can be in your office.
  8. Communicate about it. Your only goal this week is to try your hardest to hold to your plan, and to patiently communicate with your family. It’ll take time for everyone to settle in. Emphasize that routine can be helpful for everyone at a time like this, that you are sharing your routine that helps you, and encouraging them to come up with a daily routine that helps them. For younger kids, agree on a few times during the day they can count on to connect with you. When those times come, “pencils down” and keep your promise.
  9. Hold steady and keep your patience, both with others and with yourself. Your schedule is not a battle line, it’s not a punishment, it’s not a declaration that you are more important than others. For kids, you are setting an example. For a spouse or partner who misses the rhythms of the office, your work rhythms can give them that same sense of the day/week they had at work.

If people aren’t understanding the difference between work and not-work time, it might feel silly but you can actually talk as though your office is outside the house. “Ok everybody, heading to work now, I’ll see you around x:xx for lunch!” might feel silly but it underscores that you are not going to be available to do household things for a bit. If people are asking you to do household or fun things during work time, you can always Obi-Wan that person: “that sounds really fun! I look forward to doing that with you at x:xx.”

I’d love to hear how it’s going with everybody and what helpful hints you would like to share, problems and how you solved them, all that. We are going to need this virtual water cooler now more than ever, so I thought I’d get the conversation started.

Good luck and good health, and may we all be back to normal soon!

Andi Arndt is a full-time audiobook narrator and Executive Producer of Lyric Audiobooks. As of March 13, 2020, her husband is now working from home and her teenagers’ high school is now online.

This piece originally appeared on Andi Arndt’s LinkedIn.

A Message to the ACX Community

In these rapidly changing times, our creative community is top of mind. We wanted to let you know about a few changes we’ve made to help support our independent creators and entrepreneurs in light of evolving challenges. 

Additional Royalty Support – To reduce the financial impact of COVID-19 on the creative community, we are temporarily paying an additional 5% royalty on all sales of your ACX audiobooks through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes for sales during the months of April, May, and June. So, if you distribute your title exclusively through ACX, your total royalties will temporarily increase to 45% during this period (22.5% for those choosing Royalty Share), and for non-exclusively distributed titles, your total royalties will temporarily increase to 30% on sales during this period.

Employee Safety – All of our associates are working remotely at this critical time. You may experience delays in response times as we make this transition, but we are striving to maintain an outstanding creative experience.

Additional Educational Resources – ACX has always been committed to providing accessible user education through our ACX University program and this blog, and as new writers and performers turn to audiobooks as a way to reinforce their earnings, we’re doubling down on connecting you to experts and resources to make your creative journey easier and more successful.   

Even though indie creators and entrepreneurs may be accustomed to working from home, we know everyone’s lives have been disrupted during this period of uncertainty. Keep an eye on our blog and newsletter for ideas from your peers on how to create stability and work productively.

We wish you and your loved ones safety and good health,

The ACX Team