It’s ACX’s 10th anniversary this spring, and we’re marking the occasion by sharing the stories of amazing independent creators that make this a milestone worth celebrating. Start reading this series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller, author Aleron Kong.
How did you become an author?
I started writing for me. I never thought it would go anywhere. It was more of a psychological exercise than anything else. But I had found LitRPG, which is my genre—literature role playing games. It’s only been around in the States for about four years, and I found it around three and a half years ago. And when I found it, it was like, “Where have you been my entire life? Like video games and sci-fi fantasy??” At the time, there were only like four books available in English because it started either in Russia or Korea, so I was bemoaning the fact that there was nothing more to read one day and I was like, “Well, why don’t I just give this a shot?” I wrote six books in 14 months, and then the seventh one – I wrote that a year later and it weighs five pounds.
You went from being an audiobook skeptic to being a champion for the audio format, with audiobooks outselling print books! What role did ACX play in helping you to make that leap?
I knew nothing about audiobooks before I became an author. I had only listened to one—Lord of the Rings—in my life, and honestly, while it was nice hearing the story, it felt a bit dry. And at the time, that felt right because that was just the accepted “right way” to create an audiobook. The more British the better. Because of that, I thought audiobooks were just a different way to read a book. I didn’t understand yet that audiobooks could be an artform in and of themselves, the same way music videos in the 70s and 80s could transcend the song. Nick[Podehl – narrator of The Land series] was able to elevate my words and worlds in a way I could not do alone. That is the blessing and wonder of working with another talented artist who is willing to share their gift.
I didn’t have a master plan when I started, but the worlds I create are as precious to me as a family member. One you actually like. It was only because of my partnership with Nick Podehl and ACX that I was able to push boundaries and make something incredible. Even including sound effects, something that has become the standard for my genre of LitRPG, was considered a big risk several years ago. It had been done before, but I was told I might alienate half of my listeners, as it wasn’t something they would be used to.
The people at ACX have created a model that provides the opportunity and support a motivated person requires to reach great heights. Rather than try to convince me of the “right way” to do things, the feedback I got was that if I wanted to take a chance, ACX would help as much as they could. The connections I’ve made with ACX have played a huge role in my success. Whether it be advice, internal support, marketing, or hard work, it has been a joy to have a partner in connecting with my fans.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
It’s an interesting question. I have hit several big milestones because of my awesome fans—The Land saga is a WSJ bestseller, has sold over a million copies, has more than 100,000 five-star reviews, and became Audible’s Customer Favorite of the year, reaching the Top 5 on both Audible and Amazon.
But with all of that, I remember sitting on a panel with Jim Butcher—I introduced myself, sharing all of those facts, and the fact that I was a physician, and I got applause from the crowd. Then I handed the microphone to Jim. He said, “I’m Jim Butcher,” dropped the mic, and the crowd went wild like Aerosmith just rocked the Garden, lol.
So basically, I feel very happy with what I’ve achieved, but I know I still have miles to go before I sleep.
What important connections have you made on ACX?
I have met many amazing people, and Debra in the ACX call center would be towards the top of the list. Not only is she amazingly helpful, I always end our calls with a smile on my face. It’s nice to have our interactions be friendly as well as professional.
What’s your most essential piece of writing “gear?” What do you have to have around when you’re writing?
From what I hear, I’m very different than most authors. I write anywhere, at anytime, and have no issues devoting three days to perfecting a cookie recipe or hiking instead. My fans do not generally like that I have an active life outside of the books (lol), but the energy I can bring to the page is fueled by the moments of my life that I’m not typing.
Any particular or weird habits you have while you’re writing?
Too many cookies. Cookies feel like love. Cookies are evil… and I love them.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent author?
What does being an independent allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?
There is no oversight on your words, and you don’t have to delay a launch by 1-2 years like many traditionally published authors.
If you could have anyone in the world narrate a book of yours, who would it be?
What’s your dog’s name?
What do you aspire to do next?
I would love to make the leap to the screen—either big or small, live action or anime. I feel that my story would translate well to nearly any medium.
How do you define success in your career?
I have two definitions: 1) Am I making enough money to live the life that I want to live? 2) Am I making a difference in the world in a way that I am proud of? And the answer to both questions for me is yes.
You can find Aleron on his website, and check out this panel he did for VO Atlanta with narrator Nick Podehl on successful collaboration between authors and narrators. Keep an eye on the blog for the next ACX creator to get the storyteller spotlight!
This spring, we’re saying cheers to 10 years of ACX by shining a spotlight on the amazing creators that make this a milestone worth celebrating. Check out the first post in the series if you missed it, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller, author Amy Daws.
How did you become an author?
My first book was a memoir about my struggles through recurrent pregnancy loss. After that, I got the writing itch and took a turn into the world of romance novels.
Are you a full-time author?
Yes, I have been for nearly four years now.
How did you find/come to ACX?
I’d heard through various author channels that ACX had a royalty share option for authors and narrators to collaborate, so I didn’t have to invest money in a narrator up front for a format I was unsure I’d be successful in. Splitting the earnings with a narrator felt like a win-win situation!
Has your career grown since then?
One hundred percent. I used to only be able to afford narrators willing to do Royalty Share and now I am happy and willing to pay the full per finished hour rate for my narrators of choice. It took some time, but my audio earnings have continued to double every year for the past three years.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
When I had a book make more in one month than I did for an entire year at my day job, I knew things had changed for me.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
Growth takes time. Both in the e-books/paperback publishing sector and in audio. You have to build that audience. Make connections. Write a memorable story and hopefully they’ll keep coming back for more.
Why are you so passionate about advocating for audiobook production?
First of all, writing a book is a lot of work. But once you’ve polished your story and made it shine, why wouldn’t you want to milk it for all it’s worth? That’s why audio is so important to me. I’ve already done the hard part—I’ve written the book. Now I need to get it out to all the major channels so readers and listeners can consume it in their preferred medium.
Not producing an audiobook is like taking a four-course dinner you worked on for hours and deciding not to serve all four courses to your guests. Someone is certainly going to leave hungry and good food will go to waste.
The fact that there’s a service like ACX that’s user-friendly enough for someone with no experience in audio production to publish their own audiobook is all the help I need to serve all four courses to my guests!
What important connections have you made on ACX?
My relationships with my narrators are very special. I’ve been able to meet nearly all of them in person and now we’ve worked together on so many books, it feels like they wrote the story with me. And sweet, kind Debra in ACX customer service has a special place in my heart!
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent author?
The flexibility of my job is wonderful. I work from home, which I very quickly realized was extremely valuable during a pandemic situation. I love that I get to make my own covers and choose my own release dates. I’m not just an author, I’m an entrepreneur and I can take my career in a variety of directions.
What do you aspire to do next?
The movie/television industry is always a big dream of mine. And with one of my books (Wait With Me) optioned for film by Passionflix, I’m super excited to see what comes of that. I have also been trying to manifest my Harris Brothers series into a TV show. I’ve been telling people that I want it to be picked up by Netflix, HBO, or Showtime and I want it to be like Ted Lasso meets Grey’s Anatomy but with more HEAT! HAHA. It’s good to have dreams!
You can find Amy & all her audiobooks on her website, check out her ACX University episode here, follow @amydawsauthor on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to join her in the fun. Tune in again next week when the ACX anniversary spotlight shines on another celebrated creator!
This spring marks ACX’s 10th anniversary as a hub for self-driven authors, actors, and publishers to make connections, produce compelling stories, and distribute their art to a world of listeners. We’re proud to have made it ten years, but ACX would be nothing without the creators who use it to pursue their dreams. So we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary by celebrating you! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing stories from ten years worth of creators that have made ACX special. First up, narrator/producer Janina Edwards.
How did you become a narrator?
My career has a Part One and Part Deux. In Part One, I recorded my first audiobook around 1989 in New York City for the American Foundation for the Blind. I was and am pretty shy, and although my undergrad degree is in acting, I couldn’t handle the theatrical audition process. AFB was mentioned in a voice over class I took. I inquired, and was hired to do about 5 books. Then life happened. Part Deux began around 2010, after my daughter graduated college. I always wanted to get back to voiceovers, specifically audiobooks. I got some coaching (Paul Armbruster and Diane Cardea), took some classes in audio recording and basic editing, met a demo producer (Eileen Kimble), and she mentioned ACX as something to investigate. I also went to APAC (the Audio Publishers Association Conference) and networked with narrators and publishers I met there. When I returned from the conference I started auditioning on ACX, and pay2play sites. Started getting experience. It took about a year before the traditional publishers started hiring me.
Are you a full-time narrator?
Yes. But I didn’t go full-time until 2019. There were a couple of years when I worked full time as a grant proposal writer, and then recorded in the evening and on weekends. I went full-time when I had enough publishers hiring me regularly, and paying me a livable rate (I had joined the SAG-AFTRA by then), and I’d paid off all my credit card debt.
You’ve been with ACX since the beginning! How did the platform help you build your career in narration and where have you gone since?
ACX was instrumental in creating the initial body of work that launched Part Deux of my career. While there are publishers on ACX, at that time the traditional publishers didn’t know me and weren’t yet ready to take a chance on me. Further, ACX allowed me to try different genres and styles, from romance and mystery, to how-to and academic history, to memoirs. Working directly with authors on ACX, I learned how to develop a relationship with the writer, understand their goals for the project, support them, and be responsive to their needs.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do? When did it click for you?
1989. The booth is my stage. It just took a while for the dream to fully manifest.
Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?
Other narrators who introduced me to their contacts. Narrators and engineers who allowed me to pester them with questions about equipment, software, and everything I didn’t know. Producers who gave me a chance.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
It’s exhilarating when I see my name placed with the same prominence as some of my idols and peers. The other week I realized that Andre DeShields (the original Wiz in the stage production of The Wiz, and part of the original Ain’t Misbehavin cast) was a co-narrator for The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. I was floored. The first time I ran into January LaVoy at a recording studio I was like “Ms. LaVoy, so glad to meet you…” And she was like “Oh, you’re Janina, right? I couldn’t believe she knew my name.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
It’s all about relationships. I recently heard the wisdom “don’t be a jerk.” Though a lot of folks are joining our ranks, in the upper echelon, all the narrators know each other. There’s about two degrees of separation between folks. If you’re a jerk, it’ll boomerang eventually.
Any particular habits you have while you’re recording?
I try to limit myself to 4-5 hours of recording a day. Usually from 11-5, with a break in the day somewhere. Beyond that, my productivity is compromised. Sometimes I have to go longer, but I really try to respect those limits. My goal is to do great work. That means I have to allow time for rest (vocal and body), creativity, life and play.
What’s your most essential piece of studio gear? What do you have to have around when you’re recording?
A big glass of water (room temperature), and a hot cup of ginger tea (Yogi brand: Mango Ginger, Lemon Ginger, or plain ol’ Ginger), or warm lemon and honey or agave.
How do you define success in your career?
I want to do projects about things that interest and excite me and do great performances. I want every project I do to be great. When authors/producers see your great work, then great(er) work is offered to you. I think that’s also a lesson from ACX. Do the work that allows you to shine, and make every project great.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator?
Re: Independent—I love working for myself. It’s a lot, but I don’t have to answer to anyone but my own conscience. Re: Narrator—I love that I get to do all the characters (in a traditional 1-person narration). It’s just fun. Independent means I can take on whatever projects I want that showcase my abilities. I can take a vacation or break when I want (though you have to be very deliberate and set that time aside as sacrosanct).
If you could narrate any book ever, what would it be?
I would be lying if I said a specific book. When I agree to narrate a book, I’m the most excited about narrating that book (and if I’m not, I shouldn’t be accepting the project). I feel like the Cookie Monster in a roomful of cookies when I’m offered a project. I want to say yes to them all and just wolf them down.
What do you aspire to next?
I made my living as a professional grant proposal writer for about 13 years. I am now writing fiction and essays on things that interest me. I’m particularly interested in creating audio specific content. Who’d a thunk it?
You can find Janina on her website, and you can find her many award-winning and nominated audiobooks on Audible. Stay tuned for another story from a celebrated creator in our next installment of this special anniversary series!
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!
Audio: the final frontier. These are the voyages of independent creators. Their mission: to dream up and build strange new worlds. To bring new life to characters and stories from the page—and beyond. To boldly take us where no ear has gone before! Our captain: Eric Jason Martin. Veteran ACX-ers might recognize this Audible Approved Producer from our 2018 post, Doubling Down on Audiobook Success, but not one to be pinned down by labels, this producer/director/narrator has just added another title to his name—author. Martin’s first novel, New Arcadia: Stage One came to audio yesterday, and this multi-cast adventure is full of A-list vocal talent, an original score, and a tasteful soundscape that gives you the feeling if you closed your eyes for a moment, you might just open them in 199X, in the arcade-inspired dystopian world of the story. We were lucky enough to snag a moment of this creative multi-hyphenate’s time to talk sound design, writing and casting his first novel, and the endless possibilities of audio.
What sparked the idea for this project?
Well, I really wanted to write a book! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time—I’ve written some original audio productions in the last few years, but it was a little scary to consider sitting down and writing an entire novel, something that could sit on a shelf and have a bar code and a Dewey Decimal classification and all that cool stuff. I knew I had to write a GameLit or LitRPG novel to get started. I’ve been a fan of video games since I was little, and I’ve since come to understand their potential both in terms of play, and as a powerful learning tool. Playing Roller Coaster Tycoon back in the day was literally how I got into the business of themed entertainment, so it legitimately helped kick-start my career. These days, I narrate a lot in the GameLit/LitRPG genre, so it’s a world I know very well, and I’ve been thinking about using a “beat ‘em up” game as the subject for a story for a few years—the stories these games told were often about fighting criminals in a big bad city. I was really drawn to the idea of doing something with this world in literature.
What was the process for writing this story like, and how did being a narrator/ producer first influence your writing on this project? Did you already have a vision for the audio when you started?
When it came time to actually write the book, it happened very fast. I had already done a decent amount of work imagining the mechanics of a virtual game world like this, because I had developed another version of this project for audio a couple of years prior. Even though the finished story turned into something very different, it helped to have that base to work from. Once everything shut down last year, it got me thinking of this project in a new way. I started imagining this retro game city as a way to bring people together again in a virtual space—people who have been apart for a long time. So I starting writing over the summer, and it was very helpful to think of it as an audiobook. That “one weird little trick” helped me get over a lot of the fear of writing, because I already knew how to do audiobooks, so suddenly I was working from a place of confidence. Thinking of the project in audio also helped me picture certain performers for each role, performers that I actually wanted to cast in the audiobook version we would be recording. Once you can get that specific about a character or role, it takes something that can be really hard—creating compelling story and dialogue—and it makes it a little easier to do. Having narrated nearly 300 audiobooks, I also a had a clear sense of what would work in audio and what would not. I knew I’d be narrating the book as the main character, and that was another opportunity to revise the text, right there in the studio. If something didn’t sound right to my ear, I would change it as I was recording the narration. It’s usually a big no-no to stray from the recordable script… but if you’re the author, nobody can stop you!
Once it was written, what was the process of casting and recording/producing like?
The audiobook production moved very fast. I’d say from my first email to a performer, to the final mastering, it was about three months. That includes recording 19 performers, two incredible musicians writing a full original soundtrack, and a lean post- production team cutting it all together and adding effects. Again, it was easier having written the roles for specific people. I was nervous and didn’t have any expectations, but I was blown away that everybody agreed to be a part of this. It helped that they were all voice actors, so I figured they had home recording setups that would work, although I had options available in case I needed to get them equipment. Technology is so good these days that having a decent mic and recording in a quiet well-padded closet can get you pretty far. And if you have a quality post-production team, as we did here, you can make it all sound fairly uniform.
There are some pretty well-known names in the voice credits for this production – do you have any advice for authors nervous to ask big-name vocal talent to work on their projects?
Yes, be nice! And do everything you can to make it easy for people to say yes. They may not make a fortune doing your project. But if it’s quick, easy, and a lot of fun, and they’ll be with other great people whom they like and respect, that’s a lot harder to say no to. Be clear about the time commitment, make it as small as possible, and be flexible in scheduling, as much as you can.
This production has some great extra audio elements like an original score and sounds – how do you incorporate elements like that without overwhelming the listener or overshadowing the narration?
We were very careful in how we approached the sound design for this project. We worked with the team at Mumble Media to focus on the multi-cast recordings, as well as the original soundtrack, as the primary tools to communicate the story and scene. The old arcade sounds are a lot of fun, but a little of that goes a very long way in an audiobook format. The action could be exhausting if you heard an unending stream of punching and kicking and yelling. So we let the actors and narrator communicate a lot of the action in the performances, we were very sparing with sound effects, and we supplemented the action in places with the soundtrack to give it additional emotional impact. The great Lloyd Cole created our main theme, and it was such a thrill to be able to work with him, I’m a huge fan of his work. For New Arcadia, he has created a beautiful piece, ambient and propulsive and mysterious. He describes it as “Escape from New York meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Dune.” When we incorporated it into the audiobook, it became the de facto theme of the real world. The few times we leave the game world and go back to reality, you’ll hear different pieces of this theme as you re-emerge, which signals to the listener that we are transitioning to a very different place. Casey Trela is a fantastic composer, very versatile, and expert in the chiptune style of these retro games. He’s created some truly catchy tunes that serve the game story beautifully. He had the added challenge of creating special songs that evoke the world of “199X,” songs that sound like they’d actually be coming from your radio back then. These extra audio elements can really help build a strong sense of environment in an audio-only production where visual cues and backdrops are absent.
What makes this production special and how do you see productions like this one carrying audio storytelling forward?
It’s such a blast to bring great talent together on a production like this. I enjoy the traditional one book / one narrator approach very much (indeed, you can find me in my home studio a few days a week telling stories this way). That said, I think there’s a growing space and increasing demand for multi-cast productions, and we’re all just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible. Audio is great for many reasons, and one practical one is that the listener’s mind handles most of the big-budget effects and locations in your story. You can communicate complex stories much more quickly and cheaply with sound alone. It’s a very exciting and innovating time in this medium, and it’s a thrill to be a part of it all. When you work as relatively fast and cheaply as you can in audio, you can get a lot more done than you can in other mediums, meaning you can experiment and learn much faster in your craft. I’ve tried a lot of different things in my time creating these stories in audio, and have made some mistakes along the way. But even those mistakes were instructive, and I can see how they led directly to some of my biggest successes. So that’s why I embrace this lean and iterative style of working, and audio is an ideal vessel for that approach. You can do cool stuff in audio fairly easily and quickly, so maybe you should! Each project you take on and complete can become a stepping stone, every single one can teach you something or connect you with someone. And for this project, in many ways, it’s the apotheosis of all of the different things I’ve done up to this point. But it’s not the end, it’s a beginning. There’s lots more to do. I’m excited for you to hear what we’ve put together with New Arcadia: Stage One, AND I’m excited for what comes next.
Eric Jason Martin is a producer, director, voice performer, and author, based in Los Angeles. He is the AudioFile Earphones and Audie Award–winning narrator of over 275 audiobooks. He has developed several original audio productions, including directing the NY Times Bestsellers Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne’s original series Heads Will Roll, featuring Meryl Streep (Broadway Video/Audible), and Stinker Lets Loose!, starring Jon Hamm (Audible). His production of Mr. New Orleans, starring Westworld’s Louis Herthum, is a 2021 Audie Award nominee.
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.
It’s a tale as old as time—author meets narrator, narrator reads story, a few editing and mastering techniques later and behold! An audiobook is born. Sometimes, though, the audiobook journey includes a number of twists and turns before the narrator even steps into the booth. Here to tell a tale of one such story brought to audio for the first time is David Niall Wilson, mastermind behind Crossroad Press, a publishing house founded to bring forgotten or undiscovered out-of-print gems into the limelight.
As a publisher and author, I find that sometimes between the marketing, the writing, the craft, and the sheer volume of energy that is expended just living your life, you need a few moments to remind yourself that there’s more out there. Some stories find their way to just the right situation that allows them to reach a level that no one vision or voice alone could have created. That’s where this story begins—with a novel titled Case White by Thomas Sullivan. Over a period of many years, I fought to bring it to publication. I’ve been privileged to bring many of Sully’s novels back into print, but Case White is different. It’s an original, and I believe it’s his finest work.
It began as an eBook, then a print edition, and when the time was finally right to bring it to audio, I simply put it up for auditions on ACX. Even now, this incredible story has barely begun to find its way into the hands of readers, so I wasn’t sure who would be interested in taking a very long royalty share project with a less-than-stellar sales record. I was not prepared for one of the most talented voices I have worked with to come to me, ready (in his words) to “fight for this book.” The material covers the time leading up to the Third Reich, and the way madness can take control of a nation, and the narrator who took the project is Joshua Saxon, whose own family fled the Russian pogroms in the early 1900s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-20th Century to avoid the persecution that would inevitably claim millions of lives.
The synchronicity of this book finding its way to Joshua and linking him to his own past would have been enough to make a great story, but in this case, it’s only the beginning.
To add a twist to this plot, sometimes the reader must find and chase the book. When Case White had wrapped up, Sully, Joshua, and I all moved on to other things, but one day, out of the blue, I received a message: Joshua had discovered that a book he has always loved, published back in the 1960s, had never been made into an audiobook. That book was The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis. The idea seemed crazy. The book was hugely popular, published by a major New York House. If the rights were available at all, I was sure they would be with an agent, or the original publisher, and priced well out of our range. After I got done laughing at the idea of Crossroad Press being able to produce something like that, he let it go.
But I couldn’t. I checked to be certain he was right, and he was. There were many printed editions of the book (it’s still in print), there was a movie adaptation that turned the world on its ear for a while, but there was no audiobook. The currently available trade paperback is a reprinted edition from Simon & Schuster, and it’s been on sale in that same format since 1988. Experience told me that if Simon & Schuster had the rights to the book, the odds of getting to do the audiobook had just toppled off a cliff. More likely I’d give them the idea to do it themselves if I brought it up.
Maybe I just needed a little more faith. During that same period, I was negotiating for rights to some books by author Leslie Alan Horvitz, and corresponding daily with his agent, Cynthia Manson. I happened to mention my “quest” to her, and she happened to have connections at the publishing house, so she said she would check with them and see what she could find.
What she found was that Simon & Schuster did not have the rights to the audio. What they did have was an e-mail address they hadn’t used for a very long time for the author’s heirs, and they shared it with me. Still not hoping for much, I wrote to them, explaining how much Joshua wanted to perform the novel, how our company works, and my desire to bring it to audio. Then I waited. And waited. I was about to shrug and let it go, when I woke up one morning to a long, very cheerful note from Greece: the rights holders were very pleased at the idea of an audiobook! Then came the next bump—the book we need to use for the script was a translation, and the contract stated I had to have permission to use the translation, which I still needed.
The book was translated around 1960, and the translator was listed as P.A. Bien. Initial searches had Google trying to translate the name into French, found other books he’d translated, but no real information on the man himself. Then I found an article that mentioned that his full name was Peter A. Bien. Once again, I had picked up the trail. Peter is a Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth, and still attached to their Creative Writing department. When I found the e-mail address, I was not sure what to find, but again, I wrote my note, made my introductions, and waited.
There was no answer to the e-mail, but there was also a phone number. I called it. Peter was on vacation at his home in the Adirondacks, the message explained. At the end of that message was another phone number.
I wish I had time to explain the wonderful phone call I had with Peter, about Kazantzakis’ works, of which he’d translated several, and about translation in general. He gave his blessing, and even said that Joshua could, if he wished, reach out with any questions on pronunciation. I know that the two talked, and it felt like generations merging. The contract was finalized and signed. Original cover art was commissioned from West Coast artist Steve Smith, who outdid himself, and the production that has just now been completed began.
Chasing the rights to books can be frustrating—the older the book, the more popular, the more editions, the harder it becomes. This one felt like a marathon, but in the end, the journey through the words of Thomas Sullivan, the passion of a narrator to perform the book he’d always dreamed of producing, through agents, other authors, across an ocean and back to the Adirondacks, lead to an unforgettable audiobook.
Now I’m going to find my Indiana Jones hat and set out after the next one. I hope some of you will come along for the ride. Remember—audio is still a fairly young medium, and no matter how unlikely a project may seem, it never hurts to ask.
David Niall Wilson is a prolific author and the founder and CEO of Crossroad Press, a publishing company that specializes in giving out-of-print stories new life through e-book and audiobook publication. The publishing company’s work can be found at crossroadspress.com, and the author’s own work can be found on his website, davidniallwilson.com.
Great news, everybody: actors can now accept Royalty Share Plus deals with SAG-AFTRA Health and Retirement contributions on ACX!
What This Means for Actors
SAG-AFTRA actors now have the opportunity to accept more audiobook projects on ACX, and actors hoping to join the union have another pathway to membership. With Royalty Share Plus, actors get paid a per-finished-hour rate that can help cover production costs and receive royalties on every sale, splitting royalty earnings 50-50 with the audiobook’s Rights Holder.
Actors will be able to contribute to the SAG-AFTRA Health and AFTRA Retirement funds directly through qualifying Royalty Share Plus projects. Get started by adding your SAG-AFTRA ID to your ACX account. Then, ensure your union contribution will be made for qualifying Royalty Share Plus deals by clicking “Accept with SAG-AFTRA H&R.”
This update makes it easier to recruit top talent for your next audiobook production. To hire a SAG-AFTRA actor for a Royalty Share Plus project, you must offer a minimum per-finished-hour rate of $100. When your chosen actor accepts with SAG-AFTRA, you simply pay them through their designated Paymaster, then royalties for your audiobook are split 50-50 with the actor as usual.
We can’t wait to hear the new audiobooks that come to life through Royalty Share Plus!
One of the greatest challenges of entrepreneurship is self-management. Whether you’re an independently published author or a narrator completing projects in your home studio, you likely don’t have a boss telling you how and when to manage your working hours. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to productivity when working from home, but the indie creator community has a wealth of collected knowledge on the topic. So, we’ll be checking in with a few productive ACX creators to see how they manage working for themselves.
First up: Sarina Bowen is the author of more than 30 audiobooks and co-host of the Story Bites podcast with producer Tanya Eby. She writes a blog, maintains an avid fan community, and manages a great-looking website and killer marketing strategy to boot. So how does she get it all done? She starts by keeping her creative time separate from her business and family time. Read on to find out how Sarina made consistency the cornerstone of her productivity.
Like so many other independent authors, my life is a juggling act between writing and business. I actually enjoy the business tasks, so when the writing is hard, I sometimes find myself poking at spreadsheets instead of adding words to my manuscript. But that’s not the most productive way for me to work, and I would often end up feeling bad about giving in to distractions.
Then I listened to Deep Work by Cal Newport (totally worth a credit!) and he touched on something that really resonated with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that attention span and willpower are finite resources. As the day goes on, you’re less able to focus and control your impulses. I loved this advice, because it took away my self-judgment during those moments when I feel brain-bombed. Hey, I’m not a failure! I’m just fresh out of attention-span fuel.
Certainly, there are authors who will argue this point. If you always do your best creative work at 2 a.m., that’s groovy, too. But the concept still holds, because it forces you to observe your capacity for focus like a happy little scientist, and then make adjustments where necessary. One author who goes into copious detail about this is Rachel Aaron in her book 2k to 10k. She actually kept a log of the hours she spent writing and how effective they were. The results allowed her to fine-tune her process and schedule.
My personal writing pattern is more tortoise than hare. I average a mere 1200 words a day. That’s four books a year. Not a day goes by that I don’t open up Facebook and see one of my friends reporting that she wrote 4,000, 6,000, 11,000 words that day. You have my sacred promise that I will never ever write eleven thousand words in a day. My brain just doesn’t move at that speed, and that’s okay.
I often tell people that novel-writing is the only kind of marathon that I will ever run. And I run a lot of them. So many, in fact, that my life can feel like a long stint on the treadmill. Even when I’ve finished a book, there’s another one waiting for me. If you want to keep up this kind of pace, you have to find ways to be kind to yourself. My friend Sarah throws herself a party each time she makes it to page 100 on her new manuscript.
My approach is a little different. I have a sticker chart, just like your average third grader. If I write 1200 words on my work-in-progress, I get a sticker in my planner. It’s hard to admit that I’m a sucker for bits of printed paper with adhesive. Yet it’s shocking how motivating it can be to chase that day’s sticker. Admittedly, I have really great taste in stickers—it’s nice to see an entire month’s worth of chickens or multicolored pencils covering the page. Jerry Seinfeld used the same approach with—gasp—red Xs on a wall calendar. Every day that he wrote a good joke, he’d make an X on that calendar. “Don’t break the chain,” he says of this method. It’s motivating to keep up your own good work, and it’s harder to look at a streak that’s broken.
Consistency is therefore my single biggest secret. If I get that sticker by noon, I feel invincible. The key to this magic is avoiding my email inbox and social media. I’ve lost more work hours to email and Facebook than I care to admit. There are two ways that my inbox harms me: 1) FOMO. Is someone having fun on the internet without me? and 2) the lure of the easier items on the to-do list. It’s simpler to answer an email than to craft beautiful sentences or solve plot problems. But, when I avoid engaging with the world early in the day, I’m much more likely to stay in the zone and focused on my work.
And that early success is powerful. By hitting my goal, I feel relaxed and confident while I move onto other tasks, like looking after my house, my kids, my health. I can turn my attention to tidying up Quickbooks, searching for cover art, or listening to narrator’s samples. I feel good about my life on these days.
On the other hand, if I’m crawling across the word-count finish line at 10 p.m., it’s a little demoralizing. This usually happens because I fail to follow my own system. Maybe I checked my messages when I should have been writing. A single email can blow up whole my day. And by the time I put out the fires, it’s time to cook dinner and the daylight is shot.
Publishing your own work means you’ll have more of those days than an author who lets other people handle all the business challenges. Ultimately, that’s okay with me. This career is a choice, and I embrace the chaos when it comes to my door. But if I embrace it after I hit my word count goal, I’ll feel calm and in control anyway.
That’s how I get it done. With stickers. And science. And a little advice from smart people who have walked the same path.
Give Sarina’s audiobooks a listen on Audible, and take to the comments below to share your own productivity pointers.
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 byMay 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.