Break out your pens and pencils, students of sound—ACX University is back in session and we’ve got an all-new slate of fresh, essential programming for your continuing audiobook education.
Whether you’re an author, producer, narrator, or director, this syllabus will have you playing, imagining, experimenting, connecting with your community, and springing into action. This season’s all-star roster of instructors includes:
Tyrrell Harrell (of TYDEF Studios)
Jocqueline Protho (of The Audio Flow)
Eric Jason Martin
We’re releasing three new episodes to YouTube this week, so keep an eye on our channel for details and get to the head of the class by clicking that ‘Subscribe’ button so you don’t miss a lesson. As always, ACX University is free and open to everyone—so join us, won’t you?
These buzzwords have been popping up more than ever the last couple years. Working from home, modified schedules, and career transitions have blurred the lines between work and not-work, and you’ve probably seen more than a handful of articles on leaving time for yourself and not letting your job absorb your personal life.
But if you work for yourself, this concept of work-life balance can be a good deal trickier. For independent creators, the work you do for yourself may be exactly what recharges you or gives your life meaning, so it can be easier to justify working overtime on your passion projects, and harder to put them down. It’s likely too that if you’re self-employed (and especially if you’re trying to get an independent career up and running), any time away from that work is accompanied by guilt—that you’re not pushing yourself hard enough or that you won’t “make it” if you don’t devote every spare second to your craft.
And while it’s true that when you’re your own boss, no one is going to keep you on track if you don’t, it’s equally true that all work and no play makes you a burned-out author, or actor, or publisher, who starts to resent your passion projects and doesn’t have the energy to give them your best work anyway (as someone who spent nearly a decade as a freelance producer, ask me how I know).
Since I’ve always found that balance pretty tough to strike, I thought I’d turn it over to someone who’s always struck me as being really good at this to give you some tips on how to care for yourself, maintain your work-life balance, and still feel like you’re the kickass boss of your own creative destiny.
Khristine Hvam is a narrator, producer, director, voice coach, and the co-creator of the pLAy and play NYCe workshops for creatives with fellow multi-hyphenate voice actor PJ Ochlan. She’s won multiple awards for her many different audio projects and continues to balance an impressive self-made career in vocal production and performance with a full life outside her work.
Here are her tips for finding your own balance and making your creative work, work for you:
Set a “work schedule” that works for you and your life…and then ditch it when a really great opportunity comes up. And then go back to it. It’s fine. I promise. Figure out how much finished time you can realistically record in any given week and don’t over extend yourself. For a long time during the pandemic, I worked in two-hour chunks. Morning, late afternoon, and after the kids went to bed. I hated it, but I reminded myself often, “as are all things, this too is temporary.” Now that the kids are back in school, I have a new work schedule that I feel much more comfortable with. We’ve got to be flexible, otherwise we’re just frustrated.
Give yourself a routine. Mine: wake up, make coffee, feed cat, drink coffee, wake children, feed children, drop off children, work…you see where I’m going with this. Humans need a bit of routine. It helps our ancestral brains function better.
Break the routine once a week and do something different. Different coffee shop, different route to drop off the kids, different workout, trip to Vegas…shake things up. It’s GREAT for the creative brain.
Make a list of your priorities. Balance is about compromise. This list will help you see what you want to give your attention to—OH, and it will change, so re-do this list every few months and check back in with yourself.
Celebrate the little things. Whether it’s with a night out, or an expensive coffee, or a leisurely walk—celebrate your accomplishments. “Hey I made my bed today! Whoot whoot!”
Don’t be afraid to say no. No one is keeping score on how many times you say yes and no. “Booked” is booked, and that’s ok. If you want to take an action, add into those “no” emails when you’ve got avails coming up. That’s helpful. And don’t overbook yourself. Saying no to a project is much better than saying you’re late with it.
Choose “work-free days.” I don’t work on the weekend, BUT there are times when I need to break that rule for the bigger picture. Like, “I need to work over the weekend because the kids have off this Monday from school and I need to be with them.”
Plan vacations well in advance—like a year in advance—so that you’re able to plan projects (and pickups) and finances around them. And plan long vacations. Give yourself a proper vacation. Plan for it. Save for it. And then enjoy the heck out of it.
Put your phone away! Like WAY away. Scrolling is a time suck and social media just makes you think people are doing more/better than you. They’re not. Do what you need to do on there, then kick rocks.
Take a long hard look at your financial situation. What do you need? What do you want? Talk to a financial expert, get some help and some good advice. Sacrifices will have to be made, but future you will thank you for it. Knowing what you need to earn in order to reach your financial goals will help you choose when to say yes and when to say no to projects.
Set attainable goals. Think big, then work backward to what you can do today.
Find a good therapist, and lean on your support people when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It makes other people feel good and it helps form stronger bonds.
Find ways to PLAY. What brings you joy? Do more of that. Make a list of what you liked to do when you were in Elementary school and find the adult equivalent. Then go do it. Not every day, or every week, but when you can. When it fits.
Be nice to you and don’t “should on yourself.”
Balance isn’t a day-by-day endeavor. Think of it over the long term. In one-year chunks instead of one-day. It’s life balance, not day balance. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
Work-life balance is a fairly new concept to be embraced by the mainstream workforce, and many of us weren’t conditioned to think it’s important, much less trained to structure our own lives to prioritize it. So, give it a shot, and don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a little while to figure out a balance that works for you. Self-forgiveness is great for morale and makes it a whole lot easier to get back on track when you get derailed.
Have you met Audio Analysis? In case you haven’t been acquainted, we launched this tool (and its partner, Audio Lab) last year to give you instant feedback on your audio files, allowing you to identify and correct technical issues before you submit them to our QA team.
Audio Lab can be used to check any audio for important metrics like peak value and RMS. That means you can upload your auditions, your profile samples, examples of your production audio, etc. for our robot review. And if you don’t take that step beforehand, Audio Analysis checks your production audio files within each of your projects as you upload them. Together, this sound-screening dream team helps make sure you’re putting your best foot forward every time.
And now, in addition to the seven metrics this dynamic duo already assesses, both tools now check the spacing at the beginnings and ends of each file, to make sure they measure up to our Submission Requirements.
Accompanying this announcement, we’re adjusting our spacing requirement to improve the listener experience—going forward, all files must have no more than 5 seconds of “room tone,” or spacing, at their beginning and end.
We hope these adjustments help your audio achieve a seamless journey through our QA check, helping get your audiobooks to retail faster and making you (and your fans) happier. And if you haven’t checked out Audio Lab yet, give a spin to see how it can save you time and energy making your next big audition or production just right.
Today, we’re excited to share that audiobooks which meet our Submission Requirements will be made available for sale within 10 business days. In the past year, ACX has received more audiobook submissions than in any other period, and together, we shared this record-breaking number of titles with eager listeners across the globe. This success also brought challenges to our processing timeline, and we thank you for your patience and feedback as we worked to enhance our workflow.
Once the Rights Holder approves and submits the final project, the production will be checked by our Quality Assurance team, and, if there are no issues with the audio files, cover art, or retail data, you can expect to see your title live on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes within 10 business days. If we find that your production does need an adjustment, we’ll let you know—with resources to help you get it right—within that same 10-business day period.
We understand that timing is everything when it comes to marketing and promoting your work, and we hope this time-to-retail will help you plan your promotional efforts with greater ease, getting your work in front of listeners sooner.
It’s a pleasure to help bring your best books to life, and we can’t wait to hear your next production! For further questions and assistance on this update, or any other topics, please visit our Help Center. We also recommend diving into our latest blog posts and ACX University episodes for storytelling and production inspiration.
The true story of ACX’s 10th anniversary is told in the journeys of the impressive indie creators who have written their own career narratives via ACX. Read the latest entry from Audible Approved Producer Joe Hempel, below, then catch up on the rest of the series here.
Where have you taken your career since we last spoke?
My career has taken so many different twists and turns. It’s really been a wild ride! When we last spoke, I was working mainly on ACX, with one or maybe two publishers at the time. Now, I do a lot of work for a lot of different publishers, and I’ve even started my own publishing company, Fireside Horror. I barely have time for myself these days, but I tell you what, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I enjoy the pace of this, I enjoy being a workhorse, and I enjoy the grind required to stay at the top of my game.
These days, I’m always paying attention to new trends, not just looking at old ones and staying the course. I want to be at the forefront of anything that comes up—be it with technology, or with new ideas, or what new listeners are wanting to hear.
What important connections have you made on ACX?
I work with so many wonderful people on ACX, I want to say they’re all important! If I were to choose one – and this is no slight to anyone else—I’d have to say author Ambrose Ibsen. We teamed up and we created one heck of a little horror empire. After listening to some of the samples I have on ACX, he approached me to narrate his book, Whispering Corridors, in 2017, and it just took off. From there we’ve sold well over 25,000 audiobooks together. We do Royalty Share because that allows us both to make more money than we would with major publishing companies. I’m not sure what’s next, but you can bet it’ll be a hit.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
I think for me, the biggest thing was being able to move to Texas and buy my own house strictly from being an audiobook narrator. That was something I never dreamed would happen, and when I signed on that dotted line and walked into it, and realized “wow, this is mine, I did this” it was the greatest feeling of all time.
How do you define success in your career?
This is a tricky one. Success can be many things to different people. I define success as continuously working, continuously grinding, and having the ability to take some time off when I want to without feeling stressed financially.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
Relationships are EVERYTHING. This community is so small, though it may seem big, and everyone knows everyone, and everyone talks to each other—be it indie publishers, authors, or other narrators. Solid relationships built on trust and mutual respect are indispensable in this industry.
Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?
Hands down my coaches. Johnny Heller, Sean Pratt, Jayme Matler, Scott Brick, and many more that I have had the pleasure of learning with. I wish I could name them all because they all deserve so much recognition. Even all the new people that are coming up, I learn from them too. I think you can get to a point in your career when you begin to miss certain trends, and those that are newer to the industry keep me on my toes and help me look at things differently. And I think that’s instrumental in staying relevant.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator/producer?
Networking with authors and narrators. Now that I’ve stepped into publishing as well, I’m connecting with more narrators that are just dipping their toes in the water, and let me tell you, there is an amazing pool of talent out there. It makes me want to continuously keep my eyes up and well coached and trained.
What does being an independent creator allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?
Without a doubt, I’d say “being able to make my own schedule and set my own working hours.” If something happens and this career goes belly up, I don’t think I’d be a good employee anymore!
What would you say ACX means to you?
Everything. ACX means everything to me. I would not have a career without ACX. ACX was on the forefront of directly connecting authors and narrators. So many people get to have such great careers and really turn their life around because of ACX. I haven’t lost sight of that, and I continue to use ACX to this day and will into the future.
Now that I’m a publisher, I use ACX to distribute to Audible, and it makes me incredibly happy to bring some really great horror to the Audible shelves that maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have. While there are other distributors out there, I wouldn’t dream of using anyone else.
What’s your most essential piece of studio gear?
I can’t really say one thing is more important than the other one. Obviously, the booth is what keeps things quiet so that I can work during the day, so I guess having that quiet space is the most important thing of all. Everything just works in synergy to create the audio—from the space, to the mic and interface, to the PC and Reaper, the DAW that I use.
If you could narrate any book ever, what would it be?
Anything by Stephen King. That’s the brass ring for me. I want it so bad, I even went out and bought the audio rights to The Science of Stephen King just so I could narrate in his world! HA!
What do you aspire to next?
I would like my publishing company to become known as THE place to get horror audiobooks into the world. It’s a grind, and things get a little behind because I’m a one man band. But it’s growing, and I’m hoping that, in the next 2 years, Audible will have a lot more horror out there—enough to classify it as its own genre, rather than a sub-genre under “Mysteries and Thrillers.”
It’s ACX’s 10th anniversary this spring, and we’re celebrating by sharing career journeys from some of the impressive indie creators who have used ACX to share their stories with the world over the last decade. Read this blog series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller—narrator and producer, James Romick.
How did you become a professional audiobook narrator/producer?
The first project that I auditioned for and won on ACX was in 2014. Before that, I had never considered narrating audiobooks. I’d listened to them for years—all of them non-fiction—read by narrators whom I have come to know personally. But I never thought about becoming an audiobook narrator myself.
After I left the Broadway show that I had been with for quite some time, I was finding it difficult to land another who needed a “gentleman of a certain age,” so I sought out (well, needed) another creative outlet. The on-camera commercial career wasn’t gaining any traction, and voiceover was my next trial balloon. I had some limited success at first, but when I focused my efforts on audiobook recording and production, I found that creative acting niche I had been looking for.
How did you find ACX?
Kind of by accident. I started pursuing a voiceover career in 2013. That was also when the SAG-AFTRA Foundation Voiceover Lab (EIF VO Lab) in New York City came into being. I think I first heard about ACX from some of the other attendees and instructors who encouraged me to look into it. I was nearly finished with constructing my first, very tiny home studio, and collecting some professional quality recording equipment. Once that was done, I started auditioning for projects on ACX, and landed a pretty good one right away.
What was your big “I made it” moment?
The first telephone conversation with the Rights Holder and the first sale of my very first audiobook production—and the faith that Rights Holder (who had been in the audiobook business for over 25 years) had in me to deliver a quality narration of their work.
How has your career grown since first coming to ACX?
The world of audiobooks and narration was a completely foreign world to me, coming from a live theatre performing background of some 35+ years. I attempted to immerse myself in it as much as I could—learning the terms, nomenclature, jargon and such of the business. Attending a couple of the live ACX events at Audible Studios in Newark, NJ and meeting a lot of people who were also in the beginning stages of their audiobook careers opened up this whole new world for me.
I consider voiceover the 4th or 5th phase of my 40+ year acting career. But never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that I would be recording and producing audiobooks at home in my den from a vocal booth I designed and built myself. I have now recorded and produced some 100+ fiction and non-fiction audiobooks.
Why is continual, ongoing education so important to your career, and how has ACX University played a role in that?
As with fashion and music and other forms of art, the trends change rapidly. Whereas a few years or months ago it might have been fiction or non-fiction books about zombies and spaghetti monsters, now it might be YA (young adult) or alien romance or pandemics. You have to keep up or be left in the dust. I am not the best businessman and I’m self-aware enough to know that about myself—ongoing education that helps you stay current on industry trends, offers suggestions on how to attack that end of the business or how to communicate with authors and convince them to take a chance on you as the narrator of their baby (or take a chance on audiobook narration at all)—that only serves to support the narration community. And hopefully it puts money in your bank account. That, and I was promised a nice, new ACX University t-shirt to replace the ratty old one I got at the last live ACX event in Newark some years ago.
What important connections have you made on ACX?
I got to meet RC Bray and talk with him at the last live event, in 2015, which was great because I am a super fan of his work. And I’ve made some personal connections with other narrators with whom I share information all the time. I also have very good relationships with the authors with whom I have collaborated—many have kept me on for one series or another and multiple standalone books. One of my authors even wrote my wife and I into the story as supporting characters for one book of a murder mystery series.
How do you define success in your career?
When people buy, listen to, and appreciate my work (although I really don’t pay much, if any, attention to reviews).
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
There are “industry standards” and “best practices” that need to be understood and met. That, and until you have some experience and a body of work behind you that you are proud of, take the advice of other seasoned and respected professionals, and don’t try to be a maverick or re-invent the wheel. You really might do so at your own peril. Study. Study. Study. Not only coaching for your narration, but also in understanding the tech side with whichever DAW and equipment you choose to use.
Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?
Although I never took his course, David H. Lawrence XVII, because he provided the impetus for me to pursue audiobooks in the first place, Jayme Mattler, for encouraging me to go beyond narrating only non-fiction, and Johnny Heller, well, for being Johnny Heller.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent narrator/producer?
People think that I’m crazy. But I actually like editing and mastering my (and other people’s) work. In between acting gigs in the 80s, I went to audio engineering school—that’s when editing analog tape with a block, razor blades, and adhesive tape was still the norm—so the tech challenges appeal to that side of my brain. Digital recording, editing and mastering is so much easier.
What does being an independent narrator allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise?
To more or less go at my own pace in my own space with some really good equipment. And to do projects that I (and my pseudonym) choose to do for my (his) own reasons. I do not accept any old thing just to have a narration credit.
What do you aspire to next?
I have been coaching fellow voice artists and narrators on using and configuring REAPER as their DAW of choice for recording their work. Everybody and their relative likes to make videos on one topic or another, but I think I’d like to create a video series on REAPER, specifically geared toward audiobook narration. Of the 8 or 9 DAWs I have installed and played with, REAPER is by far my favorite.
You can find James Romick on his website, check out his numerous titles on Audible, or you might just catch him answering questions and welcoming newcomers to the community at the next ACX University premiere or industry conference.
Keep an eye on the blog for more stories from ACX’s finest!
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 been quite a year for the ACX community: ACX creators published over 30,000 audiobooks, aided by the launch of some exciting tools and features, like Royalty Share Plus and Enhanced Promo Codes. Thank you for continuing to elevate the field of independent publishing through your hard work and innovation. In this giving season, we’ve decided to honor the tradition of re-gifting by wrapping up a few of our favorite blog resources from 2019 and presenting them to you to help support your continued excellence. Enjoy… or re-joy!
Now Hear This: Promoting with SoundCloud: Audio samples are your best friend when it comes to marketing your audiobook—they’re a great way to grab a listener’s attention and leave them eager to purchase the audiobook. Check out this article for great ideas on leveraging this free audio platform to put those samples everywhere your audience is, so they’ll be sure to give them a listen.
Bonus: Want more content on low and no-cost social media promotion for your audiobooks? Check out this episode from ACX University.
Amy Daws on Her Authentic Social Media Self: Authenticity is the key to a devoted community of fans, and nobody knows that better than this author and social media maven who uses her own genuine energy, fun content, and regular engagement to keep her fans’ attention between new releases. Learn from her social media strategies and fan the flames in your own fan base.
Bonus: Want to hear more on engaging with your fans? This is the ACX University episode for you.
Lighting the Way: An Author’s Journey into Narration If you’re an indie author, you’re no stranger to doing it all yourself, so chances are you’ve considered narrating your own audiobook. Well, paranormal mystery author Mary Castillo decided to do just that for her series, and you can read her full account of the production process from a writer’s perspective here.
Bonus: Interested in narrating your own book? Learn more about the art of audiobook performance here.
Production Pointers from Audible Approved Producers Whether you’re a narration newbie or a production pro, it never hurts to hear from other independent Producers on how they’re getting the job done. In this Q&A with a few of 2019’s newest Audible Approved Producers (AAPs), you can read about their favorite gear, pre-recording rituals, and at-home studio setups—you might learn a thing or two to add to your own process!
Bonus: Looking for more tips, tricks, and technical advice for audiobook production? Check out this ACX University series from our QA team.
A Portrait of the Artist How do you make a big impression and catch the attention of the authors you want to work with? It all starts with a compelling, professional, comprehensive Producer profile. In this article, we walk you through creating an ACX profile that stands out with examples from some of our favorite AAPs.
Bonus: Looking for more advice on your audiobook production career? This ACX University episode is for you.
Whether you’re new to the blog or seeing these articles for the second time, we hope it renews your drive and enthusiasm for creating great audiobooks, and gives you some good ideas for propelling your passion and your work forward into a successful new year. Feel free to re-gift these to the indie author or producer on your list!