Recording the A Sentimental Education audiobook
Why did I decide to not only voice but also record and produce the audiobook for A Sentimental Education? That’s a great question, and one I asked myself multiple times during the process.
I always knew there would be an audiobook. It was a priority for me, both because it increases the book’s accessibility and because I work primarily in sound. One of the points I make in A Sentimental Education is that podcasting as a medium helped me to find a different voice than the one I’d learned to use in my conventional academic writing, and I embraced that understanding during the process of writing the book: I read drafts out loud to myself, pausing over the sentences that read fine on the page but tripped me up as I spoke them. By the time I was done writing it, I knew how the whole book sounded, and I wanted to share that sound.
But none of that explains why I decided to do all the recording and production myself. Audiobooks aren’t cheap to make, which is why not every published book automatically becomes an audiobook, but my publisher had budgeted for my book to be adapted and they would have paid someone else—an expert, you might say—to do it. But I wanted to tackle this project myself, for a few reasons. First, I felt a kind of vulnerable attachment to the audio version of the book, to the process of reading it out loud, that made me wary of the idea of someone else editing it together. And second, I just kind of wanted to see if I could.
I am a baseline competent audio editor; I produced Secret Feminist Agenda myself, and I teach introductory level podcasting courses, but I’m definitely still a beginner compared to professional producers. I’ve never had any formal training and I tend to learn best by doing, so: I did it. And I learned a ton, which I will summarize here for anyone else considering making their own audiobooks, or just curious about the process.
- Get the original recordings as clean as you possibly can. It’s so much more work to edit a bad take together, or edit out some weird background noise. I ended up doing all of the recordings sitting on my mattress with some pillows piled up around me for baffling, and then lost hours of my life to painstakingly removing traffic noises and microphone bumps and all sorts of other audio artefacts that I could have avoided by recording in a studio in the first place.
- Download the ACX Check for Audacity. Chances are your audiobook’s going up on Audible, and they have very strict rules for their audio files—rules that I absolutely couldn’t follow using my normal Digital Audio Workspace (DAW), like controlling the noise floor and noise ceiling and average loudness? I hate Audacity (a free DAW with truly the world’s ugliest interface) but they do have a free plug-in that lets you check if your audio files will fulfill Audible’s standards. Record a sample and figure out how to pass the ACX check before you record the rest of the book. It will save you a lot of heartache.
- Learn about plug-ins. I use Hindenburg, a lovely little DAW designed for radio and podcasting that is just powerful enough to do exactly what I need and simple enough to do it without giving me a headache. But listening to my voice for the hours and hours and hours it took to edit the audiobook together shifted my standard of what “good” audio sounded like. I found myself noticing my lisp more, wondering if my voice sounded too thin or breathy. My long-time collaborator and actual trained sound engineer Stacey Copeland came to my rescue, showing me what plug-ins and settings she’s used in the past when editing my voice for The SpokenWeb Podcast, including Sibilance, the Waves audio de-esser. Adding a few plug-ins into my arsenal helped me get my voice sounding just the way I wanted it, which was a real boon considering how many hours I had to spend listening to it.
- Embrace imperfection. On the flip side, at a certain point enough editing is enough. I’m not normally a perfectionist, but I lost perspective a bit as I worked on this audiobook. I think it was some combination of how vulnerable and personal this book feels and the way an audiobook is like, but not the same as, a podcast. Podcasting is a medium that allows for more imperfection because listeners understand that they’re often produced quickly—plus you can always go back in and fix errors. I wanted the audiobook to be as good as I could get it, but at a certain point I had to decide it was good enough and let it go… into the hands of the Associate Producer, who could actually make the call about what needed to be fixed and what was, actually, good enough.
- Understand the difference between print and audio publishing. Audiobooks are weird creatures. While they might seem a lot like podcasts, you actually can’t just post them once they’re ready—not if you want people to be able to find your book through platforms like Audible and Libro.fm. Plus, because audiobooks are faithful adaptations of their print counterparts, you can’t record your audiobook until your print book is done—as in final proofs, no more edits allowed, done done. Meaning you actually can’t start recording until quite far into the publishing process. Plus, while publishers control the publication date for print and ebooks (through a whole elaborate publishing supply chain), they have no way of controlling, or even really knowing, when the audiobook will become available, since each platform takes a different amount of time and has different rules. Even though I had total control over the project at the production end of things, I had very little control over the publication side and, even odder, neither did my publisher. (This is why you should get your audiobooks through any platform but Audible, by the way, because when we let Amazon control things it’s bad; I recommend libro.fm).
I could get more granular about lots of this process, like how many words I realized I didn’t know how to pronounce, and how I took care of my voice over multiple days of reading for hours, but mostly I want to know if you have any questions! What do you want to know about how audiobooks work?