Preparing an Audiobook for a Narrator Who Isn’t You

Audiobook silhouettes

Recently I read through a book to make notes for a professional voice actor who would be reading it for an audiobook production. Luckily, she turned out to be a genius at reading my mind and dodging most of the little landmines I had overlooked. The experience was eye-opening; I’m sure I could do a better job now and prevent some of the problems I heard on the recording.

Typically, at least one round of corrections is included when you hire a narrator, but it’s always better to prevent errors in the first place. Professional voice actors don’t come cheap, and corrections beyond your allowance—which require paying both the narrator and the sound editor—can be costly. What’s more, new errors can sprout in the very act of making corrections. (In the book I was preparing, for instance, a corrected passage was perfect, but the original passage didn’t get cut, resulting in an awkward repetition. I caught it during my review.)

Not a Script

The idea isn’t for an author or copyeditor to mark up a script for the narrator to read. Voice artists have very personal methods for preparing and marking their reading copy. (Just ask one.) Rather, you’ll be compiling a list of helpful notes for the narrator to refer to when they mark up their own script. The narrator can tell you the format they prefer for receiving your notes.

Read through the book and note potential issues as you go. Speaking it out loud will help alert you to more issues than reading it silently. Having a friend read it to you is even better (if you have such a good friend!). Their stumblings will quickly point up trouble spots.

Things to Watch For

Pronunciations. For frequently occurring names or words, prepare a single list of pronunciations (rather than mark every instance throughout the text), and let the narrator decide which ones to write into their reading copy. One-offs can be noted as they occur. Some candidates for the list:

  • Proper nouns, such as the names of characters and places
  • Regional pronunciations that blur into personal preferences: “often” with a t, roof, Nevada, New Orleans, aunt, coyote, garage, coupon—there are many of these! Base your notes on whether a word’s pronunciation is integral to a character’s background or the book’s setting. If it’s not a matter of authenticity, let it go.

Speakers. Identify the speaker of any dialogue that isn’t clearly tagged, so the narrator is certain to read it in the right voice.

Thoughts. If a character’s thoughts aren’t explicitly labeled as such, they might need an added flag for the narrator, especially if the main point of view is one of limited omniscience. For instance, in the following example the words in italics (and only those) should be read in Lucia’s voice.

Lucia lingered at the back of the pack, waiting for her chance. What’s taking so long?

Emphasis. Professional narrators don’t need to be told which words to stress, but if the stress is both important to the meaning and not crystal clear from the phrasing, make a note. Having someone else read the text out loud to you is especially good for revealing this kind of trouble.

Tone of voice. Again, talented narrators don’t need help with this, but there may be a few places where you think a remark should be read with more or less subtlety or sarcasm or energy, in which case note the type of drama required.

Pauses and pacing. If it’s important and not obvious, indicate the length of a pause or when something should be read especially fast or slow.

Homonyms. Sometimes the same word can be read two different ways: “This face is different from most of the ones I read in the mug book.” (Is that “reed” or “red”?)

Contractions. If you have the authority, consider giving the narrator permission to contract expressions in dialogue when so moved. Writers are rarely consistent with “it is,” “they are,” or “you will” as opposed to “it’s,” “they’re,” or “you’ll,” and the uncontracted versions can acquire extra weight and emphasis when read aloud. Good narrators have an instinct for when the contraction sounds more natural.

Words used as words in italics or quotation marks. Consider these lines:

And that was Renslow’s “proof.”
She dumped his profile when he wrote their instead of there.

In both cases, it’s difficult to convey the sense solely through tone of voice. Consider glossing:

And that was Renslow’s so-called proof.
She dumped his profile when he wrote t-h-e-i-r instead of t-h-e-r-e.

Lists. Lists don’t often appear in novels, but when they do, the printed list has a clear beginning and end; it’s harder to hear progress through an audio list. Consider adding numbers or other markers (“first,” “second,” “next,” “finally”). Lists with points that finish a sentence can also be awkward. Consider the following:

Renslow jotted a list of questions for the lawyer. Why would Compton

  • answer the dead man’s phone after telling Bartles never to do that?
  • leave the glass with fingerprints even though at the hotel he was careful to wipe all the glasses?
  • climb out a window without closing it behind him instead of leaving by the more secluded back door into the alley?
  • fail to cover or disable the security cameras?

Glossing can help:

Renslow jotted a list of questions for the lawyer. Why would Compton

  • answer the dead man’s phone after telling Bartles never to do that?
  • Why would he leave the glass with fingerprints even though at the hotel he was careful to wipe all the glasses?
  • Why would he climb out a window without closing it behind him instead of leaving by the more secluded back door into the alley?
  • And why would he fail to cover or disable the security cameras?

Nonfiction Elements in a Novel

If your novel includes nonfiction elements, such as acknowledgments, a preface, or a discussion guide, different kinds of challenges may confront the reader.

Web addresses. Delete whole URLs and when appropriate substitute a website name or short address like “this novel dot com.” Don’t worry overly about it—listeners will figure it out.

References to the visual. “Above” or “below” can become “earlier/previously” or “later”; “see chapter 8” could be changed to “listen to chapter 8.”

Parentheticals that don’t translate well. Minor glosses can help:

Previous books in the series (such as Green Cape, Orange Boots, and Purple Mask) introduce some of the characters.
Renslow is rude and abrupt when Bartles shows up with the money (saying “Like I care”).

E-notes

Unless told differently, type your notes into the electronic file that reflects the final, published version of the book—most likely a PDF file or MS Word doc—using the comments feature. This allows you to attach each note precisely to the word or passage in question without having to provide a page or paragraph number. Notes that apply to the entire book can by typed at the beginning of the file or in a separate document or email.

Be prepared to send a copy of the original, unmarked publisher’s file in addition for the narrator to work with.

Notes Based on a Printed Book

If the final, corrected e-files are not available for any reason, work from the printed book, making your notes in a Word document or email. Refer to page and paragraph (and line, when helpful). Make sure the narrator uses the same format and edition.

3, epigraph: (insertion) he spelled it Jon, without the h
132, para 3 (Jon): pronounce “Mlle” as “ma’am-ZELL”
134, line 3 from bottom (Hank): pronounce “Mlle” as “madam-mwah-zell”
158, line 6: (printed book has error) change “last name” to “first name”

Caution

If you are the author, publisher, and audio rights holder of a book, you probably don’t need to worry about editing in minor ways for the audio edition. If you are not all of the above, your suggestions and changes will have to be run by whoever is. If you aren’t sure, consult an attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights. Some audiobooks contain a disclaimer stating that they were edited for audio.

Respect the Narrator

When you review the recordings, remember that no two narrators will perform a book in the same way, just as no two readers will mentally “hear” a printed book the same way when they read it silently. Resist the urge to micromanage the performance. After you correct actual errors and clarify potential confusions, trust the voice actor—and listeners—to take it from there.

Have you learned something from producing or narrating an audiobook? Please share your experience in the comments.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

Top image: collage from images by Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan, (left) woman at laptop, courtesy of Pixabay; (right) woman at microphone, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

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6 thoughts on “Preparing an Audiobook for a Narrator Who Isn’t You

  1. Excellent post, Carol! I listen to a LOT of audiobooks (and, not coincidentally, crochet a LOT of blankets), so this is a subject near and dear to my heart. A pox on readers who ignore the author’s notes! And a thousand blessings heaped upon the conscientious ones!

    Something else to be aware of is that Audible has rules about matching the narration to the Kindle text, so some of your suggestions (adding a “so-called” or spelling out a word) may not work unless the text is also changed. It pains me (as copyeditor/book formatter) that I’ve sometimes not been able to correct errors found later because the audiobook is already done. As the medium becomes more popular, it may be that authors need to learn to write more and more with the audiobook in mind.

    I’d also like to see the industry address the issue of citations in audiobooks. It seems so strange to me that we bend over backwards to write and format footnotes only to toss them to the wind in audio editions. If I were an author, I’d want to weave as much of the citation into the text as possible to point the listener to original sources. And certainly avoid substantive asides as much as possible; do the hard work of fitting that content into the main text!

    • Valerie, thank you for these thoughts!

      Although here at Fiction+ we tend to think in terms of novels, even novels can contain citations. And of course scholarly/nonfiction books present a raft of additional challenges – perhaps a good topic for their own post.

      As for the audio being required to match the Kindle text, I believe that might apply only to producers who want a particular (optional) syncing technology? Minor adjustments simply can’t be avoided in many audio productions. After all, if a printed book contains any purely visual elements, the only choices are to describe them or omit them.

      In any case, questions like these are why it’s important for a writer or editor to make sure everything is according to contract and approved by the rights holders when they plan their production!

      • Yes, fiction and nonfiction do tend to present separate but overlapping sets of challenges. And I think you’re right about the syncing technology. The publisher I work with that does audiobooks has the luxury of being able to produce them in-house, read by the authors when possible, so that helps avoid a heap of problems. Would love to read more posts on the topic. I’m sure the day is coming when we’ll need a new CMOS section on audiobooks!

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