Navigating the Next Frontier in Digital Publishing: Audiobooks

audiobooks
Photo by Jeff Golden

When Audible launched its Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) back in 2011, my initial reaction was to ignore it. I wish I could tell you that this decision was rooted in sound logic, but if I’m being totally honest, the very idea of producing an audiobook just seemed overwhelming. This was at a time when I’d finally gotten the whole MOBI vs. EPUB thing straight and the thought of learning a new vernacular threatened to make my head explode. After all, how many times have we writers been promised that something is going to be easy only to learn the hard truth?

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred, but it seems like the digital publishing conversation changed from e-books to audiobooks overnight. Suddenly people were calling it “the next frontier in digital publishing” and it quickly became impossible to ignore this rapidly growing market segment, which, according to IBISWorld, currently represents about $1.6 billion (up from $480 million in 1997). I spent a lot of time thinking about my goals as a writer, one of which is reaching more readers, and I finally decided to take a serious look at audio.

Even though “talking books” have been available since the 1930s (they were originally intended for people with visual impairments), the confluence of digital audio formats, mobile devices, and our “on the go” lifestyle has made audiobooks more affordable, portable, and accessible to a wider audience than ever before, an audience who is embracing the format as a way to multitask. Last year The New York Times cited a Bowker survey that revealed that “among people who have recently bought audiobooks, 47% listen while commuting in a car, 25% while working around the house and 23% while exercising.” Though the audiobook market is smaller than that of print and e-books, if you consider that only a fraction of books make the transition to audio, you could argue that the audiobook market might be an easier place to get discovered. Add to that the fact that audiobook listeners have the most diverse reading habits—”84% of audiobook listeners also read a print book in the past year, and 56% also read an e-book,” according to Pew Research Internet Project—and you can see how offering your work as an audiobook could translate to e-book and print sales of other titles.

With all of this in mind, I decided that I couldn’t ignore audio anymore; it was time to embrace digital publishing’s newest technology, vernacular and all. At the beginning of this year, rather than setting my usual resolutions about losing weight and saving money, I set just one: to turn my novel, Empty Arms, into an audiobook. It was a long road and it wasn’t always easy, but my head didn’t explode and I find myself here, in the beginning of July, with a newly approved audiobook to launch and a number of lessons to share with anyone who’s thinking of making a similar journey.

Lesson #1: Listen Before You Jump

I’m one of the audiobook multitaskers mentioned above. You’ll never find me cleaning the bathroom, ironing, weeding, or even running to the grocery store without being tuned in to a story. If you’re thinking about producing an audiobook but you’ve never “read with your ears”, now is the time to do so. Jumping in without experience in this format will likely leave you feeling lost. You won’t know how the opening or closing credits are supposed to sound, how character voices are handled, what makes for a good sample excerpt, or how fast the pacing should be. With that said, be sure to listen to titles in your genre because there are a host of stylistic differences between categories.

Lesson #2: There’s No One Right Way

There are a few different options for financing and distributing your audiobook. When it comes to financing your project, you will either “Pay for Production”, which means that you will pay the producer up front and keep all of the royalties (less ACX’s split) or you’ll enter into a “Royalty Share” deal in which you don’t pay anything up front but you split your royalties with the producer when your audiobook starts selling. Both options can be costly. Production quotes for my project started at $4,000. However, with a royalty share deal there’s no limit to how much you could pay in the long run. If your work is already selling well, paying for production up front might make financial sense because the project will likely end up costing you less in the long run. However, if you’re a new author, or an author with a limited budget, a royalty share deal could mean the difference between producing an audiobook and not.

The other issue to consider is distribution. If you pay for production, you can choose to distribute your audiobook exclusively through ACX—which will make your title available on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, and earn you a higher royalty rate—or you can choose non-exclusive distribution, which decreases your royalty but allows you to sell your audiobook wherever you want. As for the royalty share deals, they are automatically locked into exclusive distribution with ACX.

Deciding how to finance and distribute your audiobook is a highly personal decision that should be based on your budget and goals. There’s no one right way to do it, only the way that works best for you. For my project, I decided to do a royalty share deal. Avoiding a substantial out-of-pocket investment was appealing as was the prospect of working with a Producer who would have a vested interest in the success of our audiobook. As far as distribution is concerned, I felt confident that Empty Arms would find its audience through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, since they are such large players in the audiobook marketplace.

Lesson #3: Change is Inevitable

If you use Facebook—or any service, for that matter—you’re well aware that your service terms can change at any time, and not necessarily in your favor. Working with ACX is no different. When I first started my audiobook project, ACX promised to match me with a Producer and facilitate the entire process—from legal contracts to royalty pay-outs to distribution—and give us a 50% cut, which could increase to as high as 90%, depending on the number of units sold. Based on the value ACX was bringing to the table, that arrangement felt fair. Then, about two months into my project, ACX changed the rules. In a highly criticized move, ACX increased its own cut to a flat 60%, leaving Rights Holders and Producers to split the remaining 40%, and it eliminated the sliding scale altogether. I was relieved to learn that my project was grandfathered in under the old royalty structure, but it left many people, including myself, feeling disenchanted and uncertain about their future in this format.

Lesson #4: Your Voice Is Not Necessarily the Right Voice for Your Audiobook

While the success of your print and e-books might rely on your literary voice, your audiobook relies on the narrator’s physical voice. Even the best story in the world can be destroyed by the wrong voice. The decision to work with a professional narrator or do it yourself trips up many authors. It’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make, but it really boils down to two key factors: genre and skill. The general rule of thumb is that works of non-fiction are read by the author because it’s thought to add authenticity (think of David and Goliath written and read by Malcolm Gladwell or Bossypants, which is narrated by its author, Tina Fey), while fiction is generally left to professional voice artists who are trained to convey a variety of emotions and character voices (look at The Hunger Games series, which was written by Suzanne Collins but narrated by Carolyn McCormick or the A Game of Thrones series, which was written by George R.R. Martin but narrated by Roy Dotrice).

With that being said, the author’s skill level should also be considered. Not all non-fiction authors have voices that make for pleasant listening. Similarly, if you’re a fiction writer who has had some success with public speaking or podcasting, listeners might prefer to hear the story told in your voice (think The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman or A Mercy by Toni Morrison).

In my case, the decision was easy. Fiction project + no recording experience = go pro.

Lesson #5: Act Like a Casting Agent

If you decide to work with a narrator, ACX will connect with you an entire community of professionals and allow you to filter the talent pool by certain criteria, like gender, age, language, dialect, and vocal qualities (e.g. raspy, nasal, shy). Since Empty Arms is told from the perspective of an infertile woman in her late thirties who is haunted by the baby girl she surrendered for adoption when she was sixteen, I searched for a female narrator in her 30s or 40s with a “wistful” voice.

Voice artists matching your criteria will audition for your project, using a script that you will provide. Don’t just use Chapter 1 as your audition script because it’s the easy choice; pick a section that contains several characters and some heated drama to really get a feel for how each narrator handles different voices and the level of their acting skills. And make sure your audition script is long enough to give you an accurate sense of what it will be like to listen to that voice for an extended period of time. I recommend a 10-15 minute read.

I ended up using Chapter 1 for my audition script because it featured multiple characters, an emotionally-charged scene in which my protagonist and her husband find out that they can’t have children, and it came in at just over 2,300 words, which translated into a 15-minute read. Whether you decide to use your first chapter or a scene later in the book, it’s always helpful to give the narrator some context, so they understand the tone and aren’t jumping in blind.

Once your project is open for auditions, don’t just sit back and wait for people to take notice. Be proactive by searching ACX’s database for narrators who would be a good fit and then send them a message describing the project and inviting them to audition.

As the auditions roll in and you narrow down your favorites, visit Audible to look up other books they’ve narrated and read the reviews. Audible has ratings and reviews specific to performance, as well as the story itself, so you can see how readers have responded to the narrator’s past work.

Lesson #6: Your Narrator will also be Your Business Partner

Brooke Boertzel
Voice artist Brooke Boertzel

When choosing a Narrator, don’t just evaluate the person’s vocal qualities and production experience, but also their ability to help you market your final product, especially if you’re doing a royalty share deal. When I chose my narrator, Brooke Boertzel, it wasn’t just because she had the right voice, an MFA in Acting from the Actors Studio Drama School, an in-home production studio, and 25 years of experience in the business, it was because I felt that she would be committed to the project’s success, both during production and beyond.

My instinct about Brooke was proven when we hit a stumbling block in the middle of production. I wanted to add music to the opening and closing credits and dream sequences, but working with royalty-free stock music was proving to be complicated from a rights perspective. Rather than giving up and proceeding without music, Brooke circumvented the entire issue by composing custom tracks that we were able to use without limitation. And now that the audiobook is for sale, she’s tapping into her resources and contacts to help spread the word.

Lesson #7: Get on the Same Page Before You Start Recording

Your readers don’t necessarily imagine your characters the same way you do, so why would your Narrator? Avoid being surprised by your Narrator’s interpretation of what your characters sound like by sharing your vision up front. For Empty Arms, I told Brooke that I wanted the evil nurse to have a rough, smoker’s voice, while one of the doctors needed to sound elderly and hard of hearing. I thought my protagonist’s best friend should sound cheerful with sadness brewing right beneath the surface, and I envisioned the detective that my protagonist hires to find her long lost daughter sounding like an arrogant used car salesman. By knowing these things up front, Brooke was able to bring my characters to life in a way that sounded authentic to me.

Lesson #8: Develop a Clear-Cut Process for Reviews

Edits can get messy. There’s pacing, inflection, pronunciation, and a whole of host of other issues that will need changing. And since this is a digital audio recording, not a manuscript that can be marked up with a red pen, communicating these changes can be a nightmare. To ensure it goes smoothly, work with your Narrator to develop a clear-cut process for identifying, communicating, and implementing changes.

For us, it was all about workflow. When Brooke was in “narrator mode”, she didn’t want to disrupt her flow by switching to “producer mode” to make edits. So we agreed that Brooke would record the entire first draft and then go back and work on my edits. We also decided that she would send me the chapters as she recorded them, rather than in one big batch. I knew that I wouldn’t have the stamina to review the entire recording in one sitting, so I tackled it 3-4 chapters at a time.

To capture my feedback, we developed a form that identified the time stamp in the recording, the word or phrase that posed a problem, and my direction about the editing that needed to take place. Here’s what it looked like:

Time stamp Word or Phrase Edit
0:58 But she is forever out of reach. Could you make your voice trail off at the end of this sentence? I think that will help set this apart as a dream and make for a nice transition.

 

In addition to reducing confusion on Brooke’s end, capturing my feedback in this format made it easy for me to listen to the updated recording and verify that all of the changes had been made to my satisfaction.

Lesson #9: It Takes Longer Than You Probably Expect

When you begin producing an audiobook, ACX requires you to set timelines and milestones to keep everyone on track. Knowing that I tend to underestimate these sorts of things, I decided to set my project completion date three months out. To me, that seemed like ample time to produce an audiobook.

It wasn’t.

From a production perspective, if you’re working with an experienced Narrator/Producer, you can expect one “finished hour” of audio to take about four hours of editing. This means that an audiobook that takes ten hours to listen to took forty hours to produce. Less experienced producers can take much longer. You also need to account for all of the time you’re going to spend listening to the recording, identifying changes, and re-reviewing. On top of that, you’ve got to factor in time for ACX to perform its quality check, which is upwards of 10-14 business days. If they come back with changes—which they did a couple of times for our project—you’ve got to add in more editing time and another 10-14 business days every time it goes back to ACX.

What seemed like a reasonable timeline in the beginning is humorous to me now. Despite Brooke’s experience and the fact that we worked together like a well-oiled machine, the project that I thought would take three months ended up taking six.

Lesson #10: It’s More Rewarding Than You Imagine

Empty Arms AudiobookNot only did it make good business sense for me to release Empty Arms as an audiobook, I also thought it would be pretty cool. I never imagined how moved I’d be to hear my characters and their journeys brought to life in this way. Though the process had its ups and downs, nothing surprised me as much as the immense pride I’ve felt about the product we produced.

 

Are you thinking about producing an audiobook? If so, what’s stopping you?

 

 

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About Erika Liodice

Erika Liodice is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel (Dreamspire Press). To read more about her publishing journey, you can visit her at erikaliodice.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m wondering: did you try reading your own book before deciding to go with a narrator? There is a certain extra connection between a reader and a writer if the reader has listened, pleasurably, to a whole book in the writer’s voice.

    ‘Pleasurably’ of course is the key – and I wouldn’t fault anyone who doesn’t want to spend six months in a recording studio! There are so very many new things to learn that even the idea is overwhelming – until you think about it for a while. Like all new ideas, it probably takes quite a while to take hold.

    I’m gathering stories. Stephen Woodfin at VentureGalleries.com has blogged extensively about the process, and has recorded many books, his as well as those of others.

    I know Lawrence Block has done some of his – and there are actually two audio versions of some books, one read by him.

    Lots of things to think about in the execution – but audio versions are something writers should consider very seriously.

    Thanks for sharing your experience – and your decision process.

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    • says

      Hi Alicia,
      No, I never attempted to be the narrator. To be honest, I don’t like the sound of my own voice. I hear that that’s true for many people because the way we hear ourselves in our head vs. the way other people hear us is quite different, so when you listen to a recording of yourself it can be jarring. I agree that self-narration works extremely well for some people, but I thought my book was better left in the hands of a pro.

      Glad you found the article helpful!

      Erika

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  2. says

    You officially blew my mind, Erika. I hadn’t ever considered this, but have already printed out your post to refer back to WHEN (not if) the time comes. Thanks so much for sharing this info.

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  3. says

    I enjoyed reading this, Erika, especially the bit about people listening to books while driving, doing housework, or while exercising. I still have a ways to go before I think about anything related to publishing, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the market to know, as I write my heart out, what I can expect when I am ready.

    Audiobooks remind me of an important aspect of writing, something I come across when editing my own work or others': the power of reading aloud. You can catch awkward rhythms and subtler effects the writer might not intend. Conversely, work that’s been read aloud and has been revised accordingly is potent when read silently or out loud. Only reading it in your head, you miss out on the full potential of the voice.

    Before we had pen and paper, we used to gather around the fireside and tell stories. It’s good to see things come full circle.

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    • says

      I couldn’t agree with you more, John. In fact, this whole audiobook project got me thinking about recording myself reading future work aloud, so I can play it back and listen for clunky wording. I think it could be an extremely powerful editing tool.

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  4. says

    Great post, Erika. I needed this today, and just have one thought regarding the author also serving as narrator…. If we do some recording and listen to it over and over we get used to our own voices. Nobody else reacts to my voice the way I do. Other people say they like my voice. So, making the decision to work with voice talent is not a bad idea, but it may not be necessary after all. Voice talent is a specific skill, and if the author does not have that skill, well, that’s the time to hire somebody else.

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    • says

      Leanne, you read my mind! It’s funny, I started including tidbits about marketing strategy in this post but I quickly found myself writing a whole article about that topic alone. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of treating your audiobook release just like you would a physical book release. There is a host of promotion opportunities available…maybe I’ll have the chance to write a future post about that?

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  5. says

    I’d add one more important item to your list–a marketing strategy. I think it’s key to figure out how you’re going to market your audiobook before you dive in.
    In the early 2000s, my husband and I produced an audiobook. (I was the narrator and he was the sound man) And I learned rather quickly that it wasn’t as easy to sell as a paperback. People can’t flip through the first chapter to get a taste for your writing. Listening to a sample was too big a commitment for the readers I encountered. (But that was face-to-face, over the Internet might be different.)

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    • says

      Hi again, Leanne,
      Since so many people are interested in learning about audiobook marketing strategy, I’m going to be returning on Saturday, Oct. 4th with a follow-up article that focuses solely on that. I hope you’ll stop back and check it out!

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  6. Carmel says

    Audiobooks have definitely come of age with the recent availability and ease of listening devices. I listen as I walk. Our daughter listens to her old favorites to fall asleep. And our son-in-law (who won’t touch an e-reader because he loves print books) listens in his work truck on long trips.

    Audiobooks are in my plans after an e-book launch.

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    • says

      I’m like you, Carmel, I love going outside for a walk by the river while listening to a good book. Nothing better! That’s great that your daughter is into it too!

      It’s funny, many people don’t think of this, but truck stops are a great outlet for selling audiobooks. It makes sense when you think of how much time those folks spend on the road.

      Good luck with your audiobook! Give me a shout if you need any advice or guidance.

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  7. says

    Erika–
    Thank you for this useful, realistic summary of what’s ahead for anyone thinking of putting out an audio book.
    I have been interested in developing an audio version of the first in my Brenda Contay suspense series, The Anything Goes Girl. I taught for many years and have reason to believe that I make a good narrator for my own work–even though the central POV character is a woman (I have sample audio files on my website). BUT: I don’t really know how to proceed. Ideally, I would be able to make a local arrangement with someone who has an in-home studio, and create the audio. But having done this, I don’t know what comes next. What would you suggest? Is CSX the only game in town?

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    • says

      Hi Barry,
      As far as I know, ACX is currently the only service that offers to facilitate the whole process for you, from production to distribution. If you are interested in doing it yourself, you might want to check out the book “Making Tracks: A Writer’s Guide to Audiobooks (and How to Produce Them)” by J. Daniel Sawyer. Before making a decision, I would recommend reviewing both ACX’s website and Sawyer’s book to get a more complete understanding of all that’s involved with both routes, that should help you determine which makes the most sense for you and identify what the next steps are.

      Feel free to reach out if you need any advice along the way.

      Good luck!
      Erika

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  8. says

    What a useful post, Erika. Other than for non-fiction, I’m not an audiobook listener so most of these points wouldn’t have occurred to me. Each time one of your points raised a question, the answer was in the next segment. Thank you.

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  9. says

    Thanks for this, Erika. I did do an Audible audiobook of my standalone novel of suspense, What She Saw, with wonderful narrator, actress Aria McKenna. The reviews often mention how she brings the characters to life.

    The big question is the marketing. I’ve scoured the internet, but haven’t found much. I do quite a lot of marketing for my print and e-books, but this seems to be at least somewhat a different market. Any ideas?

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    • says

      Great question, Sheila! I’ll be addressing that very topic in a follow-up post that’s scheduled to appear here on Writer Unboxed on Saturday, October 4th. Stay tuned for answers!

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  10. says

    Wonderful article. Thanks for writing it. I published my novel Blue Hydrangeas through ACX and the whole process was really very simple and enjoyable. I found a wonderful narrator, Elinor Bell, and we worked great together. It only took us about 3 to 4 months to bring the novel to the market. Again, like others have said, marketing is the big issue. I recently had a review and interview in the new AudiobookMonthly.com which started publishing in May of this year. That’s a great resource for getting your information out. I am also waiting for a review from Audiophile. Fortunately, the reviews for my print and e-books are excellent and I think any positive commentary on your work will boost your audiobook sales as well for those people who prefer to read that way. Looking forward to learning more about this exciting and upcoming enterprise. http://mariannesciucco.blogspot.com

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    • says

      Thanks for sharing your marketing ideas, Marianne. In fact, there’s been a bit of a pattern in the comments section here: it seems quite a few people are eager to learn more about marketing audiobooks. I spoke with Therese about it and I’m going to be returning on Saturday, October 4th with an article about that very topic. Stay tuned…

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  11. says

    Erika, thank you for the detailed account your audio book. My debut novel is coming out in October (self-published) and I’ve been thinking about an audio version as well, because both my husband and teenage grandson are avid audio book consumers. I’ve thought about reading it myself, as I am a professional actress and have done some radio drama. But even so, it seems daunting and costly. Especially when I have no idea yet as to how my book will do as an e-book and paperback.

    I’ve tentatively explored with someone locally who has a production studio. With me reading, I’m still looking at thousands of dollars upfront. The producer, who’s experienced in sound recording and editing and works on major Hollywood films, said it’s very time consuming, getting rid of the lip smacks, the throat clearings, etc.

    My husband subscribes to Audible. Is your book on that site as well? He said that he’s given up on some audio books because they are read by monotone speakers, making it difficult for him to stay engaged. He much prefers professional actors who can give the right inflections and change character voices when needed.

    Thanks again for a very timely post.

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    • says

      Hi Diana,
      Glad you found my article useful. Given your situation, it might not hurt to see how well your print and e-book perform before deciding whether or not to proceed with an audiobook. Releasing your book in audio at a later date can be a great way to generate a second surge of interest in your title.

      To answer your question, yes, my book is available on Audible as well as Amazon and iTunes.

      Good luck with your book launch!
      Erika

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  12. says

    Hi Erika,
    As an audio producer/director with more than 400 audio books under my belt (before I stopped to write full time) it was wonderful to see an author being realistic about the need for a narrator. Narrating an audio book is similar to writing – everyone thinks they can do it, but not everyone can, and very few can do it as well as a trained actor – as you noted, especially for fiction.

    One thing that you didn’t address, though, is hiring a producer/director who is NOT a narrator (like me, though as I said I don’t anymore). I’m curious if the possibility even came up for you on ACX, or whether narrator/producers have completely pushed professional producer/directors out altogether because of the assumption that paying one person instead of two will be cheaper?

    This article is not the first time I’ve heard of an ACX narrator/producer quoting 4 hours per finished hour of audio book and that’s double what an experienced producer/director working with an experienced narrator should be able to achieve. I’d add and extra half hour per finished hour for first person narratives, depending on the characterization.

    It is possible that paying two people versus double the time would work out roughly the same, but I’m including all that time Erika describes putting in checking it and asking for changes etc., for which I bet Erika did not pay herself. A producer/director will turn out a product that simply won’t need more than two or three fixes in a whole book after thorough proofing.

    As to proofing, that also should not be unpaid work by the writer – not because they shouldn’t pay but because they shouldn’t be doing it. Just as a writer cannot properly proof their own writing, they cannot properly proof there own audio book – they know it too well. A professional audio book proofer (whose time should be included in the producer’s quote, because we work with them all the time) are better able to proof not just the text, but audio quality and continuity than the author.

    Oh, and I had many books go up on audible while I was producing and running the (small) studio I worked from and we (four producers) never had any books returned with requests for fixes.

    The more important issue to me, though, is quality. No matter how great a performance a narrator/producer does, it is an unarguable fact that every one of them would produce a better quality performance working with a good producer/director. Even just another narrator who has trained themselves as a producer would be better than no-one at least monitoring them, if not directing them.

    Brooke is right, she cannot be a producer while she is recording, but for the best result – for a good, clean record with good sound and voice continuity – someone really should be. There are so many things for a producer to consider that a narrator should not have to as they are recording to get a clean result, well performed, with sound and voice continuity – which should be fixed in the initial record, a day or days later!

    Okay, this is far too long now, but I saw so many people taking advice from the post that I really wanted to mention it.

    Good luck!

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  13. says

    Oops, obviously that was supposed to be “NOT a day or days later” and there’s a “there” instead of a “their” in there, too – see? Self-proofing is not a good idea – especially when discussing it, LOL!

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