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Take 20 with Audiobook Narrator Julia Whelan + Giveaway!

My second novel, THE MOON SISTERS [1], comes out in paperback in two days. It also comes out in audiobook, and I feel so lucky; actress Julia Whelan [2] delivered a beautiful performance. Julia isn’t just an actress (Once and Again) and prolific audiobook star; she’s also an author. Her debut novel, MY OXFORD YEAR [3], released this spring and quickly became a favorite with readers. And, yep, she performed the audiobook herself.

I’m thrilled to have Julia here today to talk about audiobook trends, what it takes to produce an audiobook, how she manages all of those voices, indie author considerations, and so much more! (A big HT to the Writer Unboxed Facebook community [4] for offering some great questions when I asked what their inquiring minds wanted to know.)

Because we’re also celebrating THE MOON SISTERS, Julia and I are offering a download code for the book to one commenter who will be randomly chosen on Friday. Good luck!

Therese Walsh: Before we dive in, I have to tell you that I couldn’t be happier with the final version of The Moon Sisters. I was surprised at how affected I was to hear the performance of a story I know so well. I laughed, I cried, and I listened to the book twice in a row. But the job of the listener, even if that listener is the author, is easy. Was the process of recording the book challenging in any way for you—the accents, the letters, the sibling battles, the format, etc…? And—one of my favorite questions: Team Jazz or Team Olivia?

Julia Whalen: Thank you! I actually decided to do something for The Moon Sisters that I’ve only done with one other book before (Stacey Jay’s The Princess of Thorns). Instead of recording it straight through, I read all of Jazz’s sections and then all of Olivia’s and then I went back and did all of Beth’s letters. For me, it made the most sense. I wanted to make sure I stayed in each sister’s voice so that the listener could truly have a distinct listening experience. Going back later and putting everything in the right order was a bit of a challenge, but I think it made the recording process itself much smoother.

Ooh, that’s a tough one. Personally, I identify more with Jazz. The responsible one, the realist. Some might call her pessimistic, but I wouldn’t. Plus, Olivia could turn anybody into an older sister. :-)

TW: This is true.

There are times when I’ve loved a physical book so much that I’ve purchased the audiobook after reading it just to hear the story performed. As a narrator and actor, are you able to simply read a physical book or is some part of you always acting it out? Have you ever pursued a job because you *had* to narrate the book? 

JW: I love reading books just to read them. Alas, that doesn’t happen very often. But when I do, it’s hard to break the habit of prepping. For the first hundred pages or so I find myself reaching for a pen when I see a word I don’t know how to pronounce or noting a character’s vocal description before I remember I’m off the clock! There have only been a handful of times when I’ve reached out to a publisher or producer and asked to be considered for an author’s next book… and it’s never resulted in getting the book. Not sure if there’s a lesson in there, but I will keep making my desires known. And certain writer-friends just know I won’t let anyone else do their books. Like, don’t even ask.

TW: What do you hope to bring to a book, in order to make it a rounder, more fulfilling experience for a listening reader?

JW: This depends on the book. Sometimes the best way I can serve a book is to get out of the way. If the prose is basically poetry and it’s just shockingly beautiful, I’m going to step back and let the writing stand on its own. Memoir, I don’t like to interfere too much. But if it’s high fantasy? My approach suddenly becomes an all-out one-woman Lord of the Rings. It really comes down to the voice of the book.

TW: I recently saw a statistic via Publishing Perspectives (ht Porter Anderson) [5], reporting a “six-year trend of double-digit growth” in audiobook listening. Do you have a sense about why audiobooks are trending up like this? 

JW: Not to sound too glib, but I think the short answer is: convenience. Digital audiobooks were a game changer. People can have them on their phones now, in their cars, in their earbuds, coming through their Sonos, whenever they want. Plus, I think people have discovered how many good audiobook narrators there are. These aren’t your grandfather’s books on tape. These are tour-de-force performances from some exceptionally talented actors.

TW: Do you believe the audiobook audience is distinct from the physical-book-reading crowd, and if so, how? 

JW: In many ways, they’re very distinct. On an obvious and basic level, audiobooks allow people with vision impairments or learning disabilities or other challenges access to books. But in other ways, there is an audience crossover. I know some people who say, I’ll listen to the mystery-suspense reads because they keep me going at the gym, but I’ll physically read the literary or nonfiction books because I want to be able to go back and linger over a passage or paragraph. Or, people find a narrator that they become loyal to and will then listen to any book that person narrates, even if it’s not something they would have picked up in a bookstore.

TW: What do you think people can take away from an audiobook that they may not get from simply reading the physical book? How might empathy factor into this, if you think it does?

JW: It’s a performance. Why do we go see the film adaptation of a book when we could just read the book? It’s an entirely different experience and I don’t think the two can be compared. It’s difficult for me to be objective about empathy; I’m a very empathetic reader. Maybe it’s because of my acting background, but I’m probably not going to feel more about a book having it read to me than reading it myself. But maybe this isn’t true for other people? I don’t know. This is one to ponder. Over a drink. Because my concept of empathy is inextricably tied to my opinions not just about art but about what’s missing in our society and that’s an entire essay in its own right.

TW: If reviews on Audible are anything to go by, character voices are perhaps the most critical element to creating a satisfying audiobook. How do you go about settling on a character’s voice? Can you share with us the evolution of an interesting voice?

JW: First and foremost, I rely on the author to provide what I need to know about a character’s voice. Sometimes they’ll be very helpful (“she said in her throaty bassoon of a voice that always sounded like a frog with laryngitis,” for instance) and sometimes you’ll have to piece the clues together (she’s from Brooklyn, her mother’s from Minnesota, dad’s from Italy, but she went to Stanford and has lived in France for the last decade and she smokes). Even the way the dialogue is written will help. Short sentences? One word answers? Or long discursive meanderings? In figuring out the whole cast, I prioritize the characters who have the most dialogue because a) I have to be conscious of not giving them a grating voice that might fatigue the listener through sheer repetition and b) once I’ve got their voice as a base, I can build the other characters’ voices around them, so that everyone sounds as distinct as possible.

TW: What, if anything, makes voices a tricky business for you? Are male voices challenging? What about accents or colloquial speech?

JW: Audiobook narrators are given an impossible task: inhabit every character in this book convincingly. And more, make them all distinct so that the listener knows who’s speaking. It’s a ridiculous premise, frankly. But it’s fun! It’s the Acting Olympics. Accents are tricky, but welcome because they help you distinguish the characters. But sometimes you get thrown for a loop (I had Papiamento show up once) and just have to muddle through, trying not to offend anyone. Male voices are challenging only because you’re never going to make everyone happy. Some listeners want you to really go for it, others would rather you not change your voice at all. At this point, I’ve learned to let the book dictate the level of characterization. What feels right for this specific book? Who’s the audience?

TW: How important is it for you to distinguish one voice from another throughout the course of a novel? Are larger casts tricky, fun, or both for you? Are some voices retired, like a star quarterback’s jersey, after you’ve narrated a story as singular as Gone Girl?

JW: I think distinguishing characters (if you’re the type of narrator who does characters, and I am) is probably priority number one. This obviously gets complicated when you’ve got a homogenous cast (i.e. the students of a girls boarding school in Connecticut). But a large, diverse cast can be really fun and rewarding. A series that I did (Maggie Hall’s The Conspiracy of Us) comes to mind because it was a truly global cast. I remember in one scene I had an American girl, an English guy, a Russian guy, two French guys, a French girl, a Japanese boy, and, I think, an Indian girl. Now, the recording process was a complete nightmare. But the finished product is a great listen.
I don’t know that I’ve ever retired a voice. I couldn’t retire Amy Elliot Dunne (Gone Girl) because I was just doing me, my voice (just, you know, slightly more psychopathic). I will definitely retire ones that I listen back to and think, welp, that didn’t work!

“Vivid, smart, and utterly charming, My Oxford Year is a heartfelt journey.” – Allie Larkin, author of Why Can’t I Be You

TW: How many times do you read through a story (to yourself, or aloud) before recording? Do you ever mark up a book’s passages? Do you do any form of research–topics, audience, etc.? What else makes up your pre-recording process?

JW: I definitely read through it once, keeping a list of characters and words. Some books require more research than others. Historical fiction (or non), anything based on real people or events. For categories like sci-fi or fantasy, the majority of the prep time is spent talking with the author about the rules of the world they built: how are these words pronounced, what does this group of people sound like, are you going to be revealing anything about a character in, say, book 3 that I need to know about right now, in book 1? I never, never go into the booth without having read the book. That way lies madness.

TW: How long does it take for you to record an average-length novel? If you record over several days, what steps do you take to ensure consistency of tone, pace, etc.?

JW: Most books take me four days to record, 6-8 hours of recording per day. I keep clips of character voices so I can refer back to them for consistency.

TW: Do you work with an audio engineer or handle production by yourself? (What is standard?)

JW: I’m usually by myself. The industry has moved out of the studio, for the most part. Narrators often record from home, in our own booths. The files are then sent to a production company for proofing, editing, mastering, QC, etc. There are a few companies who still use directors and engineers and let me tell you it feels like a gift when I get to have someone else with me in the mud and the muck.

TW: Do you use an independent editor, or work with publishers post-recording in case there are any necessary edits?

JW: If the book came through a publisher or producer then post is their responsibility. If I’m producing the book for an author then I’m outsourcing the work to my trusted editors. I don’t do it all. I don’t have the time, for one thing, but more importantly, you should never have just one set of ears on something. For the same reason that I find typos in manuscripts while reading them aloud that managed to slip by the author, the agent, the editor, the copyeditor, and the – what – ten other people who read through manuscripts in the pre-pub process.

TW: Can authors do anything to help ensure their book is audiobook friendly?

JW: Just read it aloud. Please. You should be doing this anyway for your own editorial process, but for my purposes… dear God, read it aloud.

TW: Cosigning this advice, which I offer to writer friends often. I think the ear catches things when you read things aloud that the brain is apt to miss unless those words are heard. Errors, yes, but also repeated words, phrases, and clunky sentences.

Where would an indie author look for an audiobook narrator, and what should they consider when looking for the right fit? What do you recommend an author ask of a would-be narrator before reaching an agreement?

JW: Listen to audiobooks. Get to know what makes a good narrator to you. And then reach out to us. It’s easy. Most of us have some kind of social media presence and/or websites or a profile on ACX. If you’re starting from scratch, then ACX and Deyan Audio have good caches of narrator samples searchable by your requirements. Two things to establish up front: the rate and the deadline. For instance, my rate’s on the higher end AND I’m booked about 5 months out. So if you need something cheap and fast, I’m not your person. But also give yourself a deadline cushion. Most narrators I know are professionals who deliver when they say they will. But, we’re human. Things happen. And, for us, if we get sick? We can’t just work through it. Every cold I get sets my schedule back, on average, two weeks.

TW: What sort of information should publishers (or authors) provide narrators with? Is less sometimes more?

JW: Less is, in this case, usually more. We’ll ask you if we have questions. I don’t want to offend anyone here, but remember: we’re the professionals. I know you wrote a book. I know how hard it was (I’ve done it!) and how much it means to you. But you’re an author. You’re not an audiobook narrator. We know industry standards, we know what works and what doesn’t. You might want to reinvent the wheel for your book because, let’s be honest, your book is the best book ever written and it deserves it, but it’s our job to say, “No, Im not going to record this scene in the woods just because it’s set in the woods and you want to hear a breeze throughout it.”

TW: Should an author ever consider reading their own work? If an author is serious about trying this, how would they get started?

JW: Unless you are a trained actor or have a public speaking/performance background or have the funds/publisher backing to hire a full recording staff (engineer and director and producer), I’d recommend not recording your own book. (I’m more lenient if it’s memoir, but that brings up its own issues: are you emotionally prepared to relive this experience yet again?). Here’s where I think authors underestimate the work involved. You don’t just sit down and read the book. There are technical requirements that can inhibit performance. So say you’re nervous reading as is, you don’t love the sound of your voice (I’m always saying it you skip past your outgoing message because you can’t stand the sound of own voice then turn back now, don’t even try), and you’re anxious about doing it “right?” I would then remind you that you’re going to be dealing with a process you’ve never dealt with before. You’re not going to be able to move (can’t make any noise!), you’ll need to breathe quietly, you’ll be hearing yourself in headphones and then a director will cut in occasionally telling you to slow down or “lighten it up” or whatever they may say, and you’ll need to get through about 100 pages a day. That said, if you want to try it? Go sit in an airless, lightless closet for six hours and read your book aloud, counting how many mistakes you make along the way. Still fun? Then God speed.

TW: Some indie authors have been advised to veer away from ACX because of their exclusivity arrangement, but are there other good options? What advantages can be found by looking outside of ACX, in terms of cost and/or distribution?

JW: This is not really my area of expertise; I work with very few indie authors. I will say that there are now viable options that aren’t ACX and as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing. Competition! But authors talking to other authors is the best way to get real information. Or, depending on which narrator you hire, they may have good intel, too.

TW: What advice do you have on marketing and promoting audiobooks? Is there a good way to get the word out about a new book? 

JW: Audiofile Magazine is the industry trade mag and you should definitely submit your audiobook to them for review. There are known audiobook reviewers/bloggers, especially in certain genres, that you should familiarize yourself with. If you have the money (but who does?) buying co-op on Audible would be enormously helpful. This question really depends on your category/genre. For instance, if you’re an indie Romance author and you have an established following and you pub 6 books a year, then audio presumably sells itself because you have a built-in audience. But if you’re an indie Literary author whose debut novel came out before social media existed and you write a book every decade, making your book (let alone audiobook) stand out is going to require a different strategy.

TW: Can authors with older books take advantage of the audiobook trend, and if so, what’s the best way to do that?

JW: If you have a backlist that’s never been put on audio before, you might as well put it on audio. BUT (huge caveat) realize that you will be releasing the audio into a vacuum. There are so many audiobooks now. So two things become important: narrator and timing. A certain narrator’s popularity will drive listeners to your book, listeners who may never have found your book otherwise. Think about that. What are your comp titles? Who narrated those? As for timing, I always suggest that authors try to time the release of the audio with some other event that already has momentum. Do you have a new book coming out? Great! Is one of your books coming out in paperback on a specific date? Fantastic! Put the audio for the backlist up a week or so before that date. And tell people the audio exists. Shout it from the rooftops. Every author understands that you’re always fighting for attention and market share; therefore, make it as easy as possible on yourself. Harness the momentum you have.

Julia, thanks so much for this comprehensive look into the life of an audiobook narrator. Thanks even more for your beautiful treatment of The Moon Sisters!

WU’ers: Are you hopelessly devoted to audiobooks? How do they fit into your life? What’s the last audiobook you enjoyed? What do you look for in an audiobook? As a novelist, do you write with your future audiobooks in mind, and if so, how?

You can learn more about Julia on her website [2] and find her narrated audiobooks just about everywhere; here are 280 options on Audible [7] to get you started.

And don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered into our audiobook contest for The Moon Sisters, which becomes #281 on Tuesday [8]!

About Therese Walsh [9]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [10], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [11] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [12], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [13] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [14] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [15]). Learn more on her website [16].