Debut Author Lesson: Audio books

So you’ve sold the audio rights to your novel. Yay! What should you do now? Allow me to offer some tips from my experience as both an author and as an audio book narrator.

Read your book aloud. Yes. The whole thing. Even a 700 page monster should not take you more than a week to read aloud. Even if it took two weeks…. you spent how long writing the thing and now you are balking at spending two weeks to read it aloud? Do it when you’re proofing it. You’ll spot things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. For audio, you’ll also spot things that are just going to sound strange when read aloud. Here are some samples from actual books (one of them is mine).

  • Then Seaman erupted from the bush.
  • You know, Ainho did it. (Ainho is pronounced, “I know.”)
  • How well do you know the knowe?
  • Aye, I’ve had my eye on him for a wee bit of time.
  • It lay on her neck like a necklace of jet.
  • He ran into the copse. (Note: copse is pronounced like “cops.” This character had just evaded the police.)

Make sure that your editor, your agent, and the audio book company know that you are available to answer pronunciation questions. Most narrators want to talk to the author because they are professionals and want to do the job right. Give them your phone number or set up a time to call them.

Some publishers “protect” their authors by ensuring that all the contact has to go through them. Not only is this slow, it means that the narrator is often relying on a written transcription for pronunciation, instead of just being able to listen to the author say it out loud. It increases the chance of error exponentially.

Have the pronunciation of your name and the characters on your website. Even if you think it is self-evident, if there’s a way to mispronounce it, someone will find that way. Ideally, have a recording as well as a the phonetic description.

If you have a multi-book deal, make a list of recurring characters and give it to the narrator. When I recorded Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books, the Sea Witch had a brief cameo appearance with maybe three lines in it. I gave her a harsh guttural voice. She then turned into a major character and I’m stuck with this voice.

Make a list of character voices and accents, you can even go so far as to do a fantasy casting and match each character to an actor as a voice model. That doesn’t mean the narrator will do an impression, but it will give them a rough guide. I had to record a set of books out of sequence and when we hit the first book in the series, after I had recorded books 2 and 3, we discovered that one of the characters was described as having a distinct accent. Whoops. If I’d had a list of character voices we could have avoided that.

Relax if the narrator ‘s choice doesn’t sound like the character in your head. Sometimes in order to make a story clear, a narrator has to choose voices that might not be what you have in your head. A lot of times this is because they are trying to distinguish the characters for an audience who doesn’t have the benefit of looking back to the page to see who is talking. The larger your cast of characters, the more likely it is that a narrator is going to have to start reaching into a broader range of voices. For instance, in Seanan’s October Daye books, Sylvester Torquill does not have an Irish accent. In the audio books, he does because of the large number of male characters. I talked to Seanan about it and the accent was justifiable, but not what she had in her head. What it does is make the story clearer in audio. If you’ve made yourself available to them then they can clear choices like that with you. Otherwise, they have to make their own judgment calls. When a narrator makes a choice like that, they are doing it to serve the story in the medium in which they are performing it, not to screw with you.

And just as a side note, here are some commonly mis-pronounced words. In audio, they are read with the dictionary correct pronunciation which may not sound they way you want it to sound.

  • short-lived – Lived is with a long I. As in “short-life”
  • dour – do-er
  • riffled – Most people say “rifled” but it’s a short I.
  • copse – like cops
  • forte – Unless discussing music, this is “fort.”


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15 thoughts on “Debut Author Lesson: Audio books”

    1. Some of that is experience in touring with puppet theater where a guttural quality is often a component of an animal voice. You learn to establish the sound and then just bring it back in at key points, rather than actually sustaining it. You also learn how to make the noise through alternate means such as saliva, or variations on the French R.

      In the Luidaeg’s case, I mostly take advantage of having a mic and do a aspirated voice — like a loud whisper– then just hit the guttural when she gets pissed. I also drink lots and lots of water.

  1. As someone who reviews more than a few audio books, I will also suggest that unless you are as experienced an actress as Mary is, you should really not think about narrating your book yourself.

    I have, in fact, only heard two people read their own books well… Mary and John LeCarre (Simple and Simple, in case you were wondering). Other than that, the results are usually not very good.

    Also, to reinforce what Mary noted about how narrator’s read your characters and works: even the best of voice talents reading your words in a way that is different than you imagined.

    The best way I’ve found to endure this is to remember that readers will be doing this as well. No matter how hard you try, no one will read your words in the same manner you heard them when you wrote them down. They will draw upon their own experiences to form those words, hear their own voices, and put emphasis on different parts of the sentence. When we write, we give license to the reader to do with it as they please. The narrator is just doing the same thing, and probably doing so in a voice more like the one the readers will imagine than you had in mind.

    Trust the Talent.

    1. I have heard one excellent reading by an author of his own book. It wasn’t fiction, so that might have helped. It’s called “Dreams From My Father”. Whatever happened to that guy, anyway? 🙂

  2. This is so interesting because there are many gotchas in here that we just wouldn’t normally think of. What came to mind is a show like Simpsons, where the character voices changed over time. And also in a show like Sesame Street, some background character can become a major character later and end up with a different voice. The nature of TV shows is episodic, though, and we acknowledge that these episodes are made over a period of time. Books are shorter in comparison and will have less tolerance for this kind of inconsistency.

  3. Wow, I just learned I pronounce short-lived and forte (as in strength and not loud) wrong.

    For the curious, this is from Merriam-Webster. You’ll have to check the link for the accent marks:

    Usage Discussion of FORTE

    In forte we have a word derived from French that in its “strong point” sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation. Usage writers have denigrated \?f?r-?t?\ and \?f?r-t?\ because they reflect the influence of the Italian-derived 2forte. Their recommended pronunciation \?f?rt\, however, does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word le fort and would pronounce it more similar to English for. So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All are standard, however. In British English \?f?-?t?\ and \?f?t\ predominate; \?f?r-?t?\ and \f?r-?t?\ are probably the most frequent pronunciations in American English.

  4. Mary and audiobook fans, what do you think of dramatized readings, for instance, a trumpet fanfare included alongside the narration that there were trumpets fanfaring? I’m listening to Audible’s version of Ellen Kushner’s _Swordspoint_ and there’s a lot of that sort of audio dramatization.

    1. In theory, I like it. I’ve always enjoyed radio plays. In practice, it very much depends on the book and how it is handled. I’ve heard that sort of enhancement done well and done poorly.

      1. Post-dinner, I remember what I wanted to mention about the audio/sound quality of writing, which comes from my college translation course. I stupidly translated “peuplée par les Indiens indifférents” as “inhabited by indifferent Indians.”

        As my translation teacher (William Weaver) noted, even if the translation is accurate, you’ll sound silly if you’re not paying attention to the sound. You can’t translate “la luce di notte era luminosa” as “the light at night was bright.” So, count this as one vote for reading your work aloud.

  5. Read it aloud… does this mean that if you find problematical phrases or words at this point you can change them specifically for the audiobook?

  6. I was glad to see this post talking about some of the narration choices for the October Daye books. Loved the stories and love your performance in them, but I did always wonder about the choice of voice for the Luidaeg, especially as the character developed over time.

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