Audiobook Production: An Interview with Ooligan Author Brian K. Friesen

Ooligan author Brian K. Friesen made an audiobook for At the Waterline, and we got the chance to hear about his process and the exciting results!

What inspired you to produce your own audiobook for At the Waterline?

I had been hearing about the recent surge in audiobook audiences, and wanted to see if I could get on that train. I thought it might give book sales for At the Waterline a boost. Perhaps it will lend my novel a sense of legitimacy by having the audiobook version available and listed beside print and ebook versions.

I’ve had people tell me that I have a good reading voice. I decided to believe them and to see if I could develop that voice a little with practice. I enjoy reading out loud and exploring stories in that way. Trying different inflections and rhythms to see what works well. Recording my own novel was invaluable to me as a reader and even more to me as a writer. The internal voice that many readers have while reading can get tripped up by awkward sentence structures and rhythms. It can be hard to hear that as a writer. It definitely helps you to detect subtle imprecise language if you read your own writing out loud (or hear someone else struggle to read it out loud).

I have mixed feelings about audiobook listening while multitasking. In my own experience with audiobooks, giving only a portion of my attention to a book robs me in a lot of ways. There are audiobooks I’ve listened to while riding my bike to and from my day job. Or washing dishes. Or filing away emails. If was being honest, I wouldn’t really claim to have “read” some of those books by the time I’m done listening to the final track. My limited ability to focus on multiple stimuli at the same time means I’m not hearing every single sentence. It’s more like listening to an abridged version of the book, even if the audiobook is unabridged. That being said, I also think that getting stories into the ears of listeners who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a book is a good thing. I wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible with At the Waterline. Ultimately, how they read it or experience it is not for me to judge. If people are getting narrative into their lives, whether it is radio theater, podcasts, or movie novelizations for junior readers, their lives are richer for it.

Had you ever done a project like this before? If so, how did that experience shape your decisions for this project? If not, how did you prepare for this project?

I’ve never done an audio project of this size before. The final audiobook version of At the Waterline is 9 hours, 24 minutes long. I have done some work with audio before. I recorded a poetry radio show for a couple years at Golden Hours Radio. They broadcast their content through Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). They had studio space and equipment that I learned to use. I learned a lot there about writing content and speaking for a listening audience. I learned a little about equipment and recording and editing. I’ve also done some undergraduate work recording interviews with various people. I have an oral history project I did for the Oregon Historical Society. All that experience helped me with reading and recording At the Waterline. I learned about some of my own verbal tics, and how to filter some of those things out while recording: annoying breathing habits, “ums,” “uhs,” tongue/nose whistling that can happen with some consonants, repeating phrases, preambles, and general throat-clearing and nasal-sniffing grossness.

The audio recording/editing software was relatively new to me, so I had to research and learn a lot about what was available out there. I opted for free, open-source software (I mostly used a program called Audacity), which had a lot of online tutorials and forums for problem-solving. I had to buy a semi-decent microphone (I got a set of Logitec headphones with a mic wand that I could swivel out of the way. I set up a makeshift studio space in the attic of the house where I live. It took a few tries to find a decent chair that didn’t make a symphony of audible squeaks and ticks and groans. I hung carpet up to create a kind of booth, and found ways to dampen the laptop noise so I could record in front of a screen.

What was your favorite part of working on the audiobook for At the Waterline?

My favorite part was how it reopened the novel for further exploration. There were certain characters that became fleshed out more as I found voices for them. I tried out lines of dialogue in many different ways until I found a tone that I liked. Jack’s intensity came alive for me as I discovered a lower, gruffer vocal register that seemed to capture something closer to his personality. I wore my vocal chords out trying to record lines of dialogue for him. It made my voice even rougher, as I “performed” him.

The shadow side of this enjoyable exploration was that I saw flaws in the manuscript and further changes I wanted to make. By this time, the book was out, so I couldn’t feasibly start up the editing process again! I think it was Paul Valery who said, “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” Of course, that’s also true for novels.

What was the hardest part of the production process and what did you learn from that experience?

By the time I had all the tracks recorded and had edited out all the obvious mistakes, I thought I was done. I submitted the audio files to Audible (via www.acx.com) and Author’s Republic (who distributes to over a dozen other audiobook entities) and the audiobook didn’t meet some technical standards. I learned a bit more about how to tweak audio files so that they were consistent in their db range, their noise floor, the file size, and a number of other specifications. I started noticing more sound spikes and clicks and background noise that the mouth-breather narrator made all through the audiobook. So I made hundreds of more small edits to clean the files up and make them more presentable. In the process, I accidentally deleted sections, misnamed files and made a general mess of things. I had to re-record a bunch of scenes and get all the tracks and sections in order. I saved multiple versions of files in different places depending on where I was trying to work. I made the mistake of trying to work on multiple computers, and ended up saving files in different places and lost track of which files contained the most recent edits. I probably should have gone to the Cloud with all the work in progress and had a single place where I backed up everything I was doing, but I didn’t.

Even when I was done-done, I still wasn’t done-done-done! Some of the final files had the wrong file names, so I had to make sure all the files really contained the content that matched the file names. It seems like I learned everything the hard way. And often relearned the same lessons the hard way! So, for me—someone who is naturally un-systematic in general—editing files and submitting them three and four times to audiobook distributors took a lot of time and energy. During the three or four months I was trying to submit to Audible, I put the earlier audiobook files up for sale on SoundCloud and on Bandcamp. I sold a few that way, which was encouraging. Finally, it was accepted by a number of online carriers, including Libro.fm, Audible, iTunes, B&N Nook Audiobooks, and a bunch of others. I’m still waiting to hear back from Overdrive, which could make it available at more libraries than it is currently. You can already check it out from a number of library systems in the Pacific Northwest, which is exciting.

What advice would you give to other industry professionals (authors and/or publishers) who are interested in producing their own audiobooks?

Get help! That may take the form of gathering information from professionals who do this kind of thing for a living. Or taking tutorials on YouTube. You can find help listening to podcasts that cover audio recording and studio work. You might interview professionals over the phone. It’s going to cost you more money and/or time than you think. If you don’t have thousand-dollar bills burning holes in your pocket, you may find it difficult to pay a studio, hire a voice actor, or farm out technical work to production/marketing companies. If you want to do most of the work yourself, plan on it taking about ten times as long as you think it will.

I was a one-person-shop, and it took me nine months to complete. I had some experience with audio voice recording and editing, but I still had learning curves to navigate at different stages of this project.

You may not think you need a studio, but you do, even if it is just a space where you can cobble together sound-dampening cushions or pieces of fabric to hang in front of you (and preferable to each side of you). I’d invest in a screen/filter to place between your mouth and the microphone. Something to dissipate all the breath-heavy consonants (p, t, b etc.). I could have saved myself a lot of extra editing work if I had invested in equipment that would capture a cleaner initial recording. Audible and other companies will require you to cleanup background noise and sound-spikes if there are too many of those in your recordings.

You can do a lot of work to finally get your audiobook submitted and accepted, but that doesn’t mean that anyone will see your book or want to pay you to listen to it. Even with a growing audiobook market, it still takes savvy marketing and industry connections to get your work out there and into people’s ears. I was surprised by the blurry dividing line I’ve seen between the traditional publishing industry and audiobook publishing. They really are on different production timelines, and they require unique marketing skills. I did what I could: I joined audiobook groups on Facebook; I promoted on Twitter and Instagram; I got to know a few narrators who promoted my audiobook on social media; I became active in online forums; I contacted reviewers; I made audiobook trailers; I had contests. So far, I’ve mostly been fishing around in the dark as I try to promote the audiobook for At the Waterline. I imagine you can get more traction if you invest more money up front into audiobook production. There are studios and audiobook professionals that are more connected to the well-worn paths in the audiobook industry.

If you are a writer, you’ll want to ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice the time you could be spending writing new material. Even if you work with a professional studio, it will probably take you months of time to narrate an audiobook. As I went along, I was very torn between audiobook work and new writing. I honestly don’t think I would volunteer to do the narration on my next book. I’ve done a lot of work to promote At the Waterline, but, more often than not these days, I’m deciding to focus on other projects. I know the audiobook could be selling a lot better, but I can only do so much. If there is going to be another audiobook in my future, I’d probably put it in the hands of other people to narrate, produce and market. I’d love to watch an learn about how it is “supposed to be done!”

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