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Literary Easter Eggs

Artists, programmers, and other professionals have been known to hide signatures in their work. In computer programming, it’s the “easter egg” you find in many video games; for example, there’s a reference to Star Wars in Skyrim if you know where to look. Authors and publishing professionals are not immune to this urge to leave their mark on their work.

Lewis Carroll left the name of the person who inspired the character of Alice in Alice in Wonderland hiding in a poem within the novel. But it’s not obvious to everyone who reads the book—it’s a little hidden secret left to be found because there is simply a joy in finding these little references.

Every Stephen King novel references at least one other Stephen King novel. For fans of the author, it can be a fun detail to spot in each novel, especially since they are stand-alone novels that can be read in any order.

Another literary easter egg highlights a friendship between authors. In her book, King’s Cage, Victoria Aveyard names two guards “Caz” and “Brekker.” To those who aren’t a part of the readership overlap between Victoria Aveyard and fellow fiction writer Leigh Bardugo, these names likely seem like odd fantasy names. Within the overlap of their readership, it’s an obvious easter egg pointing to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows character, Kaz Brekker. There was excitement and questioning from fans over this easter egg, but it was confirmed by the author on her Tumblr.

I experienced my first dose of literary easter egg excitement recently, which is what got me thinking about the idea in the first place. I spent my spring break reading Christopher Paolini’s To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. Having read the Inheritance Cycle novels that he had written at the start of his career, I spotted something that really connected with me: a reference to a character from his earlier novels, Angela.

As a reader, I see literary easter eggs as a little signal to the fans. It’s like an inside joke. A way to let their readers know, “Hey, I see you.” Or at least that’s the feeling I get when I spot them.

As the Digital Manager, I primarily work in computer coding, though I can say that it’s easy for me to hide little jokes in the code for other programmers to find. There’s a joy in creating easter eggs in our work, just as there is joy in finding them. To all my fellow authors and publishing professionals, have fun with the little marks that you once worked on that piece, even if it’s only for you. There’s a real joy in it.

Digital Skills Empower Publishing Professionals

In a digital skills class for Portland State University’s Book Publishing Program, the graduate students create websites from scratch, host and manage a domain, and practice collaboration, courage, and innovation as we make choices about the content and style of our personal and professional websites.

As a preteen, I played games on MS-DOS, saved hundreds of megabytes of angsty poetry to 3.5-inch floppy disks, and Mavis Beacon taught me to type. I dialed-up to access the web in order to download music from Napster. I liked computers and was good at using them. Unfortunately, computers were largely regarded as a hobby for guys who liked to tinker around in musty basements. In high school, I was never advised to take courses in computer sciences; all things tech were marketed toward men and boys.

Computer science has evolved into a critical skill in the twenty-first century, and educators have known for decades that digital literacy empowers learners. As a former elementary school teacher, I provided students with digital tools and took the time to teach basic coding skills. I watched them create interactive stories and video games with nothing but a text editor and the internet. Students’ commitment to their projects had everything to do with the satisfaction and enjoyment they got from their work. That same empowerment can, and should, be realized by publishing professionals.

Historically, publishers have created printed matter like books and newspapers, but today what and how we publish is largely digital. Karen Christiansen, founder of Berkshire Publishing, wrote that “anyone employed in publishing today should understand how code is written, and even know a computer language or two.” She talks about meeting “experienced professionals who feel like dinosaurs because up till now they got by doing things the way they always had.” Honing digital skills will increase the value you add to the projects you work on as a publishing professional.

While we are busy checking the weather, looking for love, and consuming book reviews, algorithms are coded to keep us on these platforms as much as possible, resulting in what Professor Shoshana Zuboff coined to be “surveillance capitalism,” and the exploitative “profiling and targeted advertising” detailed in a report put out by Norwegian organization, Forbrukarrådet. Zuboff says that “unequal knowledge about us produces unequal power over us.” In acquiring a basic understanding of the language lurking behind the scenes of the web, we can take back some of the control. One of the most responsible and accessible ways to push back against this blatant consumer manipulation is to intentionally work toward understanding the language of the computer scientists who create it.

After sharing “The Scary Power of the Companies That Finally Shut Trump Up,” Dr. Kathi Berens opened up our digital skills class for a discussion about the complexities surrounding digital media platforms, synthesizing the article with her belief that “basic code literacy is an extraordinarily empowering skill set that…gives users a level self-control and freedom that people don’t have if they rely entirely on third parties to represent their public speech.” Her point parallels one made by Michelle Goldberg in the aforementioned article: while she agrees with the decisions made that ultimately de-platformed the former President, she also states that people “don’t have a constitutional right to have their speech disseminated by private companies,” and that it is “dangerous to have a handful of callow young tech titans in charge of who has a megaphone and who does not.” We are not political leaders, but publishers are global leaders; how, and on whose terms, we use our voices matters.

I set a goal to reach proficiency in HTML and CSS within twelve weeks using for three hours a week. Comment on this post with your digital literacy goals, and perhaps we can inspire each other to hold ourselves accountable!

I hope you will set a goal, though I acknowledge the many ways reality can interfere with this quixotic hope. There is a gap between the haves and have-nots regarding digital inequities. The Brookings Institution reported last July that “tens of millions of American households cannot access the digital economy due to physical gaps in local broadband networks, unaffordable subscription plans and personal devices, and a lack of digital skills.” COVID-19 has exacerbated this divide. The absence of reliable technology significantly impedes access to the empowerment of digital literacy, leaving those who have-not—particularly those groups that are already marginalized—unjustly vulnerable.

Single Narrator or Full-Cast in Audiobooks—Which Is Better?

You’re probably reading this article because you either have a book that you’d like to make into an audiobook and are wondering how to go about it, or you’re just curious about the factors that go into deciding what an audiobook will sound like.

There are two logistical factors that should be considered first: budget and the experience of the editor.

Large full-cast productions can become pretty pricey, not just because you have to pay the individual actors, but also because you will spend a lot of time casting and splicing together audio files during the editing process. Of course, all of this depends on the overall logistics of your project. You may also have to factor in that your editor may not have the skill level to complete all of these tasks at the level they need to be completed. If they are up for the challenge of learning this process, they will most likely need extra time to complete the tasks, so that needs to be taken into consideration as well. I recommend taking a hard look at these factors before even considering if you want to do a full-cast or a single narrator for your audiobook. You can check out this article for some more guidance on the logistics for casting audiobooks.

If you’re still contemplating a full-cast versus a single narrator audiobook, next you should consider your genre, target audience, and personal taste.

In terms of genre, most people prefer to have nonfiction books read by a single narrator, not only because the genre tends to use the third person, which lends itself naturally to this type of narration, but also because it provides a similar feeling to being read to or attending a lecture. This is an experience that the reader is usually familiar with.

Fiction, however, is a little more tricky. This genre is where factors such as target audience, personal taste, and narrative style comes into play.

There is a lot of debate among readers, producers, and reviewers on the preference of a single narrator versus a full-cast. The points of contention between the two mostly revolve around if characters of a different gender than that of the narrator are voiced well/badly, and if a full-cast audiobook sounds too much like the audiotrack of a film instead of a book.

To clarify these two points, those who are fans of a single narrator are usually fans because it replicates the feeling of being read to like we were as children. It also provides a more traditional book experience—it feels like an extension of the reader’s own inner voice is narrating the book. Those who are opposed to a single narrator usually worry about things like having a male narrator who isn’t able to do feminine voices convincingly or vice versa.

Fans of full-cast audiobooks like the added immersion and suspense of having multiple voices, which makes the experience seem more life-like. This can also add some clarity to the story for books that use multiple perspectives, timelines, or unknown narrators. Those who oppose full-casts usually feel like the line between a book and a performance are blurred too much for comfort; they feel like the audiobook sounds more like a play or movie instead of a book.

It’s understandable if you still feel confused on what to do about casting for an audiobook. With that being said, there are some trends in publishing that might help steer your decision: fantasy and science fiction titles seem to gravitate towards full-cast audiobooks, as do younger readers such as millennials. Older readers, however, seem to prefer a single narrator. Whether the story is told in the first person versus third person also makes a considerable difference, with the former usually done by a single narrator and the latter being either/or.

All in all, the decision to do a single narrator versus a full-cast audiobook is dependent on the project and the company, as well as to the taste of the author. If you are still unsure of what to do, you could always go for the happy medium of having a male actor for male parts and a female one for female characters.

How Goodreads Helped Me Find My Memories

An unsettling thing happened when I went home to Colorado for the holidays last year. While my family sat around a fire in Summit County, trading stories and recent news, my sister asked me about a time she and I had shared that she remembered vividly.

“You don’t remember that?” She stared at me emphatically, as if asking the question would light the match to the memory that had clearly grown cold and damp in my mind. No such luck. In fact, I couldn’t recall even a portion of the memory she described to me—a memory that wasn’t from too long ago, but distant enough that it’s not tangible anymore, something vaguely familiar.

I don’t know when I started noticing gaps in my memories of things, but it became more pervasive and embarrassing in my early 20s. Large swaths of time suddenly go dark, dissolve from within me. It starts small, with a drive home from a late shift that I couldn’t really describe, to a song that sounded like something I knew but couldn’t pinpoint who it was. People waving and saying, “How are you?” who I didn’t recognize or couldn’t name. Then more of those questions:

“Remember that time?” “What year was that?” “When did you get that tattoo?” Significant portions of my own timeline were missing. I became skilled in leading conversations away from my frustration and increasing anxiety over these lost portions of time. I started leaving myself notes around the apartment.

“Don’t dry the tan, wool shirt!” “Remember your sister’s birthday is on the 13th, CALL HER.” “There is spinach in the fridge, if you don’t eat it, it will go bad and you will feel like a failure again.” While some of these were reminders about small tasks, I started to wonder if this was how my life was just going to be now. The problem for me wasn’t just why I couldn’t remember, but how I could get these memories back.

My partner and I were talking about books we had read in 2019; books that blew us away and books that we wished we had put down sooner. I knew I had read stellar books last year, but I couldn’t pinpoint those titles. I reached for my phone, as many of us who need to remember something right away do, and opened my Goodreads app. My “2019” shelf sat, neatly and chronologically ordered for me to peruse. Month by month, the books I had slogged through and the books that shone brilliantly awakened in my memory, but something else happened too. I began to remember other parts of my life in those months, what I was doing while reading The Song of Achilles, or where I had been sipping a particularly delicious sticky rice tea in Sellwood while devouring La Fronterra in June. One by one, my memories filtered back in, and as I looked further and further through my Goodreads archive, pieces of 2017 and 2016 came together before me.

It turns out, it’s not just me; our memories are getting worse and that’s largely due to the
Google effect, in which the ability to look up or search is so readily available to us that our minds have “decreased dependency on internal memory storage.” I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve been thinking of a word for something or a fact about so-and-so and just Googled it. While I was briefly euphoric at the discovery that Goodreads had carefully catalogued the past three years of my life for me with dates and metadata to support the timeline, I wonder about the accuracy of archival memory. It’s unsettling to consider that memory may become something that lives on a server farm somewhere, susceptible to be infiltrated, altered, or vanished. But there is a rather simple solution: write more. Research has shown that writing things down is essential to memory retention. Perhaps the digital cataloguing of the books I’ve read in some way has captured those memories within the pages of those books. In rereading the titles, I am able to relive those parts of my life with more clarity, and to engage again with my life through the “written” lists of how my past was spent.

The Next Page: How Kickstarter Bridged the Gap of Publishing Conferences

In publishing, the ability to network can make or break careers. Whether you’re an author looking for representation, an agent looking for the next big talent, or an editor extending their reach into different genres or styles, networking never really becomes an optional part of the job. Though digital solutions for networking exist in the form of social media or dedicated (often private) chat channels, they are not quite enough to eliminate the barrier for aspiring or incoming publishing professionals who are looking to join the workforce.

Most publishing professionals find themselves at industry conferences at least once a year, given the chance. Whether they’re keeping up on trends or looking for a new position, the ability to attend a conference can make or break someone’s career in publishing. Tautologically, they are also very difficult to attend in person without already having a job with a press- or a publishing-adjacent company that can facilitate attendance. Travel costs, lodging, and tickets themselves are extremely cost prohibitive to some people, and that’s provided the event isn’t by invitation- or industry-only. So how, then, are incoming professionals meant to find the connections and information that would grant them access to those events, or to the industry as a whole?

That’s a question that’s too large to have a single answer, but on May 11, 2019, Margot Atwell, Director of Publishing at the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter, sought to find a solution with The Next Page, a publishing conference that had no precedent. Working under the belief that, despite huge gains in the past decade, publishing “is not representative of the world we live in,” Kickstarter partnered with Fireside Fiction to try and change it with their first ever two-part publishing conference.

The one-day event, held at Kickstarter HQ in New York City, hosted some of the brightest and most respected voices in publishing today, including Portland publisher Joe Biel and former Ooligan editorial professor Dongwon Song, to discuss the future of publishing in an ever-changing landscape. The panels, in almost every sense, were very close to other publishing conferences, each about an hour long and spanning an array of four different topics: finances, representation, technology, and community building. The panelists and moderators were vetted professionals not only in book publishing, but in magazine, comic book, and web spaces, providing a colorful and varied view into today’s current publishing climate, and a not-inconsiderable audience who attended the conference at the Kickstarter HQ in Brooklyn.

From left to right: Margot Atwell, Dongwon Song, Amy Stolls, Joe Biel, and Ruby sit on panel 'Paying the Way: Economic Sustainability in Publishing.'

From left to right: Margot Atwell, Dongwon Song, Amy Stolls, Joe Biel, and Ruby sit on the panel ‘Paying the Way: Economic Sustainability in Publishing.’

But what made The Next Page truly unique was its choice to livestream each panel for free to the public, requiring only an RSVP via the Kickstarter website. After following the livestream link to the Kickstarter YouTube channel, digital attendees could watch and participate in conversations through a live chat (which I was honored to be asked to moderate), send in their questions via chat or email for the panelists, and have the conference experience in pajamas in bed or sitting at their kitchen table. It didn’t require taking time off work for travel, finding lodging in an overwhelmingly crowded city, or handling all the little extra expenses that come with most out-of-town conferences.

Moreover, the addition of a digital format allowed The Next Page to truly address accessibility and the limitations barring so many people from joining the industry. Not only did they live-tweet parts of the panels, which is standard, they archived the videos for later viewing for those who could not attend, and, after reviewing concerns from participants, moderators, and attendees, ensured every video provided closed captioning for the hearing impaired. At a time when accessibility for panelists with mobility aids is often overlooked until it’s too late, Kickstarter didn’t shy away from the extra time or money it cost to ensure they were practicing what they preached.

So the real question is, why don’t more conferences do this? Whether for established professionals or those trying to find their footing, the concept of using technology to bridge gaps and lower accessibility barriers for audiences isn’t new for publishing. Having been a part of this conference, I can only think about how much stress I avoided not having to rush around a convention center, how much money I saved by participating from my home office, and how many connections I made through the live chat with participants despite being hundreds of miles away, including one that eventually landed me a gig. While I wouldn’t suggest industry-only conferences throw their doors open as free events, tools certainly exist to ensure the target audience is in attendance while also encouraging greater engagement. Digital solutions shouldn’t and do not have to be exclusive to those with the extreme financial flexibility that seems to be a prerequisite for a successful publishing career, and I hope that other conferences were watching closely.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, we saw an abrupt shift as the world moved their classrooms, conferences, and workdays all into a digital space. It’s unclear if Kickstarter will be hosting The Next Page sometime in 2020, but one thing is certain: this conference filled a gap where it was needed, a genuine way to uphold publishing by sharing information, knowledge, and community in an industry we feel strongly about, made all the better by the earnestness with which it attempted to level the playing field. And there’s no question at all that Kickstarter walked so the rest of us—publishers, editors, and writers alike—could run.

The Next Page 2019 archives can be found via their website, and I have it on good authority that it’s more enjoyable if you stay in your pajamas.

Listen and Learn: How Audiobooks Helped Me Get through College

I’ve known for a long time that I learn best through listening and through verbally discussing a topic. My favorite classes have always been the ones where the professor was a great orator, because it meant I could just sit back and absorb what they were lecturing on. All I ever needed to do was jot down some key words or phrases in my notes, and when I studied later the entire lesson would come flooding back. People thought I was crazy, but it worked for me.

Unfortunately, while entering college meant a lot more lectures, it also meant a lot more assigned readings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fantastic reader—I wouldn’t want to go into publishing if I wasn’t—but only when it comes to fiction. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

When I try to read any nonfiction, even if it has a narrative component, my brain decides that it can’t focus on the words and I get distracted every other sentence. So trying to read so much nonfiction for my classes—sometimes hundreds of pages a week—was just agony to get through, and on top of it all, I could never remember what I had read.

In my sophomore year of college, I noticed my dad had the audiobook version of a book I had to read for class. Instead of renting it from the campus bookstore, I just logged in to his account and downloaded it to my phone. I plugged in my headphones, set the reading speed to 1.5, and sat back to start listening. An hour or so later, I was completely done with the readings and had even gotten a jump start on the next week’s assignment. I could even remember and understand what I was supposed to have learned. It was like something just clicked into place in my brain.

Listening instead of reading allowed me to experience nonfiction in a way I never had before. When I’m reading, I have no concept of the author’s voice, but when I’m listening, it’s as if the author is casually explaining everything to me in a conversation. I started by just listening to assigned books for classes, but I quickly began consuming books about any subject I found remotely interesting. From the fascinating technical explanations in How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg to the deep insights about life found in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, I listened to it all.

Interestingly enough, it seems like I’m not the only one who’s recently discovered audiobooks. According to the Association of American Publishers, revenue for the nonfiction category has grown by 28.4% since 2013, and “nearly 150 million more adult nonfiction books were sold in 2017 than in 2013.” When possible, every nonfiction narrative should be released as an audiobook. The numbers don’t lie: there’s a whole legion of people out there who are just like me—about 30 percent of the population, in fact—and I guarantee they would love to listen to these books if they were made available in audiobook form.

The Changing Face of Marketing in Academic Publishing

When most of us think of “bestsellers,” we tend to think of celebrity memoirs and genre fiction titles by big-name authors. What we don’t normally think of are scholarly works published by university presses. To the average reader (and perhaps even the average trade publisher), the world of academic publishing may appear to be a closed-off realm in which scholars exchange dusty monographs with their colleagues, showing little interest in attracting readers outside their field. After all, it’s hard to imagine a riveting book trailer promoting a specialized work like Nan Z. Da’s Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange (a recent title from Columbia University Press).

But the reality is that university presses make important contributions to society by disseminating knowledge and upholding high standards for factual accuracy; and in order to remain economically viable, they have to market their books just like everyone else. In the face of modern challenges like widespread digitization and shifting priorities in higher education, university presses are getting creative in their efforts to promote their books and connect with readers.

In order to understand the evolving marketing strategies of university presses, it’s important to know what kinds of books these presses publish, and where these books have historically been sold. In addition to academic journals, university presses publish monographs (highly specialized works directed at a narrow academic audience) as well as trade books (titles that are expected to attract a wider readership) and midlist titles (books that fall somewhere in between). Historically, university presses relied on university libraries to buy and stock their journals and monographs. However, this has changed in recent years as commercially published journals have begun to claim a much larger share of library budgets, which are already shrinking due to cuts to higher education funding. On top of this, university administrators facing budget constraints have grown increasingly skeptical of the importance of university presses (which are usually subsidized by their affiliated universities), and some of these presses have even been shut down. Finally, the onset of the digital era has changed the game, forcing university presses to rethink their well-established marketing and sales models.

So how are university presses adapting to all these recent challenges? One of their key strategies has been to embrace the social media revolution. A quick perusal of the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for Duke University Press, University of Chicago Press, and Columbia University Press (just to name a few) shows how these century-old academic presses are keeping up with the times by engaging with readers on digital platforms. Social media allows university presses to promote their books and journals outside of academia, thereby expanding their brands and reaching a wider audience of non-scholarly readers who are interested in their midlist and trade titles. Rather than relying on libraries as they did in the past, university presses are focusing on marketing directly to a diverse readership.

Another platform that university presses have begun to utilize in recent years is YouTube. Oxford University Press, in particular, has been very invested in marketing through videos: according to an article in Publishers Weekly, as of 2014, the press’s marketing department had more than forty staff members working on video production and related projects. That investment seems to be paying off: as of January 2019, OUP’s YouTube channel, The Oxford Academic, had over 48,000 subscribers. This may come as a surprise to some, since the channel’s content (which includes a variety of interviews with authors and academic experts) focuses on the press’s more scholarly works. Similarly, the Harvard University Press YouTube channel features a video of a talk by mathematician Paul Lockhart (author of the HUP title Measurement) that has garnered over 47,000 views.

These examples show that despite recent changes and setbacks, university presses can still appeal to large audiences. People are still hungry for the thoughtful, high-quality content that university presses have to offer—it’s just a matter of finding a modern platform that will help presses engage with those readers.

OverDrive and Your Local Library

Like so much else in the world of books, libraries have an unfair reputation for being behind the times or inconvenient. The truth is, libraries are often up-to-date on the latest technology and the most efficient ways of getting knowledge into the hands of the masses. So with the ever-increasing popularity of ebooks and audiobooks, it should come as no surprise that it’s possible to borrow titles from anywhere there’s internet access.

OverDrive is a free app that allows anyone with a device that uses Android 4.0 or higher, Chrome OS41 or higher, iOS 9 or higher, or Windows 8 or 10 to rent ebooks and audiobooks directly from their local library. A desktop version of the app is also available across various operating systems. The app is connected to most public libraries in the US, including the Multnomah County Library.

Users can set up an account using a library card (or even just a phone number and a postal code) and can begin browsing their library’s available ebooks and audiobooks. Placing holds is simple, and the app uses email alerts to announce when titles are available. It’s even possible for users to suggest books they would like their library to purchase within the app. Books are returned automatically at the end of a twenty-one day period, meaning there is no way to incur late fees for titles borrowed through OverDrive. Users can read books on their phones, computers, or tablets, or send books to their Kindle (for other ereaders, the process is less streamlined). OverDrive has even produced a companion smartphone app, Libby, which is more attractive and user friendly, but currently compatible with fewer devices.

While OverDrive is getting its fair share of attention for making borrowing from the local library more convenient than ever before, there are actual quantitative measures by which this accessibility can be evaluated. In 2018, more than four million new digital library users used the OverDrive app for the first time. Some people tend to balk at the increasing relationship between books and the digital world, as evidenced by the notion of recent years that ebooks would wipe out print books for good (not to worry, print books are as popular as ever). However, the massive amount of new users recorded last year indicates that increasing readers’ access to books in the digital format draws a healthy audience.

There are also intangible ways that access to a public library’s digital catalog positively affects accessibility. For anyone who lives or works far from a library, being able to borrow books online saves significant time and transportation costs. OverDrive can also defray the cost of subscriptions to companies like Audible by providing digital audiobooks for download. Public libraries exist to provide free and easy access to information to the population they serve, and the OverDrive app has made providing and obtaining that information easier than ever.

The Value of an Ebook

While we could go around for hours about the costs of an ebook version of a book versus others, there’s another part of the general consumption of ebooks that should be discussed. Perceived value is just as important as actual cost.

Books, in general, take lots of steps before they become published. There’s the acquisitions process, usually multiple rounds of editing, marketing and social media planning and execution, and, of course, the design of the book’s interior and exterior. There’s also everything that comes after the book: royalty costs, employee paychecks, rent, etc. Most of the blogs I read talked about these costs as a part of the profit a publisher makes. Similarly, most of the articles talked about the fact that because digital books don’t cost money to store and ship, they’re able to cost less. And I get it, I really do. But I’ll argue that that’s just one small piece of the much bigger puzzle.

If you do a quick google search of “paperback vs. ebook pricing,” you’ll undoubtedly find a plethora of articles, blogs, and opinions on the pricing of ebooks. But I don’t think that’s the question that needs to be asked. There seems to be a clear difference between the consumer’s perceived value of a physical book and that of the digital version of that same book, but it seems to be more of a matter of how ebooks, now that we’re fully into the digital age, fit in the market that’s already incredibly saturated. Even though consumers and authors alike subscribe to the belief that ebooks should be cheaper than other versions, like fantasy author Scott Marlowe, perceived value doesn’t seem to be about the work that goes into creating the title. Cost is important to think about since it’s the consumer that’s purchasing or abstaining from titles, and price can really affect their decision, but perceived value is also affected by many other instances that go into the decision to purchase a book.

As Brooke Warner writes for Huffington Post, it’s important to look at books, even the ebook version, for the story and not the format. After all, when we read, though our experiences may change some based on where and how we’re reading, it’s really the actual story that we’re invested in. While cost can affect a consumer’s decision to purchase a particular title, as Warner says, it’s often not the book we’re paying for, but the experience we receive while we read. The value of the ebook is in more than just the format, it’s in the ease of being able to purchase the next book in the series at 2 a.m. when you need to know if your favorite character does the thing or whether the love interest you stan is going to make it. Or it’s filling what empty spaces you have left on your shelves with the colorful covers of all the books you swear you’re going to read.

There’s extreme value in any format of a book because it’s usually not the physical book that you’re invested in. Rather, it’s the stories’ struggles, triumphs, laughs, and frustrated tears that keep readers coming back again and again.

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 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, 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!”