The process of producing an audiobook is a detailed and extensive process from beginning to end. Steps include starting with the production of the script text, followed by voice narrator casting and recording, audio editing, proofing, audio mastering, and finally distribution. Audiobook distribution used to be limited to CDs but now you can download almost any book in audio format instantly from companies dedicated to selling digital audiobooks, such as Audible, or from libraries and apps.
The Production Process
If an audiobook is well narrated and produced, it can fully enrich the reading and listening experience while a poorly produced audiobook can be very difficult, even unsufferable to listen to. There are several things to think about when producing an audiobook. A decision must be made on a theatrical experience with a cast of narrators or a single narrator approach. Will the audiobook be abridged - a shortened version that leaves major storylines, themes, and plot points intact while omitting less important details - or an unabridged version of the book, which is a complete version of the original printed book in an audio format. Consider visual elements and how they will be described and how footnotes, endnotes, resources, and references will be treated. And it is important to follow technical requirements for recording that have been established by audiobook distributors (Reedsy, 2021).
The process of audiobook production varies from publisher to publisher and depends on several factors including the intended audience, genre, and book length. A typical production process and workflow may include the following:
Production companies are consulted by the author or right-holder and together they discuss genre, style, and synopsis, finding a passage to send to potential narrators that best reflects the book.
The production company, right-holder/author, and narrator meet to discuss pronunciations, narrative structure, characters, and solutions to ensure the smooth adaptation of written text to audio.
Different passages with the same number of words might be slowed or hurried depending on the characters' circumstances - a hushed, whispered monologue may be much slower than the conversation during a dramatic, quick escape, for example.
Editing out unwanted mouth sounds, mixing to ensure consistent volume, and background noise reduction are all necessary for a smooth listening experience. Editors then proof (re-listen) to the file to make sure there are no mistakes. If there are, they re-record and edit in the necessary parts.
Ann Jansen, an audiobook producer at Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC) describes PRHC's process for making audiobooks:
- Where the recording will take place and who the voice will be - the author or an actor - is determined. Casting is important. If the audiobook will be narrated by an actor, we must think about the actor's voice and tone, and the style of the book.
- If an actor is narrating, the producer and director communicate with the author. Actors don't usually have any contact with the author, but sometimes authors visit the studio, listen in, and connect with the narrator.
- A few passages from the book are selected for audition. For fiction, excerpts with characters, lots of dialogue, as well as sections with description or narration are chosen. For nonfiction, representative samples, including excerpts with lots of information are decided on for audition. A casting director sends out a description of the book and the excerpts, actors audition, and the top choices are vetted by Ann Jensen and the VP and Deputy Publisher Marian Garner, in consultation with the author.
- It is also important to match the right book with the right director.
- For every book, there are many logistics such as booking studios. PRHC has an in-house studio, but also uses studios in Toronto and across Canada.
Audiobook narrators can range from trained actors of stage and screen to the authors of the books themselves. Narrators don't just read the book aloud, they perform it by adding pace, emotion, and tension while mastering character accents, location names, and pronunciation. With the rise of podcasts and audiobooks over the past decade, demand for dynamic narrators is bigger than ever, with colleges, including Humber College, Seneca College and George Brown College in Toronto offering specialized courses in voiceover narration. In the US, drama schools, including Juilliard and Yale, have started offering audio narration workshops as well.
Professional narrator Flinty Williams says that narrating audiobooks is as much about understanding the flows of speech as it is about acting. Narrators have the difficult task of being cast as multiple characters at once - often from different places, backgrounds, and ages. They also must give the audience a vivid picture of the world around the characters they're playing. Narrators are often given just a few days before they begin the intense process of recording. Star Wars novels narrator Jonathan Davis says narration requires three things: endurance, patience, and research.
During this time, narrators mark up their manuscript (which must be digital to avoid any sounds of pages turning during recording) with notes about their intended tone, character descriptions, and, if the characters are real people, what they sound like in real life. A voice actor must remain very still when recording, as any movement in the recording booth can create unwanted sounds, like fabric rustling, a chair creaking, or a foot tapping. Good narrators become their characters and engage listeners, while reading 100 pages of text a day.
In the US, George Guidall, born in 1938, has narrated over 1,300 books in the past 20 years, including works by Dostoevsky, Jonathan Franzen, and Stephen King. British actor Jim Dale narrated the US audio versions of all seven Harry Potter books, using different voices for each character. The final book in the series had 143 different characters, which he based on people from his past including radio comedians and relatives (The Guardian, 2019).
Professional audiobook narrator Suzy Jackson has performed more than 100 audiobooks. Before recording, Jackson underlines the names of each character and their tone of voice ("she whispered"). She also makes notes to help her understand a character's energy (feisty, tired, grandmother) and to make each one distinct.
Professional film and stage actors and celebrities are often cast as narrators because of their training and acting expertise. Claire Danes has performed Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (11 hours and 1 minute) and Rachel McAdams narrates L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (9 hours and 22 minutes).
Sometimes authors read their own books and it can be especially engaging when the book is a memoir or autobiography, or when guests who appear in the book narrate sections about themselves. Actor Cary Elwes narrates his book about the making of the film The Princess Bride in As You Wish - Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, with guest narrators actors Billy Crystal, Wallace Shawn, and Robin Wright, who also starred in the film.