I’ve noticed that most memoir writers who are looking to offer audiobooks alongside the paper and digital versions want to share their stories by narrating them themselves. My book’s publisher, Atmosphere Press—which handles distribution, cover art, and marketing—offered to find me someone who could “do” an English accent, but I wasn’t convinced. I’m a Brit who has lived in the U.S. for decades, and I figured I’d better read my own work or risk the words coming out wrong.
The first thing I needed was some place to record. I consulted a friend, an experienced voice actor. She told me, rather doubtfully, that I could try to do it at home, but that finding somewhere quiet enough to make the book sound professional was going to be difficult. She was right. It was October here in New England, and every time I’d sit down to record, the sounds of a distant leaf blower would make me stop. Another actress friend ended up in her walk-in closet with her clothes for sound absorption and duvets nailed across the door. And it still took three tries before the recording was judged adequate by ACX and Findaway Voices, the main audiobook distributors.
So I hunted for a place to record, and to my delight found one at Connecticut’s Westport Library: the incredibly well-equipped Verso Studios. The library was prepared to rent the space to me—with an engineer—for as long as it took. My book is 74,000 words and took eight two-hour sessions, spaced out every other day. The final audiobook is about eight hours long.
I learned a lot doing this. And, if you decide to do the same thing, I hope these tips will come in handy.
Breathe out before you begin. It seems counterintuitive, but it will help you relax. And, if you inhale too much, your voice is likely to come out in a squeak—not the effect you’re going for, I’m sure. The rest of the time, breathe in through your nose to keep it quiet.
Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll sound better if you stand to record, because you’ll breathe better. No one wants to hear you breathe—or swallow, or, god forbid, burp.
Eat before you go. No one wants to hear any rumblings, either.
Wear quiet clothing. My helpful engineer, Travis, pointed out one day that the quilted vest I was wearing made a faint shushing noise every time I moved. I took it off, of course. Remove earrings if you wear them. You’ll be wearing headphones.
Read from a tablet if you can. No one wants to hear you turning pages, either, and laptops can take up too much space on a music stand. Format your document in a bigger font than you normally would—double-spaced, of course, to make it easier to see.
Read the chapters you’re planning to record that day out loud before you go to the studio. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself tripping over some of the alliterations that looked so good on the page. Too many words beginning with p or s too close together, and I fell apart. A good engineer will hear even your tiniest slips and ask you if you’d care to read that again. Travis never lost patience with me, no matter how many mistakes I made. In the end, I read for about an hour and 40 minutes each session before, as I tired, my voice began to show the strain.
Add more expression to your voice than you think you need. If you don’t, the book will sound flat. Record the first few pages and then listen to them before you continue. That way, you’ll know whether you sound the way you want to.
Read a little more slowly than you usually do. I discovered that I have a tendency to read ahead as I read out loud, which caused disconnects between my eye and my voice. If necessary, the engineer can speed it up a tad when they’re editing.
Mark up your book before you begin. If you find any hard-to-read spots, highlight them by underlining or putting them in bold. I used colors to differentiate the speakers in scenes with dialogue. Lucky are the nonfiction writers who don’t have any dialogue in their books! I used bold for male speakers and different colors for different accents. I’m British and so are several characters in the book, but my husband and most of the others were American. I don’t pretend to do a good American accent, but I can manage just enough to make it clear who’s talking. I also added a “said so-and-so” where I thought listeners might get confused.
Write out the credits at the beginning and the end—you don’t want to be adding them on the fly when you’re ready to record. Each distributor may have their own requirements, so follow them. They usually include the book title; the publisher, if you have one; the copyright date; and the production credits.
Take care of your voice. My voice actress friend suggested several remedies, of which my favorite was Vocal Eze, a honey-based spray that seemed to keep my throat from drying out. Throat Coat is an herbal tea designed to do the same thing.
Avoid dairy products for at least 24 hours before. They can cause mucus buildup in some people, which changes the timbre of your voice—and you need it to be consistent from session to session.
Take water with you because, no matter what you do, your throat will get dry. You’ll be stopping quite often as you go (trust me), and a sip of water each time seems to help.
When you’re done, proof your audiobook—this is especially important if you are recording without an engineer, who should do that for you. Proofing will allow you to hear any extraneous noises or hesitations and fix them.
Finally, have fun! Recording an audiobook is an achievement you can be proud of.
Gabi Coatsworth is a British-born writer and blogger. Her memoir, Love’s Journey Home, will be published in May by Atmosphere Press.