For about twenty five years from the mid seventies to the turn of the new millennium, I wrote for radio. I have more than a hundred hours of produced radio drama to my name, including many original plays, series and serials as well as dramatizations of classics like Ben Hur, Kidnapped and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Because most producers want the playwright to be there for the duration of the production – studio time is always tight, so you’re expected to do rewrites on the hoof - I’ve spent weeks in radio studios. Kidnapped and Catriona in ten hour-long episodes involved so much time in a small, stuffy Edinburgh studio with no natural light, that the producer pinned up a quote from Kidnapped on the wall: day and night were alike in that ill-smelling cavern. We knew how poor David Balfour felt. Although the hot scones sent up by the canteen at tea time were excellent!

I’ve worked with some wonderful producer/directors and equally good audio technicians. I’ve seen huge changes in the way audio is produced. I’ve also read my own work on radio – short stories, talks and poems. And I’ve written audio tours for the National Trust. Which is why I consider myself reasonably well qualified to advise writers about reading their own work for submission as an audio book.

Mostly, my advice would be: think twice.

There are always exceptions. You may be an actor as well as a writer and if you are, you’ll know how to set about it. You may also know all about audio recording or know a person who does. If that’s the case, you can go ahead with confidence. Otherwise, you should approach such a project with extreme caution. The difference between a professional and an amateur reading is marked and obvious to the listener. Anyone who has worked in radio knows that even among actors, there are some who have a flair for the work. Audio is a subtle medium. Bringing a novel to life, not overdoing it, but not making it boring and all while being aware of the technical constraints, demands a certain level of professionalism and experience. If you don’t have that, don’t automatically assume that you are going to be able to do it from scratch and do it as well as somebody who has spent several years learning the craft.

But there’s more to it than that. An unabridged reading of a full length novel presents challenges that you may not even be aware of. I was in the middle of writing this piece when I read some comments elsewhere and realized that many people don't understand that there is a difference between a full scale dramatization of a novel and a straightforward reading - even when a novel is read in several different voices. They are birds of a different feather. Hell, they aren't even both birds. It's like the difference between, say, a novel and a film. They are made differently. Kidnapped was a dramatization, not a reading, for instance. It had scenes, not chapters, it had lots of sound effects and there was music. So did Treasure Island - that's another one I dramatized.

But for the purposes of this post, let's assume we're talking about a reading of the text of your novel, either the whole of it, or extracts from it. Trailers are fair game, as are short extracts and I’ve seen and heard some great examples online. But even with an ‘abridgement’, problems start to arise. For radio, these tend to be five or ten episodes of some fifteen minutes duration each and there are audio companies specializing in abridged readings. Fifteen minutes of audio is approximately five or six thousand words depending upon the pace of the text. So you can imagine what has to be cut out of an eighty or ninety thousand word novel to achieve an abridgement lasting ninety minutes. This in itself is a tricky job. I’ve done it a few times - albeit not with my own books - and it’s a great way of finding out the internal structure of a novel, of going straight to the heart of a piece of work. And I can imagine that it would be very interesting (and illuminating) to abridge your own novel for somebody else to read.

But an unabridged audio book? And you’re considering reading the whole of it yourself?
Before you do, here are some practical things to think about.

You’re going to have to read with clarity and subtlety, pulling your audience in, doing just enough but not too much of the ‘voice’ of each character. Remember that wherever you trip over your words – and you will trip over your words – even seasoned actors do it - you have to leave enough space for somebody (who?) to tweak the digital file so that when you resume, it sounds right. And what about turning pages? And those astonishingly loud tummy rumbles you weren’t even aware of but the microphone was picking up. Which brings me to how you are going to record it. Well – equipment is cheaper than it was, but you need the right acoustic. You need a dead room that excludes all extraneous sound. So you will still need to hire or borrow a studio and  some technical assistance. Or you could find yourself a company who will do it for you.

The full length audio version of my novel The Curiosity Cabinet is on Audible. The reading, by Caroline Bonnyman, is superb. It was produced by an excellent small company called Oakhill which - back when it was first produced - paid me for the rights. This was when the novel was first published in paperback.  If I wanted to produce a similar recording for my own use, and maintain control over it, I would have to pay somebody to do it for me. If you’re contemplating doing a recording of your own book, download a few similar novels, read by actors – either unabridged or in short form - and ask yourself in all honesty if you could do it and keep it up for the several hours needed to read a whole book. Could you be consistent? And get the pacing and the overall tone right. And stop yourself from speeding up towards the end of a page or a chapter. Would you be able to continue a sentence when you turn over a page without hesitating between pages? What about rustling the pages of the manuscript? Will you remember to leave just enough space to prune the intrusive sound of the rustle if you do? What about sitting too close to the microphone. Or moving your head too far away from the microphone. Or moving your chair, which creaks. Or finding when you play it back that you’ve done a horrible combination of all of these and introduced some weird extras into the reading. In other words, can you produce a polished and professional enough version to do justice to the novel you’ve spent so long perfecting? Well, you can do all these things with a good producer and a little practice. But I’ve sat in a studio with a producer and watched inexperienced writers taking an hour or more to record a decent, usable five minutes worth of reading. And that didn't even begin to involve the editing needed. So if you want to do it yourself, I think you need to acknowledge that you will need expert help. Or you could hire the right actor for your book.

I can do the short stuff myself. I’ve read my own short stories on radio. I have audio ‘times’ firmly embedded in my head, so I can judge the pace of a reading pretty well. I'm used to the peculiarly 'dead' acoustic that makes your voice sound odd to your own ears.  I’m more experienced than most at this. I know a lot of the pitfalls.

This means that I would definitely like to have a say in who reads my book, just as most writers like to be consulted about casting for a stage play.

But would I read one of my own novels as a full length audio book?

I doubt it. I know too many good actors to believe that I can do it better than they can. I would never say never. But it would have to be the right novel, and it would have to be done in a professional studio with somebody who knew exactly what they were doing, producing and editing. Otherwise, I don't think it's feasible. But I'm quite happy to be proved wrong!


Chris Longmuir said…
Marvellous post, Catherine. When I make my trailers I read the first chapter of my book, and I've hit all the problems you mention. I can't do it from my computer screen because of the noise of the computer fans, so I have to read from paper. So then you get the paper rustle when you turn pages. What I do is spread the sheets of paper lengthwise on my coffee table, then do a knee shuffle along the table while I'm reading (carpet, doesn't make a noise). But it usually takes several efforts - there's the stumble over a word, or a repetition of the start of a word (never knew I did that before) or a sneeze, throat tickle or cough! And of course that's just the moment the postman rings the doorbell, or one of those dratted phone promotional calls comes in! It takes forever to read one chapter, it might take me two lifetimes to read a whole book!
So, congratulations on a great post.
Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Catherine, and a legitimate warning to unwary readers. In fact, I've heard novels (Ivanhoe, for example) read and produced by professionals which still had glaring inconsistencies, so even the wary ones make mistakes. But there's unwariness and there's totally embarrassing and neither will do anything but harm to a writer's reputation. I've done plenty of short, ad-type voice-overs but the idea of undertaking a full-length or even abridged novel is daunting.
CallyPhillips said…
A very good explanation of why just because you 'can' (or think you can) it doesn't mean you 'should'.
Being a writer does not mean you are a professional actor, let alone one who can work purely for the voice.

Paying due respect both to your own work and to the listener (who may well be a reader now blind) is surely paramount.

Well said(or well read) Catherine. Heard and understood.
I can certainly concur in my experience - writers and actors ARE NOT THE SAME THING. The skillsets are not interchangeable!

Thanks, all. It struck me, writing this, that when we're pretty competent in one area, we tend to think that we can do everything ourselves. I'm as guilty as the next person. It's not so much that people shouldn't have a go (otherwise I wouldn't be so much in favour of indie publishing!) as that we need to recognise the challenges and the genuine skills involved. Chris is right - it's only when you start to record something like a trailer - and Chris, your trailers and readings are excellent! - that you think - whoa - imagine trying to do this for some 80,000 words! Some magic happens between a good producer and a good actor when an audio book is done well and often I think the producer is the key - listening, directing, editing.
madwippitt said…
Fascinating stuff, thank you! I love audio books, but have found that the narration can make or break the book, even when (or perhaps especially when) it is a much loved favourite. I'm currently listening to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which has got a fabulous narration by Matt Armstrong which adds to the already terrific story.

I'm not entirely sure that writers reading their own work make the best job of it - but if it's necessary to do things on a tight budget, it seems that soliciting the help of drama students might be a good way to go and could be mutually beneficial. Although picking the right 'voice' is still essential of course!
julia jones said…
Tremendously interesting. Thanks.
You're right. Asking for help from drama students would be a good idea. I thought about putting something along those lines, but the piece was already getting long! And often universities or colleges running such courses have proper audio studios and people with the tech know how to do the editing - and sometimes they might even be in search of projects! All good if you're working to a very tight budget.
Lydia Bennet said…
Great post. I'd love to do audiobooks - thrilled to find recently that the BBC have put my radio play on audiogo, you must have loads on there Catherine! A lot of people love audiobooks, not just visually impaired but people who drive a lot for example. But the cost of doing it yourself, ie hiring in recording time, actor etc, seems pretty prohibitive for a full novel. When my play was being recorded I was fascinated by how different radio acting is from stage acting - we had three fab actors but they too had to learn about the rustling, 'mouth noise', and even not to turn your head when speaking 'to' someone else! You are such an expert radio dramatist, so if you think it's hard to make audio books it must be!
It's a while since I did radio. But I have all kinds of daft stories about productions. In Kidnapped the actors did 'horseback' acting standing on chairs and jingling bunches of keys. But if you need sword fighting, only real swords will do since the sound of the swords has to be orchestrated with the movements. The amazing Liam Brennan is one of our very best radio actors (as well as one of our very best theatre actors.) If you listen to radio you'll almost certainly have heard him, even if you don't know his name. He played Robert Burns in something I wrote and I (thoughtlessly) gave him the phrase 'the whip't syllabub of epistolatory compliment' to say.It was a quote from Burns himself. In rehearsal, I thought 'flippin' eck' or words to that effect and offered to change it, but he said 'No, no. I'm sure I can do it!' And he did. He was in a Ray Bradbury dramatization I did - Skeleton - played a sort of bone vampire. He ate a LOT of breadsticks for that one!
Dennis Hamley said…
This is wonderful. I've often, with my writer's hubris and the deceptive memory of declaiming short stories to kids in schools and not sending them to sleep, thought of trying a few things out on Youtube but you've shown me how disastrous that might be. The suggestion of drama students and uni studio facilities is a good one. There's some brilliant kit at Brookes and they may be interested in the odd project. I'll enquire. So thanks, Catherine. You might have opened up a whole new experience for me.
Nick Green said…
It truly is an art in itself. I remember that I was only truly able to 'get into' Tolkien's epic The Silmarillion thanks to the audiobook version read by Martin Shaw. That truly must have been a tough gig - huge book, jaw-breaking names and places, made-up languages, little dialogue, vast passages of Biblical description... I was in awe of Shaw. God, but he must have needed the money.
CallyPhillips said…
Many moons ago, I trained in radio acting at drama school. I have to say I enjoyed the doing the sound effects much more than voicing! Acting for radio is a specific skill which not all drama schools teach, but all actors should have been taught basics of how to 'read' for performance and I've always used RSAMD students for many of my 'live' productions. Audio books are definitely a thing to think about because there are many folk who have no other way to 'enjoy' books and their choice can be very limited. Thanks for the post Catherine.
Lee said…
A drama student read my first novel as a university-sponsored project; a professional actor (Ioan Hefin - BBC Wales projects, amongst many others), my second. And even for Ioan, who is a hard-working, full-time actor with extensive background in TV, film, and stage, it was a learning experience.

But worth it, he claims, since he's prepared to narrate my next novel too. And he does it for free - now that's real commitment, when you understand that Corvus, for example, involves something like 25 hours of listening!

And it's worth it because the podcast i.e. audiobook downloads run to the thousands, and have not lessened significantly since they went live. It's a popular format.

We chose not to introduce sound effects. Different voices at times, yes. But sound effects and music require an entirely different set of skills. (Just ask my elder daughter, who trained in Babelsberg as a sound designer and engineer, but now directs.)

If anyone has any questions about my experiences, I'll be happy to answer as best as I can - I'm still not reading and typing very well.

But would I read myself? NEVER!!
Lee said…
Two quick things to add:

1. Ioan's reading was of course an interpretation, as it always must be, and it showed me new ways (not always a happy experience)of looking at my novel.

2. We probably should regard audiobooks - even just straightforward readings rather than dramatisations - as a different medium altogether. Hence the need to write explicitly with this in mind if you're going to write them at all (though I'm not going to follow my own advice).
Hi Lee - yes - a reading and a dramatisation are ENTIRELY different things and readings shouldn't have FX though they may have the odd bit of music! I'd go so far as to say that a dramatisation involves a whole lot more work for the person writing the scripts. You have to get away from the book completely in many ways. I used to read and reread the book, then spend time on a very rough draft, but then set the book to one side completely and turn that rough draft into a proper play, or series of plays. It's a whole other artform - although in well loved books such as Kidnapped or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you lose certain scenes at your peril. We HAD to have a chariot race in Ben Hur, just as we HAD to have a scene with poor old Quasimodo going on about 'The bells, the bells'

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