Have you ever wondered what goes into making an audiobook?
Nicholas de Garis is the Audio Producer for Listening Books. He works in our in-house recording studios making educational audiobooks for our Sound Learning service. Abigail Jaggers spoke to him about what an Audio Producer does, what’s involved in editing an audiobook, and his dream audiobook to record.
Can you tell us what your job title is and what you do at Listening Books?
I’m the Audio Producer for Listening Books. I make audiobooks!
Cool! So what does the average working day for an Audio Producer involve?
Well, it’s very varied actually. There’s a couple of different stages that I tend to go through in blocks. I do a lot of research for the books I’ve been given to produce, I bring in volunteer readers to record the books, and then I edit them – I put in sound effects.
Tell me a bit about how you start thinking about recording an audiobook. How long before you start recording the book do you read it, for example?
Well, I get given a batch of books every six months, so I try and read them as early as possible.
What sort of books do you record for Listening Books? Is it mostly educational books?
Yeah, they’re mostly educational books, but it’s not just for one specific age. We make audiobooks for younger children such as the Horrible Histories series, which are very popular, and they’re very fun to do! But we also do books for older people as well. We’ve recently done A Short Introduction to Climate Change, which, upon reading it, is probably about university level information. It’s not something you’d give to an eight-year-old to read! But we do a big mixture of everything in between as well.
What would you say is the hardest thing about adapting a book into audio?
I think the hardest thing is when you have diagrams involved, or pictures as well sometimes! Pictures to a lesser extent, because you can demonstrate that through sound by creating an audio scene. Whereas when you’ve got diagrams in a textbook, it’s a lot harder to get across where all the squiggly lines go.
How do you decide which narrator will work on what audiobook? Do you have a casting process?
Yeah, we have a lot of actors who’ve got in touch and they’re interested, so I tend to listen to what they’ve recorded and sent in and make a judgement based on that. But then I always look to bring them in to do a test read first if I haven’t worked with them before, because being in the studio recording is very different to recording at home.
Yes, it’s very quiet in here, which is a bit odd! Do you direct actors in the studio while they’re narrating, and how does that work?
When actors come in they’ve been given a copy of the book, so they’ve had a lot of time to read and prepare and look up any words that are difficult. So actually, they come in with a very clear idea of how they want it to sound that will suit their voice. I try to let the actors roll with that as much as possible because I don’t want to make an actor who sounds a certain way, or is comfortable talking in a certain way, to talk in a different way that they weren’t prepared for. It’s a two-way process between me and the actor – they have an idea, I have an idea, and then we develop. I might give prompts here and there, but equally they’ll come up with their own ideas as well.
Do you get a lot of people doing things like talking too fast? I know I had a problem with that when I first started recording.
All the time! It’s very easy to do. Actually, even as the director, it’s quite hard to pick up sometimes. You listen to the recording and it can sound quite a conversational speed, but when you’re reading a book you don’t necessarily read at that speed in your head. You talk differently in your head.
What about breathing? I read something from an Audio Producer once who said, ‘The unfortunate thing about humans is that they breathe’! Do you tend to find that’s a problem for editing when it comes to audiobooks?
Yeah, that’s the biggest thing. Actually, the best actors know how to step away from the mic to breathe without disrupting their flow or they make it part of the way they talk.
Have you ever had a particular problem with how to pronounce words or names when you’re recording an audiobook?
All the time! All the time. The actors tend to look into it a lot more than I do, because I’ve got a lot of books to balance at the same time, but there is a lot of on-the-fly research as well into how to pronounce things!
How long does editing an audiobook take?
Well, it depends on the size of the audiobook.
How long is a piece of string?
Exactly, how long is a piece of string? But if you think about it, if we record for an entire day – so, say, 9.30am to 4.30pm – we probably have an hour’s lunch in there, probably a total of about half an hour break split up over a couple of hours. So you’ve got quite a few hours of audio there. And I have to listen to all of that. You can see the waves on the editing programme, so that makes it a lot easier to skip forward, because you can see where the narrator speaks, and where the speaking pattern starts again. It helps me speed up that process, but it still takes a long time to edit.
So, if you had, say, a four hour audiobook that would take you maybe 20 hours to edit?
As in the final book was four hours long to listen to?
Yeah, four hours to read.
If the final book was four hours long, it’d be maybe a day and a half to edit.
That’s longer than I was expecting! I was expecting you to just have to cut out any coughs or jokes!
Well, no, everytime someone makes a mistake they go back to the start of the sentence. You’ve got to listen out for those things, because they’re sometimes easy to miss.
I know when I’m reading things out – even things that I’ve written myself – I accidentally read words that aren’t there. Does that happen quite a lot?
Sometimes. Not as often as you’d think. If I was recording a book that would happen a lot! I have a tendency to do that and my brain skips ahead, but the narrators who come in are absolutely fantastic. They’ve been practicing the text at home, and that makes a huge, huge difference.
Have you been working with audiobooks for long?
Only since August! I’ve only been working for Listening Books since end of August, and this is my first proper experience of working with audiobooks.
How did you end up working with audiobooks? Did you work with radio before?
I was studying a Masters in Radio Production at Bournemouth University. I previously worked at my local radio station back home when I was sixteen answering the phones.
Yeah! I’ve had lots of practice! While I was doing my Masters I got a huge amount of experience in a lot of different things – doing dramas, doing radio shows, and all sorts, really. I enjoy all of it. I just enjoy being in a studio doing something! And when it came to finishing my course I was looking about and I saw this job being advertised and actually I was really excited about it, because the creative freedom you get in this job is something that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. I’m the only Audio Producer at Listening Books. If you’re at a radio station you have to make something very specific and you’ve got very tight deadlines, whereas here I’m given books, but the way I do it is a bit more open. It depends on how I work. I’ve come to learn how to do those things as well.
From the experience that you’ve had with audiobooks what would you say would be your dream audiobook to record?
Ooh! Well, I’ve been recording a lot of Horrible Histories and Horrible Geography books, which I’ve absolutely loved! So, it’d probably be something else that was very creative and imaginative. You know what? It’s quite cheesy, but probably a Roald Dahl book.
Oh yeah, that sounds like fun!
Probably something like The Twits, because that’s my favourite Roald Dahl book. The sounds and everything you could do with that book is a very exciting prospect.
And what would be your absolute nightmare to record?
Without mentioning any names specifically!
It’d be something that I wouldn’t understand at all. If it’s a topic that’s completely alien to me that much harder to invest my interest in it. I mean, I still do and I always try my best, but if it’s something that’s very complicated and just goes over my head it makes it a lot harder to engage with, or make interesting for listeners to listen to!
What advice would you give to anyone whose looking to work with audiobooks or become an Audio Producer in the future?
For me, the biggest thing that I’m doing in this job is planning. I was once told if you’re doing a project it should be 40% planning, 20% doing, and then 40% reviewing. And that applies to this as well. The better prepared I am for each book the easier it is to record on the day. It takes less time. That goes for organising your actors as well. If an actor comes in and they’ve not really read the book they then stumble and trip their way through the book, and that makes it a lot harder to edit. That makes your end process much longer. Being prepared, planning your schedule, and having a clear idea in your head of how it’s going to work is the best thing to do.
Best thing to do as an Audio Producer is to get a very good diary?
Thanks Nik for talking to us!