Sean Crisden (AKA The Voice of Reason), Bunnicula-lover and video game geekster, tells us what’s involved in narrating audiobooks. What does Sean know about it? Well, he’s an AudioFile Earphones Award winner and narrator of over 100 audiobooks, plus he’s the voice of certain characters in those video games parents wish their kids wouldn’t play. In addition, he’s worked for a swag of big-name clients, which you can see at his website here.
RHYLL: Is narrating like singing, where you perform warm ups prior to recording?
SEAN: Well, the voice is an instrument and to get the best mileage out of it you had best treat it well. So yep, warming up is always a great idea. Practice, technique work, rest and overall good nutrition and exercise contribute to keeping the pipes (as well as the rest of you) in great working order. I also used to sing and play in a rock band so old habits die hard when it comes to keeping the instrument(s) in order.
RHYLL: Does a narrator ever require a 'director' like an actor does? (i.e. to be certain about the character's motivation during particular scenes?)
SEAN: Absolutely. Do you have any idea what would happen if I were just allowed to run wild in the booth? Pandemonium I tell you. Pandemonium. Plus, they'd probably make me wear pants or some such civilized foolishness like that. In all seriousness however, I have never had the pleasure of being directed on an audiobook session. Either folks believe in my narratin' prowess or think I'm some kind of feral, carnivorous monstrosity that you shouldn't make eye contact with. I won't hazard a guess as to which. However, in the greater sphere of audiobook land there are different circumstances where a director may be called in for some narrators or sessions so it isn't an uncommon practice.
RHYLL: How many times do you need to read the book you are going to narrate prior to recording?
SEAN: Typically it takes one solid read with me making notes and character descriptions before narration begins. These days I feel all fancy-shmancy because I've hired an assistant to help me prep books so that I can stay on top of my queue. She does a wonderful job pre-reading and creating a spreadsheet with all relevant info. It's like my very own Cliff's Notes version of the book to minimize my prep time.
RHYLL: If you’re contracted by the publishing house, rather than the author, how much input does the author have?
SEAN: It varies with each book. Sometimes I never hear a peep from the author and other times I feel like I should rent them a room in my house. Either is fine, since I'm happy to have any additional insight from an author to help breathe life into their words. Granted, I still ultimately want to be free to do my thing and contribute my own narrator stank on that thang. Hopefully they hired me because for some crazy reason they like what I do in the first place...shame on them for that.
RHYLL: Have you ever turned down a job because you couldn't get into the book?
SEAN: What, are you under the impression that I have some kind of standards? Or ethical practice? Pssshaw. I'd narrate the ingredients on the back of a shampoo bottle if I had to!
Actually I do turn down titles that are either so poorly written that they should only be consumed as kindling for the funeral pyre of decent literature or those that promote hate or political agendas. Fortunately it's been a while since I've had to turn a title down. That's not to say that I still haven't done some books where I've had a few cringefests while narrating them. No names mentioned, however I will say that my brain usually says "can they hear the face you just made when you said that line?"
RHYLL: If you could choose any book through literary history to narrate, which would it be and why?
SEAN: Oooh, good question. I have to really think about this one. My most favorite book as a child was "Bunnicula". It was the first book I sat and read in its entirety in one sitting. So in a deft demonstration of my elite literary prowess I would have to say that would be the one.
RHYLL: What are the benefits for authors to have their book recorded into an audio book?
SEAN: Accessibility. It can reach a wider audience beyond print and have a fresh new life as it grows into something more. A skilled narrator can really make the text and the story breathe and live beyond the page. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, audiobooks and the access to them have well evolved beyond what many people remember as ‘Books On Tape’. Folks listen to audiobooks on their commute, in the bed, in the shower, while they're doing chores...it's a whole new world. Additionally, it's another form of media and an additional revenue stream for authors to utilize from the same initial body of work. I'd say that's pretty swell, buckaroo.
RHYLL: What is the process, from the beginning, for an author to have their book recorded? How long does it take, including post-production?
SEAN: Well, first finish the final draft of your manuscript. Have it proofread, edited and rewritten. I can't tell you how many finished titles already in print I get that are chock full o' mistakes. It's minor but it's a pet peeve of mine, sort of like people who leave their shopping carts in the parking lot and don't put them back in little cart corral thingy. If you have a publisher, they may already be pursuing audiobook options for you. If not, you need to find a production house or talent who is a one-stop shop. ACX.com is a great resource for this.
Next, select a narrator. Find someone who compliments your writing style and the way you imagine you would like your book delivered. This is an important selection process since the right (or wrong) talent can have a significant impact on how the audiobook is received, despite how obviously shrewd and poignant your manuscript is. Sometimes this selection can be done for you by your publisher/distributor, sometimes not. Of course, the right selection in any case is to simply hire me, right? A first person narrative from the perspective of a 14-year-old Japanese girl you say? Suuure, I've got you covered. Where did I put my Hello Kitty shirt?
Once the narrator is selected the research phase starts where the narrator reads the book, makes notes and may submit any questions regarding characters, pronunciations (you know, where you thought it was cool to name that werepanther-alien "G'zxyhtsj"?) and any other sticking point.
After that it's narration time, which varies from narrator to narrator. My typical rule of thumb is every ten thousands words has me in the booth flapping my gums for about 70 to 100 minutes. For me, that time then translates to about 60 minutes of completed, edited narration. Once all narration is done it typically gets sent to a proofer to listen for all the times that you can tell I as audibly drooling, forgot how to read, or had some hilariously gross gastrointestinal "issues" that the mic picked up. After proofing, I re-record any corrections and the book enters post production. This is where levels are adjusted, audio magic like equalization (EQ) and compression may be added and it's made to sound all shiny.
Once the audio is done and approved, it's ready for digital retail and/or ready to be burned to CD and packaged. All in all and depending on the length of your book the entire process could be anywhere from two weeks to two months (or more). Yay, audiobooks! Now just sit back and marvel at how the critics claim your new triumphant audiobook is so much better than being planted on the couch watching "Game of Thrones" and freaking out over how the show is going off the rails from what was the books. Relax...maybe they have, uh, a plan.
RHYLL: Has someone ever had a fan girl/boy moment when meeting you and recognizing your voice from a commercial, video game or animation?
SEAN: I once had a small child look at me in amusement for some time while I was out shopping or loitering or whatever it is I mindlessly do outside. His concerned parent dragged him away as I heard the adorable waif utter "that's the man from TV". I'm not exactly sure what the child saw me on as I do commercials when I have the opportunity but it was amusing. Another time had me in a game store (I'm a big video game geek) and someone was talking about "Shadow Gun", a popular game that I had done voice work for. Seeing the opportunity to shamelessly do some ego-whoring, I walked up to them and offered up a few lines from the main character in his voice. Naturally as with any sensible person, they didn't believe me so I told them to check the credits later. I...uh...assume they did at some later time. It's always amusing because people typically have no idea what I look like and when they see me many can't really believe I'm the voice of some of the stuff that I do. It's fun. It’s akin to being a celebrity without the celebrity.
RHYLL: What’s the coolest line you’ve ever uttered as a narrator?
SEAN: "This has been [book title], written by [author] and narrated by Sean Crisden." Well, that's usually my favorite line, signaling the end of another book and time to go have some apple pie. The coolest however? I'm fairly stumped. I've narrated over 120 books at my last count and my brain-parts get fuzzy. Probably too much apple pie...as if there could be such a thing!
RHYLL: Have you ever had an uncomfortable moment as a narrator?
SEAN: Not really. It takes a great deal to make me squirm or uncomfortable. I guess I could offer up some of the more extreme or graphic stories that I've narrated where I thought to myself "WTF? Really?" but usually it's just a realization that different strokes work for different folks (yes, pun intended). If you're into zombie-dinosaur clown porn, who am I to judge?
RHYLL: Which celebrities would you like to hear read an erotic or romance novel (and which titles)?
SEAN: Oh come on, we all know Gilbert Gottfried just nailed “Fifty Shades of Grey".
RHYLL: What’s your funniest moment in narrating an audiobook?
SEAN: When I first started narrating in the steamy, explicit romance genre my wife came into the studio to hang out as she sometimes does. She didn't really know what I was doing but it was a hot M/M story complete with "quivering holes and throbbing members" (say, that might be a candidate for "coolest line ever") and I was right in the middle of a blazing sex scene. Looking out of the booth and seeing the look on her face was all I needed to bust up laughing, stop the recording and just go hug that poor woman. Her only response was "You do that really well. TOO well." What? Enacting hot sex by myself? Alas, my job is sitting in a box and talking to myself all day. A boy has to get good at something.