Is a script all I need to prepare an Audiobook for narration?

What is in my dream pack and what are my absolute ideals from an Audiobook Publishing house when I get sent a new book to work on?

I open my inbox, I see that spangly email with an audiobook offer and my smile reaches my ears. The next stage is to receive the script so that I can start prepping. But is the script all I need?

In these two blogs I’ll look at some things which are an absolute dream to receive from the publishing house when entering the voice over area of Audiobooks, and specifically, prepping them. I know the wonderful Neil Gardner who runs the Audiobook Creative Alliance is also very passionate about these things, and we have discussed them at length!

1. A PDF which has not been scanned

Most narrators are a bit in love with iAnnotate as it makes prepping so easy. We can highlight, scribble annotations, insert voice notes, search the text and so much more.

However, if the book has been scanned in and sent over to us we are reduced to a dribbling mess. Prep is everything when you’re doing a book. Once the book is prepped, you basically forget about it all, jump into the booth and immerse yourself in the world, bringing it to life with your voice.

When we can’t highlight, search and select parts of the text for our research (and so on) we become stuck. Also, beyond not being able to prep it properly, sometimes with a scan you literally cannot read the words…So please, please do not send us scans.

2. A voice note of pronunciations from the author

Ok this is essentially my actual dream because it has never happened. But I am keeping the faith. If am doing a Sci Fi or YA, it is more than likely that the author has created incredible worlds, characters, places, names and even languages.

Of course I can have a guess at what I think these pronunciations are, but it would be just that - a guess. If I got anything wrong, I would be doing such a disservice to the author.

Once I’ve got my list of required pronunciations/questions for the author, then the email dance begins. I ping them over to the publishing house and ask if it might be possible to get a voice note from the author. The publishing house then sends this to the author’s agent. The agent then sends it to the author. The author replies to the agent, who replies to the publishing house who reply to me. And…jazz hands. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the voice note with the pronunciations was there in the prep pack right from the off?

Because if you think about it, who knows the book best? The incredible author who wrote it. This book is their baby. They most probably live, breathe and dream this book. They have poured their heart into it. And it is up to me to do it justice and respect this phenomenal amount of work.

There is no way I am going to ever take any chances and possibly pronounce a character’s name wrong. The voice note of pronunciations is key for me.

3. Voice note vs phonetically spelled list

I’m not sure if this is controversial, but hey, in the Trump / Johnson / Covid world we live in a bit of controversy isn’t unheard of.

I much prefer a voice note of pronunciations compared to a phonetically spelled list.

Why? In the words of the nice chap who took me around the cigar making workshop in Havana, ‘I’ll tell you for why.”

I’m British. My native accent is RP. During my drama training I learnt the phonetic alphabet, and it is incredibly useful when learning new accents or pronouncing tricky words. But it seems that there are more than one alphabet doing the rounds. And then things start getting confusing…

I currently have 4 different phonetic alphabets from different publishing houses. And let me tell you a story which really made me want to switch to voice notes from authors.

I was doing a lovely book for a US publishing house, and there was this word - Corvatch. I pronounced it as I had been informed to; the notes stated that it should rhyme with ‘watch’ (it hadn’t been phonetically spelled at this point). So that’s what I did. But I got a correction for it. They wrote how they wanted it phonetically, and I said that that didn’t quite tally up with what they had asked for, and so I was a little unsure as to what to do. They kept stating that it should rhyme with ‘watch’, which I was doing.

The next morning (after a particularly strong cup of coffee) I had an epiphany. It dawned on me that the pronunciation of ‘watch’ is very different indeed for an and American and a Brit. In the UK it would have the same sound as ‘hot’ and is a short vowel; in the US it almost has the same elongated vowel as in the British pronunciation of ‘father’. And therein lay the problem.

We had enjoyed a marvellous game of email tennis, both completely convinced we were being clear with our pronunciation. But a voice note would have saved so much time.

4. A character breakdown

When I get the script, I personally create extremely detailed notes for every character, whether they have one line or are the protagonist. This entirely informs my performance when I get into the booth.

However, it is the author who knows these characters inside out. Sometimes it is noted in the text that they are from Manchester, or they call everyone ‘duck’ (which is stereotypically quite a Northern thing in the UK). But occasionally we do not have this information.

The author will know exactly how they want the character to sound and feel, so a couple of lines from them is an absolute joy to receive. This will never stop me doing my own research using the script, but it can enhance my characterisations immensely.

5. Time

OK, so time can’t be inserted into the prep pack. But, the pack can be sent with plenty of time to spare. It is impossible to receive a script, prep it and record it within a week.

Not only does it take time to read a book and research names, places, pronunciations etc, but if we have any questions for the author, it can take time to get those emails sent, and for the replies to come back.

In an ideal world I would receive a script 3-4 weeks before recording begins. This allows us time to do a quick initial prep (maybe converting into a word doc to discover any made up names/places etc through a spell check), and also allows time to fit it all into the schedule.

It is quite possible that the narrator is working on two or three books at once, and they might not be able to fully prep it the moment is lands in their inbox. If that amount of time isn’t possible, then 14 days is still marvellous.

6. Prep script vs final script

It is very usual to receive a prep script in advance of the final one. This is incredibly helpful, as I can convert it to word, run a spell check for any unusual words for which I need the pronunciation, and I can also do a quick character search to make some notes on them.

However, I am yet to come across anyone who does all of their final prep on these prep scripts, as it is nigh on impossible to transport this annotated prep onto the final script when it comes in.

If at all possible, it is so unbelievably helpful to get the final script at least 14 days before recording begins (as mentioned above). All of the actual marking up will only be done on this final script; if we don’t receive it until two or three days before recording that can be really quite tricky.

I hope that these things have been useful in terms of what can really aid a narrator in their prep. All we want to do is bring the author’s world to life in a truthful, honest manner, and these things can really help with this. Narrating books is such a joy, and I feel grateful every day that I am able to do this job.

To be trusted with someone’s heart and soul, a project they may have spent years on, is an absolute honour and a privilege. It is a task that I absolutely do not undertake lightly, and am so thankful for the trust put in me to breath life into these words.

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