It’s been just over a year now since my debut novel, A Time and a Place (ATAAP for short), was published by Five Rivers Publishing.
Time to sit back and reflect a bit on the experience.
One year in and I’m not exactly in J.K. Rowling territory. Still got the day job and the bank account looks roughly the same. I did not expect anything different. I went in to this knowing that I might only sell dozens of copies, that it could have been critically ravaged; or worse, completely ignored.
I also went into it with the intention of making it as uniformly positive an experience as I could possibly manage. I’m happy to say that I’ve (mostly) succeeded on that front. And that it hasn’t been critically ravaged or ignored.
It was a year marked by at least a couple of miracles.
The experience started on an amazing note when, shortly after publication, I stumbled upon a positive review of A Time and a Place by Publishers Weekly. I hadn’t even heard of Publishers Weekly before publishing ATAAP. I had to look it up, and when I did, I was interested to learn that Publishers Weekly is considered one of the Bibles of publishing, having been published continuously since 1872. To get a positive review from them was enormous validation of all the work I’d put into the novel. It meant that the work had paid off, at least on a critical front. It also immunized me from any subsequent bad reviews. Publishers Weekly liked it! Who cared what anyone else thought? Well, I did care, but one positive PW review meant that I could easily stomach any other bad reviews.
In the Bistro of the Free Times Cafe before the launch. That’s genuine happiness you see on my face there.
The second miracle was the book launch. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (of the Toronto Public Library system) agreed to host the launch of the book. Having the launch at such a respected venue gave the launch some credibility, in my mind. And Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada’s biggest SF&F bookstore, agreed to sell the book for me at the launch. And the attendance at the launch blew my mind. Seventy-eight people confirmed their attendance beforehand and I’m pretty show we had more than that actually show, as it was an open-door event. I remember walking into the Merrill Collection the night of the launch and being gobsmacked at how many people were there. It was a packed house. One of my favourite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, and the classic line from that movie is “no man is a failure who has friends.” The book launch was my It’s a Wonderful Life moment. That night I felt like I had friends.
We sold fifty-eight copies of ATAAP that night, which made ATAAP the number one best-selling Trade Paperback for Baaka-Phoenix Books for the month of October 2017. It was a great start to the life of the book.
That same day my wife and I were invited to meet the Mayor of Whitby, Ontario. We had a great chat with Mayor Don Mitchell and he graciously purchased a signed copy of A Time and a Place.
Shortly after the launch, I was approached by a film/TV rights database called Rightscenter inquiring about the dramatic rights for ATAAP. I thought this sounded promising but apparently it’s actually just standard practice. Around the same time I was approached by someone about translating the book into Italian. These two events, along with the great launch and the Publishers Weekly review, made me think, holy cow, who knows what’s going to come of this book? But nothing came of either the film/TV rights or the Italian translation.
It was fun tracking ATAAP on Amazon.ca over the year, where it sat on Amazon’s bestseller list for Hot New Releases in Time Travel fiction for a while. I’ve conducted a few interviews about the book over the year, including one on CBC Radio Charlottetown (approved by the CBC ethics commissioner, a requirement because I work there), another for an online radio station in the states (Jessie’s Coffee Shop), and another just recently on Hunter’s Bay Radio in Muskoka (Storylines with Christina Cowley).
I spent one day in Chapters attempting to sell ATAAP (sold nine copies that day) and several days at various other events attempting to do the same (Bookapalooza, Ad Astra, etc). I’ve read from ATAAP at several events, including Words of the Season for the Writer’s Community of Durham Region, and twice at the Parliament Street branch of the Toronto Public Library. And I participated on a panel for Indie Author’s Day in Ajax.
I was roundly ignored by the organizers of Toronto’s Word of the Street, which stung a bit, especially after sending them (at their request) two copies of ATAAP, but apparently they’re run by a small team of volunteers, so maybe I just slipped through the cracks.
I had hoped that ATAAP might get shortlisted for an award or two (the Sunburst or the Aurora Award) but it didn’t even come close. My publisher had warned me that this would likely be the case but one must have one’s illusions.
Over time ATAAP continued to garner excellent reviews, mostly four and five stars, on Goodreads, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Chapters, Library Thing, Audible, and even one five star review on Amazon.co.uk. There is one two star review on LibraryThing and one three star review on Goodreads. Some of the reviews are by people I know and some are not. Without a doubt, ATAAP has received at least one or two extra stars from some of the people I know. For this reason, it’s hard to know where ATAAP actually sits critically. There is that positive Publishers Weekly review though, and several four and five star reviews from people I don’t know, so I think I can safely conclude that at least some people like the book.
Gradually the interviews, events and so on began to taper off. Sales, too, began to dwindle. To combat this, and at the behest of my publisher, I created an audiobook version of ATAAP, which was released a couple of weeks before the anniversary of its initial publication. As I type this, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon Audible Bestseller list (in the niche category of Science Fiction/Time Travel), fallen off that list, and climbed back up gain, where it currently sits at #2 on the Hot New Releases in Time Travel list.
That sounds impressive, but to tell you the truth I have no idea what it actually means. It could represent two hundred sales or two. The ways of Amazon and Audible are largely unfathomable. I won’t know until I get my Royalty statement from Five Rivers.
So, one year later I can report that although A Time and a Place has not made me rich or famous, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It has taken me to a few new places, made me a few new friends, and introduced me to a couple of new opportunities.
The thing about books, as someone told me recently, is that they have long lives.
I had submitted the files to my publisher, who had forwarded them to Audible (ACX), only to have them rejected because they were less than 192 kbps. This didn’t make any sense to me as I was sure that I’d exported them from Audacity properly. When I checked the files out, though, I discovered that I’d actually accidentally exported a couple of files at 32 bit sample rate. It’s weird this only happened to a couple of files; why would the settings change for just a couple of files?
Anyway, I figured this was the problem, so I corrected those files and resubmitted them.
Audible still rejected the files.
So I went back and had another look. I thought I had the settings in Audible correct, but my mistake (well, one of my mistakes) was that I hadn’t actually checked the files themselves. This was really sloppy on my part. The reason I hadn’t checked the files themselves was because, well, I had checked the files, but I’d done so on a Mac, which doesn’t tell you the bit rate. It tells you a lot of other stuff, but not the bit rate, unless you jump through a few hoops, which I hadn’t done. I’d simply assumed that Audacity was doing what it said it was doing:
It says it’s exporting 220-280 kbps. So isn’t it? Nope!
Turns out I should have selected “Constant” Bit Rate Mode, which would have resulted in a guaranteed Bit Rate of 192 kbps.
Live and learn.
Because of this mistake, I had to re-export all my files at the correct bit rate of 192 kbps.
This meant finding the original sessions of each chapter. Doing so, I discovered another bit of sloppiness on my part: poor file management. I’d carefully saved each session using a specific naming convention, but I hadn’t paid much attention to where I saved the files, other than ensuring they were saved on a hard drive somewhere in, say, my house.
Well, at least I knew all the sessions were saved on a hard drive attached to my MacBook Pro. Fortunately, my searches usually managed to locate the required sessions. Unfortunately, they didn’t always do so. I could not find the final sessions for about four chapters. The good news was that I was able to find and re-open at least the penultimate session for each chapter. This resulted in a bit more work than I would have liked. And I became paranoid that I wasn’t re-exporting the absolute final version of each chapter. Because of this paranoia, I decided I needed to re-listen to every second of every chapter to ensure that they were in fact the absolute final, pristine product.
This cut into the writing time of my second novel, which I usually worked on during my commute, and so was a bit of a drag, but it had to be done. Fortunately, I was able to download the files from Dropbox onto my Smartphone, which meant that I could listen just about anywhere I went. Unfortunately, this usually wound up being in rather noisy environments, which meant that I could confirm the proper pacing of the sound files, and that there were no missed edits, and what the chapters would sound like in the real world, but I couldn’t really tell if there were any little clicks or pops or mouth noise etc.
So I listened to all twenty-seven chapters this way, and during the course of this exercise discovered several chapters that weren’t quite up to snuff. In the case of some chapters, it was because I hadn’t been able to find and export the absolute final version, but in the case of other chapters it was because the absolute final versions themselves just weren’t quite up to snuff.
By “up to snuff” I mean mostly that the pacing was off. The way I had read and edited them had resulted in readings that were way too fast. My brain couldn’t keep up listening to them. They threatened to ruin the entire product. Even if listeners couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong, what was irritating about the product, I was pretty sure that it would still bother them. All of these chapters needed to be re-edited. There were a few other minor issues too that I took the opportunity to correct, mostly sloppy enunciation, and some minor issues with the levels.
If I hadn’t exported the files at the wrong bit rate to begin with, I probably wouldn’t have discovered these other issues until it was too late, so I was glad about that.
Looking back, the single biggest hurdles I encountered during the production of this audiobook was the fact that I performed it myself, and did the whole thing all alone. There was nobody to tell me I was reading too fast, and I was too close to the product to realize myself where I was going wrong. I didn’t actually even clue in that there was a problem until after I’d finished recording the entire novel and completed the initial edit of the first chapter. Listening back to that initial edit, I was horrified at the pace of my read. So I re-edited the entire chapter and it was STILL too fast. It wasn’t actually until a few weeks went by and I listened to the chapter again with completely fresh ears that I was able to tell what the proper pace should be. So I edited it AGAIN and finally got it in the ballpark (I hope!).
I made the same mistake with several other chapters, thinking as I was going along that I was getting the pacing right, but again I didn’t have sufficient distance to be able to tell for sure. It was several chapters before I acquired enough experience to know to insert far more space than I thought I needed. Doing so made it far easier on subsequent passes to edit the material correctly, tightening it up a bit.
Had I been a seasoned performer, I would have been able to get the pacing right in the performance, which would have resulted in one heck of a lot less editing.
At least one chapter (Chapter Four) was so bad that I was forced to re-record the entire chapter. But by then I had a much better idea what I was doing, resulting in a performance that was much closer to the mark, and that required only a light edit.
Bottom line: it’s mostly about the performance. If you get the performance right, post-production becomes infinitely easier.
I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t read and record their own novels. But I am saying that if you do, have a second set of ears present—preferably, somebody who knows what they’re doing—so that they can set you straight during the recording, which will result in a whole lot less post-production time.
If you can’t have someone else present, maybe just do one section or chapter at a time. This should reduce the learning curve, and maybe by the end of the book your performance which be much closer to what it needs to be.
Still, despite having created a whole lot extra work for myself on this audiobook production, I’m fairly happy with the final product. I did not release it into the wild until I was satisfied with it. I’m also really happy to have this one under my belt. With what I know now, if I ever have to do this again, it should (theoretically!) go one heck of a lot faster.
My friend and fellow writer (and editor and proofreader and transcriber and discerning reader) Nicky Borland just did a Q&A with me on her blog Finding the Words, The Q&A is mostly related to the writing of my novel A Time and a Place. Nicky’s blog is devoted to, as she puts it, “bookworms and word nerds.” That definitely describes me!
I really appreciate Nicky taking the time to feature a Q&A with me on her blog. I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning that she’s also working on a novel herself. I’ve read an early draft, and it’s really good. Hopefully she will get it out into the great wide world soon so everyone can enjoy and appreciate it.
This made a lot of sense. Audio books are a booming business these days, and it just makes sense to have your book available in as many formats as possible. Also, I’ve been an audio guy since the age of sixteen when I got my first job announce-operating at CJRW in Summerside, PEI, later making my living as an audio technician/recording engineer for CBC Radio for nineteen years.
Doing sound effects in Studio 212 back in my radio drama days at CBC Radio
For an entire ten of those nineteen years at CBC Radio I made radio plays and recorded and edited tons of short fiction re-purposed for the medium of radio. I remember recording a radio-friendly version of Brad Smith’s novel All Hat over the course of a week or two.
So you would think that I would know what is involved in such a recording. Unfortunately, all my experience did was give me a wildly over-inflated sense of my own abilities. Yes, I did (more or less) possess all the skills required to produce an audio book. But somehow I completely failed to appreciate just how much work was involved in doing it all myself, and how demanding some of that work was.
When Lorina suggested I do the audio book, I truly thought I would be able to knock it off in a couple of weeks. Because I could read, I could record, and I could edit. Thinking back, I was pretty sure we’d done All Hat in a week or two.
It’s laughable, really.
Because thinking back on it a little more carefully, I’m pretty sure that the version of All Hat we produced was an abridged version, and it took four of us to do it: a recording engineer, a producer, an actor, and somebody to adapt it. Five people, if you include the casting director. And all I did was record it (I may have edited it, but I don’t really remember). I certainly didn’t read it.
Anyway, turning my novel into an audio book was a great excuse to gear up, so I went out and bought a mic, a mixer, and some other peripherals. I had a week of vacation time coming up and figured I could squeeze all the recording in then, and edit at my leisure afterwards, on evenings and weekends.
After one week of recording though, I only managed to record ten chapters. My wife attributed this to my propensity to get up late, linger over breakfast reading the Toronto Star, casually walk the dog, and then get started recording around 11am. All of this was true. Add to that trains going by, planes flying overhead, neighbours noisily draining pools, and mysterious noises with no obvious provenance interfering with the recording when I finally did get around to it, and you can see why the process took a bit longer than expected. Worst of all, though, was my inability to read more than half a sentence without making a mistake.
Turning a novel into an audio book was a much bigger deal than I’d realized.
In fact, what I originally thought would take me two or three weeks to accomplish wound up taking over two hundred hours spread out over eleven months.
Here are a few thoughts on the process while it’s reasonably fresh in my mind, in case anybody else out there is thinking of doing the same thing.
To record my audio book, I settled on a Shure SM7B microphone. I chose this microphone because I had chosen it back in 2007 to be the main microphone for the radio show Q. I’d tested a lot of microphones and it had sounded the best with the host of that show, and it sounded pretty good on me (if I do say so myself). I would have preferred a Neumann U-87 but I couldn’t afford that (it’s about three grand). But the SM7B (at about $500 Canadian) is a fine microphone with an excellent pedigree. Michael Jackson famously used it to record his album Thriller. Its only limitation that I could see is that it’s a dynamic microphone and you need to give it a boost to get decent levels. But this is easily fixed by placing a Cloudlifter in the chain, providing an extra 25dB of gain.
My weapon of choice, the SM7B
An advantage of the SM7B is that it pretty much records what you point it at and rejects most everything else. This was really helpful recording in my basement. When I turned off the air conditioning, made sure no other appliances in the house were running, and closed the door to the basement, the noise floor was almost non-existent, but there could still be some extraneous noise, so it was helpful to have a very directional microphone.
You do have to work the SM7B pretty closely to get a nice, plummy sound. The host I used to work with on Q worked it so closely that I wound up sticking two pop filters between him and the mic to avoid popping. In my case, I used the A7WS windscreen that comes with the mic out of the box plus one pop filter. I still popped a bit, but I had ways of dealing with that, which I’ll come to later.
My fairly straight-forward home studio in my basement.
The rest of my setup was pretty simple. You can see it pictured here. Basically the SM7B plugged into the Cloudlifter, the Cloudlifter plugged into a Steinberg mixer, which in turn is connected to a MacBook Pro via USB. And a pair of decent Sennheiser headphones and a mic stand. I read the script (just a PDF version of the novel) right off the MacBook, flipping back and forth between Adobe Reader and my audio software as required.
I recorded almost everything in Cubase, which came with the Steinberg mixer, but I never really got to like it. I’ve used a lot of audio editing software in my time (D-Cart, Dalet, DaletPlus, Sonic Solutions, ProTools, Audacity) and Cubase just didn’t compare in terms of immediate usability. Probably if I’d taken the time I would have gotten used to it, but when it came time to editing the audio book, I switched to Audacity, which can be downloaded free and is much simpler.
Earlier I mentioned that I couldn’t seem to record half a sentence without making a mistake. This was true in the beginning, and it surprised me. One of the reasons that I thought recording an audio book wouldn’t take too long was because I figured I’d just sit down and read it and do some light editing and that would be it. I’ve had some experience acting and I’ve worked professionally as an announcer/operator at two radio stations (CJRW in Summerside and CFCY/Q-93 in Charlottetown). I thought I could read. Heck, I even thought I could perform. But I couldn’t. Not in the beginning.
The problem was I would read a little bit and then, convinced it sounded horrible, I’d stop and start again. I thought, well, not a big deal, I can edit it all later. But the more mistakes you make, the more editing is required, and eventually all that extra editing adds up to one big editing nightmare.
I got much better with practice and experience, but even at my best I couldn’t get through a chapter without a fair amount of mistakes.
Typically, I recorded each chapter twice. I would get to know the chapter on the first read, and read it better the second time around. If I made a mistake, I’d stop, go back, and correct it right away. This made the editing process much easier later (making up somewhat for the amount of mistakes).
Because I didn’t have a producer, someone standing over my shoulder correcting me, I needed to be careful. If I thought I made a mistake during a passage, I always stopped and re-did it (sometimes the first time was perfectly fine, but better safe than sorry, although it did make for more work). Whenever I hit a word I wasn’t entirely sure how to pronounce, I looked it up online. Most online dictionaries allow you to listen to the word you’re looking up. Interestingly, I included words in A Time and a Place that, although I know perfectly well what they mean, I either didn’t know how to pronounce, or have been pronouncing incorrectly. They are correct in the audio book version, though. I made sure of that.
Sometimes I mangled words or sentences but didn’t discover this until the editing process, which was a pain in the butt, but far from insurmountable. One of the advantages of recording an audio book yourself is that afterwards the actor’s still hanging around if you need him or her.
A typical waveform, this one from Chapter 22 of A Time and a Place.
One of the fun parts of recording this novel myself has been doing the voices. I didn’t have unique voices for all of the characters, but some characters cried out for special treatment. One of the characters, Gordon Rainer, is supposed to speak with a British accent. He was by far the most difficult to get right. I’d once done a play for which I’d been trained to speak with a British accent, but I have no illusions about how accurate I’m able to do it (my British brother-in-law is only too happy to provide reality checks on that point).
I’d always thought of another character, Doctor Humphrey, as having a gruff voice, so I played him that way. And so on. I tried not to overdo it, as it could easily get silly, but I enjoyed the performance aspect of it all.
Like just about every other part of this project, the editing took a lot longer than I expected.
I edited one chapter at a time. It took me on average three to four hours to edit the first pass of each chapter. My chapters average twenty pages. The shortest is seven pages, the longest thirty. Transformed into audio, my chapters run anywhere from eleven minutes to thirty minutes long, averaging about twenty minutes. (Unedited, the raw files for each chapter run anywhere between one hour to two hours long.)
As mentioned earlier, I did all my editing in the free version of Audacity, which worked just fine. It’s easy to learn and I found that I could edit quite quickly and effectively with it. It’s also got a nice little suite of tools for mastering, EQ and so on.
Before editing each chapter, I would do a little processing. A little noise reduction, a little limiting or amplification as required to ensure that I was peaking at -3dB with a maximum -60dB noise floor as required by Audible. I did this at the beginning because if doing any of that introduced any problems, I wanted to catch those problems as I was doing the edit. I didn’t want to complete an edit, then do processing, and have it accidentally introduce issues such as clicks or pops or digital distortion that I might have less chance of catching near the end of the process.
Every chapter required multiple passes to edit. The first edit was mainly to get all the right takes in the right order and clean it up as much as I could. To help speed things up, I created a special template in Audacity’s EQ plug-in to eliminate popped Ps as I encountered them (I found the default EQ template for this too aggressive in Audacity).
Sometimes I encountered mangled words or sentences for which no good takes existed, that I had not noticed during the recording process. These I re-recorded right on the spot. Sometimes it was a bit tricky getting these re-takes to match, but it got easier with practice. It was a matter of getting the inflection and level right. I would tweak the level in Audacity using the Amplify plug-in (always careful not to peak at higher than -3dB), and try to use as little of the re-take as necessary, often cutting halfway through a sentence, or a word, even.
After the initial edit, I would go through the chapter again to clean up weird, extraneous noises such as bits of mouth noise, the cat knocking into the mic stand, or other weird noises such as bumps occurring elsewhere in the house that I hadn’t noticed during recording.
I popped the odd P or two, so I created a specific EQ that I called Subtle Bass Cut to deal with that (and a few popped Bs too)
I took a lot of time to address issues with pacing. I tend to read fast. Left unedited, few would be able to keep up with my reading. I worked hard to address this in the edit. I know that some audio book listeners want their audio books read fast. In fact, they will listen to their audio books at enhanced speeds to get through them quicker. I tailored my pacing for people who listen at normal speeds. If I ever record another one, I’ll try to get it right during the recording. A lot easier than having to fix pacing in the editing process.
Once reasonably certain that I’d addressed all issues in the edit, I would play the entire chapter from beginning to end to make sure that I hadn’t missed any edits, and to ensure that there were no other problems. Only when I felt that the edit was perfect would I consider it done, and share it with my publisher via Drop Box (who will subsequently submit it to Audible). One of my mottos is “If it only exists once in the digital domain, it may as well not exist at all,” so I always sent a safety version to myself via Gmail.
I didn’t keep a really accurate record of how long this project took me, but I estimate each chapter took on average two hours to record, and six hours to edit, master, and double check. That’s 8 hours a chapter times 27 chapters, plus little bits like intros, acknowledgements, and so on. I figure the entire project took about 220 hours. That’s 27 eight hour days. The book itself is ten hours, sixteen minutes and fifty-five seconds long, all told. I took three entire weeks off work and devoted several evenings and weekends to this project. Probably much longer than it should have taken. I read in this quite informative blog post that “your narrator will put in six times more production hours than the final length of the book.” Yeah… took me a bit longer than that.