BRAVA founder, Melissa Thom, recently chatted to old friend and colleague, Dan Jones, Head of Audio Services for Carmelite Studios at Hachette UK, about his experience working with voice actors, and his advice on getting into audiobook narration. An edited version appears below.
Melissa: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey into the world of audiobooks? What inspired you to get into this line of work?
Dan: I'm from a music production background and I’ve been messing around with music tech since I was a kid back in the 80’s.
I spent my early years working in studios engineering and programming, then as a producer and songwriter. I also spent some time working in IT and telecoms in between music gigs. When downloads started to hit CD and Vinyl sales, I decided to get a proper job and ended up working in publishing reprographics at Hachette.
I spent the first 10 or so years continuing to work on music projects and do the day job in publishing, until I had a kid and decided to focus on the bit that was paying the mortgage. Around 4 years ago, I was asked by Hachette’s then Director of Digital and Development to investigate building some recording studios at our Central London office. My previous experience of the studio industry and the fact that I’d run an in-house facility for Hachette placed me well for the role.
I started by installing 3 studios and hiring a team of producers and a pre-production assistant and we opened in 2019. Since then, we’ve expanded to 5 studios and grown our pre-production team to include a manager and an assistant.
Melissa: Roughly how many audiobooks have you recorded to date? Any particular titles that stand out for you?
Dan: We have produced around 700 so far. We work on such a wide range of titles for Hachette. My favourites are probably, Terrortome by Matt Holness, Windswept and Interesting by Billy Connolly, A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney, Wild by Amy Jeffs, Medical Grade Music by Steve Davis and Karvus Torabi.
Melissa: Can you explain the process of producing an audiobook from selecting the manuscript to the final product?
Dan: We work with the audio publishers from each Hachette imprint and have schedules from each of them and are looking at the publishing list up to a year in advance. Once we have text and a casting brief, we’ll bring some suggestions to the publisher, who will then get this signed off by editorial and the author. Then we book the narrator and send them a prep script. If the book has any complex pronunciations or character briefs, we will research and provide this to the reader along with the script.
Melissa: What are some common challenges in producing audiobooks and how do you overcome them? Dan: Time is always against us. If things are running late in the publishing schedule, this can impact us, as we are right at the end of the process and have very short turnaround times to ensure the audiobook is available on the same day as the print and e-book editions. We overcome them by having good comms with all involved, tight workflows and processes and a highly skilled pre-prod team, talented producers and some really great external partners for QC and post.
Melissa: What are the key qualities & skills you look for when selecting voice actors for audiobook narration?
Dan: Fluency is key, as this will enable a recording to complete within the session slots we have allocated. We want people who can read accurately and not make too many mistakes. It’s key that narrators have done their prep and have been in touch with us ahead of the recording with any questions around pronunciations, accents etc.
Melissa: How important is it for a narrator to connect emotionally with the story they're reading? Dan: Sometimes a narrator may have experience of the subject matter in a non-fiction title and that can really bring something to the performance. It’s always nice if there’s a connection between the voice and the text. Sometimes that could be a narrator’s connection with the locale of the book’s setting, or maybe the era in which the book is set.
Melissa: Do you cast via agents or direct with actors?
Dan: We mostly use agents, but deal direct with a small percentage of narrators. And we do the occasional casting workshop with our publishing colleagues.
Melissa: How do you approach the casting process for a book with a diverse range of characters?
Dan: We get detailed briefs from our publishing colleagues, so we often go into a casting with a good idea of who we are looking for. We are very focussed on ensuring the casting links to the background of the characters and will aim to cast as accurately as possible.
Melissa: How do you collaborate with authors in the process of creating the audio version of their work?
Dan: Each of the Hachette publishing divisions has an audio publisher and team, they work closely with the book’s editor and author to build the briefs for us. We will obtain tailored sample recordings of the voices we are putting forward and suggest why we think a certain person would be good for a project.
Melissa: Do you always record in-house at your studios or are you happy for VOs to record in their home studio? What are your basic requirements for this?
As a hangover from Covid, a percentage of people we work with have continued to record from home. We have an onboarding process that checks through the equipment/software and method of recording before we agree to working with someone from home. We will always want to hear some samples and some room tone recorded in the space. We continue to expand our pool of home-based Narrators. I think like everyone else, home/flexible working has its benefits for some people and we should support this.
Melissa: Roughly what kind of rates can actors expect? Dan: This varies a lot depending on book budgets.
Melissa: Do you prefer to have access to general narration demos or audiobook specific ones?
Dan: We prefer a proper audiobook reel if possible. We frequently see “Audiobook” reels on agent’s websites that aren’t actually that. We all search Audible as well to see if there’s anything on there.
Melissa: What advice do you have for voice actors keen to work with you?
Dan: We are always happy to receive showreels and we keep everyone on file who sends things in. We might not be in touch until a suitable project comes up, but one usually does. As above, audiobook specific reels give us the best idea of what the read will sound like. Also information on accents they may be comfy doing (for more than a few lines) and any links to previous work. And if they have a home studio.
Melissa: What is the difference between working with celebrity voices (who may have had little to no training) compared to trained voice actors?
Dan: These are often cast for certain big brand products we work on; we’ve not had many bad experiences. I’d say the only noticeable difference is the amount they get through in a day is a bit lower than a pro voice actor.
One thing probably worth mentioning at this point, is we record a significant number of authors here (about 40% of our output). We get really great results with them and are often surprised by how good some of them are.
Melissa: Could you share some of your most memorable experiences working with celebrities and/or voice actors? Best and worst stories?!
Dan: We worked with Bez from the Happy Mondays last year. We booked him into one of our partner studios in Wales and he was great fun, but one day we got a message from the studio saying Bez was refusing to read some sections of his book, and for one reason or another it took us a while to realise he wanted Shaun Ryder to read these bits.
Time was very tight and we were faced with tracking down Shaun and getting him into a studio asap to record. Amazingly we found him in Manchester and got him in with another partner studio of ours in Salford who’d actually recorded Shaun’s audiobook. To my astonishment Shaun turned up on time and got it all done the next day, which if I’m honest wasn’t the way I thought it was going to go. Early on we recorded World Snooker champion Steve Davis reading his memoir about his lifelong obsession with music, record collecting, Djing and being in the band ‘Utopia Strong’. The book (written and read with his bandmate Karvus Torabi) was such fun to record and Steve is such a lovely, entertaining, and funny guy and great fun to hang out with.
When the team worked on Billy Connolly’s autobiography, Billy was in Florida, so we recorded him at one of his friends’ studios with one of our Team dialled in. Due to the nature of the set-up, we only had a one-way audio feed so a lot of the Direction was done over Whatsapp to Pamela, who’d pass it on to Billy. Not that Billy needs loads of direction obvs!
We are very lucky to work with so many great authors, actors and celebrities and I can confidently say that I have no worst stories.
Melissa: How has the industry changed since you first began? And what do you predict for the future of audiobook narration?
Dan: We are relatively new to the game.. The rest of my team are all quite young but have a lot of audiobook experience between them and were mostly hired from other studios around the country or other publishers. One thing we’ve been pleased to see change since we opened, is a more diverse range of voice talent is now coming through the door. We work with our publisher colleagues and agency partners to drive diversity in casting and it’s something that the whole of Hachette as a business is striving to change and bring as many worlds as possible to the widest audiences.
Melissa: What role does technology play in your work, and how has it impacted the production of audiobooks? What do you think about the rise of audiobooks being narrated by AI voices? And what role might AI play in the future of audiobooks or for producers?
Dan: We use loads of tech to get the job done. The studio workflows are heavily reliant on tech to make the process as efficient as possible. The improvements in noise reduction technology and down the line recording has been a revolution, and literally saved us during lockdown. Our mindset in the studio is end to end and the workflows begin way before the recording and don’t finish until the product has been delivered. We constantly look at ways to improve our systems and utilise a lot of tech to do this.
In terms of AI, we have been experimenting with it for a while now. The focus has been on using AI to automate parts of pre-production and quality control where there are lots of labour-intensive human performed tasks. I think a good use of AI up until now has been in those areas.
In terms of AI voices, the retailer who has the biggest share of the Audiobook market is Audible and presently AI read audiobooks are not permitted on their store. I assume like all the big tech vendors, they are working on their own AI voices and if that is true, it’ll be a disruptor for sure, but to what extent isn’t easy to predict. You could guess that big name actors might want to license their voice print for large sums of cash to one of these companies on an exclusive deal for a period of time, but the contracts will be complex as a lot of these people work across video games, film, TV, radio and audiobooks.
For lesser known voices, it might not be financially sensible for you to license your voice for a one off fee, compared to a per job fee you might be able to get as a traditional VO. Will there still be a demand for beautifully read books by humans? I think so. Will author-read books be a thing still? Again, I think yes. Will AI eat into some of the VO work currently available? Definitely, I can see continuity completely going over to AI and it’s already in the Ad industry.
I do think though that new opportunities for voice actors will appear. The machine has a lot to learn and we are the only people who can teach it (at the moment). As everyone is aware, the last year has seen a rapid jump in AI capability, especially in the generative side and this is raising all sorts of possibilities and fears in a wide range of industries.
In the creative media landscape, we’ve seen advances in AI created content that could pose a threat to artists, performers, and producer’s livelihoods. At Hachette, we are looking at how this technology will affect the business and wider industry. We all have an open mind to the possibilities it will bring, but are also focussed on protecting our IP and the people who create it.
One thing I hear a lot when people speak on AI is, “It’s early days, it’s only going to get better”. And I wonder if people said the same thing about the Typewriter, or steam train or internet even? Is this the first technology where we have a clear understanding of its effect on our futures? Or will it just become another tool to help us do more stuff?
Melissa: Can you share some tips on how to maintain longevity in the industry?
Some readers specialise and that can be as good a thing as having a wide repertoire. If you get on a series, that can be great as you’ll be doing one of those a year if not more. Producing work reliably and to a high standard is a great way to keep the work coming in.
Melissa: What are some common mistakes you see new narrators make, and how can they be avoided?
For new voices, the producer can be a great help. I would advise, if you are lucky enough to work with good producers, they can and will guide you on the best approach to improving your game. So I would listen to them and all they have to say!
Melissa: How do you balance the author's vision with the creative interpretation of the voice actor?
Dan: Yes this is an interesting one. I mentioned earlier, we often ask readers to provide a sample during the casting process and this will usually come with some guidance from the author. We aim to have the author happy at this stage, if there are some specific points on characters, we will focus the sample on these with a view to getting author sign-off ahead of recording. If that isn’t possible, we may dial in to the author for a part of the session and they can have a listen and provide feedback. This can be a delicate balance though, as we have to trust the performance and have a job to get done, but this is often very useful when we do it.
Melissa: How do you deal with narration for books in a series? Do you try to keep the same voice actor for continuity?
Dan: Yes for sure, the reviews dictate this often and we would strive to keep the same reader. This isn’t always possible however as actors can become less available as their career progresses.
Melissa: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming an audiobook narrator?
Dan: Get yourself an agent that specifically works on audiobooks and has links with the big publishers. Make sure you’ve got a showreel that has your reading 5 mins plus of a book and make sure it’s been recorded at a proper studio and has been edited and mastered. If you want to showcase your accents, make sure your demo shows this and ensure your agent knows what your repertoire is. We send them very detailed briefs, so if you are great at swapping between French, Scottish, Greek and RP them make sure your agent knows.