Recently, I outlined the fantastic services that ACX.com provide for authors, as well as some ideas on marketing for audiobooks. Today I interview Rosalind Ashford, narrator for my dark thriller Desecration.
In the intro, I talk about my interpretation of the Hachette/Amazon negotiations and how power imbalance can impact us. I also talk about my upcoming travels, and book launches for the German edition of Pentecost, as well as the Spanish edition, also coming soon.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Rosalind Ashford is an actor, voice artist and Audible approved audiobook narrator. She recently narrated my thriller Desecration, available now on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. You can watch the interview on YouTube here, listen above or on the podcast feed on iTunes or Stitcher, or read the transcription below. We discuss:
- How Rosalind got into audiobook narration, and her background in acting.
- Why the audiobook market is growing and the exciting times to come!
- What the job of an audiobook narrator includes – the interpretation of the work, reading it through, the performance and acting, the editing and production time
- Aspects of editing and production including manuscript proofing – it can be 4-10 hours for every 1 hour of finished audio. Amazon Whispersync is only activated on books with a very close match to the text.
- The different types of characters that Rosalind has narrated and how she remembers how they sound during production
- The intimacy between the author and the narrator. The relationship that must grow for a good fit between the ‘voice’ of the author and the spoken words of the narrator.
- Rosalind talks about why she chose Desecration as a royalty split deal, and the importance of the author’s platform in taking a risk.
You can find Rosalind and her many projects at RosalindAshford.com.
Here’s an excerpt of Desecration.
You can find the audiobook here:
Transcription of Interview with Rosalind Ashford
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m here with Rosalind Ashford. Hi, Rosalind!
Rosalind: Hello, Joanna! Welcome, welcome to New York!
Joanna: I’m so excited to be talking to you. And just as an introduction for everyone else, Rosalind is an actor, a voice artist, and an Audible Approved Audiobook Narrator. She recently narrated my thriller, “Desecration,” which is available now on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. So, today we’re talking all about audiobooks, which is such an exciting topic, because the world is exploding.
Rosalind, tell us just a bit more about you and your background as a voice talent and narrator.
Rosalind: Well, back when the Earth was cooling, I took Dramatic Arts in college and university, and then moved to this country, to New York. I really started with theater, but I’ve done film and TV, and then I just fell into radio and voice work. And I actually narrated my first book on radio, for Books for the Blind, back in—dare I say—1980, so I’ve been reading books aloud for a few years! I took a break, did other things with my life, and then came back into the business about three years ago, I think it is now.
I had continued to do voice work, commercials, radio, TV, e-Learning courses, and now that everything is digital, it, it really doesn’t matter where you’re located, so I do work for the European market, I do work for you, and you’re in London, authors that could be anywhere in the world. So, my background is extensive. And I have to say that narrating audiobooks is perhaps the most challenging of all the types of performing I’ve done. It’s also the most rewarding.
Joanna: We’re going to come back to that in a minute. But before we, before we do, tell us a bit more: three years ago, you mentioned there, when I guess MP3s had really gone mainstream and digital media and stuff:
What is the market for audiobooks and do you perceive that it’s growing, is it a rising market?
Rosalind: I think it’s going to be huge. If you think about it, storytelling, which is basically what narrators do, has pre-dated the written word. Cavemen were telling stories to each other, one presumes. So, I think we’re coming full circle. There’s still something of a stigma attached to people listening to books, versus reading books. There was always that belief that it was meant for the visually impaired, or people who don’t read well, but I think that’s changing, perhaps because storytelling will never go out of fashion—everybody loves to be told a good story—and also because these days we multitask to the point where we’re ironing and listening to a book. We couldn’t iron and read a book. We work out and listen to books. And I’m astonished when I’m in the subway in New York or the Tube in London, how many people have their earplugs in, and I wonder how many are listening to music, and how many are listening to books.
And I think that, in answer to your question, it is a hugely developing market, and I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.
Joanna: Yes and I think the rise in podcasts as well also demonstrates the rise in audio in general. There’s some crazy statistic, in America people spend 90 minutes a day commuting, the average person, and you do get bored with just the radio or just music all the time, so listening to books, podcasts, that type of thing, it’s brilliant, so I’m very excited.
So, tell us a bit more. What do you do as a narrator? Like, what is the process. It’s not just reading, is it – there’s a lot more involved.
Rosalind: No, it’s not. When people say to me, “Ooh, I like to read, I could do that,” I sort of equate it to being given a paintbrush. I could hold a paintbrush, but I wouldn’t be able to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and I wouldn’t be able to paint your portrait. What’s involved? Well, certainly, the ability to read, and to have the imagination to make the written word come alive. It’s a combination, I think, of skill, with talent, and there’s a huge learning curve.
So, what’s involved? Well, certainly to have a nice voice, one that doesn’t grate, and there’s all manner of studies that show that a certain range of voice is more pleasing than another range of voice. But reading is really only the beginning, because when I’m faced with a script, first of all, a manuscript, I’m going to read it through, because the worst thing that can happen is you start a book without having read that in the final chapter it’s revealed that the hero has a lisp! You’ve just read the whole book with no lisp. So, it behooves one to read the book! And as I read, I can almost hear the characters in my mind, so by the end of a book, I’ve got a really good, fleshed-out feel for how I’m going to translate what’s on the page out of my mouth, and so then to your ears.
So, there’s the reading part of it. There’s the acting part of it, and actually, as I said before, it is probably one of the most challenging acting gigs I’ve ever done, and—just for fun—I threw together a list of characters that I’ve portrayed, in just in the last few books, and so I’ll read this to you.
One book I had started in the first 65 pages, there were 32 named characters. So I had to come up, in the first 65 pages, with 32 individuals who sounded different. So that was a challenge. Then, I made a list of, of who I’ve been in my narrating career. So, I’ve been aristocratic, middle class, working class, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Northern, Southern, Cornish, Kentish, a Cockney, a Brummie, a Geordie, a Liverpudlian, an East Ender, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, American, Southern American, American Indian, old, young, middle-aged, a child, a baby, male, female, kind, evil, alive, dead, a troll, a talking parrot, yes, a parrot, a tortoise, a horse, a caterpillar, a mouse, and that was all before lunch! So, what other career gives me the opportunity to do all of that? It’s great fun.
I said there is a learning curve, because not only is there all of that that’s in the manuscript, and my job is to bring your words to life, but there’s also a technical learning curve to master, especially if you are acting as both narrator and producer.
Joanna: Yes, tell us about that bit, now you’ve spoken it, you’ve acted the book, and then you have to actually produce a file.
Rosalind: Yes, because when I’m sitting in front of a mic, I can hear my tummy rumble, just before lunch, I can hear the trucks going by, if they’re particularly noisy, I stumble over a word: the skills involved with narration itself require that you learn breath control, of course, and also stamina, because at any given time, you might sit in front of the mic for five hours, but once that’s on tape, so to speak, or digitally on the computer, you have to make it listenable.
You, as a listener, don’t want to hear me breathing or my chair squeaking or whatever. So then, the next step is to edit the raw audio. And that is a skill, and I’m no engineer, and audio engineers go and get degrees in that, and certainly that’s not what I do best, but I, by necessity, have had to learn some basics for editing.
So, you take that raw audio, and you cut and paste and tweak with software that’s now, of course, all digital, and then you have a much more refined file. But then you have to QC, quality control, and proof it, against the manuscript, because in the space of a given hour or so, you can miss a word, your brain sort of is ahead of your mouth, so a narrator may very well stumble over a word, or mispronounce a word, or just transpose, and some of them are quite funny (quite rude, too!) but all of that has to be corrected, or cut out, or re-recorded.
So, that’s the editing, and that’s the QC part. Then the whole file has to be mastered technically to suit the medium, which is, of course, digital online, through Audible, iTunes and so on and so forth. So, that’s a sort of a very short idea of what’s involved.
Joanna: Yes. And tell people,
How long is that editing process compared to the finished hour, how long does it take?
Rosalind: Well, if you are a beginner, one finished hour can take you, if you do it right, and you do it carefully, as much as ten, twelve hours! As one becomes before more proficient at the editing and the QC, the proofing and so forth, industry standards are usually around one finished hour will take you about four hours. Just an editor may take two and a half hours; the QCer obviously has to listen to it as well. And if you’re a one-man show, you’re doing all of these things, so for every hour, I probably spend at this point, having done many, probably six hours. And, as an Audible Approved Narrator and Producer, there is a high standard to meet, and it’s challenging.
Joanna: Yes, I mean, I wanted you to tell people that, because I think people don’t realize, especially, I’m a podcaster, but I just do one take, I rarely do much editing: it still takes me probably three hours in total to do a podcast because of the recording and the editing and the research and everything, and yet I’m just amazed at the work that goes into an audiobook, so I’m glad you talked about that.
Another subsequent question: you know you talked about all these different characters. Do you like write little notes down or something, so you go, “OK, this is Bob, Bob sounds like this, Joan sounds like this”?
How do you remember that as you’re reading?
Rosalind: Well, I’m old school, so I started with paper in the booth, but of course paper makes a noise when I turn the page. So, when I started with paper, I would literally print out the manuscript, invest in every colored highlighter there is, and highlight those lines that are spoken by a specific character. Then I would have a crib sheet, and I’m saying this in the past tense, because, as I’ve become busier, I don’t have the time to highlight, so, this is what I used to do. I would highlight that written word in pink for the heroine, blue for the hero, purple for the evil man, the villain, and so on and so forth. And I’d have a crib sheet of whose color was what character, and I visually imagine that character, and oftentimes I will take a famous person as my template for that character, so it might be Prince Charles, this character, and I’m picturing in my mind as I’m reading his lines, Prince Charles, and that translates somehow from there to there, one hopes, and it’s on paper.
Now, that was what I used to do. These days, because of technology, that wonderful thing, the iPad, enables me to put that in my booth, it’s totally silent, so there’s no rustling of pages and there’s no whirring of a computer, I can read the manuscript off my iPad, and I can even mark it up, with certain apps, if I wanted to have pink or blue or green or purple for that particular character. I can also add notes. So, how does my brain translate what I read to what comes out of my mouth? I have no idea. It’s one of those wonderful mysteries of acting that somehow—one hopes, again—what I’m imagining is being translated into what you’re hearing.
Joanna: So, which bit do you enjoy?
Which bit do you enjoy of all of that process, what’s the most fun, and what do you not really look forward to?
Rosalind: Well, I’m not an audio engineer, so the editing: I love to hear the finished thing, done right, where breaths aren’t so noticeable that they take the listener out of the moment; I love to hear the pacing just right. But the doing of it is not my most favorite thing. So, if I have a large production queue in place, I actually will hire and outsource skills such as editing and QC proofing to the ones who do it better than I, and do it faster than I.
My favorite thing is actually the recording, because as an actor, I lose myself in the moment, and I’m sometimes quite astonished at how my mind puts me there. And actually I will relate that to your book in particular. There is a chapter in your book which in the finished audiobook is actually 15 minutes long. I took an hour and a half to just read that, because it was so emotionally charged, and I was so invested in those characters, that I couldn’t read. I was as upset as the main character is in that chapter. I literally was crying, and I’m thinking, “Oh, for goodness’ sakes, Rosalind,” and tears were streaming down my face, and you try reading when you’re crying, and it doesn’t work!
And, whilst I hope that that investment as an actor is heard by the listener, there is a practical standard that, as a reader, I must meet, so I have to step back sometimes from that emotional investment, and remember what my job is, it’s to put the listener in the moment.
Joanna: Ah, that’s fantastic, and I must admit, I was crying when I wrote the scene!
Rosalind: That happens, I can imagine, and if you’re listening to this, please read this book! I’ve done a lot of books, with many more in the production queue to follow, and it’s rare, I must say, to stumble upon something that speaks to one so vividly, I’m not a painter, and I’m not a writer, but I am a reader, and I absolutely love “Desecration.” I cannot wait to learn more about Jamie and Blake, I really can’t.
Joanna: Oh, you’re a sweetheart, you really are!
Rosalind: No, I’m serious, I’m serious.
Joanna: Well, it’s a good point, because we mentioned one scene which is pretty emotional, but “Desecration,” some people have emailed me and said it’s very confronting, it’s definitely got an edge of a lot of very dark stuff, body modification, corpse art, some quite gruesome stuff, and I said to you before we started recording, I feel like we’re quite intimate, because you’ve seen inside my mind, and I feel like my fiction gives away so much of what’s in me.
So, what do you think about this kind of relationship between the author and the narrator, and how do you, I guess, bring yourself into the mix, because it’s your voice, too, in the end. My author voice: your voice voice.
Rosalind: Yes. Intimacy is actually, I think, the key. I get into your mind, and I think that that really illustrates the need to find the right narrator for the right book. And I’m not right for every book, just as any other actor is not right for every part. But I think there’s something magical when the narrator just relates to the written word, and the author hears what they had heard in their own minds. So, it’s intimate; it’s hard work, isn’t it. You and I were sending files back and forth and notes and so forth, and it’s a very intimate, short, intense relationship between the author and the narrator.
And I think there’s a level of respect that needs to be addressed: to micro-manage, from either the author’s point of view or the narrator’s point of view, I think is a mistake. The author writes, and should leave the narration to the narrator who narrates. I mean, maybe there’s a sentence construction that I find a little awkward: it’s my job to make it not sound awkward, and I think it’s the author’s job not to tell the narrator that that bit wasn’t the way he or she heard it. Because the magic is in the entirety, in its finished product.
And it’s a risky relationship, isn’t it, because you’re so emotionally invested in your words, and I’m so emotionally invested in my voice, that we have to develop that sense of respect for each other’s expertise. And it’s, it’s a fascinating relationship, and it doesn’t always work.
Joanna: Which is a really good point, and I think people need to realize this: this is not just a case of, you know, “Here’s my book, you read it,” that’s it—there is real risk. Let’s just talk about the financial risk, too, because we’re on ACX, we’re doing a 50-50 royalty split, so you’re invested in that and so am I, but you read, you’ve done all this work without guarantee of getting paid.
So, how does an experienced narrator like yourself pick projects that you’re willing to do a 50-50 royalty split on?
Rosalind: It’s a tricky balance. I do this full time, so I have bills I must pay, and I must pay them from what I do. So, actually I’m fairly new to ACX, because I had been narrating books as a narrator for publishing houses and major production houses in New York, long before I got onto ACX and became the one-man show.
I was being paid by the hour, finished hour, usually, by people who hired me as strictly a narrator. When it comes to the royalty deal on ACX, I think if you’re a beginning narrator, it’s a wonderful way to get some work behind you, to do work without an investment on the part of the author, and without the expectation that if you’re being paid, you should know what you’re doing. Everybody has to learn, and sometimes authors are new to audiobooks, and narrators are new to narrating, even though they may be actors, they may be whatever. So I think the royalty share deal is a very fine introductory way to become a narrator, and ACX has really cornered the market on that introduction between independent authors, rights holders, and available actors and narrators. You and I would never have met had it not been for ACX.
In terms of ACX for an experienced narrator, I’m very circumspect about the royalty share deals I do. The book has to, first of all, speak to me. It has to be well-written. I’m a reader: I want to feel like I want to know what’s going to happen next. It’s not a chore—and it mustn’t ever be a chore, whether you’re paid or whether you’re on a royalty share deal—but because this is what I do for a living, it’s more of a risk for me to take on a project that I can’t believe in, and not be paid to do it, because the payment aspect requires an investment of marketing when it’s a royalty share deal, and if I’m going to take that royalty share deal, it, it behooves me to help with the marketing.
And, so if you’re being paid per finished hour, as a narrator, I don’t consider necessarily that it’s such an important part of my job to market that type of book, because I’ve been paid for my role; I do feel responsibility with royalty share deals to help in the marketing of them, which is why we’re doing this, of course! Does that answer your question?
Joanna: Yes, it does. And I think it’s important, because, for example, I put up a German version of one of my other books, “Pentecost,” onto ACX, and, unsurprisingly, I think, I’ve had nobody pitching for it. Now, I think that’s partly because German’s a new language for ACX, but it’s interesting, I’ve got no platform in the German market, I’ve got nothing, and I won’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it, because there’s got to be something else, I mean, you’ve got to be able to prove that you’re a worthwhile investment. And it’s funny, and I work with translators as well, I feel very responsible for making this a successful endeavor for both of us, so that we’ve got the seven-year license with ACX: within the seven years, we should both make more money than we would have done if I’d have just paid you upfront, you know.
So I feel like this is a true collaboration, and that’s a great thing, you know, it’s a brilliant thing about this online world.
Rosalind: Well, I did do a lot of research when I made the decision to audition for your book. I checked you out, I Googled you, I looked at your websites, I saw your previous books, I checked them out on Amazon. I think it behooves the narrator to know what they’re getting into, and not just take anything. Perhaps if you’re trying to establish a body of work, you’re more likely to take a royalty project than you are a per finished hour project. But I think the principles are the same regardless: you have a responsibility—you do and I do—to make this successful.
But I can’t wait for the rest in the series, and I’m so thrilled that you’ve made this a series, because I think originally, you only had this one and the next book with those characters.
Joanna: I did, you’re absolutely right. I really thought it would only be two, or even one, a standalone, but no, there will be more. I don’t know if I’ve told you this, the next one’s going to be called “Delirium,” which hopefully will be out soon, and the one after that will be called “Deviance.”
Joanna: Yes, and I know you do some romantic narration, don’t you, with a bit of sex in!
Rosalind: Oh, yes, yes. Sometimes, if I’m hired by one of the production houses, I do not have the opportunity to review the manuscript prior to accepting or being given the job. When I’m rich and famous, perhaps I’ll have more control over what I say yes or no to, but because I’m British, and because I’m female, there is a huge body of chick lit and romance books that authors and production houses seek female British voices for. So, in this country, I am in a different pond from the majority of American narrators. If I were in England, it would be the other way around.
I have done a lot of romance, and some of them are quite steamy! Not so much the earlier romance novels, but the more contemporary ones, “Fifty Shades of Blue, Green, Yellow, Gray” and so forth, and chick lit books. But, to be honest, the murder mystery, the thriller genre, is what I like to listen to when I listen to books on tape myself, and what I also like to read, so it’s a treat to be asked to narrate a book that I would want to read.
Joanna: Which is great.
I heard at a recent conference called Crime Fest in Bristol, I went to an audiobook session and the producer said there are very few books where the balance of characters in the crime thriller niche are female, so the role for female narrators in crime/thriller is a much smaller niche. And you’re saying the same thing, right?
Rosalind: Yes. I think it will change, as people listen to more audiobooks, because there’s a suspension of disbelief, which is the same in theater, it’s the same in a movie: you know that I’m a woman, I don’t need to tweak my voice technically to make it sound like I’m a man. The audience, after a few minutes, becomes tuned in, and then it’s the skill of the narrator to indicate by a change in the pitch, or a change in the tone or the timbre or whatever, that I am now a man.
I think that will open up the field a little bit more as more and more people become used to listening to audiobooks, and accept that suspension of disbelief, and hopefully that will translate into more authors saying just because the protagonist is a male doesn’t mean that a female can’t read that story, where appropriate.
Joanna: Yes, or that we have more crime thrillers with female protagonists!
Rosalind: Let’s hope, because, let’s face it, ladies, we’re doing just as much as the men are in every part of the world, so, the glass ceiling? it certainly is the same in showbiz as in any other business, so let’s break through, let’s do more women protagonists in the thriller genre.
Joanna: Yes, well I’m pushing it myself. I’m really just fascinated with this collaborative creativity, with you and with Veronica and with my translators, because authors are so obsessed with the concept of voice, of the reader getting the voice of the author, but of course they’re judging the book twice when they’re listening: they’re judging my voice, and they’re also judging your voice.
And the fact is, some people won’t like my voice as an author; some people won’t like your voice as a reader, and then it’s like a double jeopardy!
Rosalind: Yes, yes. Well, we’re really laying ourselves out there, aren’t we. We’re both of us putting ourselves out to be slashed down at the knees. And, of course, with the star rating system that’s currently on Audible, everybody thinks they could read it better than me and everybody thinks they can write it better than you!
Joanna: Oh yes. I should say that we’ve got really good reviews!
Rosalind: Yes, it’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it, because we’re asking people to enjoy two things at once, and probably more, because, with the audiobooks, there’s also the quality of the actual sound: what is this thing recorded in? What’s it recorded on? What’s it recorded with? What is the quality of the microphone, the quality of the ambiance that I’m recording in? If I’m recording in my bathroom, it’s going to be a very different sound quality from recording in my studio, in my booth.
So, we’re asking a lot of the listener, and we’re putting ourselves out there creatively, I guess that’s showbiz, isn’t it!
Joanna: Yes, I know, and it’s fun, it is a whole new world. I’m really excited, you’re excited, life is good: where can people find you and your audiobooks and your work online?
Rosalind: Well, I have a website, RosalindAshford.com. If you search through iTunes or Audible.com or Amazon.com, search Rosalind Ashford, my books will pop up.
Joanna: Fantastic. And “Desecration” is available now, so people can check that out, and I’ll put all the links in the show notes.
So, thanks again for your time, Rosalind: that was brilliant.
Rosalind: Thank you, thank you, Joanna. It’s a pleasure to talk face-to-face with you.