That Time When I Did an Audiobook (Part 1)

Last year, you will be amused to know, I had the experience of having my most recent book, Race for Paradise, made into an audiobook. Since this is not something that every historian does, though it does happen more and more now, I thought it might at the very least be amusing, and maybe even edifying, to share my experiences about the process. The short version is that it was great, but also a lot harder than you’d think. So perhaps you might also read this as a cautionary tale.

Audible HQ, 1 Washington Place, Newark, NJ

Audible HQ, 1 Washington Place, Newark, NJ

As for the longer version of the tale, well: I was first contacted by my editor at Oxford University Press, the rather magnificent human being known as Timothy Bent, who let me know that had bought the audiobook rights for my book, and that they would be contacting me about the details sometime soon. Just to provide some sense of timing, the print version came out in June 2014, and I was told in July by Audible that the book would be “entering production”. And then, crickets.

Nothing. Not a peep. By September, I admit I was curious to know what was going on, and, more importantly, had Ian McKellen been cast to read it or not? OUP helpfully reached out to Audible and that seemed to be what was needed to jump-start the process. I was put in touch with a producer at Audible who said I would be notified and given a better time-table once they had cast an actor/narrator. Unless, my OUP contact offered helpfully, I would be interested in narrating the book?

Suddenly, all was light. Since I happened to be on sabbatical, and since I foolishly thought it would be a lark, I agreed. At least I could pronounce all the Arabic names correctly, right? The producer explained that they would need a demo tape first before they could agree to me as a narrator, or otherwise I could submit an audio or video of me lecturing. I sent in a video of me lecturing on Ibn Battuta before a snoozing crowd at the Penn Museum, just so they could get a sense of my voice and its mellifluousness. I sat back and waited for their decision. Within a few hours, they had signed me up. Now, I mention this comically quick turn-around not because I think it reflects upon me or that lecture video, but because it reveals to me what was really going on in the producer’s mind—they really just needed to make sure I wasn’t an incoherent mumbler. And, mostly, I’m not. Honest. The producer then made clear to me some of the house rules:

·      I would not get paid.

·      I would have to do the recording in the studio in Newark, NJ. That’s about an hour and a half north of Philadelphia.
--Oh, oh.

·      I would record over a period of two weeks, 10am-4pm every other day. All day. About 35 hours total projected for a book like this.
--Oh, oh, oh.

·      But lunch was free, in the Audible cafeteria.

So, I gave it further thought. I don’t normally do uncompensated work like this (and nor, IMO, should anyone), since I view my time as very valuable, particularly when on sabbatical. But I saw it still as a way to help market the book, which indeed it is, and a very powerful one, too. And that is an indirect mode of compensation, right? RIGHT? But I confess I really did mostly just think it would be hysterical, an adventure to dine out on, or to blog about. Plus, hey, free lunch in Jersey. So I agreed to their terms.

As for the actual nitty-gritty of working in the studios, that indiscreet tell-all will appear in my next blog-post.  I’ve got another book to write. Watch this space.