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The Scholarly Audiobook 2: Process

Link to free audibook at bottom of page.

High quality audiobooks all share one thing in common: professional production. In the academy, we do not have the resources available to major publishers, and we never will. Yet, we do have people trained in the skills necessary to share some of the benefits of professional performance techniques.

The Scholarly Audiobook project, started in 2015 at the University of Calgary, and supported by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, is designed to share a set of simple tools that allow scholars to ensure their work reaches a wider audience in the most accessible means possible.

The first phase of the project created a scholarly audiobook, an archive of research cataloguing the process, and the challenges inherent in the work, and then created an invitation to scholars, editors and the general public to help critique and refine the process. The tools created are simple to implement using resources available on even the smallest campus and provide scholars with the means to work with scholarly publishers to help promote their work.

After generations of disseminating our work through the same system taking a new approach can be unsettling. Yet, to live the scholarly life means to commit to responding to new evidence, and there can be no larger and more definitive set of data available today than that which proves the landscape for thinking, communicating and connecting has changed. By following traditional scholarly practice, we can turn to colleagues with experience in performance and media studies to help us continue working as we always have, but with a different approach to sharing the results of our work. The approach is new, but the techniques are simple and affordable.

Within the English-speaking academic world, we have a long-standing tradition of preparing complex text for public presentation. The work done by professional actors, directors, designers and literary scholars in order to present a play by Shakespeare provides an easy to follow model that guarantees a level of clarity in communication that has been tested for more than a century.

Shakespeare is nearly impossible to understand. It is embarrassing to admit because we are told we should love Shakespeare, but the truth is that the work is not meant to be read, and was not written down during Shakespeare’s time, but only later, and imperfectly. Shakespeare is not meant to be read. The work we have is meant to be translated by expert interpreters who bring it to an audience in a way that makes it easier to understand. The same techniques that allow us to make 400-year-old poetry comprehensible, can be used to transmit the latest breakthroughs in Biology, Computer Science, and Psychology.

We have tested the approach for its effectiveness and believe it can work for any discipline with variations based on the requirement of each. If we consider the current call for greater collaboration between scholars, this approach provides us with an opportunity to get together with colleagues on our campus in order to use our disparate expertise in order to continue our shared mission: building the body of knowledge in service of our fellow citizens.

The type of audiobook you produce will be defined by the nature of your research. A large scale required textbook might contain a great deal of complex information, but it may also entail a market large enough to merit professional support for an audio version. If that is the case, this model will help scholars and publishers create a budget for doing so. In most cases however, we will be doing this work alone, and this process is designed to make that possible.

The process, along with resources and expertise required are as follows:

Step 1: The Research

  • Book / article has been accepted by the press;

  • Propose creating an audio version to your publisher. The Association of Canadian University Presses advised this project and most working in scholarly publishing will be happy to receive such an offer. (You will probably find that your editors knows a great deal about this work and can offer advice or contact with other authors working this way);

  • Determine whether the audiobook will be released as part of the initial publication;

  • Determine where the audiobook will be published (will you store it on a commercial service, use a university server, or will the press publish it);

  • Note that for private publishing authors receive most revenue from audio versions of their work, so those writing novels or other professionally published material, audiobooks may be a much-needed source of income to support future work;

  • Determine your audience. It is our belief that all scholarly work is worthy of sharing, but work that is particularly complex or provocative may find a wider audience in audio form and can result in authors being contacted directly by the public;

  • Notify your academic unit, and communications department of your intention to create and release a scholarly audiobook. Coordinate this work with the scholarly press.

Step 2: The Team

  • Approach the construction of your team the same way you would a research project: rely on accredited expertise for each part of the project;

  • There are four areas you need to consider: Production, Direction, Performance and Expertise;

  1. Production: capturing the work. Here you want a recording engineer, or sound specialist (there are different areas of expertise, but the requirements for an audiobook can be satisfied by any trained professional). Most university campuses will have experts in the library, in a campus radio station, or in a media program. You are not looking for a marketing expert here, you want someone who works with sound and recording equipment. With the explosion of podcasts and other forms of recording, you may find an undergraduate student with skills in this area that can serve if you cannot find a colleague with whom to collaborate;

  2. Direction: the director manages the team throughout the process and will work with the team to create the script and will then guide the process of recording. The role of director came when performers realized they needed an outside ear to ensure the greatest possible expressive power. If you are reading, you cannot judge how effective you are, so you need a director to stand in for your audience. You need a trained director with experience working with text. Beyond organization and interpretation, the most crucial role for the director is casting. If the book’s author can read the book that is an ideal option; however, what is required is a director who will be honest with you. If you are not the best person to record your book, your time will be much better spent focusing on the expertise and letting a vocal specialist record the text;

  3. Performance: most authors do not record their own books. There is a very good reason for that. To create scholarly research takes a lifetime of focused work. Similar demands are required of performance professionals. One of the largest errors we make when considering media is allowing the democratization of media to convince us we are experts. Remember that if you are not a trained performer it is unlikely that you know what you do not know in this area, just as the performer you may work with does not know what they do not know about your research. Thus, make your performance choice as you would any research decision: consider how many years of training you have, then consider the years of training an acting professor has in their discipline. If your campus has a performance program you have the opportunity to work with a colleague whose expertise can help you reach more people, and in a more effective manner. Most importantly, you should have a director that you can trust to make this decision. For those who do not have an on-campus performance group, look to professional performers in the community. Most theatre and film professionals work regularly in voice recording. If you cannot access professionals, you may work with amateurs, but, as with any research collaboration, consistency may be an issue. One caveat: for those wishing to develop a performance practice you may want to start by recording the forward for your book or taking the whole project on with a director that can help you learn on the job. Most of us have spent many hours lecturing, so our voices are better prepared than the average person;

  4. Expertise: this is where your participation is essential. To use the example of Shakespeare. When a team works on a challenging passage, everyone on the team looks to the expert to explain the ideas. Each member of the team then works to bring their understanding to life in service of a unified, clear message. The Director unites this work into the best possible attempt at the meaning, and once again the expert is asked to weigh in: did we get it? How can we improve? Only you will be able to make these judgments, which is why focusing exclusively on this work is usually the best approach. If you decide to read your own text, it is advised that you find a colleague who understands your work to join the team and help the Director achieve your goals.

Step 3: Formatting Your Research for Performance

  • The secret for creating a quality performance is table work. You may have heard actors speak of “read-throughs” of a script, but table work is much more detailed when the material is complex. When preparing for the performance of Shakespeare the team usually spends a full week going word by word, and line by line looking up each word and confirming that everyone understands exactly what they are saying. The process is slow, but it is the only way to ensure clarity. It also has the benefit of generations of testing, and the promise of making your complex ideas more accessible than ever before;

  • During this process each person will have a copy of your edited text;

  • The director will organize the reading;

  • In the room you should have all relevant source materials. For Shakespeare, the primary source is the full Oxford English Dictionary, but for your project it will be the key texts that contain the formal definitions of the concepts in your work. These are what we generally refer to as reference materials, not specialized works. The process of table work asks us to revisit the definitions of key works until they are perfectly clear to everyone in the room. You may have a deep understanding of the terms in your discipline, but you need to help both your performer and the director understand those terms in order to capture them in performance. If you are reading the text yourself, this is even more important since you will not be able to tell if you are clear and will rely on the director’s judgment;

  • With these materials in place, you read the entire book marking up the definitions, key points, places for emphasis and markings for pace. Complex areas should be approached slowly, and the text as a whole should be marked for speech, not reading, and so will include different punctuation;

  • The performance text is created by the team collectively with the performer reading the text, and the expert confirming comprehension with the director. During this process the director will be noting what they need to get from the performance, and the actor and director will ask you for clarification as they try to learn your material. If you are reading the work yourself, the director, and/or a colleague who knows your work can give you notes about areas where you rush, or where a word or concept seems unclear;

  • This process is well-known to those trained in performance, so you may want to meet in advance with your director to prepare for the session so that you are able to make the most of the time with the director and performer;

  • If possible, have your sound engineer present for some or all of the table work, but recognize that sound specialists can be hard to book and do not normally attend full table work sessions;

  • If you are considering filming your recording, add your camera expert to table work for a small section during which you can ascertain the best way to capture the sessions.

Step 4: Recording

  • Scheduling: recording sessions will need to be booked based on the team’s availability and your access to resources. If you are paying any of your team members be aware that you do not have to book everyone for all the time (you might start each session with the director to prepare, then have the actor come in next to get the notes for the day and then the engineer last);

  • Patience: recording will take longer than you think, and will require multiple sessions;

  • Workflow: determine in advance how your team wants to work. You can record the whole work first, and then go back and edit, or stop and start during the recording of each section to produce a polished version of each part before moving to the next piece. In general, it is best to work the way the director and performer want to work because they will have experience in getting their best performances out;

  • Raw Sound: when listening to recorded material remember that recordings will be done in raw form so your focus should be on clarity of reading. If you hear something that you want to ask about make sure you do, but remember that much of the work of the sound engineer comes after the raw recording is in place;

  • Processing: the sound engineer will process the raw recordings once you are finished recording. Usually this is done after the whole piece has been recorded since the approach has to be uniform. If you can, ask for a sample of how the final version will sound so you have an idea of what the final version will be;

  • Small Sections: if you are reading your own text you should limit reading sections to short passages with breaks. Vocal quality diminishes rapidly, and you do not want to try and read entire chapters in one sitting. Professional performers will be able to go for longer because of their training;

  • Sample: if you can get a sample of the work from your team, consider sending it to your publisher to make sure you are on track. Scholarly publishers are not like movie moguls who meddle in films to their ruin. Scholarly editors have the best “ear” for meaning in our society and they can offer important insights into the process;

  • Recording and Rerecording: you and the director will note sections you need to revisit. Plan how to make these edits, and then dedicate significant time to this work. Some edits will be to correct minor errors, but the majority of time here will be targeting areas of crucial information that the director wants to really focus on in order to get the best possible reading of that section. Always remember to return to your notes from table work when editing and rerecording. If you have a performer back in to rerecord you may need to help the director get the right reading and this will require you to be as precise as possible, which is not our default approach when working with colleagues who understand the key concepts of our discipline;

  • Recording Necessities: you want the best possible microphone you can find. Do not settle for something on your computer or in your department. Our phones have cameras that can provide video that is satisfactory for this kind of work, but microphones should be the highest quality possible. If you do not have access to equipment on your campus, local music stores will usually have microphones for rent. Often though, you will be able to find a recording room on campus, in a local library or in a radio or television station. Your sound engineer will know what to use, where to find it and how to set it up;

  • Masters: you will need some form of storage to keep all the recordings that are made. Make sure to back this information up as you go. These original files may sound raw, but they are what is needed to produce the refined version your audience will hear. Your sound engineer will be able to let you know what kind of media is best for keeping duplicates, and for listening to playback;

  • Timely Notes: keep notes using time signatures. Each time you begin recording start the timer on your smart phone and note the time for every note you have. That way you can return to the section whether you are working with the actor, the director, the sound engineer or someone who steps in to edit after the fact. Most sound engineers will be running a recording clock and you can keep notes of that as well;

  • The Table: the further into the process you go the harder it can be to maintain perspective. The work is detailed and requires focus, so it is important to remember a key performance note: always return to your table work when reviewing a section. Keep reviewing the definitions of key words and concepts. Failure to do so leads to reading that becomes paraphrase and the precision you had when working on your project, and then during the table work drifts into a casual summary. Note: the more familiar you are with an idea the more this can be a problem. It is not a question of expertise, but of remembering that the expertise of performance relates to clarity of expression, not nuance;

  • Warmup: if you are reading your own work, make sure to warm up before you start reading. If you do not, you will more than likely have to redo the first part of your reading, and your voice will get tired more quickly. If you have an expert on campus, see if they will share a warmup with you, if not, consider warming up to these short videos from the National Theatre. 1) Breathing; 2) Resonance; 3) Opening-up the Voice; 4) Articulation. Note: vocal warmup looks funny, but it works, use the videos so you are not self-conscious about doing a real warmup. Your director will thank you!

  • Experiment before Committing: if this is your first time working this way, consider a test run that might involve reading a short passage and running through the entire process so that you can get a chance to test each phase of the work. Running a test will give you a better understanding of how to do your best work, but also gives you an opportunity to determine if the team you have assembled works well together.

Step 5: Publishing

  • Once you and the director get a complete recording, and you edit out errors, and rerecord key passages for clarity, the full text will be turned over to the engineer for processing. This is a slow process and is not normally done as part of your time recording, so be prepared to wait;

  • Prior to sending the text for processing makes sure you understand where your sound files are going and that the file format you will get will work. Ask your publisher what they want, and the engineer will have no problem producing that file type

  • Now sit back and get ready for a different stream of feedback and criticism than you normally get.

Epilogue: The DIY Approach

  • Working with a minimal team of experts as above should ensure the best results, but if you do not have the money or resources, you can do a decent job of capturing audio by studying the relevant software, equipment and processes by searching on YouTube;

  • If you take this approach, make sure to create a small test sample and send it out to your publisher and a few colleagues who will give you honest feedback. It is fine to produce a first audiobook that never gets published as a learning experiment, but you might want to make that decision in advance rather than finding out after the fact!

Please contact us with your notes and questions. Thank you and good luck!

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