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Monday, June 18, 2012

Interview: Paul Gagne on Audiobook Production

Paul Gagne, director of production for Scholastic Audio and Weston Woods Studios, has worked on nearly 300 audiobooks to date, including some pretty outstanding titles such as Beauty Queens, the Ghost Buddy series, The Eleventh Plague, The Scorpio Races, and The Raven Boys.  He's here today to help us celebrate June is Audiobook Month, tell all about what it takes to produce an audio book, and give away some audiobooks. 

Explain the role of an audiobook producer in the production process.

The role of producer can vary a lot from one company to another.  As Executive Producer for Scholastic Audio, I am responsible for budgeting new titles, assigning titles to producer/directors, coordinating casting decisions taking into account input from the producer/director, the author, and on occasion the author’s editor, keeping up to date on the production process overall to make sure we’re staying on schedule and within budget, and on occasion taking a more hands-on role by attending recording sessions, co-directing talent and working with composers to create the intro/outro music used in our productions.  I have also directed several productions.

For Weston Woods I have been much more involved in a hands-on capacity, directing most of our recording sessions, working with composers, and sometimes doing some of the editing, mixing and mastering.  I started as a sound editor at Weston Woods in 1978, so I’ve had an extensive background in audio production.

What elements have to come together in pre-production to make the recording of an audiobook possible? What has to be done prior to entering the studio? 

I think the most important single element in pre-production is finding the right voice for the story, someone who not only has the right sound and range of talent for whatever character voices might be required, but who can relate to and “get inside” the story, conveying its emotional nuances.  For both Weston Woods and Scholastic Audio, we usually consult with our authors for their input on the kind of “inner voice” they may have had in mind while writing the story, what they’d like to hear in the audiobook, and we try very hard to cast accordingly.  In an ideal situation, I think that half the job of directing a project is really casting the right voice, and with the right producer/director for a project — ideally, someone who can also relate to the book -- coaching the best possible performance out of the reader is something that just naturally falls into place.  Prior to entering the studio, both the director and narrator should have read the entire text.  Not only should they both have a sense of the overall arc of the story, but they should have done their homework in terms of knowing all of the characters’ personalities and what they require in terms of different character voices, and researched any unusual names or words for pronunciation.  The sessions go a lot smoother if everyone is well-prepared.

Paint a picture of the studio environment when an audiobook is being produced. What is the atmosphere like? How much manpower/staffing is required? 

In an ideal situation, there are at least three people in the studio — I’m a firm believer that the actor, a director and a sound engineer in a good studio all contribute something vitally important to an audiobook production.  An actor who can give a solid reading, a director coaching the best performance possible out of the actor, and an engineer monitoring the technical quality and carefully checking the spoken words against the manuscript for accuracy.  The atmosphere is usually pretty intensely focused on the story — the books can be pretty long, and on the average it takes 3-4 pretty full days to get a book recorded, so there’s a lot to do.

Over the past several years there has also been a growing trend toward actors doing the entire job themselves in their home studios — reading, self-directing, engineering the recording and doing their own editing and mastering.  I avoid this as much as possible, but with CD sales declining and the need to sell more digital copies at a lower price to make the same profit, there is a need to bring budgets down.

What's the biggest challenge in making a novel translate from written word to audio?

I’d say finding the inner voice of the book and allowing the author’s intent come through in a way that enables the listener to connect with the story.

What are some of the biggest changes that have occurred in the audiobook industry in recent years? How have they changed the product and affected consumers? 

The biggest change in the audiobook industry over the past couple of years is the shift from hard copy CDs to digital downloads as the preferred format.  I think this has made it a lot easier for consumers to purchase and listen to audiobooks.  I do most of my own listening in the car on my commute to and from work, and it’s wonderful to be able to download a title to my iPhone, plug it in to the car stereo and just enjoy listening without the distraction of trying to change CDs while I’m driving.  The industry is growing in popularity, with more new titles being produced than ever before, so the consumer has a lot more choices, and I think we’re seeing a trend toward more and more consumers regarding listening to a book as a legitimate way of reading it.  At the same time, the digital shift means that an audiobook publisher has to sell more copies of a title at a lower price point to earn back the production cost and make a profit, hence the aforementioned lower budgets resulting in more publishers electing to work with actors recording themselves in their home studios, so along with many more titles being produced, there’s a wider range in the quality of the finished product.

What changes are still forthcoming? 

I think forthcoming changes will mostly be continued growth in the popularity of audiobooks with consumers.  As far as consumer awareness is concerned, I think the audiobook industry in many ways is still in its infancy, and only beginning to really catch on.

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