Ask An Industry Expert: Charlotte Brown
22 October 2021
Today I’m delighted to welcome Charlotte Brown, Assistant Audio Editor at HarperCollins Publishers.
Hello and welcome, Charlotte. Perhaps you could begin by introducing yourself and telling us something of your career path into your current role?
Hello! Of course – I have been working in audio publishing and HarperCollins for nearly three years now, with it being my first professional job after graduating with an MA in English Literature. I started off as the Audio Assistant for the entire audio team across the company, organising their schedules and leading the operational side of things that ensured our audiobooks got to retailers in time for publication. After about six months a new position opened that focused more editorially on the audiobook productions – casting the audiobooks themselves, creating narrator briefs for studios and working more closely with the actors, studios, and agents. And now for the past year I have been Assistant Audio Editor, which means I have more sole responsibility over my own books that I cast and produce, across a fantastic list that covers Women’s Fiction, Crime and Thriller, Saga, Sci Fi and Fantasy, Non Fiction, and of course Romance!
You sound precisely the right person to answer my next question! We have heard much of the growing importance of audio format during the past few years, especially during lockdown. Personally, I find listening to a skilled narrator really brings a story alive. What are the key differences, if any, between editing an audiobook and editing a print or eBook version?
Absolutely – it’s been great to see how many people have taken comfort in audiobooks during such a trying time. It really does show the powerful impact listening to a book can have. But even before the pandemic, we have been seeing a growth in the audio format with more and more people giving it a go, and the lockdown simply increased this as many of us had slightly more time on our hands! The key difference in editing an audiobook compared to the print/eBook version is that the process is a lot quicker, as we record so close to the publication date with the final text. The edit is helped by recording as efficiently as possible – something called ‘rock and roll’, where if the actor makes an error in a sentence then the engineer plays the previous sentence back to them, dropping them back in to re-record the sentence where the mistake occurred, effectively editing out the mistake right there and then. This makes the post-production a lot easier as quite a lot of the errors have already been amended. Another key difference is that audio editing can also be a lot fiddlier than editing a text – if during the post-edit there is a word pronounced in the wrong way and there is no way of amending ourselves, we would then have to get the actor back into the studio to re-record those bits again. These are called pick-ups, which we then edit into the final version, to ensure there is a seamless listening experience.
It’s a whole new terminlogy! Would I be right in the impression that there’s a good deal more involved in producing a good audio version of a book compared to, say, turning a print book into eformat?
I’m sure it also takes a lot of effort to create the eBooks too, but transforming the words on the page into a top-quality audio version does indeed involve many people and processes. We first gather suggestions for how to cast the audiobook with an appropriate voice that takes into account the narrator’s age/nationality/ethnicity/gender/personality; these suggestions are then put to the author for their take – our authors are greatly involved in the final decision on who will bring their stories to life. Once we have an actor on board and a final text, the actor and producer then will take a few days to prep the text ready for the audio reading. This is to ensure all accents and difficult pronunciations are flagged, and anything else that could be tricky are looked at and prepped ahead of time. It then generally takes about four full days in the studio for an audiobook narrator to read the book, with an engineer overseeing the recording, and a post-production team as well. The edit tends to take about three weeks, as this involves proof listens and quality checks to ensure we have no errors in the narration. We at the publisher then also check the audiobook files and finally share with our retailers, such as Audible and Apple, who also do their own QC processes before finally putting them up for publication. Phew!
It sounds like good preparation and anticipation of difficulties are the key to a quick and accurate recording process. Once the recording is complete, I’ve heard mention that, not surprisingly, audiobooks for digital download are much cheaper to produce than a boxed set of CDs, yet many libraries continue to want to stock CDs because they are popular with customers, particularly the elderly and those with sight difficulties. How do you decide which format to produce for each title?
Here at HarperCollins we pride ourselves in our Total Audio policy, where for every narrative print book, we will simultaneously publish a download audio edition alongside it – something that not all publishers do. We have been doing this since 2013. It’s such a great policy both for accessibility reasons (giving our listeners the chance to listen to our entire list) but also for the range of audiobooks we get to work on as a result. We don’t need to decide what makes the cut for audio because everything does! While there has been a big shift toward digital in people’s listening habits in recent years, CDs are still very popular with some segments of the market; for instance, parents love our CD versions of the Paddington and David Walliams stories for playing in the car on long journeys to keep kids entertained. So it’s fantastic that libraries serve that demand by continuing to make CDs available for many titles.
It’s great to hear that all titles go to audio, but, in your experience, are some genres, story lines or styles more suited to audio format? Are some a no go?
Many non-fiction genres – especially those read by the author if autobiographical – tend to be popular. It always adds something extra to hear someone’s story told in their own voice! Self-help books, non-fiction narrative, and memoir continue to take up most space in the bestseller charts. The crime and thriller genre also continues to do well – at HC, we have had great success with Abigail Dean’s Girl A, Lucy Foley’s The Guest List and Karin Slaughter’s False Witness recently. There’s been a real range of what has worked for us – both a solid single voice narration and intricate six-voice multi-casts have been received well by our listeners, for example. The great thing about audio is that I believe nothing is really a ‘no go’ – there’s potential for anything to take off and flourish in this format, as long as it has a narrative of some kind!
You explained your Total Audio policy of simultaneously producing audio, ebook and print formats, but I wondered whether authors could approach you directly with a submission for audio production, where the print/eBook versions have previously been placed elsewhere?
For our digi-first lists, the eBook and print books can publish at different times, and so the audio edition release is more flexible for those lists. We generally only publish an audiobook where we have the rights to the print and eBook too – it makes for a more cohesive publication plan when talking to our audiences if we have every format to work with.
Could you tell us something about how a narrator is chosen for a particular audiobook, including how to decide between male and female voices and what accent the main narration (as opposed to dialogue) should be? How much say does the author have in all this?
Absolutely! As an editor this is my favourite job – finding the best possible voice to match the brilliant narrator on the page. With the help of our studios and the print editors who know the texts the best, we will comb through the script and note down first how many narrators we will need. This decision tends to be based on how many first-person narrators there are. We then look at each narrator individually and build up a profile for them – e.g. their gender, age, accent, nationality, ethnicity, personality. From that brief we then have a better idea of who we need for the job and can approach the wonderful array of audiobook narrators that we have the pleasure to work with. The author has final approval on who is ultimately going to be reading their book, and they also can help us with the profiles for the narrators if it is kept quite vague in the text. They usually have a clear sense of what their narrator sounds like, so we can give our audiobook narrator notes from the author to tip then in the right direction.
This being an RNA interview, I must ask you about Romance! How important is it as a genre for your company and in particular for the audio format?
We LOVE Romance! I work across HarperFiction, One More Chapter and Avon so I have the absolute pleasure of bringing some fantastic romance novels to life in audio. As a company romance is very close to HarperCollins’ heart, being the home to Mills&Boon and the We Love Romance unlimited ebook subscription service that launched last year. Subscribers pay £7.99 per month, with a 14-day free trial, for unlimited access to thousands of quick, easy-reading romance eBooks from bestselling authors you can read anywhere via the iOS & Android Find out more at https://www.weloveromance.com/
I note that HarperCollins does accept direct (unagented) submissions for some imprints. How can authors get the latest information on this?
We do indeed. We have the Author Academy – a free six-week training programme for aspiring unagented writers from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds – and we also have a few imprints that accept direct submissions. These include Avon, OneMoreChapter, HarperNorth and HQ Digital.
You can find out more information on our website here: https://corporate.harpercollins.co.uk/getting-published/submissions/
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA, as for many other organisations. It’s good to hear about HarperCollins’ Author Academy. Could you tell us more about this and how to apply?
The Author Academy courses run twice a year in January (spring course), with a second intake in October (autumn course). Applications for our spring 2022 course will open in mid-October 2021. There are 15 places a piece on the Writing Fiction course, Writing Non-Fiction course and Writing For Children course. You can find out how to apply here: https://www.harpercollinsacademy.co.uk/
I believe you also have an imprint dedicated to increasing representation and inclusivity. Tell us more.
HarperCollins HQ division recently announced HQ Creative Inclusions Lab, or HQCIL. This is a new imprint that will seek out and nurture new, unagented authors from underrepresented communities, with outreach focussed on race, disability, and working-class backgrounds. Writer, broadcaster, activist and Director of Creative Diversity at the BBC , June Sarpong, who has published three books with HQ, will lead the new imprint. HQ Creative Inclusion Lab is open for submissions now, and writers can find details of how to submit at HQCIL.co.uk.
What do you yourself read for leisure (assuming you get any!) and can you tell us the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?
I read a whole array of fiction and tend to listen to mostly nonfiction. I love reading literary fiction, women’s fiction, and crime/thriller mostly, but like dipping into rom coms, short stories, and historical fiction when I can. I’m currently reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, that was recently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and is the follow up to her brilliant debut Homecoming. It looks at family trauma, grief, and the sad realities of immigrant life in America. But it also contains a lot of hope and love, and I love the narrator; an intelligent and witty scientist who is in a constant internal grapple between her beliefs in science and God, her mother and her work. Would highly recommend!
What is your typical working day like?
What is great about working on such a range of audiobooks is that most days are different to each other! However, it usually consists of lots of communication between me and the studios – whether it be about a recording that is going on that day, scheduling in a future audiobook or discussing casting options, we always seem to be in a constant state of communication, which is lovely. Now the world is going back to how it used to be pre-pandemic (fingers crossed!) a lot more of my days are also filled with going back to the studio myself, which I love – getting to see the audiobook recording in action. I always have narrator briefs and casting ideas to be getting on with – as a company we publish nearly 800 audiobook titles a year so there’s always a new story to sink my teeth into! I also do a lot of admin work to ensure that we run as tight a ship as possible so throughout the day I usually do a bit of tidying up of processes here and there. I also work closely with the marketing teams to ensure our audio is incorporated into their campaigns as much as possible. Working on such a growing part of the industry is also very exciting stuff – I can’t wait to see where we’ll be in a few years’ time with everything audio.
Thank you so much for enlightening us about the world of audio, Charlotte, and congratulations on the recent awards won by Harper Collins productions (see below).
For more on HarperCollines see:
Facebook: HarperCollins Publishers UK
Awards to HarperCollins audiobooks:
Best Audiobook of the Year at the British Book Awards (Nibbies) 2021:
Think Like A Monk written and read by Jay Shetty
New York Radio Festival Awards 2021:
- Grand for Best Narration – Solo: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis
- Gold for Best Narration – Solo: Imaginary Fred by Oliver Jeffers, read by Ciaran Hinds
- Bronze for Best Narration – Solo: Mary Poppins Comes Back by PL Travers, read by Olivia Colman
- Gold for Best Audiobook – Fiction: Girl A by Abigail Dean, read by Holliday Grainger
Audio Production Awards 2020:
- Gold for Audio Performer of the Year: Ciaran Hinds for Imaginary Fred by Oliver Jeffers
- Bronze for Best Audio/Readings Producer: Tanya Hougham, Senior Audio Editor and Producer of HarperCollins Children’s
Audio Production Awards 2019:
- Bronze for Audio Performer of the Year: Bernard Mensah, part of the multi-cast of Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
Charlotte was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)