What I Learned: The Phoenix Project Audiobook
// IT Revolution
My first project as editorial director here at IT Revolution was to produce the audiobook version of The Phoenix Project. I have worked on many books as editor, project manager, designer, proofreader, and marketer in both print and digital. I was the primary copyeditor for The Phoenix Project back in 2012. I had never done an audiobook until now, so I thought I'd share some high points (and some low ones, too!) of the production process.
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We pretty much knew we were going to go through ACX, Amazon's audiobook production marketplace. That would automatically get the book placed in Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. We opted for a non-exclusive agreement, allowing us to sell the book anywhere else we wished. Because, you know, it's important to keep our options open.
A trusted friend and fellow author of Gene's, who has done several audiobooks, recommended the folks at Brick Shop Audio for production. I generated a word count (111,000), and they got back to me with an estimated running time (12 hours) and cost of production ($4,500-$5,000). After quite a bit of research into the going rates for audiobook production, their estimate was right on the mark. Because we were so new to the process, I thought it was best to work with a known quantity that had tons of experience with long-form audio production.
Selecting the Voice of The Phoenix Project
We then needed to select the right voice actor to read all 12 hours of text—the right voice actor to handle all the dialog-heavy scenes, technical terminology, and characters in their various states of distress and triumph. After listening to all the audio samples, I narrowed it down to three options. After a rigorous and highly scientific poll of our team members and their spouses and children, we decided on Chris Ruen. It was a very subjective decision. In the end, it came down to two questions: Who could provide the vocal variety to portray men and women of different generations in various states of mental and emotional turmoil? Who could I foresee listening to for 12 hours without fatigue?
I had just watched the documentary I Know That Voice (2013) that features interviews with numerous voice actors from the mid-twentieth century to the present. James Arnold Taylor, voice of Fred Flinstone (2005–2011) and many characters from the Star Wars animated series, said "It's not about I can say 'What's up doc?' better than anybody else. It's can you read anything as that character? Can you become that character?"
It was this statement that stuck with me as I selected an excerpt for Ruen to read. I spliced together 1) the list of characters to check name pronunciations 2) the confrontational meeting scene in chapter 4 where Sarah and Chris tell Bill he's deploying Phoenix in a week, and 3) the vulnerable meeting scene in chapter 19 where Steve asks everyone to share something from their personal histories. I wanted to get a sense if Ruen could not only perform men and women (believably, not in a ridiculous falsetto), but could he perform them in all their fury and fragility?
We were thrilled with his sample read. We made a few adjustments to the tone of certain characters ("Bill can be more emotive," "Sarah could be more villain-like, aloof, and patronizing"). But overall, it was great. I approved and production began in earnest.
Listening and Learning
Three weeks later, we received the 36 audio files (plus a 5-minute excerpt that you can listen to here!) and divvied them up. My first impressions were that Ruen's voice was was never tiresome, and he delivered with great control and variety. I listened on headphones and cranked over speakers in my house, and his voice was spot-on whether he was ranting like Wes, snarling like Sarah, or rising from the ashes like John.
It was only chapter 2 before I realized that my masterful plan to pick the perfect voice actor had caused me to overlook a small (but eventually very repetitive) issue: acronyms and initialisms.* When I copyedited The Phoenix Project, I needed to make sure these were spelled and used consistently. It wasn't essential for me to know how they were pronounced! I started a spreadsheet with columns for file name, time signature, and type of correction, and and then began entering every instance of every SAN, NOC, GAIT, and WIP. . .
In my now crystal-clear hindsight, I see that I should have done a global search for all acronyms and initialisms, made a list of their pronunciations, and provided that with the complete manuscript. Ruen did his best, but we just had to correct the industry jargon (ITIL needed to become "eye-till" and SOX-404 needed to become "socks-404") and Gene's made-up acronyms and initialisms (PUCCAR needed to become "pucker" not "puck-car"). Acronyms and initialisms are profuse in The Phoenix Project, so the edits were numerous but not unmanageable. Painful lesson learned. There were some other small edits that had to do with transitioning a written text to an audio text. Two images (a table and a graph) would need more narrative descriptions. The press release at the beginning required some context.
All in all, four out of 35 chapters required no edits!
It's been a ton of fun to hear someone else's rendition of the characters that, up until now, we had all heard only in our heads. It's been a great bonding experience to suddenly share the same voices of Brent, Wes, Patty, and the rest of the Parts Unlimited team. We hope you'll have as much fun listening to it as we did producing it for you.
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* Quick grammar refresher from Grammar Girl: Initialisms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words, but can't be pronounced as words themselves (e.g. FBI, CIA). Acronyms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words but are pronounced as if they were words themselves (e.g. NASA, hazmat).
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