Writing To Be Heard

By John Gilstrap

In the past few years, audiobooks have become the fastest growing segment of the book industry. In 2018, according to this article from GoodEReader, audio book sales in the United States alone topped $1.2 billion, for the first time eclipsing ebook sales, which brought in $983 million during the same period. That trend continues. The demographics are impressive, too, with the majority of audio books sold falling the in the mystery/suspense genres, and 57% of frequent audio book consumers being under 45 years old.

Personally, I don’t bond well with audio books, but I know for a fact that a large chunk of my readers do. I also know that they’re addicted to the characterizations provided by Basil Sands, a frequent contributor to the comments section here on TKZ. Those who listen to the Jonathan Grave books have come to hear the voices assigned by Basil to the actual voices of the characters.

Given the trends and business realities, I have become progressively more conscious of the role of audio in the reach and popularity of what I write. Fact is, some of the tricks we use on the page to tweak suspense and believability can fail completely in the transition to audio.

Nobody sees the paragraphs.

We all know that in dialogue, when a new speaker begins, that character gets a new paragraph. Because of that, we can get away with rapid-fire dialogue on the page with only intermittent use of dialogue tags. In audio, verbal gymnastics are required of the narrator to keep the listener from getting lost in the exchange. Given the growth in the audio market, I use far more dialogue tags than I used to. On the page, I believe they become invisible, and on audio, it keeps the listener on track.

Nobody sees italics.

Prior to the proliferation of audio sales, I would allow italicized passages to do all the lifting to show a character’s thoughts. This is a strictly visual trick that does not work at all on audio. Now, I write thought tags (I presume those are real things). I don’t like the way they junk up the written page, but there you go.

Accents and pronunciation pose a challenge.

Venice Alexander is one of the primary characters in my Jonathan Grave thriller series. In every book, I must explain that she pronounces her name as Ven-EE-chay. Think about the challenge that poses for the audio book narrator. To reveal to the listener the pronunciation of a name they’ve just heard pronounced properly is awkward. (In this case, I’ve started changing the audio script to point out that people who don’t know her assume from the spelling that her name is pronounced the same as the city in Italy.) The same problem exists when revealing a regional accent to readers in a way that won’t sound odd to listeners.

There are kids in the backseat.

I written here before that I’ve excised high-end profanity from my books, and that I’ve never been one to write graphic sex. I did that for reasons driven by reader input that made it clear that they didn’t like those things in thrillers. That’s when they’re reading silently. Imagine the response when the family is taking a cross country drive while listening to American Psycho.

It’s okay to have a chat with your audio book narrator.

Basil and I chat before each of the Grave projects he starts. He asks me is I anticipate any special challenges, and I encourage him to reach out to me if he finds any.

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn. Are you a fan of listening to books you “read”? Do you consider the presence of listeners when you write?

This entry was posted in Writing by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

18 thoughts on “Writing To Be Heard

  1. I love audio books, particularly non-fiction read by the author. It’s amazing how you pick up subtleties by voice you may not see on the page.

    Don’t like profanity and sex should be private. When authors say “but that’s realistic” I always think “Who are you hanging out with?”

    I loved the first NYPD Red – it was a great story, lots of fun. The 2nd one was all profanity all the time. I don’t even remember the story.

    I do hate when things are mispronounced.

  2. John, I second that emotion as to audiobooks. They are not my thing. I can read faster than I can listen. I also find it more difficult than I already do to keep track of who is doing what to who. That said…folks love them, and whatever gets folks enjoying literature is to be championed. That audience definitely has to be considered as part of the writing process. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I had no idea that Basil was doing your audiobooks. When two fine fellows collaborate the world is at their feet.

  3. Thanks, John, for an interesting (and important) post. I’m completely naïve when it comes to audio books. I haven’t listened to any. All my car trips are short. I prefer to hold a book. Your discussion of the challenges of producing an audio book, such as dialog tags, italics, pronunciation, give me even more pause. I know that it’s something we have to consider, but I’m always the last one to discover everyone else is going in another direction. So, I hope you’ll keep us informed of the changes you have to make for audio books. I would love to see Basil and you do a post on the subject.

    Have a great day!

  4. I can’t process audiobooks. I’m not an auditory person. Podcasts, webinars, and the like are a struggle. 10 minutes or so is my limit. (That being said, I agreed to be interviewed for an author’s podcast. The talking part is easy for me, but I have yet to listen to the playback. I can’t stand to listen to what I ‘really’ sound like to others.)
    When I started putting my books in audio format, I made sure my narrators could make the differences between my characters thoughts and spoken dialogue clear. And, of course, the voices. There are things like John mentioned, such as his Venice issues, but honestly, I think listeners are forgiving. I would be, anyway, if I could bring myself to use the format as a user.

  5. John, thanks for the tips on adaptations you’ve made to your writing style to be more understandable in audio. Writing rapid-fire dialogue is fun and moves the story forward quickly. A lot of attribution feels like it’s slowing down the pace but I can see why the listener needs it more than the visual reader.

    Another listener demographic to consider are the visually impaired. Audiobooks allow seniors to continue the reading they love in spite of declining eyesight. That’s a major reason for me to have audio versions of my books.

  6. Thanks for an essential article. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I never considered the need for extra tags. I don’t want to modify my limited tag strategy in the written word, so the solution is to develop one copy for print and one copy for audiobooks. It’s primarily a matter of tagging. Tags for audio SHOULD be easy to put in. Will the IRS misunderstand if they find we are keeping two sets of books??

  7. John, what an excellent post, on a topic of interest to all writers, but one many probably hadn’t thought about.

    As much as I love your Jonathan Grave series and Crimson Phoenix, I could not listen to them and expect to get anything out of the narration. Even in a dark room with earphones. My mind has a tendency to go to a hundred different other topics when I listen. When I read, both my eyes and mind are occupied so it’s easier to concentrate. This would be why the narrative ease and clarity of my writing had, up until now, never been one of those hundreds of errant thoughts. So, thank you for sharing your insight.

  8. You bring up good points that I hadn’t thought about. I personally hate audio books but obviously not everyone feels the same. So I still need to consider that market.

  9. I can’t listen to audiobooks. I don’t “hear” words unless I’m reading. But you make a great point. I never considered how the written word would translate to the page, even though one of my books is in audio. Probably because the publisher gave me little-to-no input. In the first three chapters the narrator went from having a British accent to Long Island, NY. I stopped listening. My main character is from Boston. Horrible. I’m counting the days till her contract expires.

  10. I love audiobooks. I turn them on at the gym, while doing anything in my kitchen, or tending to my backyard. I can consume a book a week in audio and it takes me a month to read a book (mostly because my Kindle is at my bedside and I don’t try to read until I’m dead tired).

    I have 17 published books and stare at a note on my wall that says “do audio versions”. The ink on the note is starting to fade as it’s been there for at least two years. Sigh.

  11. I love Audible. It was something I started using a few years back. There are times I will drive eight hours a day for work and listening to the same music became redundant, which Audible was a great way to supplement my reading time.

    90% of the books I’m listening to are non-fiction. It might be strange but I also enjoy listening to my books on writing this way and now do a lot of listening while falling asleep and leaving a book play through the night. It could be because this is how I lean best.

    Sometime when I wake up in bed I lie there and listen. There are times when I hear something I might have missed before. It tends to stay with me until morning and I have a new tool or idea to try in my proses.

    I have used Alexa on my Kindle app to read for me as well. I recently did this with James Scott Bell’s book, Your Son is Alive. The experience isn’t bad, (not the same quality of an audible book), but I’d do it again and plan on doing so soon for a Johnathan Grave book. I find using Alexa compelling, as there’s a rhythm to how one writes. I’m also interested to find patterns for my style and do use playback tools to help me compose.

    Take care and thank you for the great post Mr. Gilstrap.

  12. John, this is very timely for me. I signed off on the audio files for my second novel, Dead Man’s Watch, last night. I reviewed the audio by reading along in the print version, and I realized there were times dialogue tags would have helped. I also use italics to show thought. The narrator did a good job of dropping her voice on those parts, so I hope the listener will get the idea. I began to think about having a separate ms for audio (like Carl mentioned above) so that those parts are easier to understand.

    In my limited experience, i find audio listeners are serious readers. I have more reviews on the audio of my first novel on Chirpbooks than on the print/ebook version on Amazon. That surprised me.

    I do listen to audio books, but only when I’m doing something else like outside running, household chores, or driving. I’ve been listening to Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. I’m gonna have to put in a lot of miles to get through the whole alphabet!

  13. I don’t care for audiobooks. My mind wanders. But the idea of someone reading a graphic sex scene is hilarious. I’m think erotica audiobooks could be especially entertaining with the right vocal tone.

  14. Never listened to a book and probably never will. I have a brain that needs to multi-task, so the book is probably the one that will suffer sitting in the back seat.

    Seeing words on a page (or screen) is magic to me…

  15. I definitely enjoy audiobooks. When I worked at the library, I mainly listened to them during my commute to and from work. Mostly non-fiction, because it was easier with the various distractions of actually driving. I’d also listen to them during my workouts at the gym. Now, working from home, I’ve been listening to novels with my wife while we do jigsaw puzzles. Like Alec above, I find I can go through a novel fairly quickly that way.

    Having my own books produced in audio is a long-time dream, but remains that at the moment. As an Indie author, I would have to either front the cost, or do a royalty share. The cost is prohibitive at this point, and I haven’t found a narrator interested in a royalty share. I don’t blame them, since that’s doing all the work up front, and then waiting for the money to trickle in.

    Perhaps with my upcoming mystery series I’ll be able to have them produced in audio. (Several indie author friends sold their audio rights to an audio publishing company, so there’s always that possibility, if the books do well enough out the gate.)

  16. Mom and I listened to audiobooks to and from the beach, five hours each way. Older cozies and classic romantic suspense were our best bet. You do not want to be in a car with your 80-year-old mom during audiobook sex scenes. She said nothing, but it was seriously embarrassing.

    Later, I listened to audiobooks on my iPod on the treadmill then switched to podcasts when they wouldn’t hold my attention in a busy gym. Now, it’s the local news while on my new treadmill. RIP, iPod. It still works, but Apple decided it needed to have iPhone software which ate all its memory.

    eBooks changed the way many writers look at narrative. A paragraph on the page may look fine, but it goes on forever on an e-reader screen. So much shorter paragraphs for many of us. Now, it seems we are writing for audio, too.

    If anyone wants to see what a book can be with a world-class reader, listen to one of the Harry Potter novels by Jim Dale or Stephen Fry. Every voice is different.

  17. You just opened my eyes to how important dialogue tags are to audible stories, John. I’ve been on an Elmore Leonard trip with my recent series which has no audio releases, but I’m into a new run that has audio intentions. Looks like I’m going to have to change my MO. Thanks for this valuable post!

  18. Well Howdy Gang!
    Tried to get in and leave a comment on Wednesday but alas, life ambushed me and wouldn’t stop the pummelling until all the way till Friday.
    That said, I love audiobooks. I write and record my own novels, record other writer’s novels, and on top of that am an avid listener to them. There is more to say about them than I will subject readers to here, but will probably write something eloquent about the subject at some point in the future…somewhere where there are fewer ambushes.

Comments are closed.