Introducing Audiobook Narrator Eve Passeltiner

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Audiobook narrator Eve Passeltiner

Gifts sometimes fall into my lap from benevolent angels who watch out for writers. During a book appearance last summer, good fortune smiled on me.

The venue was an outdoor bar/café on the shoreline of the Swan River in Bigfork, Montana.

About 30 people sat on socially-distanced lawn chairs, noshing, sipping, and soaking up sunshine while listening to me and three other authors chat about our books. For most of us, it was the first gathering since the pandemic began and everyone’s spirits were high.

Afterward a woman approached me and introduced herself as Eve Passeltiner, a stage actress who’d performed for years in New York and New England. She’d recently moved to Montana, had read my work, and said, “I’d like to narrate your books.”

Well!

Although I was flattered, I sidestepped. Readers often ask about audio versions but I wasn’t ready to take the plunge yet.

When we later met for coffee, I let her know my concerns but, bless Eve, she persisted. She had more faith in my books than I did and convinced me that an audiobook was worthwhile.

Market stats back her up and mirror the continued rise in audiobook popularity. According to a June, 2020 article in Publishers Weekly:

The Audio Publishers Association’s [APA] annual sales survey found that sales from 24 reporting companies rose 16% in 2019 over 2018, reaching $1.2 billion. The survey also found that unit sales increased by 16%. The gain in 2019 was the eighth consecutive year in which audiobook revenue rose by double digits, the APA said.

Another PW article about the 2020 online BookExpo stated:

APA retail member Chirp reported an initial dip in listening during commuting hours at the start of the lockdown, but it rebounded quickly as people discovered their new routines at home, and listenership has in fact increased to above the pre-shutdown level.

Authors need to put ourselves into the minds of our readers and figure out what they want.

Although I personally prefer written words over spoken ones, many book buyers choose to listen.

Eve convinced me I need to consider those buyers…and the sales I was missing.

During more coffee dates, I learned that Eve had been a flashlight-under-covers young reader who saved her babysitting money to buy books. Her early love of reading provides a solid grounding for audiobook creation.

In addition to performing and directing theatre, Eve is also an accomplished voice-over actor (video games, commercials and more). One of her most treasured projects was being the featured voice actor for the Washington Post’s Webby Award Honoree multimedia piece “The Women of Kabul” where she portrayed three different Afghan women, bringing each to life with a unique vocal quality and energy.

Eve Passeltiner with her Audie medal

In 2020, she was part of audiobooks that were nominated for awards including the Audie (the Oscars of the audiobook world) and an Independent Audiobook Award from the Audiobook Publishers Association (think Sundance Film Festival). She has also been reviewed in AudioFile Magazine, the source for everything audiobook.

Because Eve has traveled extensively, lived in big cities and small towns, and speaks several languages, she is skillful with accents and dialects (British, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, German, French, Russian, New York, Southern and more). She says, “Accents are a wonderful flavor that add to the work, but they shouldn’t overpower the storytelling.”

What is a day in the life of a narrator like?

Like most narrators, Eve wears several hats—researcher, actor, director, and engineer. Roughly half of Eve’s jobs come from publishers and half from indie authors. Although she does the initial engineering to record the book, publishers either have in-house staff or contract out the final editing, mastering, and proofing of the audiobook.

When I visited her home studio, it was a beautiful, carpeted, walk-in closet with a high ceiling. Eve says its unusual trapezoid shape is ideal because of the way sound waves move, making it preferable to a square room.

Hanging garments, covered with curtains, surround a desk with recording equipment. Eve says, “Clothing is a great sound dampener, along with the carpet.” Sound-absorbing pillows and blankets give the room a tranquil feeling. The studio is in the center of the house which acts as a natural barrier to noises from the outside world.

“What you want,” she says, “is a good dead sound, not boxy [echo or hollow].”

Dead sounds appropriate for crime fiction, doesn’t it?

When recording, Eve turns off the furnace, leaves her phone in another part of the house, and shoos Marco the cat out of the bedroom.

“Narrators are always looking for the sweet spot in terms of hydration and eating,” Eve says. “I start drinking water hours before I record—but not too much. And, of course as far as food goes, I want to avoid stomach gurgles. It is amazing how many sounds the body can make once you tune in to them.”

Eve does extensive preparation before she even starts to record. She reads the book, maps the story, casts the characters in her mind, studies relationships, character and story arcs, and looks up unfamiliar words and locations. She does a lot of the same in-depth research that writers do.

One of her favorite tools is her iPad. From it, Eve creates the master document for performance and recording. Using a special application, she inserts character notes, differentiates narration from dialogue, and includes correct pronunciation of names, places, or foreign words. She adds either an audio clip with pronunciation or types out the phonetic spelling.

For example, the name Kahlil Sharivar is noted as Kaw-LEEL SHAH-ree-var. She’ll be saying that name a lot as she records Instrument of the Devil, the first thriller in my series.

For each character’s dialogue, she color-codes the script: women’s voices are often highlighted in pink, orange, or purple, with the female lead in yellow. Men’s voices are often blue, green, or brown. She uses harsher colors for dangerous characters.

In addition to the script on the iPad screen, she monitors another screen in her studio that displays Twisted Wave, an editing software program for audio. Punch and roll is the industry standard for recording long-form audio and allows her to re-record or make changes to the audio file. If Eve misspeaks, coughs, or hears a car drag-racing in the distance, she can go back, reset the cursor, and start recording again. This allows for a seamless wave file that is ideal for editing, mastering, and proofing once the book is recorded.

On the tech equipment side, Eve is a big fan of Audio-Technica AT4047 microphones (she has two, one as a backup) because it perfectly matches her rich alto voice. Her Beyerdynamic headphones are easy (literally) on the ears and her pre-amp (a magic box that is a conduit between mic and computer) is an Audient iD4.

She prefers to sit when recording because it gives a more intimate feel, like telling a story to a good friend over coffee. Sessions last between 45-90 minutes, usually to the end of a chapter. During breaks, she stretches and uses a foam roller for massage. Then it’s back to the studio.

When asked how long it takes to record an audiobook, Eve gives the same answer that authors often give when asked how long it takes to write a book: “It depends.”  Variables include how many accents, the number of characters, and the writing style of the author. Plus, of course, the length.

Similar to acting, the narrator “lives” in the world the author created. She must get to know characters well enough to portray them with convincing, engaging voices. To differentiate the sound of a character, she uses pitch, speed, and even body placement to create an individual voice. To indicate internal thoughts, she may change her tone or volume.

My Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are set in northwest Montana where both Eve and I live. To further capture the story mood, Eve went the extra mile, checking out locations in the series, including the classic Craftsman bungalow that I’d used as a model for Tawny’s home and Hungry Horse Dam, the scene of the climax in the first book.

As a self-described “student of humanity,” Eve travels extensively and has a lifelong love of learning. New experiences help her relate to characters and make them feel more real.

Eve performs in three dimensions as if she’s on stage. Her body position and facial expression reflect what’s happening in a scene, whether she arches her back or hunches over, is wide-eyed or squints, etc. She says, “Stage actors make great narrators because they have endurance and know how to inhabit the character.”

During one of our visits, I saw firsthand how convincingly Eve inhabits a character.

The male lead in my series is a brilliant, intimidating lawyer named Tillman Rosenbaum who’s 6’7”, with a James Earl Jones voice, and an intense, dark stare that skewers his opponents.

How the heck could this pretty, petite, blue-eyed woman pull that off?

At the time, she was reading the second book in the series, Stalking Midas. She mentioned how much she liked my female lead, Tawny, and hated to see her suffer.

I made the smartass crack, “Wait until you read the later books where I really beat her up.”

Eve’s entire demeanor changed. In a flash, she grew larger and imposing. She leaned toward me and pierced me with a stare that was so threatening, it sent a shiver up my neck.

She became Tillman—a man who would kill to protect his beloved Tawny. 

At that moment, any doubts I’d had about Eve’s ability to capture Tillman  evaporatedNow we joke often about the “Tillman Stare.” 

Hearing my book for the first time is an author’s milestone that feels much the same as the first time holding the physical copy of my published books.

Here’s a small sample performed by Eve:

I didn’t go in search of an audio narrator but, by good fortune, I found one. Eve is not only hard-working and talented but is also a genuinely nice person who’s become a good friend.

How did I get so lucky? 

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TKZers: Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like most about them? What, if anything, do you dislike?

Any authors with audio versions, please chime in with your experiences.

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Stay tuned for the launch of the audio version of Instrument of the Devil. 

 

Meanwhile you can read ebooks or paperbacks in the series, Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart…and Sass.

For sale at Amazon and online retailers. 

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Are You An Audiobook Fan?

This Thanksgiving week I’m already starting to worry about Christmas presents for my family – though I’m thankful that for both my sons, books are always an awesome idea – but what about someone who wants to read more but just can’t seem to find the time? (yes, hubby, I’m talking about you!)

After chatting with members of my book group, I discovered that many, if not all, prefer audiobooks these days, as it gives them much more flexibility and allows them to fit more reading time into their busy schedules. Now, apart from listening to many an audiobook in the car on long drives, I have to admit I’ve never really been a huge audiobook fan. Although I’ve enjoyed listening to them, my preferences has always been for paper or an ebook. Once I started mulling over the audiobook gift idea, however, I soon realized just how popular they are these days.

Consumer demand for audiobooks has been steadily rising over the last few years, with estimates indicating that over half of all Americans listen to audiobooks (see Publishers Weekly report here). Not surprisingly, mystery, thriller and suspense titles are the most popular genres.  Part of the appeal to listening rather than reading a book is that audiobooks apparently stimulate our “echoic memory” or the process by which sound information is stored while we wait for the next sounds to make sense of the whole (click here for the link to the article in The Guardian)… Who knew?!  Anyway, the upshot is that I’ve obviously been a luddite for too long and I need to open my mind to the benefits of audiobooks – especially as a gift that I can also enjoy:))

So TKZers, I’d love to get your input on the pros and cons of audiobook options. First of all, are you an audiobook fan? If so, do you use Audible or another service? What would you recommend? One thing I do know is that it’s all about the voice/narration – so if you love audiobooks for mysteries and thrillers, who provides the best narration? What audiobooks are on the top of your must read/listen list?

Thanking you all ahead of time for your guidance and recommendations…

Happy Thanksgiving week – and if you live anywhere like I do, travel safe in the snow!

 

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A Book In My Ear: Audiobooks, the Writer’s Take

My nineteen-year-old son always has his face in his phone. Drives me nuts, and I confess that when he’s around I nag him about it.

“Focus on what you’re doing,” I say.

“But I’m just rinsing off this dish to put it in the dishwasher,” says he. (Okay, at least he’s following House Rule #1–Zero dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink.)

“The phone is rewiring your brain. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing. I think you’re addicted.”

“It’s just a plate, and I’m putting it in the dishwasher! You know,” he says, after taking care of the plate. “You kind of nag me sometimes.” He puts one arm around my neck–coincidentally it’s the arm with the phone on the end of it. “What’s up with that?”

Yes, I do nag him. But I’m also a hypocrite of enormous proportions. We’re a lot alike, he and I. We both have attention issues–as in, we are both very easily distracted and desire almost constant mental stimulation. I say “desire” because I’ve spent many years working to get a handle on my distraction habit–a habit that can be both devastating and helpful to a writer.

My name is Laura, and my phone is near me at all times. Not necessarily because I want my family to be able to reach me 24/7, though that’s important, but because my AirPods might lose the audio signal of the book I’m listening to. I listen to 5-6 audiobooks a week, with a few podcasts in between.

In fact, I listened to the entire 6+ hours of the excellent true crime podcast, Bear Brook, on Monday, after talking about it with my editor around 2:00 p.m. And Monday was a pretty busy day for me.

Sometimes, when I’m cooking and have a book in my ear, my husband will come in and talk to me as he has a snack or peruses his own phone. I’ll turn a part of my attention to him and let the narrator’s voice drop into the background. Husband doesn’t necessarily know if I have a book or podcast going on, or if the pod is just there for phone convenience. If he appears to want to have a conversation, I’ll take the pod out of my ear and slip it in my pocket.  I’ve started to feel a bit icky about this scenario. I would almost always prefer to talk to him.

Last November–and I can’t believe it was so long ago–I posted about my attraction to audiobooks as a reader. The comments on that post are amazing and truly informative. I love reading about other folks’ reading habits. A rereading of that post also woke me up to the fact that I’ve since almost doubled my audio consumption. I knew it was getting out of hand, but seriously…

Audiobook overconsumption is, I’m afraid, messing with my writing. There. I’ve said it. (Took me about 500 words, but I’m fond of big intros outside of my fiction. Sorry.)

As with watching television, audiobook listening is primarily a passive experience that can happen while the listener does other things. Yet, surely there are people who listen to books and do absolutely nothing else while they’re doing it, giving the book one hundred percent of their attention. Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, writes about listening to music that way. She’s a huge proponent of doing one thing at a time. She protests that she would be very offended if someone came to one of her dance performances and read a book, so she wouldn’t read a book while listening to Beethoven. Which leads me to wonder if I would be offended if someone vacuumed or changed tires or gardened while listening to one of my books. Or if they read a paper copy or ebook while keeping an eye on a televised football game as my dad often does. My answer is an emphatic no, of course not.

For the two and a half decades before I started writing, books were entertainment and solace for me. I paid attention when I read because I was interested in the stories. When I started writing, I learned to actively read like a writer. Writers read for language, grammar, story shape, character development, story arcs, plot elements, point-of-view. We read to learn how to do it–it’s as simple as that. Some of us try modeling our work on more skilled writers (a marvelous exercise to step into another writer’s shoes). After a while, the reading-like-a-writer habit can get frustrating for writers at every level. Sometimes you just don’t want to know about the puppeteer behind the curtain, you just want to know what happens next.

I find it difficult to track the writer’s journey in an audiobook. There are occasionally those moments when I think, “I see what she did there.” While I tend to recall plot details and my mental images of the characters in books I listen to, I retain little else besides the conclusion that I liked them or didn’t.

I have a similar problem with ebooks, oddly enough. As with audiobooks, I have a very hard time returning to a word or a scene I want to go over again. I can’t tell you the number of bookmarks I put into ebooks, and the audiobook screenshots I have in my phone so I can bookmark scenes that way. With a paper book, I usually remember where something I want to find appeared on its page, left or right, top or bottom, or middle. Also I can usually narrow it down to a half dozen pages with less than a minute of searching.

There’s something so concrete about watching a story unfold on the page and also following it in one’s mind. I feel like I can almost reach out and hold it. I remember very early on that my husband said of my short stories that they looked like short stories, but that they had little story in them. Yes, I’d read a ton of books, but I hadn’t yet read much as a writer. Still, shape is important, especially when you’re starting out.

Over the past year, most of the ebooks I’ve read have been friends’ or students’ manuscripts, or books to blurb. I’ve read some hardcovers and a couple of regretful paperback freebies I picked up at a conference. But I can say with confidence that the novels and books I’ve listened to outnumber the print/ebooks at least ten to one. That number feels pretty shocking.

I feel rather like a student who has been watching YouTube videos while sitting in a classroom as the teacher lectures. Ouch. That’s no way to learn. Content is important.

That said, I love all versions of books. Sometimes I think it’s not quite fair to the book I’m listening to if I’ve glossed over bits of it. I’ve missed something, and I hate missing out, especially on a story.

Today I ran across this interesting piece, 8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read (a Real) Book. It’s an eclectic list, focusing mainly on books themselves in place of other forms of entertainment.  But a lot of it make sense. I’m not surprised that turning pages helps one’s recall, and reading is like a workout for the brain. I’m much more likely to immediately look up a word when I’m reading, rather than when listening to a book.

Right now I have three books going: I’ve listened to the Twyla Tharp book, and have read the first fifty pages of the softcover version. The second is a ginormous hardcover, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White. The third is, yes, an audiobook. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land. Perhaps I should be reading the Heinlein on paper, and listening to Lethal White. Heinlein’s characters are wonderful, but Galbraith’s are deeper, especially given that they are series characters. But I’m sixty-five on the waitlist for Lethal White at Overdrive. And it costs a small fortune to buy on audio.

It feels good to sit down at the computer with some hands-on, eyes-on reading backing me up again.

What about you? Do you experience a difference in your writing if your reading habits change?

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Audiobooks: Is Listening the Same as Reading?

“You cannot borrow any more titles this month” has become the saddest phrase of my small existence.

I may be an audiobook addict.

My gateway drug was the bargain-bin cd novel. Years ago I discovered many in odd places like Tuesday Morning stores, Big Lots, and very occasionally at Barnes and Noble. It took a lot of digging to find unabridged versions–I will not read or listen to abridged versions of books because they incite moral outrage in me. WHY are there such things? I can see perhaps that once upon a time people read Reader’s Digest abridged versions of classics so they could boast they’d read them with some measure of authority, or in case someone might burst into their house and made them take a pop quiz on Great Expectations or Anna Karenina. But, really, if that happens, you’ve got worse problems than being a slacker reader.

After CDs I moved on to iTunes books. I logged on frequently to look for specials, and rarely paid more than $5.99. They were much more portable than bulky CDs. But I got greedy and started buying pricey bestsellers and had to cut myself off. My husband subscribes to Audible. Several of my own books are available on there, but I bristle under the program: limits and specials and points. Mostly, I don’t like to belong to clubs that will have me–especially if I have to pay.

For a while, I listened exclusively to free podcast books. One of my favorite sites is the Classic Tales Podcast with B.J. Harrison. I believe all of the audiobooks he reads are in the public domain, making them truly classic. You can subscribe and get the free podcast, but he also has a great library of inexpensive classics.

I know the rest of the world began streaming library books years ago, but I only started last winter, when I re-joined a nearby library (we are in an unincorporated area) for $80. Now HOOPLA is my new best friend. I have yet to figure out the metrics for which books are available on HOOPLA and which aren’t. The pickings are occasionally spotty. For example, nearly all of  M.C. Beaton’s backlist Agatha Raisin books are available, but there are few books by Robert Stone. If anyone knows how the selections work, please do enlighten us…

As you can see from the photo above, my audiobook listening is fairly light. I’ve been bingeing on traditional and procedural mysteries. (Ignore the “resume” on the two Beaton books–I suspect I moved on to the next one before the last few seconds played.) HILLBILLY ELEGY has been a kind of in-between book. The first 90 minutes or so made me uncomfortable because 1) I found Vance’s broad statements about history and class attributes random and defensive, 2) he pronounces “Appalachia” with a long, Midwestern 3rd “A”, and it drives me nuts as someone who lived for years in WV and western VA, and 3) I have deep, recent roots in eastern Kentucky, and it felt achingly personal and aggravating at the same time–which is to be expected, of course, because my hillbilly ancestry makes me ornery and skeptical anyway. But somewhere around the 90 minute mark, Vance gets deep into his personal history and it becomes a compelling story.

Sorry, I digress.

I nearly always have an audiobook on in the car, whether I’m going on a long trip or to the post office. I have one on while I cook or garden or clean. In fact, I’ve been known to engineer solo driving errands just so I can listen to a book in peace.

Sometimes I wonder if listening to a book isn’t cheating. Is listening to a book too passive an act to be considered useful to a writer? I’m torn. It occasionally feels like that. I’ve let the first 4 Hamish MacBeth books pour into my ears like mineral oil used to float a bug out. (That’s a thing.) I started my heavy listening of traditional mysteries last spring, in preparation for writing my first cozy novel, and now can’t stop. Thank goodness there are a ridiculous number of mysteries out there. Unfortunately I’ve listened to so many that I’ve found there are some books that are marvelous in audio, but are barely readable on the page. (Not telling. Let’s just say I never tried paper with that author again.) It’s as though my listening brain is so focused on the story that it can ignore the weak writing–something I seriously have a hard time doing when I’m looking at a page.

Although magazine and Buzzfeed-type quiz testing tells me that I’m an equally visual and audio learner, I retain stories I hear in much more detail than I do when I read words on a page. Yet the story plays out in my head in much the same way for both–I get to visualize the characters, I get to make educated guesses, I get to participate in ways I don’t when watching a film.

And yet. One of the reasons I still read more paper books than I do ebooks is that I am better able to create a mental map of both the book and the story when I can actually touch and turn pages. It feels participatory in a way that swiping never does. Ebook pages are too uniform. They aren’t alive. Now, that’s just my mental eccentricity–I do read and publish ebooks. It’s just that the experience is different. Stories have a shape, and I like to feel the shape so I can create story shapes for myself. If that all sounds a little Montessori Method to you, sorry. It’s the only way I can think to describe it.

I do, to some extent, also see the shape of stories when I listen to them.

I know. This is starting to sound a little too theoretical. A little too woo-woo. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m betraying my writer self if I’m not reading words on a page. There are times when I realize I’ve been thinking about something else for a minute or two and have to click back to hear what I’ve missed. That’s not to say there haven’t been many times that’s happened as I looked at a paper book.

What say you, dear Zoners? Am I splitting hairs? As writers, do you think there’s a best way to experience a story?

 

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