So here’s what happened.
I finally get around to doing print books. Yay, I suppose.
But actually, I do print editions of my LEXX series. And I’m really happy about that. LEXX has been a really long drawn out project for me, almost twenty-five years, with a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of ups and downs.
In the end, I poured it all into writing the book I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it. And eventually, starting in 2017, I started releasing the series as ebooks, finishing in 2021. And now in 2022, I’d done print editions.
I was happy. After all these years, all this work, I had a sense of closure, of finality. With print books, I’d taken it as far as it could go, polished it as much as I could. I had something physical that I could autograph and ship to Brian, Paul, Jeff and other people, “Here’s my tribute to your good work, have a nice life.”
It was done, I had closure and completion, and I could finally let it go, lay down the burden.
So I post on the Facebook LEXX groups that I’ve done print books, they’re all out. That’s right. For anyone who is still a fan of LEXX after 20 years, and somehow can’t get enough about LEXX through wikipedia and other Wiki’s, etc. etc., there is now an actual series of trade paperbacks chronicling the rise and fall of both Salter Street Films and the LEXX series, in excruciating detail.
Some dick write back.
“Print books are okay, I suppose. But I don’t like to read. I’d rather have an audiobook. Could you do an audiobook?”
I was actually interested in audiobooks.
I’ve been hearing about them at convention after convention. They’re the hot new thing in publishing these days.
eBooks were hot for a while, the eBook market was growing exponentially, new platforms to buy on, new readers, new instruments to read on, new titles. Eventually it plateaued and stabilized. Everyone who was going to buy an eReader or a Tablet had bought one. Everyone who was up for staring at a screen for 150,000 words had stepped into the market. The ones who hadn’t really liked physical, tangible books, bookstores, the whole nine yards.
So now, the big hotty is audiobooks. Everyone’s chasing that. Sales are growing, the medium is exploding. I think part of it is a symptom of the commuter life. So many people spend so much time commuting, riding the bus, riding the subway, driving to and from home, spending hours in transit to get to work, and hours in transit to get back, all the while, just literally being warehoused with no one to talk to and no real stimulation – a couple of hours of dead time a day. There’s only so much canned music or talk radio you can listen to.
Or maybe it’s that we’re getting older, and reading is becoming an unfriendlier thing as we age and our eyes get weaker. Or maybe we’re just entering a cultural phase where people enjoy actually listening to reading. You never know.
And if I’m being really cynical, it’s possible that there’s a gateway/quality control phenomenon. Look eBooks are very nice, but I’ve read enough to know that there’s been a flood of rip off artists churning out pseudo-books for the eBook marketplace. That’s got to poison the waters. Then there’s the flood of not very good writers self publishing, creating an avalanche of sludge. I may be part of that, I hope not (but if I am, then I can at least take heart from the fact that I don’t seem to be doing any damage to the marketplace, given my sales). And beyond that, sheer overwhelming volume. Audiobooks actually require infrastructure and investment, so like trad publishing working through bookstores and other channels, that dials down the sheer volume of product to manageable levels and provides some quality assurance.
But honestly, who the hell knows. If I had some deep, massive, insight into the world of books and publishing, I’d have agents and editors fawning over me as I chugged out one best-seller after another. Obviously, I don’t.
But anyway, audiobooks are huge, and everyone is talking about them. My old Publisher, Five Rivers, was doing a lot in that area. They did a number of audiobooks. And in fact, they scored a real coup – they acquired audiobook rights to all of Dave Duncan’s portfolio. My first novel, The Mermaid’s Tale, was turned into an audiobook by Five Rivers Publishing.
This audiobook stuff, its all over the place. You can’t help but be interested.
There was a guy named Joe Mahoney with CBC, who did his own audiobook at home and wrote about it. There’s my former publisher, Lorina, who followed in his footsteps and did her own. There’s Julie, who has done a podcast audio drama, a full fledged audio western with twelve episodes revolving around Calamity Jane.
People around me were doing it. It seemed interesting and challenging, one of those side projects that might be worthwhile, as I chase traditional publishing and try to move my pseudo-career from pseudo to career.
Maybe not so much.
The trouble is, it’s expensive. You need to pay a reader, you need a sound technician, there are lots of technical requirements. I talked with Julie about what it would cost, hiring people, she seemed to think a few thousand dollars, say ten thousand, was reasonable.
I looked at Joe and Lorina’s efforts. Buy a lot of equipment, very expensive. Spend some time learning. Joe had CBC experience and he struggled. I was at the bottom of the learning curve, so hundreds of hours. Very technical requirements.
I tried for an artist development grant, and got laughed out.
Bottom line, intriguing, but not actually feasible.
So, this guy who looks at the print editions representing twenty-five years of hard work and goes:
“Meh, I’d rather have an audiobook. Do that.”
Made me want to tear my hair out.
But I’m also having a minor life crisis and responding to it by literally rewriting all my self published books, re-uploading a dozen ebooks on four platforms, and working my ass off doing print editions.
And this is when my friend, Lorina, formerly Five Rivers Publishing, mentions AI audiobooks. Or Auto-Audiobooks.
I’d vaguely heard of it, that’s when instead of a live person, a machine narrates your book. The word on that was it was pretty crappy, mostly it was for disabled people who weren’t able to read text, and so there was software to speak it. Auto-audio systems were starting to be experimented with for regular books, but in the convention circles, it got looked down on. I didn’t think much on it.
But Lorina had commissioned and worked on several audiobooks through her former publishing company, she’d narrated and produced her own personally, so she had field experience. She’d done real audiobooks, both professional and hands on, had a good read on quality and expectations.
So one night on a zoom chat, she started talking about doing auto audiobooks, and finding that the experience and the product was surprisingly good. Apparently, Googleplay had a whole system for it, with options for thirty different voices, adjusting speaking speed, even pronunciation correction. I was very intrigued. A chance to do half decent audiobooks? Why not? And hey, a whole new platform to put my ebooks on? Sure thing!
So she shot me an email and a link, and I set to work.
It turned out to be a huge learning curve even getting on googleplay and uploading my eBooks. Luckily, there was no print on demand, create a print book option there yet, or I’d still be going down that rabbit hole. I spent enough time working on Print Books on Amazon and Draft2Digital.
But once I started to get the hang of things, it turned out to be really interesting.
The system was designed for non-fiction books, so you are taking your life in your hands to apply it to fiction. But what the hell, why not?
It turns out that there really are thirty voices to choose from. British accents, American, Indian, Mexican, Spanish, Australian. Men and Women’s voices, with different ages, speeds and timbres. There were some that sounded completely, purely mechanical. Some were utterly off putting.
But there were about four or five voices I found that were actually pretty tolerable. I liked ‘Archie’ a sixty year old British male voice, somewhat deep with a reassuring timbre. There was Mary, a calm middle aged female voice. Mike, an authoritative American voice. I listened to them read different passages of different works and it wasn’t half bad.
Honestly, and I don’t want to hurt feelings here, I actually liked those voices on my work better than the live reading for the Mermaid’s Tale. That voice had always felt awful to me, miscast, a calm, neutral, elevator Muzak voice for a character that was passionate, animalistic and damaged. I liked Archie, Mary and Mike, way better than the live reading of the Mermaid’s Tale.
I’m only willing to say this, because I recently got a fan letter on the Mermaid’s Tale, where the person wrote that they loved the way it was read. So clearly, it was working for him. Which means, I might well be wrong, and the live reader on the Mermaid’s Tale really works for the audience. My opinion is just an opinion, not a verdict.
But anyway, I liked these Auto-voices. And it turns out, there was scope to play with them, speeding or slowing them slightly, and adjusting pronunciation, either by messing with the words and punctuation, or getting into actual pronunciation.
Pronunciation actually had me second guessing myself. Like a lot of kids who grew up reading in harsh environments, I had a vocabulary of words I’d never heard pronounced out loud, and I’d evolved my own pronunciations. So as I’m going over the audiobook, and a word is sounding mispronounced to me, I have to wonder, is the AI misspeaking, or am I the one who has been getting it wrong his whole life?
I still have lingering effects of that, and now and then in real life, my friends will still mock me over my mangling of some word. I just respond with a friendly “go fuck yourself,” and we have a laugh together.
Anyway, in the end, with more twelve hour days, I uploaded seven audiobooks. Three collections of short stories, and one entry book for four other series.
The short story collections were relatively short, and I thought the diversity of stories would give me a handle on the auto-audio systems limits and capabilities. Also, I have this idea that short stories may be more salable and marketable in Audio format. I have nothing to support this, except the intuitive feeling that it makes sense, so I’m almost certainly wrong. But what the hell, I’m going for it.
The other four audiobooks, my thinking was that my work was grouped into series – Axis of Andes, a two part series, Strange realities, three parts, LEXX, four parts, and Doctor Who three parts. I figure I would just do the first book in each series, and if it has legs and sells, I can do the others. If I can’t sell the first book as an audio, its not likely the rest will sell, and there’s a limit to my narcissism.
I suppose I could have gone gung ho and uploaded everything to audio. But here’s the thing. Right now, they’re just all pretty raw. I’ve fixed a lot of the major glitches. But to do a really thorough job, I’m going to have to edit each audio book by listening to the whole thing out loud while watching and correcting text onscreen. Each book is six to eight hours, inescapable. Add at least half that for careful listening, re-listening, editing punctuation and words to make the audio flow better, adjusting occasional pronunciation. Each editing process will be a learning curve. That’s going to be a large investment of time. So six books for now.
But wait, does this mean I’m uploading raw imperfect books with glitches in them?
Well, that’s no fun. Why don’t I take the extra time and get it all right first before uploading anything?
The thing is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. If I just sit there and go around in circles, endlessly pouring hours and effort in, trying to make something super-perfect, I’ll never get anything done.
I’ll never get anything out there into the world. I used to know a guy who was writing a novel, it was in its fourteenth draft, endless rewrites. No one will see his novel.
All things considered, I’d rather upload an audiobook that is 95% or 98% perfect, than keep it off line, endlessly parsing it, spending days or weeks or months chasing that last 2%.
In the end, its more important to have it out there than to have it perfect.
If the material is solid, then the audience will forgive the occasional stumble.
If the material isn’t good, no amount of polishing will turn a turd into an apple.
That’s how I see it.
Anyway, so I got my seven audio-books onto googleplay. What else was there to do with them.
It turns out that you can download them from googleplay and upload them to Kobo, another platform.
I was actually on Kobo indirectly, through membership on Smashwords and Draft2Digital. So if you looked on Kobo, you’d see all my books in duplicate. I’ve been meaning to take care of that since forever.
This seemed like a good time. I removed Kobo from my Smashwords and Draft2Digital profiles, and re-uploaded all my books, the most current perfected editions, to Kobo. Giant time consuming pain in the ass that was.
Then I uploaded five of my six audio books to Kobo. It turns out that by downloading and going to Kobo, you can play around with the individual files a little bit more, so that was interesting. My sixth book has files too big for Kobo, so I may have to break it down. I’m trying to amend it on Googleplay. If I can, I’ll go with that one.
I might upload a couple more books to audio. The second half of Axis of Andes is the best candidate. Axis is a two part series, and it’s actually sold well, so it may be worth doing. For Strange Realities, the second book is upload friendly, so I’m thinking of that. But I want to see if anything sells.
These Auto-Audio books aren’t allowed on Audible/ACX. They don’t meet the technical requirements, or Audible/ACX is just prejudiced in favour of human narrators. That’s tough, since those platforms, like Amazon, are the overwhelming majority of audio-book sales.
My Mermaid’s Tale is on Audible/ACX as an audiobook. That’s the only place it can be found. That’s a bit of a story, I’ll explain later.
So right now, my Auto-Audio books are only with Googleplay and Kobo secondary marketplaces, the little scrappy guys fighting for their place. But that’s better than nothing. Of these, Google is a pretty big fish on its own terms, so if they’re serious about muscling into Amazon/Audible territory, they’ve got a shot. Kobo seems to be trying to develop itself as an international, rather than American rival. So maybe there’s some room for future growth for each.
It’s hard to say where it’s going to go. Both Kobo and Googleplay may expand. Or these Auto-Audiobooks might spread, it would be nice to upload to Apple, to Barnes & Noble, Vivlio, Drivethru, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, even if Amazon keeps shutting us out.
Finally, the variable is how far can this technology go. I was impressed by how far it came already. Assuming the technology and software continues to refine, the product spreads, it may be that Auto-Audobooks may become as accessible and widespread and easily creatable as eBooks. That of course will bring its own attendant conflicts and conundrums.
It may be that for me, the whole thing won’t amount to a hill of beans. Non-commercial ebooks that don’t sell, translate to Non-commercial print books that don’t sell, and are adapted to Non-commercial audiobooks that don’t sell. All this work, and it’s been a few weeks of really demanding work, may come to nothing. Another blind alley, in a life that seems to consist of nothing but them, and even a tiny hope is squashed.
Maybe that’s life. You make plans, you try stuff, it fails. You make more plans, they fail. You make more plans and lower your expectations, and that fails. You keep on making plans and lowering expectations and failing, and repeating the cycle endlessly until you’re right up against the wall, and there’s nowhere left to go and nothing left to try, the end.
Ah well. Seven audiobooks out in the world are seven audiobooks out in the world. Better to do something than nothing, better to try than to not bother, better to fail than surrender. In the end, even if you have nothing else, you made the effort. No matter how small and battered and crippled your dreams become, they’re still worth chasing, or there’s no point at all.
So anyway, dozen books – re-edited them all, up-loaded of re-uploaded them to four platforms. Did a dozen print books. Did a half dozen auto-audio books and uploaded to two platforms. At the very least, it’s a shitload of work over the last couple of months. It would be nice if something comes out of it.
Maybe the audio books will have legs. Sure be nice to win one, once in while.
But in the meantime, I’m done for now. There’s tinkering to do still, chasing that 2% towards perfection. But it can rest for the time being.
Time to move on and focus on some actually useful projects. Maybe.
Oh and that guy on LEXX who turned his nose up at the eBook and Print book, and demanded an audio book? Well, the Audio Book has been up, he hasn’t bought it.
Which tells you something.