Guest Post: One Author’s Experience Creating Children’s Read Aloud Ebooks

By David Hoobler

David Hoobler is both the author and illustrator of the Zonk the Dreaming Tortoise series. In the post below he shares his experience creating read aloud ebook versions of his children’s books.

Recording studios and mixing boards meant nothing to me a year ago. To me these are the realm of Rock and Rollers and Super Stars. That was then, before I decided to record my books. Is book narration a DIY proposal? It’s not that easy, in fact it’s very hard work.

I have three picture books in print, as well as Kindle version ebooks, and I wanted to create “enhanced” ebooks, narrated with the words highlighted as spoken. Unfortunately, Amazon’s MOBI/Kindle platform doesn’t support that technology. However fixed layout EPUB3 does support audio, although it is pretty labor intensive, and Apple’s iBookstore is the platform for distribution of this type of content.

Now if I had an unlimited budget (or any budget) for an audio version of my books I would have just hired a great actor, gone to a top-notch studio, and recorded terrific audio of my terrific books. Or I would have just hired the whole thing out: recording, acting, coding, and publishing. Not an option for this self-published author and illustrator.

First I tried recording at home, turning my living room into a recording studio. I have carpeted panels I use for displaying paintings at art shows, and these were my sound proofing. The biggest issue is the echo effect on sound in most home interior spaces. The panels worked well for that.

Then there is the constant background hum and drone of modern living that simply doesn’t register for us most of the time. Refrigerators, heating and cooling systems, TRAFFIC, not just cars where I live—airplanes are a constant source of racket. My little home studio was pretty much a cave, not all that inspiring, but effective.

So, assuming you find a way to cope with all that, then there is the issue of microphones and software. I made the mistake of trying to get away with a well rated USB (Blue Yeti) microphone. It performed well enough, but was not the professional quality I felt I wanted to present to the world. Having published three high quality print books, and having encountered the headwinds of being self-published as I approached book stores to carry my books, I knew it was important to have a very professional quality audio track.

My next challenge was finding an actor. I auditioned several candidates and specifically some women I felt had terrific voices for what I wanted. My books have many different characters in the stories so I either had to get several actors to play the various characters or one actor with great range to do all of them. Many of the actors tended toward cartoonish renditions and that was not where I wanted to go. I wanted the narration to be read as a book, not so much performed like a cartoon. I wanted it to be dramatic, but a book reading, not a cartoon.

My experiment with friend actors and the home studio were not getting me where I wanted to go. I happened to have a music producer friend who teaches a recording class at a local junior college. The school also has a substantial theater department which could be another resource for actors and talent. I signed up for a music recording class.

I won’t go too deep into this, but being a 60 plus “old guy” I certainly stood out in a class of mostly early 20-somethings. I was treated very politely for the most part and with a certain amount of kindness and “pity.” Truth is I am not as quick as I used to be, and the kids were always helpful.

The class revolved around Pro Tools software, a professional sound editing program. This software is complicated, expensive, and has a steep learning curve. I did, over the semester, learn how to handle Pro Tools reasonably well—an arduous task for me which I never did enjoy. (I ended up turning it over to a young budding sound editor and producer intern.)

I began auditioning another group of actors from the college’s theater and music departments, but I was still not getting the result I was looking for. I did some readings as direction for the auditioning actors (a complete no-no for professional actors). Listening to these recordings of myself (my voice sounds awful in my head) I decided my own voice might work OK for a children’s book. And I did know best what I wanted to hear. So I decided to do the narration myself. Narrating a book is hard work. Voice talent is a unique thing. If I wasn’t recording my own work, I would never presume to do this work myself.

I got lucky and hooked up with a young sound designer/producer, Anthony Veles. I was trying to get a fellow student to assist me with a recording. He was busy, but he introduced me to Anthony, who volunteered to be my engineer. A couple of takes later I left the booth, went into the control room, and Anthony started telling me his ideas of what we could do with the background sounds. We were in complete agreement on how to approach the project. This was very lucky.

We recorded all three of my books over a period of a few months, doing the background mixing as we went, and using all nature sounds: animals, birds, wind, rain waves, insects, and anything that seemed appropriate to the story.

Finally came getting the sound track on to the EPUB. I don’t code. I found a coding engineer in England with a program that could sync the sound track to my InDesign file. Not a simple task. At this point in the operation, any missed or added words, of which there were a few, in the sound track become little field mines derailing the whole thing. After a few stops and starts, we finally produced an EPUB3 with sound synced to highlighting words in a read along version of all three of my books. Very cool.

I don’t recommend this as the best way to record or create read along versions of picture books. It is what I had to do with the budget (very little) I had to work with. I invite anyone interested to look at what we created on iBooks. Like all self-published authors, I am always looking for reviews, and I have freebie Apple iBooks downloads for anyone who would be interested in giving an honest review. Please feel free to contact me with any questions about this process, I am happy to help (if I can).

Here are the links to the iBooks:

You can contact David Hoobler at davidhoobler@sbcglobal.net.

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