The Making of an Audio Book

In this month’s blog, I share what it was like to experience the creation of an audio book version of my thriller Eavesdrop.

Wednesday June 13th 2018

My head’s been in a spin all day. The unexpected email arrived this morning, a reply to my entry to Audible’s New Crime Writing Grant competition. I had sent them a copy of Eavesdrop on the off-chance—didn’t think it would be accepted because it had been previously published. Although the competition title suggested it only wanted un-published work, the terms & conditions were less specific and only said the author had to be holding the full rights. I had sent it anyway with an explanatory letter; nothing to lose.

“…disappointed to inform you that your title was not selected for our Crime Grant shortlist due to the work being published already in the US,” the writer informed me. Heart sinks, but it’s what I had expected. “…judges were so impressed that we would like to offer you a standard audio agreement with Audible anyway!” I re-read the whole email again carefully to make sure I’d understood. Sure enough, there below are outline details of a proffered contract for Audible to produce an audio version of my book. There’s a reasonable advance and terms that seem okay. Of-course I email back; would be delighted to accept. Let me know more.

Thursday June 28th 2018

TypingFinally signed the contract today. Had a few questions, which Audible answered very efficiently, and they made a small change at my request. The “paperwork” is all electronic—one of those pdf files that works with e-signatures. I sign it with a text string. Now need to do the tax questionnaire: because money comes from the USA, it will be taxed there as well as here unless I have the necessary forms in place. Fortunately I already have income from the USA and have the requisite American ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) that allows me to avoid double taxation. I provide the Audible database with my number, send them an invoice for the advance, and all is set.

Monday July 30th 2018

Get an email introduction to my editor. He’ll be helping to make it “audio-ready”, whatever that means.

Wednesday August 8th 2018

Chat on the phone today with the editor. He’s very complimentary, which obviously makes me feel great. He says he normally has to do structural changes to books, but reckons Eavesdrop is great as it stands. Good sense of pace, he says; well structured already. I remember the long spreadsheet I used while writing it, with all the scenes numbered and summarised down to single lines so that I could juggle them around to maximise suspense while still able to see the big picture to make it flow well; it was obviously worth it. Just a few line edits is all he wants. It won’t take long, but he’s about to go on holiday and would like to wait until he returns so that he can start it fresh and do a good job. I agree; works okay for me.

Sunday September 23rd 2018

Now holidays are out of the way, my editor is on the case. I get an email with his suggested changes, and we arrange a telephone call to discuss them. I skim through his lonely-beach-1370802-639x545notes. It’s a Word document and we’ve agreed to use its ‘review’ feature to track each suggested change. It’s rewarding to see how few edits he’s proposing—little more than minor word changes here and there.

I don’t reckon it’ll take long to go through them.

Wednesday September 26th 2018

We have a brief phone call. He again comments on how well written Eavesdrop is, and how much he enjoyed reading it. That gives my confidence a boost.

I spend a few hours each day going through all the comments in detail. It takes longer than I expected but I’m done within the week.

mansface2Being back with these old characters feels strange. Very glad I’m not being asked to add any more descriptions of them because I can’t remember the team well enough—that would end in continuity errors, I’m sure. Somewhere in the loft I’ve got my original notes from the book—I did character details for them all, and even had pictures clipped from magazines for people who resembled my characters—but I’ve got a horrible feeling some of those have been thrown away by now.

We work it with me also using the ‘review comments’ feature, and I add a response to each proposed change. Glad to say they’re mainly all word or small phrase changes. He makes an alternative suggestion; I look at it and either accept it or make a counter proposal. In some cases, I don’t like his word, but I can see what he’s trying to achieve, so I spend time looking at ones I feel work better. For example, in one section I had Winter “diving” into another room. ‘Change it to “moved”,’ my editor says. I can see why he doesn’t like “dived” (or “dove” if we stick with American spelling) because Winter doesn’t end up on the floor; but “moved” just feels such a sluggish verb; I want more urgency.

How about “darted”? I suggest. Document pings back later with a new comment: ‘You’ve already used that a couple of times in this chapter.’ More head scratching and thumbing of thesaurus. Finally we agree that “bolted” is the best choice.

Thursday October 4th 2018

A week later, all’s done and he’s sent it to the production team. He tells me his involvement is now finished and someone else will pick it up. I ask if he knows the schedule for the next stage of the book, but all he can tell me is that it’s planned for the first quarter of next year; no specific dates are yet fixed. Who’s my contact now? I wonder, but I’m sure someone will be in touch.

Friday October 26th 2018

calendarFeels like I’m in a black hole. I want to know the production schedule so I can plan my own publicity and press releases. You’re supposed to start at least six weeks before launch for e-releases (more for physical formats), and a launch of “quarter one” could easily mean we’re almost there already.

I try emailing the wonderful Alex—a manger in Audible’s Business Affairs team—who’s always so efficient, and true to form, she replies the same day to say it’s not fixed yet. ‘It can take time to find the right narrator for the book,’ she explains, and I find the care they seem to employ to get the audio-book to its best is really encouraging.

I remember the few phrases of Finnish in chapter 38 and wonder if they’ll warn the narrator. How will he* go about checking the pronunciation? I wonder. Perhaps I should put him in touch with one of my ex-colleagues from when I worked at Nokia Mobile Phones—as a Finnish company, there were plenty of native speakers around, and I still have many of them as Facebook friends. I’ll wait to see if Audible raises the question. They’re professionals after all, and this can’t be the first time they’ve produced an audio book with a few foreign words in it.

*By the way, I’ve assumed it’s to be a male narrator on the basis that the main character is a bloke; it would be odd to have him narrated in a woman’s voice. In contrast, the thriller I’m working on at the moment has a woman as the lead character—if I sell the audio rights for that one, I assume its narrator would probably be female.

Tuesday October 30th 2018

An email Eavesdrop-cover-audiblearrives out of the blue. The writer introduces herself as in charge of artwork and she has attached a jpeg of the cover they’ve created.

It’s awesome. So edgy, and I think it captures the tension of the thriller brilliantly. I email back to let her know how great I think it is.

I’m now really excited. This is real. I imagine it sitting on Amazon alongside my print and e-book editions. I think about printing the cover out and making a framed picture for my study wall.

Tuesday November 14th 2018

Taken totally by surprise today; feeling shocked.

Most of my Facebook and Twitter posts are about interesting new technology or unusual crime related news, but I thought it was time to give my thriller a bit of a plug. I put a very short extract up and inserted a link to Amazon’s American e-book page. Better check it’s the correct link first, I think, so entered it straight into a browser. “This product is currently not available,” Amazon reports back. My heart does a little jump and I start to panic. Why has it disappeared?*

In case my link is out of date (perhaps it was pointing to the original Assent Publishing version), I use the Amazon search box and enter “Eavesdrop”. I scroll down a list and there’s the familiar grey and blue cover. Just below that I’m startled to see the new red and navy art work that Audible created.

Stunned, I click through and there’s the audio version available for pre-order; release date: Nov 29th 2018. There’s a narrator named as well—Simon Darwen. That’s barely two weeks away. I’ve suddenly got to compress all my own publicity into just fourteen days. I feel slight panic, then wonder if the date’s right. I check the Audible website as well. Same date. Okay—looks like tomorrow will be a busy day finding all the media contacts I need. Having moved to Worcestershire only a few months ago, my current contact list doesn’t cover this area, and I need to start again.

Simon-DarwenTime to check out the narrator. I’d hoped to have been introduced to him earlier, possibly even get a photo together for my publicity. Too late now. I Google him: IMDb tells me he’s best know for parts in the TV shows The Bletchley Circle, Silent Witness, and Call The Midwife. Sounds hopeful. I go back to the Audible site, search for other books he’s narrated, and listen to a few extracts. Impressed. And he is great at accents from the bits I hear. He’ll have done a great job, I’m sure.

I still wonder how he dealt with those sentences of Finnish, though. I think I’ll try to contact him out of curiosity to ask how he got on with them. Too late now to help, of-course—the recording must be well finished—but it would be nice to know. I’ll search for him on social media.

*was quickly resolved. Turned out it was a technical problem Amazon was already aware of.

Thursday November 15th 2018

Spent the day on press releases. When Assent first published Eavesdrop, they provided marketing and publicity training, so I know how to go about it. I just need a contacts list.

Half a day of internet searching later and I think I have a suitable set, and out go the first releases on email. The angle I take on the first one is summed up by the title I give it—Local Author’s Illicit Competition Entry Thrills Audio Publisher. I was going to have Author’s Cheeky Competition Entry Thrills… but realised in time that the combination of “cheeky” and “thrills” could be badly misconstrued. Glad I spotted that in time!

I deal with how Audible came to read Eavesdrop in the first place and how I’ve loved audio books since my parents played story cassettes to me on long car journeys. Hopefully it might pique someone’s interest.

reading-newspaperIt’s about 300 words in length—a little long, but I’m pleased with it and send it out to about half a dozen local papers and magazines, directly addressed to the relevant reporters and editors.

I plan the rest of the publicity campaign—or at least my personal one; I don’t know what Audible is planning, but I guess they’re doing something. I check my email again, but nothing from them to let me know their plans. ‘Silence is golden,’ didn’t someone once sing? Not in this case, perhaps.

I’ll do two more press releases over the coming two weeks—one to the publicise their choice of narrator and the fantastic new cover, and one to inform of the release itself, which according to their website is still set for November 29th.

Long day on the computer. My eyes are sore and I’m tired, but publicity is now underway. Just need to see if any of those reporters show an interest.

Friday November 16th 2018

I prepare a social media splurge—one item each day, slowly introducing information about the audio book, planned to culminate on the 29th with the release itself. I’ll add my normal techie / crime posts in between, of-course, so that it’s not only banging away about it; I reckon a good balance is important.

Check me out on facebook.com/ThrillersByIanCoates and twitter.com/@ian_coates_

Thursday November 29th 2018

drawing-pin-1427330-1278x855Release day today. Still heard nothing from Audible, which surprises me. Went to Amazon and clicked “hear sample”. Sounds good, but I’d like to hear the full version. I’m surprised Audible didn’t send me a copy once it was ready. I email the always-helpful and always-patient Alex, who rapidly puts me in touch with the “author-care” team; they will send me a code to get my free copy.

Well,  here we are at the end of a journey. A great actor gives voice to Eavesdrop’s assassins, smugglers and high-tech spies. Hear the characters come alive for yourself – Audible’s audio version of the thriller Eavesdrop can be purchased directly from Audible’s site (audible.co.uk or audible.com)  or via Amazon (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com).

 

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High-Tech & the Modern Thriller

Modern readers expect pace-racing action, an intriguing plot, and realistic characters. But they also demand a believable story, and that presents a unique challenge to thriller writers in today’s world of high-tech gadgets, the internet, and massive computing power.

I love working with high-tech. I graduated in electronics in the eighties, and the exciting gadgets and ideas that engineers generate never fail to amaze me. I try to use that experience to enhance my writing, and in this two-part blog, we’ll look at some of the constraints and difficulties our high-tech world imposes on story lines, the new challenges authors must grapple with to maintain realism, but also the fresh opportunities that new technology offers for plot ideas.

High Tech in the Crucible

For Agatha Christie, it was simple. Suspense could easily be generated by imprisoning her book’s characters in an environment in which mortal danger lurks, but from which they cannot escape. This is sometimes known as “The Crucible” technique.

Trapping them there is a simple way to create tension—take six friends and place them in a manor house surrounded by ten feet thick snowdrifts; they cannot leave. Now murder one of their party, and the opportunity for tension is obvious. The murderer is one of the five still alive; he or she is still in their midst because there is no way to leave. And if they find someone has snipped the phone line, they cannot call for support. They are stuck with a murderer without help. What was his motive? Will he strike again?

While that was fine for the 1950s, it is hard to make such scenarios work these days. Any of the guests could call the emergency services from their mobile, or send a Tweet to the lmobilephone-smlocal police station. The modern writer creating stories based in the 21st century must therefore work a little harder than their predecessors to make crucibles work.

And technology makes plot lines more difficult in other situations, not just the crucible. Barely twenty-five years ago, no-one but the richest high-fliers had a mobile phone; today, seventy-five percent of the world’s population can make a phone call almost anywhere across the globe. These days, a 4G phone call can be made on Mount Everest to an altitude of 5,200m[i]. This means modern authors cannot be lazy. They must work at their plots to ensure they remain realistic in the modern world.

When writing Eavesdrop, which has pivotal scenes in Finland, I had to site some of them in the country’s remoter northern areas away from its capital Helsinki so that the hero couldn’t simply use his phone to tell the authorities what he’d discovered. These days, isolation can be difficult to achieve.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As spy writer Charles Cummings pointed out in an article for The Times[ii], technologies such as number-plate recognition cameras and computer systems that track phone calls and credit card swipes mean a terrorist is no longer able to drive across Europe unseen.  Now, one’s character must have access to credit cards in false names (and must therefore have a means to obtain those, despite all of today’s identity checks), and have contacts who can arrange false car registration plates, as well as access to large amounts of cash without arising suspicion.creditcard

None of these are impossible; they simply make the author’s work harder to maintain realism.

 

Demands on the Modern Writer

As well as recent advances in technology imposing constraints on modern plot lines, they also place a demand on authors to keep abreast of what’s possible.

F16 jetFor instance, hacking and virus generation are now sciences in their own right, and the author needs to be aware of what can be done. Think, for instance, of Israel’s scheme to destroy Iranian nuclear plants in 2008. They could have sent F15 and F16 fighters across Saudi Arabia from their Negev base to drop 2000lb bombs on the reactors as they did in 1981. However, twenty-seven years later they took a more subtle approach.

In conjunction with American intelligence experts, Israel’s software engineers developed a computer worm (a type of virus) they christened Staxret. Once released, the virus spread throughout the world’s computer networks to hunt the specific Siemens computers known to be running the Iranian’s uranium enrichment plants. Once it had infected those in the centre of the Iranian facilities at Natanz, the virus exploited a known security vulnerability of the computer to take control of the plant’s centrifuges. While reporting back to the centre’s control desk that all was well in the system, it secretly sped up the centrifuges to such unprecedented speeds that they started to break. One thousand centrifuges were rendered inoperable before anyone realised something was amiss.

No-one has yet made public how the worm succeeded in reaching the Iranian computers—something it managed to do despite those computers deliberately being isolated from the internet. It is surmised that they entered by first infecting laptops used by technicians that worked there, which were later connected to the main computers during maintenance procedures.

Novelists must obviously know and understand the methods deployed to deliver computer viruses to their target.

DVDThere are frequent cases of industrial espionage, where hackers have succeeded in getting their spying software installed on their victims’ computers. Some years ago, a London couple ran a profitable but illegal business selling trade secrets. Their main tool was a piece of highly sophisticated software (called a Trojan), which they embedded in DVDs containing business proposals, which they mailed to CEOs of a variety of companies. Because their software was so targeted at those individuals, the anti-virus programs failed to detect it, and the CEOs happily inserted the disks into their machines. The Trojan set to work and scanned the companies’ entire computer systems. Anything interesting was copied and sent back to the hackers, who promptly sold them to that company’s competitors.

The modern thriller author must understand these techniques, at least in basic terms, if they are to maintain realism. How? Search internet technology news sites for such stories, and a wealth of real-life examples come to hand from which to copy.

Of-course, Edward Snowden’s leaks have placed details of many high-tech espionage techniques into the public domain, and these can again provide the author with an appreciation of what is currently possible. For example, he leaked information about USBhow the NSA developed an innocent-looking USB lead with a tiny transmitter built into the connector. A spy just needed to break into an office and swap the cable with one already in use (for example to a printer), and they’ve got access to that computer’s data the moment its owner entered their password the next day.

And what about eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations? Although phone tapping isn’t as easy as in the days of copper cable, everyone knows from media reports of phone hacking that it’s possible to intercept cellular phone calls. A common technique is what is known as “man-in-the-middle”, where the spy has equipment that mimics a base station (just google ‘Stingray spy tool’ to discover more). As the victim’s phone comes near, it locks to the spy’s fake base-station’s radio signal rather than the genuine one because it’s stronger. All of the phone’s traffic then passes through the spy’s hands, which he forwards on to the real base-station so that his presence isn’t spotted, while taking a copy for himself. It can even instruct the victim’s phone to reduce the encryption level to make the data easier to decipher.

Accounts of such events are easily available via news articles, and authors should regularly scour such sources.

Next month

In the second blog of this two-part series, we’ll look at what opportunities modern technology brings to fiction storylines.

Acknowledgments

[i] The Telegraph, 5th July 2013

[ii] Has Modern Technology Killed the Spy Thriller? The Times. July 2014

Photographs (freeimages.com) by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.

About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

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