The Making of a Japanese Literature Audiobook (and a giveaway)

By | June 20, 2023

(Note: see near the end of the article for details on the giveaway.)

I often enjoy writing articles about the process to produce something, whether it be a translation or a book. In this article I wanted to talk about the creation of an audiobook I recently released titled “Fast Forward Japan” that showcases classic Japanese science fiction stories by Juza Unno (海野十三). While I had produced a short audiobook in 2021, this is my first full-length audio project, and as expected it took a significant amount of time from beginning to end.

I chose to use the ACX audiobook delivery service, mostly because of the ease of use and ability to publish simultaneously on Apple iTunes, Audible, and Amazon. The process to get started is fairly straightforward and requires uploading metadata like story summary, page count, and notes for narrators auditioning for the job. This stage went by pretty quickly since most of the information was just rehashes of existing stuff, or was easy to type up.

Soon after sending my project information to ACX the auditions began to come in; I think I got several in the first day or two after the job was approved. In the auditioners there was everything from complete newbie narrators with zero experience to seasoned professionals with many audiobooks under their belt.

In my audition notes I noted a preference for a U.S. accent (mostly because I thought I couldn’t discern acting quality for other accents very well), and that one of the two short audition pieces should be read with the feeling of a “mad scientist”. But to my dismay it seemed many people blatantly ignored the notes, and around half of the auditions (I think there were around 20 by the end) were easy to reject without much thought. Oddly enough I seemed to gravitate towards a handful of the British narrators that had submitted their samples, enjoying the unique atmosphere their accent bestowed on the audition pieces.

I ended up making a tentative contract with an older British gentleman who seemed to have a good amount of audiobook projects in his portfolio, and even said he could guarantee a high level of quality with his equipment and experience. The total cost was a bit more above my preferred budget, but I wanted a true professional with all the skills for my first full audiobook so I thought the extra cost would be worth it.

After listening to the first 15 minutes I gave him some feedback regarding pronunciations and breathing sounds, but also I noticed there was very noticeable background noise, whether I listened with $200 headphones or $50 wireless earbuds. Out of curiosity I checked out some other professionally produced audiobook samples by other narrators, and also listened to this narrator’s other projects. In short, most that I listened to by seasoned professionals had little to no discernable noise, and all of this narrator’s projects had a very high (or at least clearly noticeable) noise level.

I went through a somewhat lengthy, not to mention unpleasant, exchange of emails with the narrator explaining this, and his tone was what I would call “erasou” in Japanese (roughly ‘high and mighty’)––at one point he said the noise was a very minor issue, and even said I must have especially sensitive ears (in fact, due to hearing damage as a child I think my hearing is a little below average).

Fortunately ACX allows dissolving the contract without any penalties if the narrator and I could not agree upon the first 15 minutes, but I wasn’t comfortable deciding this without more hard research. I ended up asking him what exact microphone he was using, purchasing it myself, and then recorded my own voice in a (somewhat) sound-proofed closet. I heard a bit of noise, but in less than 30 minutes I managed to reduce it to nearly nothing with the basic noise removal tools in Audible, and I even checked my sound file was up to ACX’s standards using their automated checker.

At some point I asked the narrator if he could try some noise reduction but he claimed to be unable to do that, and I also sent his file to ACX’s customer support to get their opinion. It took them a frustratingly long time to get back to me (I think over a week), but they said his noise level was clearly too high and not acceptable. Ironically, the other books by this narrator had similarly bad noise and yet somehow had made it through ACX’s checks.

Ultimately I had no choice but to dissolve the contract and look for another person. This actually wasn’t a bad thing since I really enjoyed the process of going through all the narrator’s samples and listening to the cadence of how they act out each sentence, enjoying the subtle changes in tone or emphasis that can make a huge difference to the end product. While I’ve done a bit of audio narration myself informally, this project made me realize how big the gap is between amateurs and those who have been using their voice professionally for a decade or longer. And even when comparing professional narrators, each person’s rendition can be surprisingly different (something that reminds me of translation).

One of the narrators had a great voice and his acting was exactly what I wanted, and he even said he was interested in Japanese literature. But when it got down to negotiation his rate was off the charts, significantly higher than the first narrator I tried. He actually didn’t have that much audiobook experience, and it was interesting how the rates people asked for didn’t always seem to be correlated to their experience. In any case I didn’t purse a contract with this guy.

Eventually I got into negotiation with Martyn Tallon, a UK voice actor who had only done a handful of audiobooks, but had a great deal of experience using his voice, something very evident in the quality of his audition. In a few days we signed a contract for significantly less than the previously mentioned “professional” narrator who didn’t know how to do basic noise removal.

Martyn was very pleasant to work with, had quick turnaround time, and was able to handle all of my must-have requests, and even a few nice-to-have ones. An unexpected bonus was his ability to do a wide variety of accents (most he did without my direction), which really breathed life into the characters. At first it felt a bit odd to have a character in one story speak with a Scottish accent, but I quickly became accustomed to it, and soon couldn’t imagine the rendition any other way.

Probably the most challenging part of this project was getting a satisfactory pronunciation of the Japanese words that appeared in the stories. I had said in the audition notes I wanted someone who knew Japanese or was willing to work with me to get acceptable pronunciations, and Martyn’s british vowels gave him a good start to make good guesses on the Japanese words.

The difficulty lay in making sure the pronunciations weren’t too accurate so that they stood out in the flow of the rest of the text. I ended up coaching him on the basic vowels and constants (with an emphasis on the main characters), and didn’t try to get intonations perfect. I also made sure the accents for a certain word were consistent throughout. In some cases where a character’s name was clearly chosen from Western influence (especially a few of those in the dystopian novella “Eighteen O’ Clock Music Bath”) I didn’t urge Martyn to use Japanese pronunciation. 

Partway through this process I realized it would save a great deal of back and forth if I gave Martyn a list of words ahead of time for which I wanted him to pay special attention to, along with links to recordings to give him an idea of what I was looking for (which I ended up doing to a certain extent). For my next book project, I would like to lay these sorts of things out even more clearly before the production gets into full swing.

Initially I had some plans to include some self-produced piano music, but since Martyn was such a good sport I didn’t want to make the process any longer than it already took, so I decided to skip that for this audiobook.

Normally I would say the most tedious part of the process was listening to the audio of every story, which totaled a little over five hours. But besides the Japanese pronunciation corrections there were only a handful of other things I felt a need to comment on, like the timing of words here or there. And hearing a fresh new take on these stories was quite enjoyable, especially because I had already done a countless number of editing revisions during the production of the ebook and paper versions. Even during the normal process of textual editing I often read sections out loud to help find errors and double check the passage flow, and for me an audiobook is in some way the “final form” of these stories––the culmination of hundreds of hours of translation and editing, not to mention all of Martyn’s takes and (undoubtedly) retakes. Also, since I had done the original translation and editing of some of these stories several years ago, there was a few parts where I was like “I translated this?”, which is always fun.

One of the great things about ACX is that you can provide direction towards the final product as much or as little as you desire. If you hire a narrator with enough experience, you can mostly be hands-off and simpjustly leave it to them (though I would still suggest listening to all the files once through to assure there are no obvious errors). I could have hired someone with less experience and spent more time giving direction and iterating back and forth, but I’d rather spend that time writing blog articles or working on new books.

I mentioned in the title about a giveaway, and now that I’ve finished the main part of this article I wanted to give the details about that. I am offering a total of five (5) free copies of the full audiobook, selected at random from the group of people who enter. To enter, simply send an email to me at “selftaughtjapanese.contests[at]” (replace the “[at]” with the usual “@” sign) with the title “audiobook giveaway” and whatever body text you like (feel free to introduce yourself, though I’ll leave that as optional). I will select the winners at random on 6/22 (Thursday) at 7 a.m. PDT, and send emails to those who have won, along with one promotional code for each person, within a week. Likes of this article, as well as likes and retweets of the associated twitter post are appreciated, but not required.

Please note I only have free codes available for US and UK regions, so if you are selected I will need to ask your region before I send a code. (Alternatively, if you want to tell me your region in your submission email, that will save some time.)

If you are interested in looking at learning more about the book, you can check it out on Amazon here. You can also find the audiobook on iTunes here or Audible here (the latter has a sample you can listen to).

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One thought on “The Making of a Japanese Literature Audiobook (and a giveaway)

  1. Barbara

    Thank you so much for writing this. Very helpful to writers.


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