How to prepare a non-fiction book for audio recording

Do you need to prepare a non-fiction book for audio recording? If so, whether you’re an author, publisher or producer, you’ll need a few strategies. Many non-fiction books include bullet points, lists, tables, graphs, footnotes, references, quotes etc that don’t work in audio format. These visual and structural elements can’t be heard, or may be unclear for listeners. So what can you do, as the writer?

Recently, I worked with a business author who needed to adapt her non-fiction book for her own narration. She’s a lively and compelling speaker and writer, but her book needed work to help her material ‘sing’ on air, and make the best of the audio medium.

Here are the techniques used to adapt the book.

1. Get a Word copy of the book manuscript

If the book is already finished and laid out, it will probably be in PDF format. PDF is hard to edit, and you will need to edit, even when the book is beautifully written, as this one was. If you try exporting from the PDF, you’ll often get textboxes and other anomalies that have to be sorted by hand. So if you can, get the Word file as a first step.

2. Decide about Whispersync compatibility

Whispersync is an Amazon feature that syncs the audio and ebook versions. It knows the most recent page you’re at as a reader or listener. This lets you switch platforms, and instantly pick up where you were.

However, this only works if the two versions are nearly identical. Front and back matter alone mean it’s hard for non-fiction to be compatible with Whispersync. So it’s probably best to give yourself creative leeway, and decide you don’t need Whispersync. This will free you to create a properly audio-friendly version. Audio and print are different media, after all!

3. Decide what to do with back matter

References, footnotes, reading lists and web resources don’t work well on the air. Think of reading out long URLs, book titles, dates and publishers, numbered asides… they just aren’t listener-friendly!

However, this back matter is great for printouts and added value for the reader. They can easily be gathered in a freebie PDF resource which listeners can download and print out. This can include your brand, links to your website, signup page, and so on.

You can provide this PDF in different ways: ACX lets you add PDFs to audiobooks as a ‘companion download’, so that’s one option. Or include a call-to-action in your audio script, and send listeners to your website. Then you can either put the download as open access on the site, or offering it in exchange for email sign-up.

If you put it on your site, pick a short, easy-to-say-aloud URL that you use at all times. Then, you won’t forget it, or lose it in a site redesign.

4. Decide what to do with front matter

Acknowledgements, copyright and publishing information, anything that stands in the way of diving into your book… cut! Listeners want to cut to the chase, so ditch upfront preamble. Anything vital can be included in your PDF download.

To hear how big publishers handle it, listen to a few non-fiction examples on Audible.

5. Decide what to do with time-sensitive content

Make a note of anything time-sensitive or likely to lapse. Ideally, your audiobook should be evergreen and future-proof, with content that has a long shelf life.

Anything time-sensitive that is vital for your book can be included in your PDF download or companion material, which is easier to update than your audio.

6. Make the best of the audio medium

Intro music can help set the tone of your non-fiction book, whether inspirational, restful, intimate, authoritative or entertaining. Usually, a short moment of music is used at the beginning and end of the book. In between, it’s your call, but note that audiobooks don’t work well with background music or ‘music beds’.

By and large, audiobooks are a personal 121 medium, so your narration will have a friendly, conversational tone, rather than big, room-filling projection. It’s helpful to describe the ‘energy’ you’re aiming for (eg upbeat, knowing, confidential, inspiring) before you start. Check out this list of voice styles and emotional qualities for inspiration.

For this book, we made the most of the medium by including audio ‘extras’. These were separate tracks of immersive meditations, with gentle music backdrops, to enable the listener to reflect and take notes. Maybe your book has scope for audio extras? Plan them early on, as they’ll take up studio production time.

7. Analyse and mark up the book

I print the book and use coloured highlighters to mark up points for discussion or tweaking.

  • signposting, eg on page 27, see chapter 10
  • embedded quotes, eg a paragraph quoting another expert
  • elements of ‘dialogue’
  • framed narration, eg a long section that loops back to the main narrative
  • lists
  • bullet points
  • nested structure and subsections, eg Chapter 1 (3) (a) (ii) can quickly become unclear, long section spans can be disorientating
  • graphs, charts – ‘translate’ into one crisp, salient statistic, cut, or include in PDF.
  • tables – as above
  • illustrations – can usually be cut. However, note that painting radio ‘pictures’ can help to bring functional description and storytelling alive.
  • extra long or breathless sentences – cut in two.

8. Agree your approach to each type of feature

Do editing passes on:

  • large items (front/back matter, PDF content)
  • graphic elements
  • structural elements
    • chapters – normally a back-announcement for the end of the chapter, followed by chapter heading and forward-flagging the next chapter
    • numbers and lists – line-read to sense-check; add ‘and’ before the last item in a list, to help the narrator to signal the end
  • close line-read – read the book aloud, check sentence length, clarity, signposts
  • intro and outro for the whole book – including any calls to action, website signposts, services, author biography, credits

9. Decide how to manage editing versions

Decide how you’re going to manage versions. In both audio and book editing, I use ‘save as’ and a number +initial +date name convention, so I always have a recent backup version.

In later stages, we remote-worked together on a Google doc. I’m nervous about how easy it is to overwrite, so I downloaded a numbered, dated version at each stage.

10. Chunk your script and agree script lockdown

To keep a big book project manageable, break it into chunks (we had four sections) and ‘lock down’ each section once it has been finalised. This convention of locking the script down is used in TV and radio production, and is vital if you’re working with a producer or recording engineer.

If the author is doing their own narration, it’s particularly important for them to read it aloud ‘as live’, ie to practise performing the script realistically before they go into the studio. This will help them to find any tricky bits and make last-minute changes to suit their voice style. Don’t be tempted to imagine you can ‘sort things out’ in the studio. Rehearsal and script time is best spent free at home, rather than during your costly studio recording booking.

11. Consider writing the book audio-first

I wrote my third book, Writing for Audiobooks, with the audiobook first in mind, rather than adapting it from a print version. This allowed me to think through all issues from the start. The content was well aligned between audiobook and ebook, and the book was Whispersync compatible. The tone and style were listener and spoken-word friendly.

This is a great approach if you’re starting a new project from scratch. It saves a lot of time!

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