In this episode, we spoke with Karen White, an award-winning audiobook narrator who recently began writing and publishing her own works under the pen name of Karen Grey. We chatted about Karen’s career as an audiobook narrator, her transition into publishing as an indie author, and much more. There was such a wealth of advice and information that Karen brought to the table that we felt as if we could talk for another hour or more!
Be sure to take a look at Karen’s latest novel, You Get What You Give, the first in her Carolina Classics series. In this novel, an “enemies-to-lovers, new-in-town, one-night-stand unlikely love story, a boss lady and a Hollywood bad boy find that you only get as good as you give.”
We hope you enjoy this great conversation on the dos and don’ts of narrating audiobooks, tips on marketing, a look behind the scenes of audiobook recording, and much love for and enthusiasm about audiobooks overall!
- We hear about Karen’s career in the earlier days of audiobook development, her time directing for audiobook production, and how she got started in audiobook narration
- She talks about the highs and lows of being an audiobook narrator, and gets into why it is more difficult than most people presume
- Karen talks about her debut as an indie author, from writing in 2016 and publishing 2020, and how she has published five books in the last two years
- Karen also talks about her involvement with Home Cooked Books and Blue Nose Audio, and how she works as an audiobook producer and marketer
- She traces her beginnings with social media and marketing, and how she saw there as a need to support authors with promoting their audiobooks, and how she works with authors now
- Karen offers tons of advice on audiobook narration, creation, and how best to approach audiobook production as an indie author
- She also offers some great advice specifically for authors interested in going wide with their audiobooks
- Karen talks more about how started writing, and where she got her inspiration and drive to do so
- We hear about some of her favourite narrators and audiobooks
- And much more!
Karen on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest
You Get What You Give (Carolina Classics #1)
Mentioned in this episode:
You Spin Me (audiobook) by Karen Grey
These Walls Can Talk by Erin Mallon
Karen Grey is a USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of vintage romantic comedies with smart heroines and hunky heroes. Drawing on a long career as a performer, her retro 80’s and 90’s romances are populated with characters working both on- and off-stage in theater, TV and film.
She’s a lifelong omnivorous reader (including 20 years as an audiobook narrator). When not reading or writing, she’s lounging at the beach or hiking in the mountains. Or dreaming about both with an IPA in hand and a dog or a cat nearby.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Laura: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Laura, author, engagement manager.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, promotion specialist at Kobo Writing Life. On today’s episode of the podcast, Laura and I sat down with Karen White, who is an audiobook narrator who has narrated more than 400 titles for both traditional and indie authors. In 2020, she made her debut as an indie author, writing as Karen Grey, and she also helps authors market their books through her company, Home Cooked Books, and she produces audiobooks with Blue Nose Audio.
Laura: We spoke to Karen about her work as an illustrious audiobooks narrator, her transition into an indie author career, and her advice for authors looking to market their audiobooks.
Rachel: I feel like we could have talked to Karen for another hour about all things audio. So if you are looking to start producing audiobooks or you are looking to promote your audiobooks, definitely listen and we hope you learn a lot.
All right, we are joined today by prolific audiobook narrator, audiobook producer, marketer, and author Karen White, also known as Karen Grey. Karen, thank you so much for joining us today.
Karen: I’m really happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Rachel: To kind of kick things off, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Karen: Sure. So, I was a stage actor in the late 20th century and both in New York, Boston, and eventually Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for that. I did some on-camera work also in Boston, but in LA but, you know, I was ancient at the age of 34 when we moved there. So that was a tough new career for me to try to tackle. But I also learned about audiobooks from a friend around that time and I started pursuing it back in 1998. I worked, my first job was with Dove Audio, which no longer exists, but they recorded abridged audiobooks if anyone remembers those, where they would cut out so much of the book. I don’t know why anyone would wanna listen to it recorded by celebrities. So, I actually was an editor back then. I just wanted any job in audiobooks, even though I really wanted to narrate, but they said, “Could you edit using Pro Tools?” And I said, “Yes,” even though I didn’t even know what it was. So, I quickly learned that my husband is actually a sound mixer for film and television. So, I did have a little help that way.
And then about a year later when Books on Tape opened an LA studio, I got hired to sort of be… I was the only other employee besides Stan Musselman who was the executive producer. And I just did everything. I still edited. Then I started casting, I started directing and I finally started narrating, which happened because I had been in a movie, a remake of “The Out-of-Towners” and I had a teeny tiny part where they cut out all my lines even by the time the thing opened.
But for some reason, I was all over the trailer. So Dan had gone to see some movie with his kid and saw the trailer and it made it look in the trailer like I had this huge part. So he came back to work the next Monday, he’s like, “Hey, you’re an actress, why aren’t you narrating audiobooks?” And I said, “Well, when I met you a year and a half ago, I told you that.”
But anyway, so I started recording then, that was in ’99. And then I just, you know, it was a great mommy job for a while. I could do it just a few times a year. Then in the aughts, when we all started building home studios, I did that and that, plus my kids being older, I was really able to start working not quite full time, but you know, like sort of that three-quarter time, which I think we should all really work actually. It’s a much healthier way to be. And then I shifted gears in 2016 and started writing. And so, I published my first book writing as Karen Grey in 2020. And I’m about to publish my fifth novel and I’ve done some novellas as well. And now I also market audiobooks for other people. I keep accidentally starting new businesses and that’s one of them.
Rachel: So we definitely wanna get into the, like, meat of your career, but I just have to ask, did you teach yourself how to use Pro Tools? Because from what I understand that’s a very difficult program to use and back in the late ’90s you couldn’t just YouTube things to learn how to use them. So did you just have to kinda learn on the fly?
Karen: Yep, and I was terrible at it. I would not hire me to be an engineer. When they hired me to… I mean, back then there would be so many people making an audiobook as opposed to, I mean you, no one can see me on the podcast, but you can see me. I’m in my little booth and now the majority of people who are recording audiobooks are doing it all by themselves. We sit in the booth, we have our equipment outside, some people inside but mostly outside and you just do everything with your fingers and you can edit as you go. But way back then there would be a director and a producer and an editor in the studio and they would just record, record, record, record. And then when they would have these giant digital audio tapes that I would go and pick up in Beverly Hills and drive back to my home and I would sit there with a DAT recorder and dump it into my computer, which we’d have to do in real-time. I mean, it would take an hour to dump in an hour-long recording.
And then basically what I did was just get rid of all the dreck, cut it down to the best takes, which they told me which they were. And then somebody else would take it and do the refined editing. All the stuff of getting the little tiny… I mean there’s just, especially now it was a slightly simpler program back then. The problem with it back then was that it was very prone to crashing. And I just remember, especially after I started having kids and I literally have memories of having a baby in my lap and editing audiobooks and then losing entire files and I would just be weeping because I was, you know, postpartum and I couldn’t figure it out. And I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Rachel: That sounds like a nightmare.
Karen: So yeah, and honestly, even now, I only knew how to do what I know how to do, which is like three or four different things.
Rachel: So when it comes to being like strictly an audiobook narrator, because now like you said, everybody’s doing it at home and you’re kind of editing as you go, would you say it was easier to be a narrator back in the book on tape days/book on CD versus now since you have to do so much more?
Karen: Yes. It was definitely easier in terms of the work that you did. I mean, I worked a lot as a director and I worked a lot with new narrators because I came from a theater background and I had actually directed a lot of plays. And so that was pretty natural to me. And so, you know, I would work with somebody who was brand new for the first hour or so, and then we’d go back and start over, you know, because they didn’t know what they were doing. It’s not something that…you kind of have to learn as you do it. I mean, a lot of people take classes now, but back then there was no class. There was just us in the booth, you know, me figuring out how to get them there. Although, I do believe it’s instinctive for a lot of people. It’s not necessarily every actor or even every voice actor just gets it, gets this sort of weird balance of storytelling and literary analysis as you go, you know.
However, there’s a big caveat. I’m white and a female, back in the late ’90s and even through the first decade of the 21st century, most of the books being turned into audiobooks because it was so expensive, were the bestsellers. And the bestsellers were primarily written by white men. So whereas Scott Brick and I, who’s a quite famous audiobook narrator, started the same time, whereas I was doing six books a year, he was doing 45 books a year because he was a white guy in his 30s. He’s also extremely talented. I’m not taking that away from him, but there were just not enough books for, you know, and we had no people of color because there were so few books being published by authors of color. You know, just a handful of people who would read those books but also then could also read other books. But it was still primarily white guys. So that part of it, being able to actually have a career was almost impossible until audiobooks became much cheaper to make, which means working at home and self-editing. So it’s a give and take. It also means you don’t have to live in LA or New York, which is where most of the studios are, which is more expensive.
Laura: Do you have any advice for authors, maybe indie authors who are wanting to produce their own audiobooks?
Karen: You mean record their own audiobooks?
Laura: Yeah, narrate their own audiobooks.
Karen: My main advice is do not do it.
Laura: We were wondering if that’s what you were gonna say.
Karen: Yeah. I think I can probably count on two hands the number of authors who are really good at it. Neil Gaiman… the Georgia author, who I love her so much and I can never remember her name. And every single one of them is either British… and those people just know how to speak in a way that we wanna listen to, or they have an acting background. So the caveats are, if you have an acting background, like, you really trained as an actor. I mean, I went to graduate school for three years where I rolled around on the floor and made crazy noises to make my voice reactive and reflective of my emotions and thoughts, right? So that’s like a crazy amount of training. So if you’ve done that, then you could, although there’s a sort of cost, you know, it’s worth it to buy all the equipment that it requires to record an audiobook if you’re gonna be doing it, you know, for years and most of your time. But to do it just to record your own books is not very cost-effective.
The other reason that most publishers will have an audiobook, an author record their book is if it’s a memoir, you know when it’s your story. So there is a test that a lot of coaches who teach audiobook narration tell people to try when they, wanna… “My kids like it when I read, and everyone says I have a good voice, so I should narrate audiobooks.” The test is that you have someone else choose a book, one that you don’t necessarily like, you know, just hand you a book, go into a closet that’s pretty dark and sit there and read out loud for two hours. If you can do that without your voice dying and going insane, maybe you could be a good candidate.
Rachel: I think that’s a really good test. I had, like, I don’t wanna brag, but I’ve been told that I have like a relatively decent voice. And so for a while, I was like, “Oh my God, I’d be a great voice actor or audiobook narrator,” And my friend as a gift for his mom who was losing her sight, got a bunch of our friends to read a chapter from Pride and Prejudice for her and put it all together. And when I tell you that I struggled to get through one chapter of Austen, I don’t think people realize just how exhausting it can be on your voice.
Karen: And everything. You have to be pretty still. I mean, you see, when I talk, I use my hands, but you have to be really careful. I’ve got my main mic pushed out of the way, but if you move around too much, you’re gonna hit the mic, you know, and you can’t do that. Also, you have to not make a lot of noise. So that’s another reason you have to sit still. And I think when I was coaching, directing new narrators, one of the hardest things is when you make a mistake to go back and start the section again with the exact same level of energy, emotional life, thoughts. I mean, to be able to reenter, that is a skill that is very hard to develop, especially when you’ve made the same mistake over and over and over and over again, which everyone does. So the skill is to be able to just like be all zen about it and just let it go so that you can go back and when it gets edited together, it doesn’t sound, you know, all herky jerky because you were going along and you were reading this story and then you made a mistake and got, you know, you’re so mad that you can hear that in your voice, you know. So sorry, I almost swore, I stopped myself pretty much in time.
Rachel: Swear away, it’s alright.
Karen: Okay, good. So yeah, there’s skills that you don’t think about ahead of time.
Rachel: Just a couple more questions about narration before we get into your marketing and production advice. Do you read everything before you narrate the audiobook? Do you read the book front to back first?
Karen: Oh, yeah. To me, I mean I know I’ve heard of situations and I think I had one where the book was like still being written, you know, or you know, where you just can’t get the whole thing. I know that was true for parts of the late Harry Potter books or the book is embargoed, you know, they’re just really being controlling about it getting out. But I don’t understand how you couldn’t, because you have to know whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, you gotta know the tone of the book. You gotta know where it’s going. You have to know the arc. When I started recording audiobooks, we were directed, the sort of style of the time was to read to people. Back then I think you maybe could get away with not reading it ahead because it was much more, it was a distance that was between you and the listener. But now, the listeners expect a full-on one-person show. They wanna feel like there’s 12 people in that booth and they’re all coming outta you.
But in order to do that, there’s all kinds of prep in a fiction work that you have to do to know exactly who all these characters are. And so you can return to them, you know, especially if they’re small characters and they just come back and forth. So to me, that preparation is key.
And for non-fiction, a lot of it is just about efficiency because you know, sometimes you’ve got hundreds of words that you don’t know how to pronounce, places, people names. It takes a lot of time to do that research. So if you’re constantly stopping to look it up, then that’s really inefficient and will affect the flow of the recording. So, you know, and sometimes there are things that only the author knows. So you’d have to wait, you know what if they’re on book tour and they’re not answering or they’re on vacation, you know. I had one where an author, it was a philosophy book and there was all this Greek and Latin and you know, there’s different ways to pronounce Greek and Latin and she wanted me to pronounce it her way, but she was at a conference in Rome and couldn’t answer the phone. So I just had to wait until she was done to get her notes, you know. So, I tried to read it, as soon as I get it and thoroughly beforehand.
Rachel: I can only imagine not reading it beforehand. And then you read like 300 pages and on page 301 you realize a character actually has an accent that hadn’t been mentioned before. And you…that just sounds like a nightmare.
Karen: Well, I’ve had that nightmare happen in terms of a series where in book three, suddenly this character who had…there was no mention of an accent, suddenly he’s like from Yugoslavia.
Laura: Oh, my God.
Karen: And I made him from Ohio and they actually made me go back and rerecord all his dialogue even though it wasn’t my fault, you know? So this is one of my big words of advice to authors is even if you’re a pantser, be very careful if you write series of adding little details about a vocal quality, even if it’s scenarios, a gravelly voice, or a high-pitched voice late in the game because you’re just gonna screw yourselves. You’re gonna have to pay that narrator to go back and rerecord that stuff because most people will. If it wasn’t in the book that they got, then it’s on you, the author. So if you keep any sort of character, any sort of series bible, give it to your narrators, they will love you. Just to have all that insight and have it all organized is great. And don’t make people Slavic late in the, you know, just don’t ever make anyone Scottish. That’s my accent Bugaboo.
Laura: Do you have a genre that you prefer narrating in?
Karen: You know, I have been very fortunate, maybe because I started so long ago, but I really have recorded everything. I really only have things I don’t like to do, which are very violent books because I just am an emotional sponge and I literally have nightmares when I have to read violent books. So, I’ve actually pretty much retired from narrating audiobooks right now. It’s just… I’m focusing on my writing and recording other people, I mean, producing other people’s books and helping authors market. But what I love, I was able to read a lot of non-fiction, about half my books were non-fiction and all kinds of non-fiction where I would learn all really interesting things. But those books are hard in their own way. And then I’d get to read romance and, you know, cozy mysteries and other kinds of fiction that would be like a total palette cleanser. I think it’s hard for some people who get started in these days because it tends to be more in genre fiction because there’s so much more of it and then can be hard to break out of that. So like I was very lucky.
Rachel: That’s actually an excellent segue into the other many hats that you wear in the publishing world. You help indie authors market their books through Home Cooked Books and also produce audiobooks through Blue Nose Audio. Can you tell us a bit how, like, a bit about these companies and kind of how your involvement came about?
Karen: Well, in terms of Home Cooked Books, which is also the name of my publishing company, so I just had that some part of our LLC. Anyway, I was an early adopter of social media and I helped a lot of other narrators. I mean I started on Twitter a long time ago and then Facebook and because when we chose to leave LA and moved to North Carolina, which is where my family’s from, I felt like since I wasn’t in the big city, I wanted to have sort of something I provided as extra to make me more castable I guess, or to have something to attract both authors and publishers to me as a choice of narrator. So, I became very active on social media and I learned a lot through the process. I was on the Audiobook Publishers Association Public Relations and Events Committee for a long time where I would be on meetings with all the PR people and learned a lot there.
But when I went to publish my own books and I had, you know, all these reviewers who’d been reviewing my narration over the years and they were very willing to review my audiobooks and most of them are bloggers so, you know, that’s how long I’ve been doing this. Whereas, I mean, Instagram didn’t even exist when I started doing social media stuff. But I realized that I didn’t know anybody who read with their eyes who was a blogger or, you know, I had to like beg some of these people who loved audiobooks to actually read my books with their eyes and then review them that way. So it became clear to me that there were a whole set of the publishing world that I didn’t know as much about. So I had to learn a lot about that. And in that process I heard, you know, in becoming part of the author community. I heard people who were really frustrated with being able to get the word out about their audiobooks.
And I think, I don’t know if you know, I’m sure you do know, so you know, in the late, I guess the 2010s, ’12s, ’14s, that was like the big ebook surge for self-published indie authors. And the people who got on that wave and rode that wave, you know, they all did really well and many of them, the ones who’ve stuck with it are still doing well. The people who came right after that wave I think get really frustrated because they’re, like, “Why didn’t I do it then?” You know, “Why can’t I get that audience share?” You know, because now there’s so much more competition. Well, a similar thing happened with audiobooks just later where, you know, similar to how Amazon was earliest to make self-publishing possible, Audible was the first to make self-publishing possible for indie authors. And in the beginning, they were very generous with the percentage that you would get and they were very generous with things like giveaway codes.
So it was, and also there were not as many books being published, like, in genre fiction because the publishers couldn’t be bothered. They don’t just like genre fiction in print, there’s not as much respect for it, there’s not as much marketing that goes into it. So you know, they put them out, they’re glad to take the money in, but not all this marketing money goes into it. So indie authors, at least in romance, figured out pretty quickly that, you know, “I have to do all this marketing anyway, I’m gonna just do this myself.” And a similar thing happened in audiobooks. So again, the first wave of people who published indie in audio, you know, there was this huge need for it because there was, you know, these people like, “Oh I can listen to my favorite author’s whole series.” So it was very easy for them to get that market share.
Now that there’s so much more product, it’s very hard to get attention. And in fact like in, you know, I would say six, seven years ago you put up download codes in a Facebook fan group and people would snap them up and then, you know, write your reviews. Now, you have to beg people to take those codes and most of them will take them and then not even listen. So it’s become a lot harder to make back your investment in audio unless you are marketing them and you are marketing them to the right people. So because I’d learned all that, I was literally in a Facebook group of authors and in December I said, “Hey, if I did it, like, as a pay-as-you-can basis, would anyone be interested in me doing marketing for their audiobooks?” And like 10 people signed up right away.
So I’ve been doing it since January and I like it because, like I said, I have this community of reviewers that some of whom I’ve known for years and years and some who I’ve gotten to know recently. But I feel like I’m just sort of being this midwife between them and the authors and bringing them books they love and they love to review and, and then they’re so creative and especially the books to grammars, and all the little, they call ’em edits, I guess, little collages they make. And yeah, so it’s been a sort of organic development. But I think I’m helping these authors get some traction and gain that new audience. You know, the sort of, there’s a Venn diagram of there are people who do both, but then there’s the eye readers, I call them, and the ear readers and sometimes they don’t meet.
Laura: You kind of become, like, the audiobook fairy godmother of sorts, kinda bringing everyone together. In your work with the indie authors and helping them market their audiobooks, have you seen kind of some common mistakes come up that people do, whether it’s with marketing or I guess creating the audiobooks themselves?
Karen: Yes. Or I think the most mistakes come from not thinking things through or I mean the whole industry, people not doing best practices that we would do in the ebook world in the audiobook world, for instance. One thing I always recommend is when you are putting together the credits that you want the narrator to record and anything that you want a narrator to record, you really need to get to them before the process starts. Not afterward when you’re like, “Oh shoot, I wanted you to record the blurb. Oh shoot, I wanted you to do this because then it’s a whole lot more work for everybody.” So any of these things you wanna do, you should really do it ahead of time. But one thing I suggest, and it is a lot harder to adjust these things and it is in an ebook, you know, you can just constantly change your back matter to direct readers to the next book.
So what I suggest people do is have the narrator record a very generic teaser intro that says, “Keep listening for a sample of another book by Karen Grey.” Because when I’m having book one recorded in say my new series, which my new series is called the “Carolina Classics Series,” well I don’t have book two in the series ready yet. Eventually, I would like to direct the listener to that next book. But what I do have is the first book in my first series. So what I can do is plug in the first chapter of book one of the “Boston Classics Series.” Then later when I have book two of Carolina Classics ready, I can pull out book one of Boston Classics and plug in book one of Carolina Classics. And you have to do this all before the outro or the closing credits, just like you would in your back matter in an ebook. But you have to have, I mean you could just shove that chapter in there, but people won’t know what it is, you know.
Another thing is in your closing credits, I recommend either people say nothing about how to contact the author or follow the author, or they give 12 options that no one can remember because you have to remember that people are listening. So for instance, and, I can’t remember who I stole this idea from, but I have the domain name followkarengrey.com, and then that goes to the signup page for my newsletter. So at the end of every audiobook, and I narrated my part of my first book, but then I have other people doing the other books, it just says, “To make sure you don’t miss the next book by Karen White, sign up for her firstname.lastname@example.org.” So just any sort of simple direction with a very simple place to go to. I think people just don’t think to do it. And, I brought these ideas to Blue Nose Audio, so we offer that as a suggestion to all of our authors.
Rachel: That’s such a smart idea.
Karen: I think the biggest mistake that a lot of authors do though is that if they’re not audiobook listeners, so they go into the process not really knowing much about it, they just think, “Oh, I should do this because all my friends are doing it and/or people are making money at this.” So that’s my other big word of advice. If you’re not a listener, find someone in your circle who is, and you know, just have them be your sounding board when you’re trying to make any decisions because you just have to know it’s just a whole other art form, you know, with listeners that are more, or your readers as I call them, more and more and more discerning, demanding, certain expectations. And if you ignore those, you will suffer. Not to be harsh.
Rachel: Harsh is good, harsh is honest. Now, this could be my own ignorance, but when it comes to like eye readers versus ear readers, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like there are so many more avenues to find eye readers than there are to find audiobook listening communities. Like there’s, like, Good Reads, BookTok, like, it just seems much more accessible. And I don’t want you to give away your trade secrets here, but do you have any advice for authors who are trying to find audiobooks, like beta listeners or reviewers?
Karen: One simple thing is that there are quite a few Facebook fan groups that are full of dedicated listeners and they can be really good resources. I mean, I recommend that if you’re not already an audiobook fan and you don’t plan to become one as an author, you can kind of pretend to be one by joining these groups and just, you know, listening, looking, seeing what they’re talking about. I regularly go in there and the way you can find them is the way I always am looking for new ones. So you just search Facebook groups for audiobook, your genre, narrator, you know, just, and you will find these groups and if you follow my Home Cooked Books newsletter, I mean if you join my newsletter, you do get some of these resources in the first couple emails, just saying. But then when I’m in those groups, like, there’s a great place to announce an audiobook release to give away some of your download codes or just free copies of your audiobooks.
So, I regularly go in there and do a search within the group of favorite narrator, favorite male narrator, new male narrator, new female narrator, just to see who they’re talking about because I like to know who… Another mistake I think a lot of people make is that they don’t think about marketing when they’re casting their audiobook. If they do, they think they need to use one of the big 10. There’s about 10 that are especially in romance, that are the biggies in their field, similar in fantasy and in mystery. And yeah, your book is more likely to sell if you do have one of those big narrators, but you are going to pay many of them twice as much, if not more than you would pay another skilled and experienced narrator. So what I’m always trying to find is the ones that are on the way up, the ones that they’re just starting to talk about this guy or this woman, and then readers get excited because you’ve brought them someone new for instance.
And what I often do, because if you have books written in first-person, you really have to cast matching the narrator with the gender of the narrator, gender and cultural background of the narrator with the character. And so, I write first-person in dual POV, so I’m always using two different narrators. And so, I often try to do is get a very popular narrator in the genre with someone who is new. And in my last book, “Child of Mine,” I had Erin Mallon do the female part and she’s extreme, she’s a friend of mine, but she’s also extremely popular in romance. And then this guy, Tom Taylorson, who I had heard from friends who he was great to work with but was mostly working in fantasy and had done very little romance, and now everybody in romance loves him. He’s so great and, you know, he is just got this very young voice. He’s great at doing characters. So he’s very experienced, but he just didn’t have a name in romance.
So, I mean, obviously, this is not, there’s a lot of things that go into the marketing and, and the checklist that I send to people who are either my clients or like I said, who sign up for the newsletter, you get part of the checklist. There’s marketing decisions to be made before you cast the book, while the book is being recorded before you upload, after you upload. I mean even, you know, what’s your distributor gonna be? Are you gonna go wide, are you gonna go exclusive? I have opinions about that and each one requires a different marketing approach. So yeah, just like in eBooks there’s a lot of decisions to be made along the way
Rachel: And you’ve already shared so much great advice. And again, I don’t wanna rob you of all of your secrets, but obviously, at Kobo, we are fans of wide audiobooks. Do you have any advice specifically for authors who are releasing wide or who wanna take their audiobooks to the wide world?
Karen: Yes. One, I’m in Facebook group with authors who have been doing this a lot longer than I have who are extremely smart businesswomen. And they do not upload direct to Kobo until I tell them to. And they’re, like, “Okay.” But the reason to do that, just like you would in eBooks is that you can take advantage of Kobo promotions. And I think that’s the thing that a lot of people don’t think about as a reason to go wide, which is, one, you can control your own pricing so you can run a sale whenever you want, not when Audible feels like running a sale and you can get immediate feedback on that sale or on advertising that you’re doing. That’s another thing that I recommend when people go wide is to make sure that all of those links, all of those buy links are available to, you know, use books to read or, I mean I’m a big fan of books to read because they have now ebook, audiobook and paperback and hardcover, print copy, places that you can direct people including for audiobooks, your own website.
So you can include if you use… anyway. So, I think the big advice is to go, is to upload direct when you can and on, like, Kobo is the only one that allows you to, right now you have to go through a distributor for other retailers. I do a Kobo promotion whenever it is appropriate. I mean if it’s, you know, mysteries, I’m not gonna do a Kobo promotion because it’s romance. But I’m really excited about the new promotion you guys have, which is the buy more, get more every month for romance. And I think to put one book in there every month is the way to go. I’m gonna see how that goes because it’s new. And I think… the tough thing is the pricing of sales. At first, I was really conservative, but now I’m seeing that you have to go pretty low to sort of get attention.
And another thing I think that Kobo does that I think I will take advantage of is making something free. Not all, in fact, none of the retailers that I’m aware of let you do that except for Kobo. But having a novella as a loss leader free I think is a good thing to experiment with. And it’s hard because, you know, you spend so much money on these audiobooks, but what you need to do is, you know, you wanna capture these readers so that you wouldn’t do that unless you had a series for them to read through. But you know, again, it’s taking these best practices from indie promotion in the ebook realm and adapting them to the audiobook realm.
Rachel: And I am very cognizant of time, I know we’ve almost had you here for an hour, but there is one hat that you wear that we have not gotten into, and that is you are also an author on top of being an audiobook expert. What made you make that choice to go from narrating audiobooks to writing your own?
Karen: Well, I had always been sort of a, I think they call it in theater now, devisor. I mean in that when I worked in the theater I taught and I was also always sort of making things from comedy skits to adapting other texts. So, I always had been doing that, but to sit down and write a novel was something I had a big block about. So, I would manage to break through that by collaborating with a friend to write a middle-grade novel back in like 2016, I think. And it was something weird happened in America in 2016 that had me really depressed and feeling like I needed to put positive things out in the world. But she kind of dropped out on me, and I had broken through the editorial board in my head that was constantly, you know, criticizing to me to the point of paralysis as a fiction writer.
So then I started writing. My other big idea was to write a series set in Boston in the 1980s about actors, which is what I was in the 1980s in Boston. And I thought a lot of books get written about movie stars, but very few books get written about working actors, people who just, you know, that’s what they do. They don’t make a whole lot of money, but they make enough to live on, which is something you can do in Boston if you also teach and do commercials and blah blah blah. So, I set it around a Shakespeare company and it just, you know, I learned as I went. I didn’t know what a trope was when I wrote my first book and I had to sort of like, “Oh, it’s an opposites attract.”
When I had to figure that out to sell the book. And you know, I think I’ve gotten a little bit more savvy as I’ve gone, but what I did do was I’d been going to writer conferences and talking about audiobooks and about audiobook production and audiobook marketing for years. And what I would do when I would go to these conferences is do my little presentation and then I would scurry around and, and go to the craft workshops and the publishing workshops. So I had been sort of gathering information as I went. You know, it, a lot of people say, “Oh, were you just reading those romances and you thought I could do it better?” That wasn’t really it for me. It was more that I was reading romances, not every single one, but many of them. I was like, “These are good books.” And these women sell their books as opposed to, you know, in literary fiction where unless you just hit some sort of weird list or you know, you just hit, you can either make a killing or nothing in, I think, a lot of publishing.
But all these romance authors or many of these romance authors were very savvy businesswomen and I respected that. So that was partly why I went to romance. But also, you know, I don’t like gory things. I don’t like scary things. I like love. I like happy people. So once, I make them feel a lot of emotions along the way. I’m a big believer in self-knowledge and development and I do make my characters suffer a bit. But, I think we need in this world hope. And as many people have said before me, romance is about hope. So, I’m fortunate in that I have a husband who works very hard and my kids are out of the house. So, now I have time to really focus on it and it’s just been a really fun new adventure.
Laura: Yeah, we could all use some more happy endings right now. Do you think starting in the audio world first kind of changed your, or kind of affected your writing process as you went into it? Because you mentioned before that one thing you would say to authors would be to kind of make sure they’re descriptive in how their characters talk and that sort of thing.
Karen: Yes. I think, bigger than that, I think being an actor affects how I write in that when I record an audiobook, I go on that emotional journey. And when I write a book I do the same. And I mean, I honestly really thought before I started writing that when authors say things like, “Oh, I didn’t know where it was doing, the characters, which is telling me what to do.” I thought that was complete bullshit. But that happens to me. You know, you just sort of get to know these people and suddenly they’re just talking, you know? And, I think for me, the dialogue always comes first. And I think that’s because that’s how my imagination works. That’s why I ended up being an audiobook narrator. But it is definitely, I hear it in my head as I’m writing it. I do think it makes me, being a narrator makes me more cognizant of dialogue that works or doesn’t work. I do read them, I hate it, but I read my books aloud as part of the last process.
And so, and my ear is very attuned to, “Oh, that’s really awkward. You can’t put that word there.” Also too repetitive words, oh my God, I can’t stand it when they’re like the same word comes back two sentences apart as a narrator. That was one of the things that really drove me crazy. Unless it was obviously on purpose, you know, the person is making a point. But, yes, there are things that I am hyper-aware of. The thing I struggle with, and again, this is a lot more about how my imagination works, is the visual of it. I don’t see what’s happening. I like have to make those characters do the blocking. You know, I’m like, “What are they doing? Where are they sitting?” You know, it takes me like the third write, the third edit to get to where I’m really seeing those details. And I know that’s completely different for other authors.
Rachel: And you mentioned earlier that you don’t narrate your own audiobooks, correct?
Rachel: And can I ask why that is?
Karen: Partly because I wrote in first person dual POV. So I couldn’t have done the male part, partly because, I mean, one of the reasons why I, as I said before we started recording, I had COVID last week, so I am still recovering from a cough, which is why my voice is so low and gravelly. But even still, my voice has aged. And I do not sound like I’m in my late 20s, early 30s. So unless I write an older character, which I haven’t yet, I’m not appropriately cast for these books. It’s more expensive to have someone else do it, obviously. But it’s also been really fun. It’s what I imagine it, I’ve never written a play that I wasn’t in. I only wrote theater pieces that I was a part of. So, I think it’s kind of like that. It’s really exciting to… It’s a little hard, you know, control freak-wise, but it’s exciting to see, hear what other people do with my words. So, yeah, I mean, there are quite a few narrators who are writing books. Erin Mallon is one of them, and they are mostly recording their own books. There are, there’s a couple of narrators who are male narrators who are writing with authors like Connor Cree and Kay Lauren and Joe Arden and Lauren Blake. And that’s a really interesting collaboration to me. It’s sort of like the writer is the mentor in that, but the narrator is bringing their own point of view to it. That’s really cool.
Rachel: I am gonna put you on the spot, and I am a little bit sorry, but do you have a favorite audiobook narrator to listen to right now?
Karen: I gotta say that Tom Taylorson, I do like him. Although, I think of my own books, and I know you’re not supposed to have a favorite book, but I do my book, “You Spin Me” has Vanessa Edwin and Eric Michael Summerer. And Vanessa, this is a similar thing where Vanessa is a star in the romance world, and I’ve known her for a while. That’s a pseudonym for her. And, I didn’t know it was her. Do you know what I mean? I know the narrator, but I didn’t know what her pseudonym was until someone suggested her. And then I was like, “Oh, I made the connection.” But Eric was someone I found through one of those searches in a Facebook fan group, and I cast him to play a DJ. That book is about a DJ and an actress/dancer, and they meet on the phone. He has scars. And so, he’s kind of a hermit and doesn’t want to meet her.
So a lot of the book is him in the studio being a DJ. And I cast him just because I loved his audition. And I thought he did a great job, but it wasn’t until we were working on the book and he said, “You know, I was a DJ.” Because I was like, “Your DJ voice is so convincing.” He said, “Well, I was a DJ for 10 years.” So I was just, you know, the gods smiled on me in that casting situation because he really does sound… And I have a great engineer. In the beginning of those books, we created these little segments that sound like you’re on the radio. We did everything we could except for use music, which is way too expensive to license. But we have sound effects, and he sort of puts layers on the voice to make it sound like it’s coming through a microphone in your car. And Eric just, it sounds to me like you’re listening to the radio. And I think that’s my thing is when a narrator is just particularly well-cast, that’s when I love to listen to them.
Laura: And speaking of favorites, do you have a favorite audiobook or also, I guess an add-on, do you have an audio book you would recommend to someone who maybe hasn’t listened to audiobooks before that would kind of convince them to try?
Karen: Oh, I don’t. But what I do recommend is using your library. Almost every library in, at least in America, I’m not sure about the rest of the world or using like you guys have the Kobo Plus in some countries, you know, using a subscription service or your library just to try it out. And a blogger years ago when we were still trying to convince people that audiobooks were like a good thing to do, I mean, we don’t have to do that quite as much anymore, but 10 years ago we were really out there going, “Hey, it’s really reading. Hey, you know, this.” And a lot of very serious readers was like, “I can’t do that. I only read, you know, there’s a book in my hand.” And this blogger made the suggestion, when you’re going to listen to your first few audiobooks, listen to something that you’ve already read with your eyes so that you’re not… Because I do think when I was a young actor studying Shakespeare, we learned a lot about how, I mean, our brains are wired differently now than they were in Shakespeare’s time. Because then the printer had not been, I mean, the printing press had not been invented, nor had the printer.
So most people got most of their information through their ears. So the wiring went from ear to heart maybe if it was a feeling thing or just to frontal lobe, it was, if it was a thinking thing. That’s how they were used to bringing in information from the news. They would talk about going to hear a play, not about going to see a play. Whereas now, it’s wired differently. Most of our information comes in through our eyes and then, you know, into our head. So it is a connection that some people have to strengthen. So to have, you know already what… it can’t be your favorite book of all time, because then you’re gonna be like, “It’s not how I thought it was gonna sound,” But it should be a book that you know already enough that if your mind wanders because you’re not used to listening, then you don’t get upset. That’s my big recommendation.
Rachel: And I have one final question for you before we let you go. What are you listening to right now in the world of audiobooks?
Karen: I will say that my favorite listen recently was Erin Mallon, who have, now I’ve mentioned three times. So good for you, Erin. You’re getting a big plug here. She was a playwright before she was a narrator and a fiction writer, and she still is a playwright. So she wrote, she has this trilogy called “These Walls Can Talk.” And I helped her promote the release of the last one. And I went and listened to all three of them. The first one came out, I think right before COVID, but these are multi-cast audiobooks, which are all the rage now, very expensive. But certain things need to be done that way, written to be recorded. And that’s, I think the, you know, just to make something multicast without it being written to be a multicast perform that way, I do think is a mistake. But this was written to be performed that way. And it’s a very cheeky behind the scenes look at the world of audiobooks. The egos of audiobook narrators versus audiobook editors versus authors.
She, even in the casting, she sort of wrote roles for people where she’s making fun of them with the character that she has written. And the performances are great. You can tell that they’re all having a fabulous time. And the soundscape is also fun. You know, not something that, again, works for every audiobook, but it was written to be this way. So there’s a whole, all these sound effects are great too. So that has been a really fun listen, it’s not on Kobo yet, but I am, it will be very soon. So that’s my big recommendation, or that’s what I’ve been listening to.
Rachel: Once it is on Kobo, I will be adding that to my library. And I lied. I have one more question before we let you go. Where can listeners find you?
Karen: You can followkarengray.com to be on my newsletter list. That’s how to find out about my new releases. And I do giveaways and I have free books from friends all the time on that newsletter. If you’re an author or an influencer, say you love audiobooks and you like to review them, or you have a book-Instagram and you wanna get into audiobooks, then definitely go to homecookedbooks.com. And that site has lots of different ways that you can find me. You can sign up to be a reviewer, you can sign up to have me do a marketing tour for you or just do a consult. I would, a lot of times I just look at authors’ websites and what they’re already doing and I tell them, “Well, you need to do this instead. Or how about if you added this to your website?”
Or like I said, I have a newsletter for authors where I put out suggestions. You know, it’s not a lot, but every once in a while I just put out a suggestion about how about, you know, thinking about this when you’re putting out your audiobook. And for instance, when we recorded this, it was June and June is audiobook month, in case you didn’t know. And so, I did a big event where I got however many weekdays there are in June, so not 30, but maybe 20-some, authors to all put their books on sale on Kobo and the other retailers that you can control. And we highlighted a different book on social media every day. So all of the authors and all my reviewers are posting about each book every day. So, and that was totally free for anybody to participate in. So, and I think I’ll do it again. It’s been fun.
Rachel: That is excellent. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us. I feel like we could talk to you about audio books for another full hour, so this has been fantastic.
Laura: We definitely could.
Karen: Well, it’s hard to shut me up.
Rachel: It’s perfect.
Laura: It was very informative.
Karen: Oh, good. I’ve been doing this for a few years. So I’m glad I can share some of my experience.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you are interested in picking up any of Karen’s books or signing up for her newsletter, we will include links to both in our show notes. If you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, subscribe, tell your friends, and if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us @kobowritinglife.com and be sure you’re following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Laura: This episode was produced by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton with production assistance from Terrence Abrahams. Editing was provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks to Karen for being our guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writing life. Until next time, happy writing.