Lorelei King, Talking Books.
If you think you don’t know Lorelei King, then think again, she’s everywhere. Or so it seems. If, like me, you are an avid listener of audiobooks, then I will be very surprised if you haven’t come across her very distinctive voice.
My first experience of Lorelei’s mellifluous tones was her narration of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Then I discovered her reading Unless by Carol Shields, after which I found her narrating a large number of Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell books. But she’s narrated so many books it will take a listener quite a while to get through all of them.
What I discovered was someone with an incredible range of talents that she has decided to use in a very productive way. Lorelei is one half of Creative Content, a publishing company that specialises in downloadable audiobooks and e-books. Her business partner, Ali Muirden, is a highly experienced publishing professional, particularly in the field of audiobooks. This makes for a dynamic partnership, placing Creative Content at the forefront of a new way of thinking about publishing.
The following is part one of a two part interview, the first with Lorelei and the second with Ali.
How did you get into doing voice-overs?
When I was young I didn’t know what a voice-over was, but I had an instinct that I wanted to do something with my voice. Then, when I first came to London and was doing some acting, someone asked me to record a book of short stories. I don’t how the producer found me and I’d not done it before, but I had a knack for it, and found it really easy.
I can read fairly fluently and I think that’s the key. Not so necessary for commercial voice-over, but for book narration you have to have the ability to read fluently without making too many mistakes. I think it’s a bit like being double-jointed; you can do it or you can’t.
It kind of went on from there, and I just picked up work as I went along.
Looking at your body of work, you must have started before digital recording came in.
Oh God, yes. They were still using wax cylinders. Okay it may not have been wax cylinders, but it was reel to reel, baby.
Did you have to learn to read through without fluffing your lines?
Nobody reads error-free – but the fewer mistakes you make, the better. There are couple of ways to record. Either ‘fluff and repeat’, which is what it says. If you make a mistake, you stop and just pick it up again, correcting the mistake, and they fix it in postproduction. They edit it and the listener won’t hear any difference. You can also do what they call ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in this country or ‘punching in’ in America, which means if you make a mistake, you stop. In the old days they had to literally roll the tape back to just before the point where you made the mistake. They play back to the point you stopped and you drop in and continue so that it sounds seamless.
That was a lot harder to do with reel to reel. Even if you had a really skilled engineer, it took a fair bit time. Now with digital, if you get a good engineer, you barely notice it; it’s really quick.
How do you prepare for readings?
Preparation is a very individual thing. I read the book just once and I mark it up as I go. Of course, now that I have my iPad I do my markups on there, and it’s just fantastic. That’s something that’s changed from the old days.
So I mark the book up and make a cast list of all the characters on a piece of paper. I look for clues the author may have given about the voice. Some authors describe a voice, which can be useful, and if they don’t, I work it out for myself; it’s something you sort of do instinctively.
The challenges come when you’ve got 10 men in a room and they’re all from Detroit. Then you have to find things about them that are different, like one had a childhood in the south and other things like that. It’s all about creating clarity for the listener.
On the other side of the cast list I make a list of words I don’t know how to pronounce, for example place names. Then I look them up.
That’s it, really. I don’t do too much marking upon the script itself, unless the author writes very long sentences and I have to mark breathing places, or if it’s not completely obvious where an emphasis should be, and things like that.
Then I’m good to go.
You use your iPad while you’re reading?
This is new; I’ve only just started doing it this year. The reason I bought an iPad is purely because of a little app called iAnnotate. It costs something like £7 – but I would have paid £70 for it, because it’s brilliant. You can mark up your script with your finger, like writing with a pen. You can make notes. You can put a sound clip in. So if I find it hard to pronounce a name, for example, I create a sound clip and play it back to myself. It saves carrying around reams of paper, which can really break your shoulder – especially if you’re working on more than one book at a time, which I usually am. So now all I carry to the studio is my little iPad, and I think it’s great.
Also, as Ali (my business partner) pointed out, it keeps my head centred for the sound. It does make a difference. If you’re looking from one page to another, your head does move and that changes the sound. The iPad also eliminates page turns. It’s fantastic and I can’t sing the praises of reading from an iPad enough. I hear that some audio publishers now will only hire readers who have iPads – no printing and no paper, so it’s economical and ecologically sound.
I like to have a book as much in advance as I can. Sometimes I only get it the night before, which is hard because you have to prep (prepare) very quickly. I have done recordings when I haven’t finished the book and that is dangerous, because you might find out at the end that a character has an entirely different speech pattern or accent from the one you’ve given them. This happened to me once. Nightmare! I’ve only once read a whole book cold, where pages were being printed off and then handed to me as I read. It was a very unpleasant experience. Reading a book cold is possible but it’s not ideal.
I know you’ve said that you have a particular method you use for creating your voices. Would you describe it?
Yes, my layering technique. Sometimes, if you have a lot of characters, as some of these books do (someone like Jeffrey Archer might have 100 characters), you need ways to differentiate them. I find combining a few different elements can give you a lot of variety. So first I have gender, obviously. Then there’s pitch, which can be high, medium or low. To that I add a quality. That quality might be husky, nasal, clear. Things like that. There are other qualities that I have given names, as I know what they mean – like asshole, which is an arrogant voice, and back, which is produced in the back of the throat. The final element is accent.
By mixing up these elements, you can get quite a range of character voices. Sometimes I use a simpler method – for example, I might impersonate a celebrity – and my uncle Lou shows up in almost every book.
I do have a habit of ‘collecting’ voices on buses and so on. There’s a particular sound engineer who tends to be in a lot of the books I read. He had a really crushed quality to his voice and an LA accent, so I thought, ‘That’s going to be really useful for something.’
It drives my mother crazy, because when I go to visit her in America I start collecting new voices. We’ll be having dinner and she’ll see my attention go, because I’ve got half an ear listening to someone, just trying to remember how they talk.
How do you keep chopping and changing from one voice to another and avoid getting confused when you’re doing a scene with several characters?
Again, I think that’s a natural knack. And it’s about knowing the characters well. Take for example the Janet Evanovich ‘Stephanie Plum’ books (Stephanie is a lingerie buyer from Trenton, New Jersey who becomes a bounty hunter to make ends meet after losing her job). I’ve done 19 books in the series and 20 is coming up this year. By now I know Stephanie’s family as well as I know my own, so they’re easy, I know exactly how they sound and who’s talking.
But I think even in a book where the characters are new to you, if you’re really following the story you know who’s talking and you remember the voice you gave them. Sometimes if a character appears on page 10 and doesn’t appear again until page 180, I refer to my notes. They’re usually cryptic, but I understand them. It’s crucial to do that, otherwise you make some poor engineer roll back to find a reference for that voice when you did it last. That’s a real time waster.
Is this why a good voice artist is invaluable?
I think it’s something people underestimate. It isn’t just about showing up and reading a book. The prep takes almost as much time as the actual record. If you’ve prepared properly, then the recording will go well. The recording is the expensive bit, because hiring a studio is money, an engineer is money, editing is money, and you have to be aware of that for your clients. So you have to save your client money by being as prepared as you can be. I think it’s just professionalism.
So when you record for Creative Content, you are your own client?
Yes. Ali usually produces me and she is a very hard task master, because she is one of the best. The prep that she does is amazing; she’s scrupulous, and she’s very strict.
I do admire her for this quality, because when I have my narrator hat on, we occasionally knock heads. If she stops me I’m going, ‘What? Why?’ But she’ll have spotted something that’s needs correcting that I’ve missed.
She’s aware of every little noise, every little inflection, and she wants the recording to be the best it can. That’s why she’s a good producer. She’s just so alert to everything. I’m really full of admiration for her.
This type of care and attention, as well as the hiring of the studio, technicians and voice artists is why audiobooks are more expensive than printed book or e-books.
Audio is expensive to produce. It’s much cheaper to buy than it used to be because it can now be done digitally and downloaded. When it was only available as tapes or physical media, libraries were virtually the only ones who could afford to buy them. You would have an unabridged book in cassettes that would cost £60. So it really wasn’t that accessible to the average consumer. Digital technology has changed that.
But that doesn’t change the fact that production is still expensive; studios cost a tremendous amount of money, as well as the editing and narrators. So it’s very expensive – especially in London, where we record.
With Creative Content, we really pride ourselves on the quality of sound, because Ali and I both came up through audio. Ali was head of audio for MacMillan for many years. I know there’s a trend now to produce cheaply, particularly in America, where narrators have home studios and I think that’s fine for some things, but the quality is never going to be the way it is in a proper, dedicated studio.
What do you think an audiobook brings to a story?
I don’t think it replaces print. It’s just a different medium through which to enjoy a story in the same way that you might see a play or a movie of a book you’ve enjoyed. Sometimes it’s just nice to be told a story. It also think allows people to multitask, because these days people might not have time to sit down and read a book. So they might think, ‘I’ve got to make the most of my time, so I’ll listen to an audiobook while I’m doing some exercise. Great! I can get two things done at once.’
But sometimes audio brings a new angle to a book, something you might not have thought of – because ultimately an audiobook is an interpretation and a narrator interprets it the way an actor might interpret a role. He or she is going to bring their own ideas of what it means to it. I’ve had authors say, ‘I wrote it, but I’ve never thought of it in that way.’
So I think audiobooks are an additional experience to traditional reading.
Following on with the theme of providing authors with another perspective. When I interviewed Chris Nickson, he told me that the main character and narrator of Emerald City was originally male, but you asked Chris if his main character could be changed into a female so you could read it. Tell me about this.
I’m a huge fan of Chris Nickson. He had an idea for a book set in Seattle and the music business – Emerald City, which we published recently.
He sent it to us and we liked it, but Ali, who’s such a genius about these things, said, ‘I’ve been thinking. We’ve been looking for something for you to narrate. What if the protagonist was a woman?’
We thought about it and realised it might make the story a little more interesting if the character of the music journalist were a woman, because it would have been unusual at that time, and would make the story a bit different – as well as it being practical for us, because I could narrate it.
So we did a Skype call with Chris. Ali said, ‘We have an idea to float by you…’ To Chris’s credit, he is so open, and he said, ‘Oh. I need 24 hours to think about it.’ I guess he did think about it, because he said, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’
It really changed that book and we were glad because it made it easier for us to do in audio and I think it enhanced the story.
You’re not only known as an actor and a voiceover artist, but you have written scripts for Bob the Builder and are currently writing scripts for Chuggington.
I did the voices for the American version of Bob the Builder (I play Wendy and most of the female characters) and then got into writing some of the stories, which I really enjoyed. Chuggington has one or two members of the same team who worked on Bob the Builder, which is how I came on board.
My career in scriptwriting was only supposed to be for eight weeks. Several years later I’m still working on the script development side, as well as doing a bit of writing on it.
How do you get your head into the mind of a child, because they have to be able to engage with the story?
I don’t have any children of my own, so I don’t actually think too much about that aspect of the scriptwriting. I write what makes sense, or we look for stories that have a good structure and that are exciting. There are certain technical things you have to be aware of with pre-school, such as vocabulary, which has to be fairly simple, and certain situations might be too scary and so on. You have to be careful with that kind of thing – but that’s not the difficult part. The difficult part of writing for Chuggington, as I think any of the writers who have worked on it will tell you, is accommodating the physical logic of the world.
A writer will have a great idea for a scene (and this is where you feel like a buzz killer all the time), but we’ll have to say it won’t work because (for example) there’s nowhere for the train to turn around. Or there aren’t enough tracks on that set.
How did Creative Content come about?
I have to completely credit Ali for this. Back in 2007, she was working at a major audio publisher and saw how the download thing was going. So she decided to explore it further, came up with this idea, and thought of me. We’d worked together a lot over the years, as producer and narrator respectively, and we used to organise a charity quiz night for the Audio Publishers Association. So we knew each other a bit and she said, ‘Would you like to be involved in this idea I have.’ I thought, ‘Wow.’ Because I’m get easily bored, and this was something new and exciting, and because I was being asked by someone Ali’s calibre, I thought I’d be mad to say no.
Ali thought we would complement each other. And I think we do, because we both bring a certain amount of expertise from both sides of the field. So that was how it happened.
Initially we started looking around for titles that we might like to do (which at that point was non-fiction), commissioned some stuff, incorporated and then launched in 2008.
What do you each bring to the table?
I think I’m mostly decorative. Ali is the brains of the business.
Ali is more involved on the business side, because she has a very good eye for what’s happening. I’m more on the editorial side, because I love working with the writers and the designers. We didn’t plan it that way, but it kind of happened.
I’ve kind of fallen in love with the e-books, because we came into that market a little bit later and it just seemed to fall to me. It’s something I really enjoy.
Ali and I discuss things, but we do leave each other alone to get on with it, but of course there are also loads of decisions that we make together.
How do you bring work in to the company?
A lot of our stuff has been specially commissioned. Our biggest selling line, the ‘Improve Your Speech’ series, was almost an afterthought. It was Ali’s idea. She said, ‘Why don’t we get something about better speech production?’ We really didn’t think it would do as well as it did, but it ended up being our bestseller. So we’ve commissioned titles in that series from different voice specialists. It was the same with the business titles. We looked for experts and commissioned short content.
We then got the rights to some fantastic crime fiction. Ali had met a specialist crime publishing house who were talking about the whole digital age, but were wary of it. So Ali said to them, ‘Why don’t we handle the digital side of your business.’ It was an arrangement that worked really well.
We love our crime writers and have started recording audio versions of their books.
The first crime novel we recorded under our label was The Broken Token by Chris Nickson, narrated by Steven Pacey. It was named one of The Independent Audiobooks of the year 2012, and we’re so proud of it.
We’ve just recorded Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, with the fantastic Frances Barber. It’s a very dark crime novel set in Birmingham. We’ll be looking gradually to do more.
How do authors feel about being published by an entirely digital company and how are you working to change the perceptions of such cutting-edge publishing?
We are entirely digital and there’s still a desire by a lot of authors to see their book in print, but I think we were lucky. Some things suit digital. For example, Chris Nickson’s book Emerald City is novella length and therefore he thought it might not be enticing to a conventional publisher – but digital is a great way to get something more unusual like that published. Although I should say that Chris did have interest from a print publisher, but we managed to lure him away!
Also, because we can turn things around very quickly, we can whip out something that might be topical much faster than you could with a conventional print run.
As for the future, I hope to continue developing our list of crime writers, but I would like to explore other areas too. For example, I would love to find a good romance writer. I’ve recorded a fair bit of romance and there’s such a huge audience for that genre.
We’re publishing something slightly unusual next month and I’m so proud of it. It’s a collection of short stories by Hilda Lolly called Gracious Lies. They’re not exactly crime. I call her Alan Bennett’s and Roald Dahl’s love child. The stories are very English in the Alan Bennett way, but they have this Roald Dahl twist in them. They’re absolutely brilliant. She’s an unpublished writer who writes like an angel and is amazing.
A lot of people aren’t keen to publish short stories by an unknown author. Digital publishing gives us flexibility when we find a jewel like Hilda. I’m really excited about the title. We’ve got Anne Reid and Joanna David narrating the audio version. I get chills listening to them. These are a range of stories that might never have seen the light of day if Hilda had had to go the conventional route, and I’m delighted that Creative Content is publishing them.
How did you find out about Hilda Lolly?
I met her on Twitter. She was just so funny! I think social media is very important for authors. Companies and individuals that don’t embrace it, or at least accommodate it to some extent, may find themselves missing opportunities.
Besides networking, social media is very useful to authors because it helps them engage with their readers.
Do you think it’s a case of getting used to using social media and then you feel more comfortable with it?
It does take time, and I think it’s making that investment that counts. You really have to enjoy it if you’re going to use it effectively.
Why do you enjoy using Twitter?
I think because it’s so sociable. Creative Content started using Twitter because we’d published a book about blogging for business by James Long. He talked a lot about twitter and other social media. As we were publishing his book, we thought we’d better take his advice! So we opened our accounts. Ali’s is @AliMuirden, mine is @LoreleiKing and the business is @CCTheLowdown
At first I was spending 10 hours a day just trying to get into it and understand it. I found it more and more absorbing. That period was also a very isolated and difficult time in my personal life, because that’s when my husband first became ill. For me personally, Twitter became an incredible outlet. I didn’t talk about my personal life, but if I went on Twitter at midnight, there was always company. I could just not be alone or could have a little complain if I wanted to. People are usually very sweet.
I think your experience is framed by who you choose to follow. I love to follow writers and people who are funny. So if I needed somebody to make me laugh, I’d have a conversation with them. I like it; it’s very social.
Your running commentary tweets on television programmes are hilarious.
Twitter, I swear, has promoted reality TV. The fun comes because these are programs you wouldn’t really want to watch on your own. But with tweets, it becomes so much fun.
Sometimes I find myself watching my Twitter screen rather than the television screen.
I like to use Twitter socially, but there’s also a spillover into my work. It keeps me in touch with fans or people who may want to know something about how I work. I enjoy that aspect of it.
The company Twitter feed is more formal and business-like. It’s more about keeping up with what we’re doing and current digital publishing trends. It is really useful, because we have commissioned books off Twitter like the Hilda Lolly short stories. Some people have pitched to us on twitter, like the women who wrote our Business Etiquette Japan title.
How do you do a pitch on Twitter to Creative Content?
I think in that particular case they saw we had done a series of business etiquette titles on China, Russia and India They said, as you do in 140 characters, ‘We’re experts on Japan. Would you be interested in one on Japan?’ Then we switched to email and it was a case of, ‘Oh yes, tell us more’ – and we went on to commission and publish the book. I think Twitter is a useful way of making contacts, because you get to know the person through the content in their Twitter feed.