On today’s episode we chat with author and narrator Julia Whelan. She is an Audie award winning narrator who has narrated over 500 books and also authored multiple books of her own. We discuss a wide range of topics including her new book Thank You For Listening, the audiobook industry, how narration works, what AI means to the industry and more!
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About our guest
Julia Whelan is one of the top narrators recording today. She was named Audible’s Narrator of the Year in 2014 and is a Grammy-nominated audiobook director. She has acquired multiple Audies and Society of Voice Arts Awards, including for the performance of her own novel, My Oxford Year. She has won dozens of Earphone Awards, The Audie Award for Best Female Narrator of 2019, and was presented with Audiofile Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Golden Voice Award in 2020. She can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @JustJuliaWhelan.
The audiobooks we discussed
Karen Farmer 00:01
Hi and welcome back to the Libro FM podcast, a monthly series featuring interviews with authors, narrators, booksellers and more.
Craig Silva 00:09
On this episode, we had the pleasure to speak with one of our favorite narrators ever. Julia Whalen. She has narrated over 500 books and even wrote two of her own, including Thank You For Listening that comes out on August 2.
Karen Farmer 00:21
The interview was super interesting and fun for us. We talked about her forthcoming book, obviously. We got tons of behind the scenes info about the audiobook recording process, AI what that means for the audiobook industry and tons of other stuff.
Craig Silva 00:34
As always, thank you for listening to the podcast, and we hope you enjoy the interview.
Karen Farmer 00:40
Welcome to the podcast. Julia. We are so excited to have you today.
Julia Whelan 00:45
I am so excited to be here today.
Karen Farmer 00:49
Craig and I are huge fans of your work as a narrator as an author as an actor as well. And transparently just to let you know, you have a lot of fans at Libro FM, we have some colleagues who are very envious that we’re the ones getting to talk to you today. So we promise to use our power responsibly and ask all of the questions they wanted us to cover.
Julia Whelan 01:11
Well, I’m a huge fan of Libro FM, so it’s very reciprocal.
Craig Silva 01:16
Awesome. You’re also the podcast’s first narrator guest which given that we’re an audiobook company is super exciting for us. And Karen and I were talking about how we just couldn’t have started with a better narrator. Honestly. I before we started recording, I was telling Julia the story of how I had to pause a book that you wrote to start your book that you were the narrator of. And on our previous podcast, we were talking about Book Lovers. So there’s been a lot of talk about your narration already on the podcast. So we’re super excited to have you here. For folks who may not be familiar with your work, would you mind giving us like a little intro and just an about yourself?
Julia Whelan 01:53
Sure. I so my name is Julia Whelan. I have narrated probably about 500 audiobooks over the last 13 years or so. The highlights let’s see, I kind of I kind of look at the some of these books as like the the career defining moments and Nora Roberts’ The Witness was one Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere was one. Gone Girl was one. Let’s see oh Educated, which I won the audio for. The Invisible Life of Addy LaRue.
Craig Silva 02:32
I was going to be sad if you didn’t mention that one. So I’m glad you—
Julia Whelan 02:37
And then Taylor Jenkins Reid’s reads books and Emily Henry’s books. And yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I always blank. It’s like one of those. You’re just like I don’t know. I don’t know. Right? What is this job even? What are books?
Craig Silva 02:53
Cool. Well speaking, so obviously, you’re super prolific narrator 500 books, which is just probably more books than people read in their whole lives. And you’ve done that in the past 13 years. So that’s crazy and awesome. But you’re also an author, because why not? Super talented. So your new book, Thank You for Listening, comes out August 2, right. So just a couple of weeks. How are you feeling? How you feeling?
Julia Whelan 03:24
I mean, you know, whatever it’s gonna be whatever it is. I’m just at this point. I’m just like, it’s coming out. Like, this is the thing about time, time moves on and it’s going to happen.
Craig Silva 03:37
It’s too late now, you know, too late now. So boxes are there, they’re on their way to bookstores, you know.
Julia Whelan 03:43
Things are shipped, I found, of course, one typo in audiobook pickups, and it was too late to fix it in the book. So now that’s all I’m gonna see. So, you know, standard.
Craig Silva 03:51
It’s fine. When the second edition comes out, the first edition will have the typo, and they’ll be you know, worth money on eBay. You know.
Julia Whelan 03:57
That’s what I’m hoping for. I wanted to create, like a collector’s edition of this book. So I’m feeling good about it.
Craig Silva 04:04
Let’s go with that was totally on purpose. Yeah. So Karen and I were both lucky enough to get an early copy on Libro. And we we spent the past you know, week or so listening to it, and both really, really enjoyed it. We were saying that it struck such a good balance of being like, laugh out loud, funny at parts, but also like really heartbreaking in other parts. And obviously the audiobook version of it was amazing. We’d love if you could just like give us a little or give the listeners like a little intro about what the what the book is about.
Julia Whelan 04:37
Sure. So my elevator pitch is pretty dreadful. I tend to go on and on. So just cut out whatever you don’t want to use. We have our main character is Sewanee Chester and she is a former actress turned audiobook narrator who suffered a pretty tragic event that ended her on camera career and also made her very skeptical of anything that the romance genre is selling. And she has she started out in her career recording romance under a pseudonym, which we can talk about later. But has since moved on to other books, bigger books, you know, the important books. And she gets one she gets an offer, though to record the last book written by a legendary romance novelist who actually gave Sewanee her start in the industry. And the money is too good to pass up. She is currently trying to take care of her ailing grandmother. And so she decides to do it. And in the course of recording this novel, she gets to know even though she doesn’t know his name, her co narrator who is the hottest, most enigmatic male voice in romance, audio, and through their relationship, and friendship, she not only rediscovers love, but she also rediscovers who she is, and it is a journey of self acceptance. And it is a lesson and what can happen when we actually take risks.
Craig Silva 06:15
I think that was a great elevator pitch.
Julia Whelan 06:17
Okay, it was just long,it was like, it was like a Sears Tower elevator pitch, or whatever it’s called now it was, you know, a very long pitch, but yeah.
Craig Silva 06:27
So the book obviously has some autobiographical elements to it, you know, like, the main character wins an Audie Award, and so on. What was that I guess process like, like writing where some parts are taken from, you know, things that you’ve experienced? And, you know, other parts are obviously fictional?
Julia Whelan 06:45
Yeah, when I, you know, I knew that I kind of went through this with the first book, but my first book was people assumed it was actually a memoir. And so I was kind of primed for this. For people to think this was if not straight up, autobiography, then at least autofiction. And kind of from the beginning, I tried to build a character who wasn’t me. And the way that I was doing that was I just started from the premise of who would be doing this job and like, be very good at it and like, love doing it, but not be totally happy doing it. Because I love it. And I’m very happy doing it. But there’s no conflict there. So it’s not interesting. So what do I how I built her kind of moving back from what could make someone love this, but somehow not be satisfied. And it comes to me that came down to just not feeling like this was the plan and not feeling like you’re doing what you were always thought you were supposed to be doing. And so that was for me. That was the that was always the biggest challenges like there are certain common denominators to this industry that all narrators experienced. There were things I could talk about in a way that felt like, you know, I get the same questions over and over as a narrator, like when people just trying to understand what the job is. So I knew how to write that. But I definitely didn’t want to write just an avatar of me in that world.
Karen Farmer 08:24
Oh, that’s so fascinating. That makes a yes. Where’s the conflict in the narration world? Yeah.
Julia Whelan 08:32
But because it’s a job that not a lot of actors enjoy doing. And so there’s always that question of a lot of people will do this kind of temporarily, as like, you know, the thing you do between other gigs. But I didn’t want to write about that I wanted to write about professional, full time narrators, the Yeoman audiobook narrators and if you’re doing that with your life, like you have to love it, because frankly, the money is not good enough. It’s demanding. It’s isolating, like you have to love it. And so if you don’t have that, then where’s the where’s the conflict? So that’s what I was dealing with.
Karen Farmer 09:15
It’s so interesting that you say that because I hadn’t ever really put myself in the position of being an audiobook narrator like what does this job look like? And there’s a conversation early in the book with a panel that’s happening in an event where someone puts their hand up and says, “I want to do this this should be my job,” and one of the women on the panel says something like, “Well do you want to sit in a dark room by yourself for eight hours a day stopping every time you make a mistake?” And you know if that sounds fun to you then go for it kind of thing. And that was an epiphany for me of oh, this is what this job feels like?
Julia Whelan 09:52
Yeah, I mean, we have a number of narrators, because we get asked that so often, you know, we have kind of our stock answers to that question, and the real answer to that question is I direct people to a website called Narrators Roadmap, which is a whole compendium compiled by Karen Commins, who’s an amazing narrator, who has she has actually taken the time to build the resources. And I’m just always like, ask Dr. Karen, go to Narrators Roadmap, when I’m not being snarky and saying, “Go read for eight hours in a closet.”
Karen Farmer 10:29
One of the questions we had for you, as we were reading this, too, is, you know, in addition to the challenge, I guess, that Craig asked about, like, you’re a narrator writing about narrators, but you don’t want it to be fully autobiographical. But you’re also a narrator that’s writing a book that you are then going to narrate. And we were wondering, you know, as you’re writing, you know, in any stage of this is the narration aspect of it already, on your mind. Does that informing what you write on the page? Or do you try to keep that part at bay? Like as a phase two, so that the words come out on the page the way that you want them to?
Julia Whelan 11:07
That is such a good question. And you know, the answer is that I really honestly thought I had, I thought I had taken into consideration, what it would be like narrating it as I was writing. And then when I actually sat down to narrate it, I realized how much I hadn’t thought about it. It just became, like, I didn’t realize how many axons I’d written into the book, I didn’t realize just how meta it would feel, like recording certain scenes like that for even just chapter one hits so different when I was suddenly recording it and listening to it back. So yeah, even though, you know, part of my editorial process is reading out loud, always. And I read every draft of this out loud, it’s how I figure out if pacing is working, if dialogue is working. And yet somehow actually performing it was different. Making the emails work, choosing how to do that, you know, there’s a whole epistolary section that’s like 100, and something pages, interspersed with, you know, action, but mostly anchored by these email and text exchanges. And like, when I was writing it, I was like, This is gonna be interesting in audio, and then I just kind of didn’t consider it again until I actually had to record it.
Craig Silva 12:27
It’s funny how often I see that in books now like, like a text exchange, you know, and sometimes in audio format, it can be a little annoying if they like read the email address or the timestamp every single time. And I noticed that you didn’t, and I appreciate it.
Julia Whelan 12:41
Absolutely, there were I cut out the subject line, for instance, on all because it’s the same on all of the headers. And sometimes the date and time is necessary to understand like when they’re overlapping each other, but sometimes it’s not. And if you can just I mean, because as a narrator, I’ve tackled those books before. And it’s like, if you can cut out character names between texts, you’ve tried to find a way to make it seem as natural as it would be if you were actually reading it on the page. And that adaptation process is a choice. Every book is different, everything requires a different approach.
Craig Silva 13:12
I was just gonna ask about the adaptation process. So you were just saying like, sometimes you can cut out like, you know, their names, or this or that to make that flow better in audio? Is that like a choice that you just get to make? Or do you have to, like, talk to the author?
Julia Whelan 13:26
No, never without running it by someone. Yeah, no, I could never do that without running it by someone. I will sometimes, like strongly state an opinion, you know, but usually, it’s just a check in of like, you know, do you have, do you have a plan of attack for this? Does the author have a preference, sometimes authors are well versed in audio. And so they know, they know, it’s just going to like, it’s just going to die. It’s going to the energy of the piece is going to drop and they know that and sometimes you have to explain to them that that’s what’s gonna happen. And so therefore, how do we work around that?
Craig Silva 13:57
So well, getting back into, I’ll try to avoid, I think on that same quiz on your website or interview on your website it said, “Oh, like, it’s too hard to pick my favorite book that I’ve ever narrated.” So we’re not going to ask that.
Julia Whelan 14:09
So appreciate that. Thank ya.
Craig Silva 14:12
We’ll ask a similar question.
Julia Whelan 14:14
I was gonna say for the record, it’s not like I have an answer. It’s not like I’m hiding it. I literally don’t have an answer. Okay.
Craig Silva 14:20
All right. So we’ll just assume it’s Addie LaRue. Is there anything that makes a book enjoyable for you to narrate? You know, not not doesn’t be like a particular book or a particular author but like something about a book, you know? I think like in Thank You for Listening the person said they just got off a hard book with 300 different characters and accents and all that. So I assume it’s not that but is there something about certain books that when they get brought to you’re like, “Oh, I love these types of books.”
Julia Whelan 14:53
Yeah, I think for I have a couple of different answers to that. Because it depends on the book, but I think that the actor, part of me loves a really voicey first person narrative, like, give me a character that I can really sink my teeth into. The writer, part of me enjoys really well written literary prose, like just, you know, let me just bathe in the beauty of someone who knows how to construct a sentence. I think that the challenging ones are of course, when the performance demands something that like the you know, I think in the reference that you’re saying in Thank You for Listening is talking about like a World War II epic, and yeah, war epics are always difficult, because you’ve got a ton of different accents and a lot of action and screaming and like, just the toll it takes on the actual instrument is a lot. But sometimes those can be the most rewarding, because it really does feel like a you’re just so immersed in the story. And so that can be a really beautiful experience. So yeah, I think it depends. I mean, you know, not to cop out again, and like not have a definitive answer to this, but it really does just depend on the voice of the piece, the book, I mean Addie was no, no, all jokes aside, Addie was an incredible experience. And I’m really proud of that audiobook. And it was a joy to narrate.
Craig Silva 16:30
You almost read my next question for me. We were gonna ask, you know, it doesn’t have to be like your favorite book you ever did. But is there a book that you’re really particularly proud of? Like, you know, you listen to the final product, and you just felt really good about it?
Julia Whelan 16:44
There are a few yeah, there are a few. And I think that, like, you know, this, this job takes a while to figure out how to do like, it’s not, it’s not natural, really. I mean, I came to it very naturally. I always enjoyed it from the beginning, but actually feeling like I was capable at it took a really long time. And so now I’m at the point where I feel capable, but then like, how do I keep leveling up? And so I set myself certain challenges. And two books recently that come to mind there are Addie LaRue, which was a discussion that I had with the author with Vee about the best way to translate this book to audio, and how to make that character make sense to people just hearing her. And so there were some very specific choices that we made that I was scared to make. Because I don’t mean to be cryptic about this, I will if you want to take the time, I will explain what I’m talking about. But okay. The challenge with that book is obviously that you start out you have a 24 year old French girl, and in 300 years, she is her accent has been sort of stripped away for the most part. But she is still 24. But what I wanted to have happen is that I wanted to hear those 300 years in her voice. So even though her actual, you know, vocal cords are still 24 years old, what she has seen and what she has lived through and experienced weighs on her. So that would be one thing if that book had been told in a linear fashion, but because it bounces back and forth between time periods. My concern as an actor who is you know, worried that people aren’t going to like your performance is that people would think I couldn’t hold the accent, or that I couldn’t hold the voice. And there was kind of a moment where Vee and I were Skyping about this. And I just realized that like I had to get out of my own way. And like this book deserved my total commitment to what I really felt was the best way to interpret this. And like if people didn’t get it, I would just take my lumps, like I would just say, okay, that’s okay. But people got it. And it was such a good lesson and trusting the listener to understand what you’re doing. So that was really gratifying.
Karen Farmer 19:13
I have chills hearing that, like the level of nuance that goes into artistically, like creating the voice for this entity. Thank you so much for sharing that.
Julia Whelan 19:25
No, yeah, I mean that that book, that’s, those are the ones that are challenging, and that’s why I really did what I wanted to talk to Vee because it’s also not just Addie. It’s also Luc like Luc becomes a person over the course of that book. He’s not really at the beginning and then he just imitates her and the other humans he interacts with to the degree where he becomes a really good mimic. And so his phrasing changes his his his whole thing changes. Keeping track of where each character was at as you bounce back and forth through time was challenging, but really rewarding.
Craig Silva 20:00
So you with that book you just read it linearly, right? Like from like page one to the end. It’s not like how they film movies sometimes where like yeah.
Julia Whelan 20:11
Yeah no. I think I’ve only done a couple of times where I have recorded things in chunks, where like, for some reason I would get a book that should have absolutely been two narrators, you know, where it’s like two alternating chapters from two different character POVs. And for whatever reason, they didn’t hire a second narrator. So I was doing everything. And so there’s been a couple of times where I have recorded things out of sequence, like I’ve done all of one character’s chapters straight through, and then the other just to stay in the voice and then I’ve cut it together for them. But typically, that doesn’t happen.
Craig Silva 20:49
Actually, you just made me think of another question. That’s not not on our script. So sorry, Karen. I’m going off script here.
Julia Whelan 20:55
Oh, gosh, okay. Everybody hold on.
Craig Silva 20:59
It’s not I’ve set it up too much now. In my mind, I know nothing about like the recording process for audiobooks. So I’m so excited to talk to you and ask questions. But in my mind, I picture like when they’re filming, or doing the audio for like animated films, and you see it you always see those shots on like YouTube or whatever, where it’s like, they’re all in the same room standing around each other with their scripts and whatever. And in my mind, I just assumed that’s how it was done, if there was multiple narrators.
Julia Whelan 21:26
But that’s almost never how it’s done.
Craig Silva 21:29
I learned that by listening to your new novel. When the main character and the male narrator they’re like sending each other stuff back and forth and ask them questions like, how are you going to deliver this line? Because I need to know for this and I was like, Is that really how it’s done? That seems so difficult, is like, like dialogue parts? Like how do you just skip over the part that the other person is going to read and just kind of hear it in your head and then respond then some poor editor somewhere has to edit all of this together?
Julia Whelan 22:03
Right. So you can understand how when I was writing this book, I was like, there were multiple times when I was like, Why did I do this to myself? Because having to explain all of this from the ground up and then somehow still also tell the story was like this is insanity. So the answer is that there are two distinct styles of narration that we’re dealing with when you’ve got more than one narrator. One is dual narration, which is alternating perspectives. Gone Girl is dual narration. Duet narration is when you are literally alternating lines, like a radio drama, kind of feel. So I kind of had my cake and ate it too in this book, where it starts out as dual narration where they’re just doing their individual sections, and then they are approximating the other person’s dialogue in their own voice within their sections. See, this is how quickly it goes off the rails, like what am I talking about. But then, when you get to the last two episodes of this project they’re working on I break in to duet narration as the characters become closer, so at that point that they are in the studio together, doing lines back and forth, trading them off. But even when you’re doing that there is still someone is handling like each one of those sections is still from one character’s point of view, even if the other person is doing their dialogue within it, but they’re still handling the narrative. I mean that I have not done a lot of duet actually and but the ones I’ve done have been like for Lauren Blakely, where it’s not even a romance scene I’m just doing it with like Andi Arndt, and I did some some of Lauren’s work together. Erin Mallon for Pale Blue Dot(s), we did some it was a whole group. And so therefore it was done as like, but we were all doing that remotely. That was the height of the pandemic, we were in our separate booths all Skyping in, you know, doing or Zooming in or whatever the hell it was we were doing. Making that work, but it’s very rare that you end up with the other narrator in studio.
Craig Silva 24:28
Is that just because you know one person is in New York and one person’s in LA or is it just like it’s just not how it’s done?
Julia Whelan 24:36
Yeah, I think I mean, yeah, a lot of it is just this is an industry that does not like spending money on anything. And I think also, it’s just not done that much. It’s really that is rarely done. You are usually doing discrete sections back and forth, in which case you don’t need the other person present. But it does require facilitating communication so that you are all on the same page with things. I mean, this gets to be the organizational part of this when it gets to be like, we’re talking about romance audio, where you have like a male and female or female/female male/male perspective. But when you get into audiobooks with like, seven different narrators or something, and we’re all on an email chain, like trying to coordinate pronunciations and like character voice.
Craig Silva 25:30
Do you actually send like little audio clips back and forth? Like they do in the book? Like, is that a thing? You’re like? This is how I’m thinking of saying it.
Julia Whelan 25:39
Yeah I mean, if you respect your fellow narrators, you’re doing that. I mean, there’s always that moment when you’re doing a multicast thing where like, you’re kind of like, who’s gonna go first? Because like, someone’s got to make the call on this, like, someone’s got to start this off, who’s recording first? You know, what do you need from me? It just, it requires a level of coordination. But and at the same time, absolutely knowing everyone understands, we’re never going to sound like the other narrator. You can give me your character voices that you’re doing. And I will use that as a, like, a trigger for how I’m going to do it in my voice. But I’m never going to actually convincingly sound like you. This medium sometimes is just I’m just like, how we have gotten away with doing what we do it, like blows my mind.
Karen Farmer 26:32
Like, it’s going, it’s successful.
Julia Whelan 26:35
It’s happening. Yeah, people like it.
Karen Farmer 26:40
One of the questions kind of going back to what we were talking about in terms of how you work with the authors, and get, you know, preferential things from them around, you know, the emails and how those are read. One of the things we were wondering, first of all, like, I know, and it sounds like there are many authors that you’ve worked with repeatedly on several books in their catalog. And so we both realized, we have no idea what the first part of that process is like, how does the work come to you? Does the author reach out to you and say, I’m your biggest fan? Can you narrate my audiobook? Or how does it come to be that you know, you are you are Addie LaRue.
Julia Whelan 27:20
So okay, this is where there’s a pretty strong divide between the way indie publishing works, and then the way that traditional publishing works. So on the indie side of it, there are marketplaces for authors to put up their projects and have narrators audition for them. And once that is they select their narrator, they go into production, the narrator is usually handling production for the author. So that’s, that’s really the author’s in control of that. On traditional publishing, which is where I do 99% of my work at this point, I open my inbox, and I get an email from any of the publishers or audio producers that I work with. And that’s usually that’s about 15 to 20 different clients probably. And they say we have this book, here’s the author, here’s the synopsis, here’s when we would need it done. What are your thoughts? And I, most of the time, for me, it comes down to scheduling. And then I obviously will prioritize authors that I, you know, love. I know, Emily Henry’s publishing dates, probably before Emily does, because I’m just like, I gotta keep it in mind for my schedule. And at that point, it’s like that’s when I can look at what the project is, but I don’t have the time no one does to actually read the book before you commit to doing it. And from the author side of it. When I was first starting there was really like a firewall between authors and narrators, you did not talk to them. And I think part of it was the producers like wanting to protect the narrator’s from some really like overzealous authors who had opinions about everything. But as authors have gotten to learn that audio is really important. You should care about audio. It’s a way that people find your book that they wouldn’t otherwise find your book. Narrator selection is important. But you start to see now more, the author involved a little bit more it can be that they are actually given approval in their contract. They are given, you know, consult at least. So that usually by the time something gets to me, it’s like the author has said if we can get her I would love to have Julia.
Craig Silva 29:43
When books have multiple books like a trilogy or something. Do contracts get signed, where like you’re locked in for a whole trilogy because I’ve read books where like the narrator changes on like the third book and it is the worst.
Julia Whelan 29:55
I know it’s worse. It’s terrible for everyone. No one likes that. And so to answer your question, no. We are independent contractors. They can’t make us do anything. But so sometimes that is a problem of timing. I mean, sometimes that is if you want a day and date audiobook, like if you want the audiobook out on the day that your print comes out, and your narrator isn’t available, sometimes you have to just make the decision or the narrator isn’t narrating anymore, or things like that happen. And it’s terrible for everyone. I took over a series from someone once, and I swore I would never do it again, because the reviews were so bad because I wasn’t the original narrator.
Craig Silva 30:38
Right? Even if you narrate it really, really good. It’s like they’re never gonna like it. Yeah.
Julia Whelan 30:42
They’re never gonna like it. I was like, trust me, I didn’t like it. I don’t like jumping in not knowing what I’m doing. I have had someone take over. I don’t remember if they took over I don’t think they took over a series from me. But they took over a spin off from me, like a spin off of the series. And I sent them all of my character files and my pronunciations and everything because I was just like, let’s try to like, minimize how much damage we can do here.
Craig Silva 31:11
What is a character file? Is this like a like notes on how this character should be read basically, or?
Julia Whelan 31:17
Yeah, it’s descriptions that I’ve gleaned from all of the books, the previous books in the series, as well as my actual voice samples that I keep of characters from series, if a character I have learned at this point, in doing this job that if I am recording a book and a character opens its mouth, I am clipping that audio and putting it in a file in a folder for that series, because I don’t know if the author is going to bring that character back. Five books later.
Craig Silva 31:48
It’s a podcast so no one can see me but I think my brain just exploded. I am the mind blown emoji currently.
Karen Farmer 31:59
I am too and I’ll ask one more like sub sub bullet to this conversation? This is a super weird question. But thinking about how you have to develop the voices for all of these characters, and sometimes hundreds of them in the same book. And as you’re going through that decision making process and creating the character file it almost feels like, like you personally have to like audition different versions of the same character to decide like, who’s gonna make the cut? How do you make that decision? And do you involve other people to say like, okay, which, which of these Luc’s do you like the best for example, or?
Julia Whelan 32:41
Well, Luc is an anomaly because I told Vee this, but I read Luc and I just went, Oh, I know him. There’s a good friend of mine from college, an actor who I just was like, okay, so he’ll play him in the movie. It’s not even close, like this guy just came fully formed is like, Oh, this is this is him. So I was basically my Luc, is an impression of what I think my friend would have done with that character.
Craig Silva 33:08
I assume you told your friend this, right?
Julia Whelan 33:11
I did. I did. And he’s now read the book and like, absolutely loves it. And, you know, but I, he was like, Gee, thanks.
Craig Silva 33:21
That was gonna be my was like I don’t know if I would like that.
Julia Whelan 33:25
I was like, No, yeah, well, too bad. It’s like, I get to do whatever I want to do. But under normal circumstances, when something isn’t as clear as like Luc jumping off the page to me. The part of the calculus that goes into that is honestly figuring out where that character fits in the web of the story. So when I read a book, and I prep a book for the first time, I keep a character list of any speaking role, and then any vocal traits that the author gives them any biographical information that I need to have. And then I look at which characters are like most often in scenes together? So what are those constellations? If it’s a family, like, who are they, if it’s a workplace thing, or a school thing. Who are the characters that are constantly in conversation with each other? So I work backwards from that differentiating characters that I know we’re going to be talking a lot to each other. So I don’t just create characters in isolation is I guess what I’m saying. I think about how they fit into the whole.
Karen Farmer 34:35
I had never even thought about that. Yeah, if you have three people that are always talking to each other, they have to be distinct from from one another, or it’s going to be confusing.
Julia Whelan 34:43
Right and that can get complicated and like, I mean, I remember there would be some YA novels like set in boarding schools or set, you know, where it’s just like 12 different teenage girls and how do you do that and make that clear to a listener? You know, that’s the that’s the task.
Karen Farmer 35:04
Yeah, I would not even know where to start on that.
Julia Whelan 35:09
You figure it out
Karen Farmer 35:12
One voice at a time.
Julia Whelan 35:14
There’s no rule for this. No one teaches you how to do this. There’s no rule, you just figure it out.
Craig Silva 35:20
To shift gears slightly away from the audiobook recording process. I had written down like when we knew we were going to talk with you I had written down a note, like, talk about AI. And then I was listening to your book. And I was like, Oh, my God, she talks about AI in her book. I was like, now I have to ask. Obviously, for people that may not know, I’ll just give like a quick little thing. There’s lots of websites and apps and companies right now that are building AI, where you can dump text into it, choose a voice, and it spits out a somewhat human sounding narration that, you know, has dips and lows, and it sounds kind of human. In your book. Again, without any spoilers, there’s, you know, two narrators talking and I think he compares himself to a dinosaur. And he’s talking about retirement, and he says this AI audiobook thing is going to be the meteor that takes out the dinosaur. And I don’t necessarily agree with that. But you know, who knows, I guess I’m sure you’ve thought about this a lot. And I’m just curious, like, what are your thoughts on this, like emerging technology?
Julia Whelan 36:26
Yeah, you know, I think this is like a perfect place to talk about this, actually. And when I was writing the book, you know, over the last three years, I knew this section had to be addressed, because it’s a huge part of our industry. But it was also like, impossible, to every time I would do a new draft, there would be new information out there publicly available. And so I was just like, how far do I go in this? Because by the time it’s published, it’s gonna be like old news, or it’s five years from now, people are gonna be like, I can’t believe they had this conversation in this book, you know. So it has been an up to the minute thing that everybody in our industry has their eye on. And I think that, you know, look, I think we’re naive to think that. I feel like as you said, it’s already here. First of all, it’s already a service that is being provided. And I also think that there’s something about we can’t think that, like what other industry has survived automation, in its original form. What I think we can do, and this is where I see the community of narrators who are truly, truly I mean, this, some of the best people I’ve ever met, like, these are the best of actors and literate people, readers, thoughtful humanists, who we know we’re not going to compete with the robots. But we can, we can keep elevating the craft of what we do as something that is not that. This is a separate thing. With a one thing AI can’t do, because it can produce your audiobook much cheaper, and much faster. But it does not know what it’s saying. Right, the thing you get with a human voice is that I know, at the end of the book, when you put that call back into the thing, that you’re referencing, something that happened at the beginning, I remember that thing. And because I read the book, before I ever started recording, I know that that thing that you are foreshadowing is something I want to play with the entire time I read the book so that when I get to the end, and you call it back, it calls back, it makes sense. It connects. Those are things that right now can’t be replaced. And so for us, this is it’s going to be very disruptive. I don’t want to undersell how disruptive this is going to be this is going to change the industry. But I do think that there is a place for what we do. And part of why I wanted to write a book about this is to show the human face behind this job. And is to elevate the profile of the narrator in the public consciousness. Because I think, you know, authors are going to have to start deciding do they care? Do they want a human versus AI? Publishers are going to have to start deciding this. And consumers.
Craig Silva 39:43
Are any audio or any publishers or, you know, audiobook, like providers doing this currently? Because like, I mean, I look at the Libro website every single day obviously because I work on it and I’ve never seen like narrated by blank or narrated by like a robot. And I’m wondering like, is this actually I know the technology is out.
Julia Whelan 40:05
Again, I think part of it has to do with labeling. So like, as far as publishers go, no, not yet. But some of the indie projects that may be distributed may have been narrated by a robot and not been disclosed. Right now you’re, you know, in the Deathstar, in Audible, you can’t upload, you can’t upload a book that has been narrated by AI.
Craig Silva 40:37
Because they just don’t want it on the platform.
Julia Whelan 40:41
They don’t want it on the platform. Yeah. And I think that, you know, they have their own reasons for that, I don’t begin to understand what they’re probably developing.
Craig Silva 40:51
Yeah, AWS has their own text to speech.
Julia Whelan 40:55
So I have a feeling that rule is going to change as soon as they can monetize it.
Craig Silva 41:00
That sounds about right.
Julia Whelan 41:02
I mean, why not? But for the time being, that’s the rule. Now, do things slip by every once in a while, people, especially other narrators find a book that they’re like, this is 110% text to speech, and it slipped through the, you know, all of the checks that you’re supposed to check to have a book up there. But yeah, this is what I mean by it’s an ever shifting thing. This is a week to week thing. And for the narrator’s you know, I think that the big question becomes, how do we protect ourselves in all of this, because I’m not someone who’s going to stand there and say, like, you should never license your voice or something. But you have to be able to protect where that goes. A lot of the really egregious stuff that’s happened so far, has been people who license their voices to companies that they now sell it to third party stuff. And that’s how you end up with your voice narrating things you don’t want or companies you didn’t you did not contract with. It’s really the wild west right now. It is really, really all options are on the table.
Craig Silva 42:19
I mean, there was that huge legal issue, right with Beverly Standing and TikTok. Yeah, yeah, where she had no idea that her voice was going to be like made to be able to say anything, and then they ended up having to change it. Right. I forget how exactly how that ended. I feel like the TikTok voice changed.
Julia Whelan 42:34
Yeah. And it’s, you know, I mean, but again, like all of this stuff, this is this is all and that’s the point I’m making the book is like, all of this is a court battle. All of this is like, how much money do you have to fight this?
Craig Silva 42:46
I mean, that’s the character says, right, like, yeah, like, what are you going to do? Like, take them to court? Like, you know, how much money that would take etc?
Julia Whelan 42:55
The laws have yet to be written. You know, I mean, that’s the thing, the general issue is like, our technology is outpacing our laws. So with everything, so privacy with everything. So like, how do you, you know, we’re not going to avoid that.
Craig Silva 43:11
It’s tough, because when I think about like a small independent author who probably isn’t attached to a publisher, and whatever, like the idea that they could, like, make an audiobook for relatively cheap is an interesting idea. But at the end, like, thinking about, like, where this could go, and like, the I hate the term, slippery slope, but like, it makes me be like, Well, I don’t know, read it yourself. I guess that’s the truth of it.
Julia Whelan 43:34
I mean, that let’s be honest, like the AI is going to start writing the books too at a certain point. So like, you’re not I mean, for me, the argument I always make, which, of course, I understand that. And every author, especially indie who is running their own business, make your decisions for your business, you know, but I think something that often gets lost in this conversation is, again, what the narrator brings to the audio. And it’s not just a voice. And it’s not just what I said earlier of knowing what it’s saying. It is also loyalty that listeners have to a certain voice. Yep. If you’re going to use a text to speech, that they’re not going to find your book, any way other than it just exists. It’s just an audiobook that exists but they’re not searching for a narrator and then find your book.
Craig Silva 44:23
Totally. Yeah. Your comment earlier about like, Well, I had to think that she’d seen 300 years of this so I had to, like change the way I said it. Like, that’s not gonna happen with AI not anytime soon anyway, you know, so like, I don’t know. I don’t like this new dystopian future we’re talking about.
Julia Whelan 44:42
Oh it is uncanny valley like we’re there. And I think that, you know, there’s a I mean, the whole thing is so surreal. And this industry was I think, you know, we just started a bunch of narrators got together and started PANA, which is a Professional Audiobook Narrators Association. And one of the questions we asked ourselves as we were forming this is like, are we too late? Like, is this even a thing? And the answer was yes because this is exactly when we need to band together. Like this is exactly when we need to start having these conversations and teaching each other how to do this and passing this on as like the craft that this really is because it’s existential for a lot of people. You know, I mean, this is a job. These are the minds closing, this is a big deal for a lot of people. And not just narrators, but the editors and the proofers and audiobook producers, and everyone’s going to have to learn how to exist in this new world.
Karen Farmer 45:49
One of the things that you said that rings, so true from my job, so I’m responsible for customer experience at Libro.fm. And so all the tickets that come in, I’m talking to customers all day long. And there is a distinct theme throughout customer conversations, which is that affinity for particular narrators, people, our customers love to recommend things to us, you know, they’ll do something and say if you haven’t heard this one yet the narrator’s amazing. And it’s just really exciting to hear that and you know, customers will say, I love this narrator are they doing anything else? Do you know when their next book is coming out? And you’re totally right like that. That is just an irreplaceable relationship.
Julia Whelan 46:31
That’s why I think these things can coexist. I was much more pessimistic about this when I was first starting to write the book. And so even that conversation between the characters sort of changed, where it’s like, you know, do you want to run an audiobook studio, which is basically what he’s telling her is like, the business of doing this may be different. And that was something where it was like, Yeah, we are. I mean, I don’t know how long people are going to need to go into a studio for anymore. I don’t know, how long we have on that there’s certain things that are, this is just this is an ever evolving thing. And, and I think they can coexist, though. I’m more optimistic, believe it or not than I was a year ago when all of this stuff started kind of coming to the surface. But we’ll see. I don’t pretend to know, this. I don’t know.
Karen Farmer 47:25
How could one know? Well, I’m sure this is not a unique question at all. But selfishly, I would just love to know, in terms of your world, like who are your idols? Who are the people that you look up to in the narration world, and maybe people who have inspired you are informed the way that you think about the work that you do?
Julia Whelan 47:46
That’s a very good question. I, you know, when I was first starting out, I would say I was listening to Cass Campbell, a lot. I was listening to Dion Graham, I was listening to Simon Vance. Edoardo Ballerini. And I think that Bahni Turpin, obviously, like, there’s just certain people who are so distinctive, and really bring everything that I know about them personally. And that’s again, this is what I mean, the argument for human narration is I know who these people are, and I know what they bring to the work. And that’s why you can’t imitate that. Like I always tell other narrators you know, when they are starting out, and it’s like, don’t try to be someone else. The only way this works is you have to bring you to it. That’s it and you’ll learn within your own parameters of like, how much of yourself to bring to any given piece, how much you should pull back, you should go further. You know, all of that stuff is the stuff you learn about yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. But those are the people that I think showed me what was possible in the industry. Katy Kellgren.
Karen Farmer 49:19
I get so excited every time we do an episode of the podcast, we say this every time but my list of things I want to listen to next gets very long. I’m like making a note of all of these names to go find their work, after this.
Julia Whelan 49:32
Yeah there’s good people doing this job and not just good artists but good people.
Karen Farmer 49:35
Well, obviously we are huge fans of your book, everyone who was listening, you should go out and pre-order Thank You for Listening right away. We loved it. I will never be forgiven by my coworkers if I don’t ask this but is there anything that we should have our eyes and ears out for in the future from you that you’re able to share with us?
Julia Whelan 49:57
Well, okay, so obviously Taylor Jenkins Reid has a new book coming out at the end of August and it’s going to be another multicast thing. Carrie Soto is Back it’s going to be fantastic. I can already tell you that. I am narrating, well wait. See this is where I have to do a thing of like has it been announced yet. By the time this book comes out, I think you know what, it’s up on Audible. So I’m going to go ahead and say it I’m going to be doing with two amazing co narrators, the two new Cormac McCarthy books. In the fall, and they are incredible. And the first one I will be doing with my old college friend MacLeod Andrews. And the second one I’ll be doing with Edoardo Ballerini.
Karen Farmer 50:50
Oh my gosh, I cannot wait.
Julia Whelan 50:53
They’re incredible. So yeah, I mean, I’ve just, you know, this job at this point is just for me an embarrassment of riches. I’m so lucky to get what I get and to get to live in these books. It’s just, it’s thrilling.
Karen Farmer 51:14
It’s thrilling for your listeners too so we thank you for sharing that. I am so excited right now.
Julia Whelan 51:20
Oh, well, good. Good. I mean, I don’t even know what I can talk about and what I can’t but whatever. We just did it. So it’s fine.
Karen Farmer 51:29
Well, hey, you know, if we need to edit later, let us know. We promise to keep our lips sealed.
Julia Whelan 51:33
It’s been announced. Like I said, it’s up there. It’s been announced. I don’t take any responsibility for that.
Craig Silva 51:42
Well thank you so much for coming and coming on the podcast today and spending an hour with us and, you know, letting us know all these inside things that were, you know, mind blowing to us and telling us about your book and everything. It’s been so nice to get to know you and chat over the last, you know, 40 minutes or so.
Julia Whelan 52:00
It’s been really nice talking to you all. I feel like kind of really honestly, like coming home like this was just a really nice island and everything of people who love this work and who understand it on a certain level and a listenership that wants to know more. So this was just truly wonderful.
Craig Silva 52:15
I like to think about it like that. A little island. Audiobook Island. No robots allowed.
Julia Whelan 52:21
They can’t swim either.
Craig Silva 52:25
Awesome. Well, on that note, yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you. Well, thanks for listening. We really hope you enjoyed that interview. There were about a million other questions we want to ask Julia. So I’m sure we’ll have her back on the podcast in the future. If there are other authors or narrators you want us to chat with, please shoot us an email at hello@Libro.fm and tell us who we should reach out to.
Karen Farmer 52:53
And just a reminder, if you haven’t tried libro FM yet, don’t forget to sign up using promo code Libro podcast to get an extra free credit when you start a membership.
Craig Silva 53:02
As always, thank you for listening