Fifty-three

The author with maternal grandparents, 1968. (Both were then younger than I currently am.)

Today is my birthday. On August 9, 1968, I came into the world in the little town of Sparta, Wisconsin. (Or so I’ve been told, I don’t remember much about that day; I’m taking everyone’s word on the matter.)

I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, either, or spend any significant portion of my life there. In 1968 my father was finishing up his enlistment in the US Army, and he was stationed at nearby Camp (now Fort) McCoy. About the only thing I did in Wisconsin was to be born there.

If I were a member of an earlier generation, I might remark about how much has changed in my lifetime. My paternal grandfather was born in 1909. That was before mass-market automobile ownership, the interstate highway system, commercial air travel, computers, and manned space flight. Not to mention nuclear power. My paternal grandfather watched all of those things come into existence between his birth and the age of 53.

Not me. All of the above had long existed by the time I was born. A few of those things have been significantly enhanced since my birth, computers being the most obvious. Some, like commercial air travel and the interstate highway system, are about the same.

But a few have actually seemed to move backwards. NASA landed a man on the moon in 1969, the year after I was born. (The first manned space flight was in 1961, seven years before my birth.) NASA hasn’t been back to the moon since 1972. And since the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, Americans have become much less optimistic about the wonders of nuclear power.

In 1968, people were dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. People are still dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. But they didn’t have COVID in 1968. Or AIDS.

***

The major technological advances of my lifetime, of course, have been the Internet and digital technology. I reached early adulthood in an era of typewriters, landlines, and cassette-based answering machines. As a result, I certainly appreciate the Internet. But as paradigm-shifting developments go, Facebook and Twitter can’t compete with the first manned space flight or the invention of the computer itself…all of which came about during my paternal grandfather’s lifetime.

***

What about politics? The year I was born, 1968, America was bitterly divided over what are now called “the culture wars”. In many ways, we are still arguing over the 1960s.

The Soviet Union existed in 1968. As I turn 53, the USSR has been gone for almost thirty years. But Russia is now a different kind of adversary. China, for all practical purposes, has replaced a Maoist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism with statist crony capitalism. But China remains our adversary, too.

***

So much for the world. What about the age of 53 itself?

The decade of one’s fifties occupies a nebulous middle ground. In your fifties you are neither fish nor fowl. Young adults equate you with their parents. Elderly adults equate you with their children. I have actually been described as “old” and “young” in the same day, depending on who I’m interacting with.

This isn’t a roundabout way of saying 50 is the new 30. To be sure, once you reach the mid-century mark, you are no longer “young”, in the conventional sense of that word. As a rule, people in their fifties don’t compete in the Olympics, have children, and get married for the first time—things that twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings typically do. Many of my former classmates are now grandparents, in fact. Very few of them still have school-age children.

And yet, at the age of 53, there is still much to do, much that can be done. Fifty-three is a full generation younger than either of the final candidates for POTUS in 2020. (My parents were both born the same year as Donald Trump, in fact.)

***

I’ve almost certainly passed the halfway mark of my life. I don’t expect to be alive 53 years from now, in 2074.

And having reached the halfway mark, I feel a certain freedom as I face the years ahead.

There is no need to worry about impressing anyone when you hit 53. Once you’ve passed the age of 45 or so, you naturally tend to drop off society’s radar a bit. No one cares how “cool” you are anymore. In fact, for middle-age people, the bar for coolness is substantially lower than it is for 20- or 30-year-olds.

Even Jennifer Aniston (one year my junior, born in 1969) isn’t very hip nowadays, even if she’s exceptionally well-preserved. Never mind that she was the “it” girl of the 1990s. No one much under the age of 40 remembers the 1990s. And most people over the age of 40 no longer care about the 1990s.

***

Looking back on the last five decades, I have no major regrets. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do anything differently. Of course I would do many things differently. There are times when I fantasize about riding a time machine back to 1987, and thwacking the 19-year-old version of myself on the head.

But there is a difference between looking back and saying, “Wow, what an idiot I was then!” and having deep, soul-piercing regrets about the past. Nor do I spend much time beating myself up over the wide knowledge and experience gap between 53 and 19. If I would have known better, I would have done better. Probably.

There is a lot more I could say, about loss, and mortality, and the importance of finding a spiritual compass for one’s life. But I have several writing projects on my plate, and I want to get them out into the world… while there is still time.

As noted above, at the age of 53, one no longer has the sense that time and life are virtually unlimited, barring major catastrophes—as most of us do at 19. At 53 there is still some sand in the hourglass; but there is a lot less sand than there used to be.

Should authors narrate their own audiobooks?

This is a question that has been coming up frequently of late on the various indie author boards.

The question is only natural. Dedicated narrators charge around $250 per finished hour to narrate, edit, and master audio files.

That means $2,700 to $3,300 to convert a 100,000-word novel into an audiobook.

No, those numbers aren’t in Japanese yen. They’re in US dollars.

To be fair to the narrators: Although $250 per hour sounds like a lot, the narrators aren’t necessarily charging the same hourly rates as corporate attorneys, heart surgeons, and high-class call girls.

Notice that I said, per finished hour. That means not only reading the material, but also editing out obtrusive plosive sounds, loud breaths, and overly lengthy pauses. It means mastering the files to make sure they meet certain technical specifications.

According to some estimates, five to ten hours of work can be required to produce a finished hour of audio for an audiobook.

Audiobook production requires a material investment in both hardware and software. There is also something of a learning curve, as sound engineering is both an art and a science. To become competent in sound engineering isn’t quite as difficult as becoming an attorney or a heart surgeon (I won’t speculate about the difficulty of becoming a high-class call girl); but it isn’t exactly simple, either. There are many new concepts to absorb and understand. Unless you have worked with audio at the technical level in the past, all of these concepts will be completely unfamiliar to you.

So hopefully I’ve made clear: No one should be resentful of the narrators who charge $250 per finished hour to deliver store-ready audiobook files.

That said, $2,700~$3,300 represents a significant upfront investment for most indie authors. If you’ve got a backlist of ten books, that means that you could buy a new Toyota Corolla for what it would take to convert your entire library into audiobook format.

It is only natural, then, that some authors are asking the question: Why not just do this myself?

Why not, indeed? This brings us to the debate. There are plenty of reasons for doing it yourself…and for not doing it yourself. I don’t believe that there is an absolute, one-size-fits-all, right or wrong answer to this one. As is so often the case in this life, the only succinct answer is: It depends. 

To begin with, the writer who seeks to produce her own audiobooks will have to be comfortable reading her own work in a very public way. Many writers are painfully shy. I am amazed at the number of writers who are terrified to appear on YouTube or on podcasts. Many are too shy to even post their author photos on Facebook or their Amazon author pages. These authors almost certainly won’t feel comfortable reading their own fiction, and that will show in the results.

Narrating an audiobook is also a unique skill, above and beyond other forms of public speaking. I don’t believe that professional theater training is a prerequisite, but it would certainly help. At the very least, no author should attempt to read his own work for audio without first having listened to hundreds of hours of audiobooks as a consumer. If you don’t like audiobooks, if you aren’t a consumer of audiobooks, then you have no business narrating them. 

And then there’s the investment and technical side, which I’ve touched on above. Some writers embrace technology, others shrink from it. Can you learn about RMS, noise floors, and hard limits as eagerly as you learned about three-act structure? Are you willing to plunk down the money needed to purchase a computer with decent processing power, a high-quality mic, and other equipment? Are you willing to pay for Pro Tools or Adobe Audition software?…Oh, and are you also ready to ascend the learning curve that it takes to competently use them?

In regard to this last point, I would offer one piece of cautionary advice. On writer forums, I occasionally see writers state that they are overwhelmed by Scrivener (a popular non-linear word processing program designed for writers). If you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener, then you probably shouldn’t try to produce your own audiobooks.

(I don’t mean to imply that you’re an idiot, by the way, if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….But I do mean to imply that you aren’t very technically inclined if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I can run a six-minute mile; but I can’t make simple free throw shots on the basketball court with any degree of reliability. Know thy strengths, know thy weaknesses.)

That all said, there are plenty of reasons for embarking on self-production…if you have the basic aptitudes and willingness.

One of the big arguments for self-production is this: The job that you hire out might not be any better than the job you could do yourself, with a bit of preparation.

There are few formal barriers to entry to the narrator field. Anyone can hang out a shingle as a narrator nowadays. Many of the narrators you encounter in the marketplace might be only a few steps ahead of you…or possibly a few steps behind you.

Let’s start with the quality of the narration itself. If you’re going to hire Scott Brick (the narrator of most of the Clive Cussler novels, among many other books) then Scott Brick is almost certainly going to do a better job than you. By all means, hire Scott Brick. Scott Brick is not only a consummate professional, he’s a “brand”. (I’m far more likely to consider an audiobook from an unknown author if Scott Brick is the narrator.)

I don’t know what Scott Brick charges per hour, but it’s probably more than $250; and his schedule is likely booked months or years in advance. I am therefore going to assume that you won’t be hiring Scott Brick. You’re going to hire some narrator from the online marketplace, whom you’ve never heard of before.

I’ve listened to many samples from lesser known narrators on the Audible site. Most of them meet a basic level of competence; but the indie author might honestly ask: Is that voice, that quality of narration, worth $250 per hour?

On the technical side, some of the independent narrators seem to be just as tech-averse as the average indie author. Many seem to have backgrounds in acting. When you think of someone who is technically proficient, is a drama major the first person who comes to mind?

It might therefore be easier to just bite the bullet, and learn about RMS, noise floors, etc.

Yes, it’s hard…but not heart surgery hard. It’s more like building-your-own-backyard-deck, or learning-conversational-Spanish hard.

You also have the option of recording and editing the audio files yourself, then hiring out the final mastering—which is not free, but which is far cheaper, in most cases, than $250 per finished hour.

The quandary of whether or not to narrate one’s own audiobooks, then, is a uniquely personal one that every author needs to carefully assess.

Whichever way you go, audiobook production isn’t going to be easy or cheap. Accept that from the get-go, or don’t even start.

The question is: Given your priorities, proclivities, and resources, are you better to sacrifice ease (self-production), or are you better to sacrifice cheapness (outsourcing)?

That’s the decision that you have to make; and whichever one you choose, you’re likely to encounter a bit of buyer’s remorse if your audiobook sales don’t meet your expectations.

Blinkist and the shortening American attention span

I’ve been following the news about Blinkist, the new app that promises to deliver “the key ideas from bestselling nonfiction books in just 15 minutes”.

The premise of Blinkist is that no one has time to read anymore. We’re all just so distracted nowadays, and our attention spans are so short. So we need things like…Blinkist.

But why is that, exactly?

Work? Yes, most of us have jobs. But did people not have jobs in 1999? Or 1979?  As I seem to recall, the job is not exactly a twenty-first century innovation.

But who has time to read an actual book…when there’s all those updates on Facebook…and did you hear about that latest outrage on Twitter? And you’ve got loads of text messages coming in….all of which are urgent and important, of course.

Just the other day, I was driving in suburban Cincinnati, when a woman about my age drove through a red light and nearly ran into me.

She wasn’t drunk or high. She wasn’t fleeing from the police.

She was talking on her frigging cell phone.

Yes, I understand that things change. I don’t expect this to be the America I grew up in anymore. But maybe this mantra about the inevitable shortening of the American attention span is something we ought to resist a bit more.

Do we really need an “app” to condense books for us? Or do we need more time with books, and a bit less time with cell phones and their many “apps”?