Embrace your inner project manager
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
"How long does it take to record and edit an audiobook?"
"How many books should I try to record per year/month/week?"
"How do you plan out when to record, prep, edit... your book?"
"Are ten days enough to produce a 7 hour book?"
These and/or similar questions are fairly common in the various social media communities for voice over artists and narrators. And hey, even if you have been doing voice overs for over ten years but you just got offered your first audiobook - chances are that you can't speak from personal experience how long each step of the production is going to take, since it may very well be a new-to-you process.
When I started out, I kept a bit of an eye on how long things took for me, at least in terms of "it takes me this long to record this much finished audio. And then this much time to edit it.". (Don't ask. Those very initial times were sad, especially when I was learning the software while editing.) There is a number floating around that it takes 6 hours to produce one finished hour of audio. Well, according to Karen Commins it's actually 6.2 hours and I appreciate her note that this does not include prep.
After some workshop session I had the full intention to produce one audiobook (up to 50k words) per week, starting in August.
Let's just say it didn't work out that way and I was getting close to getting frustrated with my apparently messed up schedule.
Instead, my producer/project manager genes from my previous career kicked in, along with some curiosity about some data/stats for my audiobook production aspects. I simply wanted to be able to plan my work, always have a good idea for where I was at at any given moment - even with multiple projects - and also be able to know things like "oh, this is a 50k word book, so it'll be about this long and I'll need about 2 working weeks to finish it".
So I started diving into some project management tools, especially those geared towards agile software development methodologies - I simply wanted the flexibility they offered. There are a lot of free versions out there with a lot of good documentation to serve your needs. You'll frequently hear Trello mentioned, or if you like adding a game aspect to it, you could check out Habitica. A couple of years ago I was a huge fan of a tool called Hansoft (looks like it's free for up to 5 users).
In my game development career we would also use or reference Atlassian's Jira (has a free tier with limited functionality) a lot, but over the last couple of years I have primarily been working with Microsoft's Azure Boards in the game projects. So, I naturally gave it a try for my audiobook projects, too - oh, it's also free for up to 5 users.
Now, granted, these are geared towards software development, but you can actually very easily adapt them to your audiobook needs.
The way you can think of it is having a hierarchy of multiple granularity levels - and I'll show you a screenshot of how it looks below. Note: Most tools let you configure which levels you want to include in the workflow. I use all four, but you can also just start with Features etc.
It begins with a so called "Epic". Think of it as a large task / effort that you know will consist of multiple sections, which in turn can be broken into multiple steps. For me, an Epic is an entire book title. Next come "Features". Anca Onuta put it very well in her post : "In Agile methodologies, the features represent a chunk of functionality that delivers considerable business value and fulfills a stakeholder need. Features are a collection of user stories."
For my narrations, I decided that I would make "Chapters" my features.
Then you have what is called user stories - and here is where I begin to really deviate from the classic definition and consider it simply another level of granularity in the hierarchy tree. In my setup, this is simply one of the stations in audiobook production, but you could probably also leave out this level.
Next up are tasks - those are the actual work items (Recording the initial narration, proof listening, recording pickups, patching pickups etc.).
Important note: Everyone is different, just like every project is different. Depending on your individual workflow, the steps or their order are likely going to be different. The following screenshots represent my personal workflow on these individual projects - but even my process changes a little from book to book.
There is no silver bullet that works the same for every single person and project.
As you begin setting up your process, decide on a certain unit of time that works for you to preplan. For some it's a week, others like to plan 2 weeks in advance, my time unit is calendar months. It's bending the rules a little, as the iterations should be as consistent as possible in their lengths, start days and end days, whereas calendar months do slightly fluctuate.
This you do in your project configuration:
In the image below you can see the structure of my "backlog" - the book Eidolon Avenue is the epic (indicated by a crown), then there are the various chapters (plus Prep) for features (indicated by the purple cup) and each larger unit/step of work - Recording, Pickups, Editing for me - are the next level, indicated by the blue book icon. Lastly, you have the little individual tasks that need to be completed to consider each larger unit completed. For me, for example, the initial recording and the proofing are both necessary to consider the first recording step as done. Similarly for pickups - they need to be recorded, patched in and then checked.
I also adjusted the columns displayed to show me how much of the project is done (% based on tasks marked as closed), the sum of words, completed work hours and runtime in minutes as well as the individual values.
Below you see the collapsed view of a couple books that I've currently fed into the tool. Note, I've only recently started using the tool, so the data is still growing.
Another thing you'll likely notice is that I occasionally change the columns around ;).
The neat thing is that you can create an inherited process which allows you to customize the fields for each hierarchy level. I have made some specific changes to the levels "feature" and "task". Be aware that once you have assigned a data type for the new field, you can't change it afterwards. So if you created "Runtime" as integer you're stuck with it and can't change it to decimal later without creating a new field. So it's good to have a rough idea for how you want to set up your project ahead of time.
For feature, I have repurposed "Effort" into "Words" - this is where I enter how many words any given chapter has. Additionally I added the fields runtime (for the finished audio) and number of pickups. With words and runtime I can easily get to my personal "words per finished hour" stats, and the pickups thing is just interesting to keep an eye on :)
Below is an example for the chapter setup with words, runtime and pickups filled in.
The other hierarchy level I adjusted a bit was task. And here you see a bit of evidence of an evolving process and workflow :)
Originally I had the word length in tasks - but changed my mind later. So here it's empty.
I added the field "Book", where I can give my books a shortened name - this comes in handy later.
I'm also utilizing five already existing fields: Original Estimate, Remaining Work, Completed Work (all in hours, in increments of .25hrs) as well as tags - try and stick to as few tags as possible, meaning - stick to the same verbiage each time. Mine are Prep, Recording, Proofing, Editing, Processing. Originally I had Editing and Processing in one tag but decided to split them after all. The last one I use is "Iteration" - this is where I assign the calendar month as part of the iterations I defined previously.
For the task status I utilize the "State" field, where I move it from New to Active and then Closed.
The thing about Original Estimate and Remaining Time is that these will not only help you get an idea for how long it takes to record, edit etc. an audiobook - but it will help you get an idea for how much bandwidth you have left at any given time, as long as you keep your tasks etc. updated. (Any task management tool is only as good as the love the user pours into it :))
In the "Sprint" view, I can set my daily capacity - right now it's set to 4 hours per work day - define any days off (think bank holidays or vacations etc) and it will calculate how many hours you are available to work.
Then it takes all the tasks that have been assigned to you, adds up the values from "Remaining" and presents the capacity available to you.
For example, right now I know that I have to fully produce six more hours of audiobook beyond what's already entered into the tool - from prep to mastering:
Now to the juicy part: the stats. Honestly, you can generate however much data you want, but the truth is that only a few things will probably be useful or interesting.
This is my entire dashboard, but in reality, I only use three of the widgets on a regular basis. All these are powered by so called queries, and in order to display any data here, they must also be visible in the query results as part of the visible columns. Don't ask why, I didn't make the rules :).
The main widgets that I use are
Completed Work By Book This is where I get the information for how long each step takes. Since I know the number of words and the runtime, I can break it down to "n hours of [work type] per finished hour". Since I outsource my proofing, that value is 0, but think 1.2-1.5 hours per finished hour for proof listening.
No Tags Or Books Sometimes when setting up a task I forget to enter which book it belongs to or which type of work this covers. Since these two are important for my dashboard, it gives me a quick view of what I need to fix.
Remaining Work by Book This is more for reference purposes, or in case an RH might ask.
Now, remember that I originally wanted to produce one audiobook per week? Well. If you look at Eidolon Avenue 2, you'll see that I spent 55 hours making it. It's an 8 hour book. Realistically, you don't spend 8 hours a day working on your audiobook - you need to give your brain, voice, eyes a break, do errands, have a life outside of narration (maybe even a family?), do auditions, go kayaking, feed your pet... all the things.
On the other hand, the KG Anthology is a 3 hour book that took around 14 hours produce. That can easily be done within one work week.
Seeing this helped me adjust my expectations and set my expected delivery for an 8 hour book at 2 weeks (3 weeks with some buffer). And you know what? That's okay. If you give yourself permission to not push yourself beyond what is reasonable, your performance will thank you for it - both in quality and in longevity.