Narrating audiobooks is something Cindy Piller always wanted to do, but until two years ago, she wasn’t sure it was possible from her Colorado location. With technological advances and subsequent training along with her B.A. degree in theater and voice, post grad education in communications, performance experience, and a variety of strange but wonderful jobs in journalism and marketing, her audiobook career is really taking off.
Since September 2015, she has 18 audiobooks under her belt with 4-5 star ratings and over 6200 rights share sales, in addition to per finished hour projects. It’s a very different world than her prior work with voicing commercials, taping PSA’s and videos for non-profits and schools or from providing medical education courses for major medical groups across the country, including 3M Medical. Piller loves narrating mysteries. She has voiced Mind Over Murder by Evelyn David, a writing duo who after working on many projects together still have never met (they’re afraid it will mess up their “chemistry”). She’s done the 3 most recent Kali O’Brien mysteries by Jonnie Jacobs, along with Jacobs’ suspense novel, Payback. She’s currently working on Painting with Fire: An Artistic Murder Mystery by K.B. Jensen, a former crime reporter from Chicago. In addition to historical and biographical projects, Piller has also done 4 books in Monica Leonelle’s very popular growth hacking for storytellers series with a 5th due to release soon. Prosperous
Creation: Make Art and Make Money at the Same Time is expected to be available by July 1. She continues to work as a member of the Xerox-owned Conduent narration team for medical education.
How did you get involved doing audiobook narration?
I’ve always been interested in audiobook narration, I took a masterclass about 4 years ago, did some subsequent investigating, and checking with others who were involved in producing audiobooks, but, at that time, the production process seemed daunting, so overwhelming, that I shelved it. This is not something you can learn to do over a long weekend! Two years ago, I found THE masterclass, and after 6 weeks of intense study and work, I was auditioning, getting jobs, and enjoying some great reviews.
You actually started out doing medical training voiceovers for Xerox for six years. Did that do anything to help your audio performing career?
It certainly expanded my vocabulary, honed my articulation, improved my technical skills in producing and editing. It also sharpened my concentration and focus. It was good practice in paying attention to detail and also for providing quick turnaround for jobs.
Is it a big jump to go from these training programs for Xerox to reading audiobooks?
Probably not so much for me because of earlier work in acting and communication. While I’ve always said that I’ll read anything out loud, including small print on cereal boxes, I wanted more variety in what I was voicing. I missed comedic timing, portraying different emotions, playing out storylines, and providing other kinds of information. I still do the medical training programs, but my real love is audiobooks.How much control do you have over which books you narrate? Do you get to select your choices, or are they just handed to you to do?
Quite a bit of control, actually. I like being able to switch from fiction to non-fiction within a few genres. My criteria for choosing a book includes finding something I want to read; something I believe other people will find interesting, intriguing, or fascinating; something that works for my schedule; and a predicted worthwhile outcome for the rights holder and me. I’ve done multiple books for authors/rightsholders. The second one is always easier because you have established a relationship with that person; you know how they like to operate and they know the same about you. You also have a better idea of what to expect because you’re really familiar with the person’s writing style and rhythm.
Would you describe the process involved in recording a book? How long doors it take to record a single book?
I always read the complete book first, not necessarily in tiny detail, but enough to know something about the characters themselves and the plot line, making notes along the way. I try not to overthink it and let the author’s words do the major lifting. We have to agree on the schedule and the process. The first fifteen minutes is sort of a test — the author or rights holder needs to okay that before I go any further. After that, I try not to get too far ahead of the rights holder in recording, just in case there is a problem with a name pronunciation, a major difference of interpretation, etc. For every hour of recording, I anticipate 2-3 of editing. For some people, it takes 6. Sometimes the computer program acts up or the mic isn’t where it needs to be. The process is more like a marathon than it is a sprint. Characters need to be distinct and they need to be consistent. You can’t read too quickly or too slowly, but you also need to have variations in pace and tone. And, despite best efforts, someone else needs to make sure the words are correct and in the right order. I spend more time with Merriam-Webster and the dictionary crew because a surprising number of words are often mispronounced. And then there are foreign words and accents. YouTube is another of my very good friends. I do about a book a month, depending on the word count.
Do you do the engineering yourself, or did someone else do that? And speaking of engineering, what exactly does that job involve?
I currently do my engineering, although that may change because of the growing number of books in my queue. I’m not a real techie, so it’s taken a bunch of classes to feel at home with the 3-4 recording programs I use. And just when I get them figured out, there is usually either a new program or an update that requires more study and tweaking. Some programs are extremely complicated, others a little more straightforward, but I’m always learning.
The first trick is to get the recording space quiet enough to record properly. You ask a lot of questions about things like “sound floor” and “gain.” Sometimes you have to become quite the detective to figure out where that hum or whir in the background is coming from, and then it has to be eliminated. Your voice has to be loud enough — but not too loud. You watch a lot of dials and meters, and listen very closely for errant clicks or mouth noise, pops, and anything else that might be distracting.
Your B.A. is in theater and voice, with a graduate degree in communications. What insights have those degrees given to you to help with your audiobooks?
I use training from these 3 areas every day. I can’t imagine doing audiobooks without an acting background. You can’t just have a “lovely voice” or “read well” and cut it. Just as in the theater, singing, or speaking, your voice is the link with the listener, and in audiobooks, that is a very intimate experience with a one at a time audience. When a person chooses an audiobook with your voice, that listener makes a major commitment in terms or time and money. I don’t take it lightly. It’s not as though this listener is listening to a quick ditty, a 2 hour concert, or a play where the intermission is determined by someone else. Your listeners are choosing you for an ongoing, long-haul experience that lasts for 6 to 15 hours. An audiobook listener has to truly believe your characters and their situations (and there are always more of both than you remember from the first read-through). When editing, I listen to see if what is projected will “speak” to the listener, involve and hold that listener. There has to be a “connection” and the material has to sound immediate and fresh. If there is a distraction of any kind, it’s re-recorded.
Your web page says of you, “She is currently a member of the Xerox-owned Breakaway Group narration team, providing over 350 education courses for more than 40 major medical groups across the country, including 3M Medical.” It further states, “Her voicing and script writing for student projects increased literacy and academic success through a variety of national award-winning media projects and subsequent write-ups.” Can you tell us about this?
You might be sorry you asked. Working for a community daily newspaper with students and teachers was a passion. The company encouraged me to think big and work with other community entities on numerous projects that met the required educational standards but fostered real student involvement in learning. I truly cannot count the projects we did or all the topics we covered — the physics of sports, dinosaurs, history, health, math, geography, technology. Don’t think we missed much. They were numerous and complicated, requiring almost as many people as a Cecil B. DeMille production, and yet had to be simple enough for teachers to incorporate in classrooms without being an add-on to a teacher’s busy schedule. And there wasn’t much of a budget.
One of my favorites involved providing a curriculum guide in the early fall to cover the Vietnam War and provide an understanding of that time and its events. Then we recruited Vietnam vets through the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veteran to go into classrooms and also serve as tour guides for some 5,000 students who visited the traveling Vietnam Wall. The project involved over 500 volunteers. When we received entries in our annual spring student writing contest, we saw evidence of what students learned and remembered as a result of their “Wall” experience. We also received notes of gratitude from families and teachers plus yearbooks featuring student Wall experiences. One student shared news of a major financial award as a result of her award-winning essay related to the Wall in a national competition.
Another favorite was working with Newbery award-winning author Avi and teaming with a community access television channel. We printed one chapter of “Reading the Sky” every Tuesday and Thursday, provided a curriculum guide and scrapbook to keep the printed chapters, then aired community celebrity leaders reading chapters to classrooms on the same day each chapter came out in print. Students (and their teachers) loved being on the air and asked great questions about the book and also had relevant questions for the readers. Kids met the mayor, an airline pilot, a newscaster, a police detective, and others. My role was to tie all the elements together and ask students questions. The series was so popular it was replayed 4 more times. We did lots of different series with a variety of themes and settings. I cannot tell you the number of times parents or grandparents called me in tears thanking the newspaper for helping their child learn to read and love to read.
It’s been six years since I’ve been with the newspaper in the classroom, but I still receive notes and messages from teachers thanking me for my contribution to their classrooms. They are still using the curriculum and lesson plans.
You have recorded in many media. What is your favorite to perform?
I’ve loved them all, although I was surprised to like television. Audiobooks are my current performance preference, probably because of the challenge. Getting one character down to the “t” is a snap in comparison to nailing a cast of characters as well as the setting. In non-fiction, it’s keeping the information fresh, flowing, and interesting. It’s a little like being a one-man (or woman) band.
What is your favorite part of narrating audiobooks?
Becoming immersed in the process. When narrating, I’m in a different world. I see the characters, hear them and what they are thinking, keep their secrets, help them spill their guts. I literally smell the smells, feel the breeze, hide in the shadows, or sweat in the sun. I absolutely adore bringing someone’s words to life, and feel so privileged to have that opportunity.