I write Valentin & The Widow, a 1920s pulp adventure serial in which a feisty young English widow and her burly gay Russian valet travel around the world dismantling her late husband’s evil and oppressive secret society. (Find it on iTunes, RSS, Tumblr.) It’s big, plotty, proudly genre fare with magnificent villains, plucky heroes, dashing chaps and derring-do. And it’s released for free as a weekly audio podcast that you can listen to on your phone, your laptop, your tablet, your curling irons (maybe).
Audiobooks have gained in popularity in recent years precisely because most of us now carry a device in our pockets that make it easy to buy and listen to books-on-tape (as they used to be called). But people think of audiobooks as professionally produced recordings of previously published complete works read by Stephen Fry.
What I’m making is not that.
It’s not professional; it’s garage. It’s not previously published; it’s audio first. It’s not yet a complete work; it’s an ongoing serial (with a planned ending). And it’s not read by Stephen Fry; it’s read by a different witty, well-spoken gay Englishman. (Me, guys. It’s read by me.) It’s a self-published audiobook.
But it wasn’t always meant to be.
I conceived the series as a comic book. I wanted to do a globe-trotting adventure - James Bond meets Corto Maltese - with a female lead and a gay co-lead. I wanted to create something in the adventure genre that I love, but with the heroes that I never get to see. I wanted a motivated female hero who kept her clothes on and wasn’t afraid to confront the villain face-to-face. I wanted a male hero whose sexual tension was with villainous guys, not villainous girls. I wanted to write the book that I wanted to read.
But I didn’t know how to find an artist, so when NaNoWriMo came around I wrote the first Valentin & The Widow adventure as prose.
And that first adventure sat in a drawer for a few years while I worked on the second adventure, the third, the fourth. The new plan was to put them out into the world as prose, but I never got around to it.
I was drafting the seventh adventure when my friend Kalman said, “Why don’t you release it as an audiobook?"
Kalman knew something that I did not; that this was a thing people did. In fact, some people have made their careers this way. It’s simultaneously a small enough industry that most people don’t know it exists, and a big enough industry that all the writers doing it thinks that the golden age is already behind us.
So I thought about it, and I decided, yes, I will release Valentin & The Widow as an audiobook. Because…
1) It’s different
Self-published audiobooks are still quite a young idea, because we only recently reached the point where the technology and the infrastructure exists to allow anyone to do this. That’s limiting in its way; finding an audience is definitely a struggle. But because it’s a young idea, it’s exciting, and the audience is growing. I think this is a good time to try something like this.
Self-publishing is a tough road to take. It’s enormously stigmatised. The do-it-yourself ethos is sexy and edgy and against-the-system if you’re making music or movies or comics, but it’s "vanity” if you’re writing prose. In other art forms we place a value on rawness; in prose we beg for the intercession of an editor.
Self-publishing an audiobook requires an extra level of commitment, an extra degree of determination, and a slightly different sensibility. It’s just different enough that it takes some of the suburban sheen off vanity publishing. It makes it a little bit indie again.
2) It’s a serial
Podcasting is a young medium, but audio adventure has a pedigree that goes back almost a century. Valentin & The Widow is set in the mid-1920s, the early days of the radio serial phenomenon. The form complements the content. And it’s genre fiction, which is something audiences still expect to consume in serialised form.
3) It’s pragmatic
I really admire the webcomics model. Webcomic creators have it all going on. By giving content away for free, they can attract an audience. If they’re dedicated enough to maintain output, they can build that audience. In doing this they refine their craft and prove to publishers and editors that they can deliver the goods. And eventually they find themselves with a bushel of content that they can re-purpose and sell in a different format.
I can’t draw, so I can’t make a webcomic. But I can read, so I can make an audiobook. And that allows me to do all the same things that webcomics people do. This audiobook is my webcomic.
4) I can read
And so can you.
But what I mean here is that I can read out loud in an expressive manner. I’m not going to claim I’m the master of a thousand voices - my modest hope is that none of the accents I do are actively painful to listen to - but I can do the acting part of this job, and I think I’m good enough at it that it might add to the experience.
I suspect there are a lot of writers who would find this type of performance unbearable. I’m fortunate that I’m not one of them. As much as I hate extemporising, I’m very comfortable reading from a script.
I also think there are some writers who are comfortable doing this who aren’t necessarily good at it. Writers are frequently awkward, introverted types. I’m awkward and introverted too, but because I can act I can pretend that I’m not. Making an audiobook allows me to exploit assets that I wouldn’t otherwise get to use.
Plus, I have an English accent. I could be reading a cereal box and you’d think I should win an Oscar.
5) It makes me better
This is one thing I didn’t know before I started doing all this, but it’s one of the things that keeps me going; I’m a better writer because I write an audiobook.
Writing a weekly series is rigorous and demanding. Like a lot of writers, I can be a flabby procrastinator. Keeping a schedule gives me deadlines, and deadlines give me discipline.
I had already written a lot of the series before I started recording, but I’m rewriting it all as I go. Some of the adventures need a lot of work; most of them need to be restructured for the format; often I’ll rewrite a scene from scratch. Sometimes I’m still rewriting on the day that I record.
I’ve delivered 16 episodes in the past 17 weeks, averaging about 40 minutes each. That’s more than ten hours of material and over 100,000 words. That’s a lot of work. And it’s all good exercise.
6) I am my father’s son
My dad was a BBC man; a writer, editor and broadcaster. When I was young, the voice I heard coming out of the radio was sometimes my father’s voice.
He passed away less than two years ago. Doing this gives me a sense of continuity.
7) It gets the book out of the drawer
I could have kept writing this series forever and never got around to publishing it in any format, because I love to procrastinate and I have a crippling fear of failure, and never trying means never having to say you failed.
But an audiobook is an experiment, and calling it an experiment buys me deniability and gives me the ounce of courage I need. It’s a fig leaf, a delusion, but it’s the lie I tell myself to get myself out there producing a thing, instead of talking about how I’m one day going to produce a thing.
Those are my reasons. That is why I write - and edit, and record, and edit, and format, and publish - an audiobook.
Thank you for listening.
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