The FAQ of Being an Audiobook Narrator
A standard day at the “office”!
So my “day job” here in the city is audiobook narration. I LOVE it – it’s incredibly challenging, artistically fulfilling, and both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. It’s also HARD.
Naturally, I get a lot of questions from people when they hear the word “audiobook”. (“Actor” or “singer” doesn’t have nearly the same effect, weirdly; perhaps it’s because I can’t yet answer “yes” to the inevitable “Would I have seen you in something??”) So let’s answer some of the most frequently asked questions about being an audiobook narrator.
How did you get into narrating?
This is actually one of my favorite stories, because it’s one of the few times in my life where the grit and persistence they preach about in college has paid off. I got into narrating by answering a Craigslist posting looking for staff narrators for a local publishing firm when I was living in the Midwest. Sitting with my horrible laptop, I summoned some courage (having never had any training with audiobooks ever, other than being a huge book nerd who loved reading) and recorded two sections of books I had on my shelf. In fact, I’m pretty sure one was Twilight. Anyway, the recording quality must have been abysmal, given that I used a free program (Audacity) to record the files while sitting over my laptop in my living room. Very low-tech.
And then I never heard back from them. But I saw a repeat posting a month later, and so I listened to the voices in my head that insisted that persistence always paid off and emailed them again, saying I was still interested in the position and did they need anything more from me? Lo and behold, this time I got a response. They had me come in for an interview, and when they found out that I could read weird Biblical words without breaking a sweat, I was hired. (It was a Christian publishing firm – though of all the books I read there, only one was religious!)
Working for them was a crash course in embracing the unknown. There wasn’t really any training – I was shown my booth with its computer, handed an instruction sheet for working with Adobe Audition, and told to go for it. The job included editing my own work and adding sound effects and music beds throughout – very unusual in the larger narration world, but a great primer for technical skills I’ve used hundreds of times since then.
So how did you audition for your studios here in New York?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it – a friend got me the audition. I wasn’t even considering audiobooks out here, feeling that my previous experience, while valuable, couldn’t possibly be competitive in this city. But she was also a narrator, and when she heard in an offhand comment that I’d been one as well, she suggested that I send her my samples. I protested considerably but sent them to her. She thought I had a talent for it and so she recommended me to the two studios at which she works.
I was so scared for those auditions, honestly. I felt like I was playing in the big leagues with only Little League experience. But as I’ve done countless times since moving out of my parents’ home, I faked it till I made it, as they say. I didn’t let them know that I was aware of my inexperience and had no clue how the “professionals” did it; I just exuded confidence and did my best, hoping that it was good enough. I was actually partially rejected at first; my character voices weren’t distinct enough, so I had to come back in later and reaudition for fiction – an excellent moment of learning and growth!
Is the work a dream? Just to sit in a room and read books all day sounds amazing!
It is wonderful for a book nerd like myself to read for a living, there’s no doubt about it. But the thing I caution a lot of people is that it’s actually really hard. First, there’s vocal stamina – I spent the first six or seven books learning how NOT to place my voice, because it was killing my voice, and I’d barely finish the book able to speak. It’s tempting, especially with male characters, to place the voice back in the throat to get a deeper or darker sound, but that’s murder on your vocal chords. So, even today, it’s a fight to put all the different voices in healthy places, while still finding distinct sounds for each of them.
Second, there’s physical stamina. Have you ever tried to sit in a chair and read without moving? For seven hours? It’s hard! In fact, it’s the most difficult part of the job, in my opinion. I’ve had to learn how to move silently, because my arms get really restless, while my legs get super sore unless I change positions every minute or so. (A little footstool really helps.) I’ve also learned the importance of silent clothing – once I had a mesh shirt on, and every time I shifted, it made noise. We had to stop a lot for that one. Mostly, I live in yoga pants and sweaters.
Do you ever take breaks? How do you deal with mistakes?
This part seems to take the most people by surprise. The answer is yes, I take lots of breaks, and mistakes happen often.
When I was narrating and editing my own work, I had a hotkey that would put a “marker” in my session, so that later I’d go back and correct it when I made mistakes. For those books, I didn’t really take breaks, and I didn’t have to worry about page turns because the text was all digital, on the same computer I was recording on.
Nowadays, though, I’m working the more normal way – with an engineer. Sitting in a separate room from my booth, they keep track of the session on the computer, stopping me if I make mistakes, and punching me back in when we stop – which happens often! I’d prefer not to make any mistakes, obviously, since I’m paid only by the final time of the book, not by how long I’m in the studio, so it’s in my best interest not to make mistakes. However, for a variety of reasons, they happen; I might be tired and seeing things that aren’t on the page (totally done that), I might have to swallow unexpectedly, and of course, I often have to turn the page, because we work with physical books, rather than ebooks, at my studios. Apparently, once upon a time, turning the page silently was a narrator skill – but I don’t know many people that have to do that now, because it’s so easy to pick up the recording right before your mistake and keep going. So yes, we take plenty of breaks; though on a good day, when I’m into the story and my body is cooperative, I can go for a couple hours without needing a real break.
Do you ever get bad books?
ALL THE TIME. The publishing world is a huge field, and I regret to say that, as much as I respect any author for putting their pen where their mouth is, I am amazed at how many bad books there are. Poorly written (or poorly edited, as is more often the case) books make my job a lot harder. Often they don’t have good characterization, which means I have to figure out a way to vocally create the differences for the listener, often arbitrarily; frequently, I have to manufacture emotion and drama when it’s not written in but probably intended; and mostly, I have to fight myself to keep going. You make a lot more mistakes when a book isn’t good, because you’re usually bored – and when your attention wanders, your mouth makes a lot of bad choices.
When you’re reading a good book, however, you make far fewer mistakes. You’re engaged, you’re hanging on every word, you care about the characters, and so you’re much more present with the text in front of you. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good books, in part because I’m something of a Young Adult Fiction specialist at my studios, and YA has a lot better editing, on the whole. That being said, my favorites have been adult novels – go figure.
So do you do commercials and stuff, too?
This is something that confuses a lot of people. Certainly, there are some narrators that do voiceovers. But the two are very different genres, requiring different skills. Reading an audiobook is like running a marathon, whereas voiceover work tends to be more like the 50-yard dash. I’ve done some work as a voiceover artist, and while it can pay much better, I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as work-intensive audiobooks. I suppose the latter is much more about storytelling, which is the appeal of the performing arts to me. Sometimes I almost feel like a tribal mythkeeper or shaman when I start a book – there’s a sense of magic that I’m going to share something important, using only my voice to paint the entire world of the story. I just don’t have that kind of reaction to voiceover work.
That being said, I’ve tried my hand at animation voiceovers a few times, and what I discovered was that, by and large, the format just doesn’t speak to me. I suppose it’s because I spent hours and hours and HOURS reading when I was a child, and even through my adulthood, so reading and books are a natural format for me. I understand them, their cadences, their pacing, etc. In contrast, I didn’t ever watch cartoons or TV growing up, so the format is foreign to me. I don’t really get it, and I definitely don’t “hear” how it should sound in my head, the way I do with books. Thinking along those lines, I’d be great at videogame narration, given how many hours I’ve spent around them since getting married…now if only the right studio would come calling. 🙂
So those are probably the questions I get asked most frequently. If you’re considering audiobooks yourself, I say, go for it! Take good classes with reputable narrators whose work you respect (if you’re in the city, I recommend Johnny Heller, and if you’re in LA, pretty much anything taught at the Deyan Institute is guaranteed to be good), and be wise about spending your money – the narration field has had its ranks grow exponentially due to the ease of creating a home studio, so there’s a lot more competition, and a lot of hacks out there. But most easily, just sit down and try reading to yourself out loud and see what happens. You will either love it or hate it!
Feel free to ask me more questions! It’s not a job people hear about often, I know, so I’m happy to satisfy any curiosity out there.