So You Wanna Be An Audiobook Narrator
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
A follow-up to my last post, So You Wanna Be a Voice Actor.
The areas of voiceover in which I specialize are audiodramas and audiobooks. Occasionally, I have done audiodramas and narrative projects which were released as podcasts. Narrative podcasts and audiodramas are a fantastic creative medium, but stylistically they tend to be a bit different from a more traditional audiobook. For now, let's focus on audiobooks.
Audiobooks are commonly categorized as long form, for exactly the reason you would expect: the resulting product is quite long compared to other areas of voiceover. Sometimes, extremely long - the audiobook for Neil Stephenson's Reamde is 38 hours and 29 minutes long. Don't let that scare you though - many audiobooks clock in somewhere closer to 6 - 13 hours.
Long form voiceover projects (audiobooks, e-learning, podcasts) put unique demands on the actor when compared to shorter forms of voiceover (commercials, IVR, gaming, animation) - namely, stamina. All voice actors should be vigilant about taking proper care of their voice by staying hydrated, warming up, and using protective techniques when performing vocal violence (screaming, growling, extreme alteration of the speaking voice, etc). When doing a long form project, it is particularly important to warm up, periodically stretch, and make sustainable choices when creating voices for characters.
But how do you know where to start? What equipment do you need? Where do you find jobs? Everyone's voiceover career takes a slightly different path, and there are many different opinions about the pros and cons of different equipment, indie production vs. working with publishing houses, and what independent distributers are best to work with. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on that here. What I am going to do is give you some tips for basic first steps. Suggestions for how to get your bearings. How to create a foundation you can build on.
The rest is up to you.
Listen to audiobooks. Listen to a lot of audiobooks.
You need to get a feel for what a good audiobook sounds like, what the industry standard of quality is, as well as an idea of what genres you might want to focus on. You should narrate books in genres you enjoy - if you're bored, your listeners will be bored as well. There are quite a few sources for this: Audible, Kobo, Scribd, Apple Audiobooks, and Google Play Audiobooks are some popular examples of paid subscription services (often including access to content which is exclusive to that service). You can also check out audiobooks for free from your local library using an app like Libby, Overdrive, or Hoopla.
Listen to a few books that have been produced by big publishing houses (who have the funds to hire the best narrators in the business, and have them record in a professional sound studio), a few from smaller presses (who will still hire excellent narrators, but perhaps have the narrators use a home studio to record and hire an engineer to master the rough files), and a few produced by smaller distributers or self-produced by authors (the quality of these often depends on the author's resources at the time - can they afford to pay an experienced narrator with professional quality equipment? A narrator with good acting skills but mediocre editing skills or a less-than-ideal recording space? A beginner narrator recording files onto their smart phone in the middle of an echoey room while their neighbor's dog is barking at a squirrel?).
Start to notice what sounds good, and why. When a book doesn't sound good, is that because of the narration (inflection, acting, character voices, etc), the writing (does the story make sense, does the dialogue sound the way people actually talk, do the characters' motivations make sense, if it's non-fiction is the author clearly communicating their ideas, etc), the audio quality (is there a lot of white noise, are there lots of clicks and hisses, does it sound like the narrator is speaking through a door or a thick blanket, etc), or all of the above?
Start small. Get lots of practice and feedback before you expect anyone to hire you.
There are a lot of different ways you can practice your reading skills:
You can record yourself reading a chapter in your favorite book - just for yourself and just for learning purposes. CAVEAT: If the book is under copyright (as opposed to books in the public domain), DO NOT put it online or try to make money off of your recording, because you WILL get in trouble with the author and publisher. Doing something like that is not only disrespectful, but also a great way to get put on several Do Not Hire lists.
You can volunteer with Librivox to help create free public domain audiobooks in a variety of genres. It's a lovely, supportive community.
You can read aloud to your pet, to your partner, or to your friends. Have fun with it. Play. Get a group together over video chat and take turns reading chapters to each other. Assign different people to read different characters.
There are a lot of different ways you can get helpful feedback:
Hire an acting coach who specializes in voiceover and has experience doing audiobooks (audiobooks are stylistically very different from, say, commercial voiceover).
If you live in a big city, there are probably recording studios that specialize in voiceover local to you. Check their social media and find out if they offer workshops.
Take a general acting class. This will help you with breath support, character creation, and developing an engaging narrative voice.
Do you know anyone else who is interested in learning audiobook narration, either online or in real life? Start a critique group that meets regularly (in the current pandemic, using a video chat platform such as Zoom or Discord is probably best) to listen to sample reads, or even a designated forum space to post sample recordings and give constructive criticism.
A note about getting and giving feedback: Constructive criticism means feedback that is honest about where you have room for improvement, given with the intention of helping you improve. It is not always fun to hear, but it is very different from someone being mean for the sake of being mean. It is criticism that is constructive. This is partly why it's important to develop your ear so that you can identify what a good read sounds like and what a bad read sounds like. When you know what to listen for, you will be able to help others by giving feedback that is actually helpful (naming a specific issue instead of saying "it's not good" or "i don't like it", which doesn't even tell you what the problem is - let alone help you figure out how to fix it), and you will be able to better understand feedback you receive from others. When giving constructive criticism, it's a nice courtesy to give the person an example of both something they succeeded at and something that needs improvement.
Here are some examples of what good constructive criticism sounds like:
"I really liked the character voice you chose, but I know that this character speaks a lot in the book, and it seems like it would be difficult to keep up for that long. I suggest that you play around a bit to find a similar character voice that will be less strenuous!"
"Your voice was very clear and easy to understand, but I noticed that your pitch goes up at the end of every sentence and it started to sound like everything was a question. If you vary that more, it will be a stronger read."
"I thought your acting in this sample was very successful - it was engaging and I liked your character choices. There is some room for improvement in your audio quality, though. I noticed there was a buzzing sound in the background for the whole recording."
Gradually work towards creating a professional quality home studio.
Professional quality equipment is often quite expensive. Do you need to get top of the line everything in order to have a decent setup that will get you work? Not necessarily, no. However, even with mid-range equipment the price tags can be hefty - particularly if you are buying multiple items at once.
You will not know for sure if this is something you are serious about until you start to get a feel for what the work is like by practicing. Should you decide that audiobook narration is not for you in those first few months of learning, you won't have spent hundreds of dollars on equipment you aren't going to continue using.
Why a home studio?
Some distributers and many of the big publishing houses have in-house studios that they ask narrators to come record in. However, for most indie projects as well as many of the smaller publishing houses, narrators record in their home studio. As excellent equipment becomes more accessible and more user-friendly, more people across the voiceover industry are using home studios to record auditions as well as paid projects.
What equipment do I need for a home studio?
A quiet space to record in. This can be a closet with a few sound dampening panels added (this setup is quite common and there are many different tutorials online), or a sound booth (ranging from DIY to pre-fabricated).
An extremely quiet computer (potentially set up with the CPU tower outside the recording space to limit noise pollution even more).
A microphone. Personally, my favorite source for microphone reviews is Podcastage on YouTube. Booth Junkie is also a great YouTube channel for mic reviews specific to use for audiobooks (as well as a lot of excellent tutorials), and Sweetwater did an extensive vocal mic shootout, which includes downloadable files for 50 different large diaphragm condenser mics.
A microphone stand.
If you are using a mic that connects to power via an XLR cable (and yes, XLR mics are preferable to USB mics), you will need an interface with phantom power to connect your microphone to your computer. Interfaces also contribute to audio quality.
A good pair of over-ear headphones (aka "cans"). Sony Professional MDR-7506s are a very good quality mid-range option, though depending on your personal budget you may find that you need to start with something a bit less expensive and upgrade later.
A pop filter.
All of the above will get you on the right track, but remember that just like any other venture, with voiceover you get what you put into it. Network, take classes and workshops, find mentors, learn the tech, study industry trends. Voiceover in general and audiobooks in particular can be a very friendly and fun industry to be a part of, but it still requires hard work and dedication.