How to Become an Audiobook Narrator
So, you want to become an audiobook narrator. You've heard the pros on Audible make some killer stories sound even better
by adding their vocal talents to them and you thought to yourself, "I'm pretty good at reading, and I can tell a great story." Maybe you've even gone so far as to write your own book that you would like to voice. The good news is that getting registered on the Audible Creation eXchange (ACX) is pretty easy. As long as you have a name, an email, and valid tax information, you should be good to go. The bad news is that it doesn't get easier from there.
Narration can be difficult. You have to sound like you know what you're talking about, keep the audience engaged, keep your voice in tip-top shape, and sometimes manage voices for numerous characters. I mention the characters last because a lot of the time narration ends up being in the spheres of nonfiction, self-help, or documentary, and at the end of the day, these mostly focus on the text rather than your ability to create interesting voices, which means your voice needs to be a magical combination of confident in the subject material and enjoyable to listen to.
This takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. For some aspiring narrators, this may be hard to hear. Voiceover work is new and exciting, with lots of opportunities to try out the quirky voices you've been working on, and, to be fair to you, it is fun and can indeed involve quirky voices. But, when all is said and done, you are selling your voice, not someone or something else's.
How to Narrate for Dummies
At the end of the day, training and practice is a big part of the puzzle. A trained actor reads words very differently than Jill Patel in your Whatever 101 first-semester college class. On top of that, even a trained actor isn't practiced in speaking continuously for hours at a time (unless they're in a one-person show with regular viewings).
My point is that every person learning a new skill will have holes in their skill set, and a professional (or someone who wants to sound professional) needs to be able to look those deficiencies in the eye and do something about them. Here's where I would start looking:
1. How's your acting?
If you aren't involved in the acting world, I recommend checking it out. To use yet another, oft-repeated phrase, "voice acting is acting."
You need to know how to make words clear, give a sentence structure with your voice, and keep an audience engaged. Plus, having a director and fellow castmates to give you tips on how to improve the little things will give you a ton of info that you can translate over to your voice acting. A lot of people come to the voice acting world because they love the cool voices their favourite voice actor can do, but the reality is that those voices are the easy ones.
The difficult voices are the ones that require subtlety. Voices that, just from their tone, tell you exactly what you're in for as an audience member. The actors responsible weren't just faking it to make that happen. They were digging deep and finding real emotions from which to draw that riveting performance, and you need to be able to do that too. That's how you make characters stand apart from each other. You have to breathe life into your voice so that each time the audience hears you, they know how you feel and can get drawn into what they're about to hear.
2. How much have you practiced?
I've harped on this a ton. Just in this article, I am going to say this an inordinate number of times, and honestly, I'll keep saying it because it's that important. You need to read lots of copy. You need to record over and over into your DAW (that's digital audio workstation. Think Audacity, Adobe Audition, or Reaper). You need to practice keeping the same style of read throughout an entire work so that you don't accidentally slip into your David Attenborough while reading a romance novel. You need to know where to stand and position your mic so that you don't constantly have weird sound artifacts, popping noises, or fade in and out due to the proximity effect.
Your first day at the gym, you shouldn't expect to be lifting weights like an Olympic power-lifter. (And if you do, know that the resultant pain and injury are on you.) Similarly, don't expect to be perfect your first time on the track. You need to put reps into your recording work, just like you would put reps into a workout.
If you want to make a quality audiobook, you need to make sure you've put in the work to sound like you know what you're doing. This takes time and effort, but if you love what you're doing, then do more of it. Take the time and enjoy the effort—that way you can make sure that your finished product will shine.
3. What does your recording space look like?
Now, I know I've been harping on the sound of your voice (confidence, performance, tiredness...), but it doesn't get much soundier than what your room sounds like. You could be the absolute best actor in the world, but if you're acting in a bathroom, you're going to sound weird as hell. Booth Junkie did an amazing job of showing this over on his YouTube channel here (also, just check out his channel more generally—it's a great resource for tips and tricks for voice recording), but the TL;DR of the video is basically if you take the world's best mic into a bad recording environment, you're just making sure that amazing piece of equipment is recording every tiny detail of your bad room, and that's going to make your voice sound absolutely terrible. It's miles better to have a crappy mic and an awesome room, rather than a crappy room and an awesome mic.
Also, we're for sure going to have a specific Food for Thought on rooms. I'm doing the research to make it halfway decent, and will link to the article once I've written it.
4. How are your organizational skills?
This is a tough one. I mean, for some people it's not, but for me it takes a lot of effort (ADHD, baby...). While my wife, who had a 4.0 through middle school and beyond, manages to plan her time with ease, I have to work really hard from multiple different angles, finding ways to add planks back into my motivation bridge (thanks Jessica @ How to ADHD for that term).
If you find this is an area you struggle with, it's important you address it as soon as possible. Something that helped me was seeking professional help, as a therapist or counselor can help you talk through your personal goals, and a life coach can help you develop and stick to your professional ones.
That being said, if I were to decide that I didn't feel like improving this skill, I'd likely never be able to get books done. It's super important to keep organized as you'll need to be able to set up deadlines for yourself and stick to them. On top of that, if you want to make this a career, you're going to need to communicate those deadlines to people so that they
can orient their schedules around your timeline.
Going back to the idea of fiction or narrative works, you're very likely to need to develop voices for different characters in the world your story takes place. If Juan's dad sounds like Diego Luna one chapter and Nick Cage the next, the audience is going to have trouble following along (which I have found many people dislike). Have voice references you can go back to, save them in a spreadsheet, and make sure you clear them with the author so that they'll be happy with the end result.
5. How's your vocal endurance?
So, you've put in your practice and you're finally recording a book. If you're new, expect each Finished Hour (1 hour of recorded, edited, and mastered audio, ready for sale) to take you between 6-8 hours of work. A solid 30-50% of that is going to be you, on the mic, reading the copy (industry term for, "Thing you read for money").
This is just my estimate based on what I did when starting out, but from friends in the industry, some artists say it's even longer. If it's a one-hour book, that's not so bad, but if it's more than that? You're going to be tired. You might overwork your voice one day and lose several days of work after that. And, if this isn't your primary job, at minimum you'll need to explain why your voice sounds funny, and at worst you may not be able to perform a necessary function of your work.
I'm definitely not the first person to say this, but audiobooks are a marathon, not a sprint. You wouldn't expect to be able to go for a casual 25-mile run if you only just bought a pair of running shoes to start your brand-new running habit. So, don't expect to be able to record for 5 hours straight on your first day.
That being said, if you're a hawker who shouts at people professionally for hours on end, you may be the equivalent of a Rarámuri who just discovered that long-distance running was a competitive sport. Endurance varies, but just make sure you don't overestimate your abilities and end up unable to do the thing you love. Plus, the more you practice, the better your endurance will get.
6. What equipment do you have?
I put this last for a reason—not because it's the final, most important idea, but because if you got bored halfway through and decided to move on to another article, you wouldn't have missed the important bits (recording space, endurance, organization, and practice). Unsurprisingly, everyone has opinions on equipment because buying stuff gives you that sweet-sweet endorphin rush and often helps sell a product. I don't think anyone who's reading this article is surprised by the idea that someone wants their money.
Money is good. It keeps food on your table, clothes on your back, and shoes on your feet. So save it. Don't go spending a thousand dollars on your audio equipment before you know how to record a track. If you have thousands of dollars to spend, spend it on acting training and a recording space. If you don't have thousands of dollars to spend, buy an affordable USB mic and record audio into your DAW so you can get that practice in. Audacity is a free, albeit finicky, audio environment to record in, and it'll help you get the reps in.
That being said, there are professional standards for microphones. Once you're confident in your abilities and have done the recording reps, get yourself a solid, large-diaphragm condenser microphone. I use a Rode NT1, a relatively inexpensive mic which happens to show off my voice nicely.
I'll do an article on equipment further down the line, but again, there are so many more important things for you to worry about than what equipment you are using.
That's a Wrap
So that's it. A minor essay on the way to get started as a narrator. Remember, you're only as strong as your weakest link, and your weakest link is a lot more likely to be inexperience than equipment. By a lot.
Focus on your skills, build a solid recording environment (digital and physical), and then (and only then) start thinking about equipment that shows off your voice. Do your best not to bite off more than you can chew, and make sure your organizational system keeps you on track for all the deadlines you will invariably have as you progress on your journey.
You got this.
I do my best to read every comment posted, so if you have an idea about any new topics of discussion or have questions about the article, definitely post them below and I'll do my best to get to them quickly!