17 Secrets of Audiobook Narrators

Once associated with dusty library cassette tapes, audiobooks are more popular than ever. New technology has made it easy to listen to large audio files on the go, and the resulting surge in listeners has helped the format slough off some of the stigma of decades past. Contrary to the old idea that audiobooks are “cheating,” scientists say that listening to your literature stimulates the brain just as much as reading it does.

The recent boom in audiobooks means that the voiceover artists who bring them to life are especially busy. Mental Floss spoke with a few industry professionals to learn about what it takes to excel at the job—including their diligent voice-care regimens, the one thing they always look for during research, and the spoilers they sometimes get from authors.

1. THEY'RE PROBABLY FORMER STAGE ACTORS.

Several of the audiobook narrators we spoke to started out at the theater, not in a recording booth. “I had never owned an audiobook, listened to an audiobook, or thought about it as a job,” says January LaVoy, a voiceover artist who's narrated books by James Patterson, John Grisham, and Libba Bray. She initially made connections in the audiobook world through her work as a theater actress, but after getting more involved in the audiobook industry, she found that narration has some advantages over acting on stage. She says jokingly, "Doing an audiobook is like being in a play where finally everyone says their lines right."

2. THE AUDIOBOOK INDUSTRY HAS ITS OWN OSCARS.

Each year, the Audio Publishers Association hosts the Audie Awards to honor the best in the industry. In addition to recognizing outstanding audiobooks across genres, there are Audies for best narration by the author, best narration performed by multiple voiceover artists, and best individual female and male narrators of the year.

3. THEY MIGHT GET ONLY ONE NIGHT TO PREPARE.

Sometimes audiobook narrators are given a few weeks to study the material and plan out their performance, but that's a best-case scenario. "The publishing world is fast, so we have to be ready to respond and make room in our schedule for what comes up," says Tavia Gilbert, who has recorded over 500 audiobooks. "It’s never predictable." If a last-minute assignment comes in, narrators may have to cram all their research into a single, caffeine-filled night.

This usually means giving the book a quick scan rather than an in-depth read. "I’m not looking for shortcuts, but I don’t like to get bogged down in too much detail on the first read because then it’s not fresh when I come to it in the studio," says Simon Vance, winner of 14 Audie awards. "I like to enjoy my reading in the studio as much as you would the first time you pick up a book."

4. THEY LOOK FOR CERTAIN WORDS ...

No matter the time crunch, reading the book through at least once beforehand is essential. While skimming the text, narrators are searching for specific terms. One example is something LaVoy calls "active attributions"— "Like 'she said loudly,' or 'he screamed,' or 'she whispered,'" LaVoy explains. "If I don’t know he whispered it until after I say the line then I’ve wasted time. So if I can mark them so my eye sees them coming up, I don’t have to go back and say the line again." Accents, hard-to-pronounce words, and character names are other things narrators look for.

5. ... AND PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS.

Gilbert also keeps an eye out for any description she can use to build characters when doing her first read. “I’m looking for whatever each character says about themselves or other characters, including their physical description, which affects how somebody sounds," she says. "An elderly woman with a severely hunched back and hands that flutter like a bird will sound very different than an elderly woman who was a prima ballerina in her youth and still keeps her hair pulled back in a perfect bun."

6. SOME OF THEM RECORD FROM HOME.

Audiobook narration is traditionally done in a studio, but for narrators who have proven themselves in the industry, recording from home is an option. "Publishers used to be a little wary about using home narrators because you had to be a good self-director," Vance says. He's been narrating audiobooks for 25 years, and these days he records all of his audio from home.

But Gilbert, who splits her work between home and recording studios in New York, says working from home isn't necessarily easier. "There’s a lot more on the narrators' shoulders when we work from home. We’re self-engineering, self-directing, and delivering our files to the publishers, so we’re responsible for everything at home that we are in the recording studio plus these additional tasks," she says. But if narrators know what they're doing, the work pays off: Gilbert won the Audie Award for Best Female Narrator last year for a performance she self-directed at home.

7. THEY GET INSIDE KNOWLEDGE FROM AUTHORS.

When audiobook narrators have a question about the text, they get to live out every reader’s dream and contact the author directly. The correspondence can be brief, like an email asking how to pronounce the name of a mythical country, or much more involved. When preparing to narrate the audiobook for Jerusalem, Vance flew to England to meet with author Alan Moore. “I spent an afternoon walking around his city in Northampton, which is where the book was set, talking to him about all the places and picking up the accents and so on,” he says.

If narrators make a good case, they may even be able to pry a few spoilers out of the authors they work with. Vance does this when narrating a series that hasn’t been fully published yet. “I will often ask writers if there’s anything I need to know about these characters that’s not revealed in the first book," he says. "You have to be aware of the threads. Like if a character's actually related to somebody but you don’t find out until book three, you don’t want them to sound too different.”

8. IT MIGHT TAKE THEM A MONTH TO RECORD ONE BOOK.

The average audiobook runs about 12 hours, but the process of making them takes a lot longer. For pros like Gilbert, the ratio of finished audio to recording time is tight—maybe 1 hour of final audiobook for every hour and 15 minutes spent in the booth. Narrators just starting should expect to invest more in the process; all that time stumbling over words and going back to repeat lines can add up to two to three hours of recording time just to get one hour of useable audio.

If narrators follow a typical eight-hour-day, five-day-week work schedule, an average assignment can take about four days. But for much longer works that creep past the 1000-page mark, the recording process can last a month.

9. THEY TRY NOT TO TAKE BREAKS.

Since breaks add time to the workday, some narrators aim to minimize them. LaVoy tries to go for as long as possible when recording, only pausing after 90 minutes of straight narration. “I think it’s good for the book because you want it to feel like one breath,” she says.

10. IT PAYS WELL.

Even for newcomers, narrating audiobooks is a lucrative line of work. According to Business Insider, voiceover artists just starting out can expect to earn $100 for each hour of finished audio. For industry veterans, those figures can reach up to $500 for a completed hour. All told, book projects can net narrators thousands of dollars.

11. NOT EVERY AUTHOR WHO WANTS TO NARRATE GETS TO.

As the medium gains popularity, more authors are opting to personally provide the voice work for their audiobooks. Some authors, like Neil Gaiman, can successfully hop between the worlds of writing and narration, but it isn't for everyone. “They don’t realize how hard it is,” Michelle Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, told Audible Range. “It’s surprisingly difficult to do things like stay still for the microphone, or to even wear the right clothes." ("Noisy" fabrics like polyester and nylon can bring unwanted sound into the recording booth.)

Some authors interested in narrating never get the chance to prove themselves—publishers often have to be blunt and tell would-be author narrators that their voice just isn't good enough for the job.

12. LIP BALM IS ESSENTIAL.

If you’ve ever talked non-stop for hours on end, you know that your mouth can undergo some serious wear and tear. LaVoy had to find this out the hard way: “For the very first book I recorded, my lips were chapped and bloody by the end of the day.” Now she says lip balm is the one thing she won’t walk into the recording booth without.

13. GOOD WRITING MAKES THEIR JOB EASIER.

The difficulty of a narrator’s job often depends on the quality of the work they're reading. Gilbert, who is a writer herself, is grateful whenever she’s assigned a book that practically reads itself. “I prefer to narrate anything that is beautifully written. I don’t care what the genre is—if it’s well-crafted and there is deep heart and truth, I am delighted to have that book.”

When a book isn’t so masterfully crafted, the opposite can be true. Vance says, “Sometimes it feels like you’re dragging your feet through mud to bring the story to life and there are other times where it feel you’re dancing on water and you're singing the words."

14. BACKGROUND NOISE CAN DERAIL A SESSION.

Even when a narrator’s voice is in excellent shape and the words are flowing off the page, a little background noise is all it takes to disrupt a take. This is especially challenging for home narrators, who often lack the fancy sound-proofed booths found in big studios. Gilbert says, "I adore my 6-year-old neighbor upstairs, and affectionately refer to her in conversation with her mom as Miss Fancy Feet, because that little girl is full of energy—and lots of noise—when she gets home from school."

Construction, doorbells, leaf blowers, and slamming doors can all delay her work, but Gilbert tries to make the best of it. "Noise is like weather—wait a few minutes and it’ll pass. In the meantime, balance the checkbook, fold a load of laundry, send emails, clean off your desk ... there’s always something to do to keep productive."

Sometimes, expensive insulation still isn’t enough to keep outside sounds from leaking in. LaVoy, who primarily works in studios, says, “If somebody’s doing construction on an office three floors above you, you have to send somebody up there to find out what’s going on, because you can only soundproof so much."

15. IT’S PHYSICALLY DRAINING.

Reading books all day may sound like a dream job to some people, but it’s physically demanding work. Vance says the one thing people underestimate most about the job is the amount of stamina it requires. “It’s not just about having a good voice,” he says. “If you think you want to do audiobooks, go to your bedroom and pick a book off the shelf. Sit down and read to yourself out loud for an hour. Take a break for a few minutes, then come back and do it again for an hour, and again for an hour. Do that five days in a row. If you enjoyed it, then you can take the next step, but if you found it exhausting and you couldn’t maintain the same tone throughout, then maybe you should think about doing something else.”

16. THEY AVOID GOING OUT—AND EATING CHEESE—BEFORE RECORDING.

To maintain a strong voice, audiobook narrators need to avoid picking up certain habits. Smoking, drinking, and eating foods that cause phlegm build-up (like dairy) are all quick ways to sabotage a recording session. Even just going out to a social event prior to a gig is enough to strain the vocal cords.

“Something my close friends and family have learned to cope with is that I can’t go to bars or restaurants the night before I’m going to record a book, which is a lot of nights,” LaVoy says. “Whether you realize it or not, the ambient sound in a restaurant means that you’re talking a little louder the whole night. The microphone is like a microscope: It hears everything. So if my voice is tired I’m not going to have the elasticity I need.”

Vance also tries to avoid having too much fun on a work night. At the same time, he acknowledges that taking perfect care of his voice is easier said than done: "There are things you should definitely not do, which is go out late at night, smoke cigars, drink too much, go screaming at football games, but we all make those mistakes."

17. YOU NEED TO LOVE READING TO LOVE THE JOB.

All the audiobook narrators we spoke to share something in common: They’re enthusiastic readers. Being a successful narrator requires an actor’s instinct and physical endurance, but what the job really boils down to is to be able to read for hours without getting bored. “If you don’t love reading it’s absolutely torture,” LaVoy says.

9 Secrets of Uber Drivers

iStock/South_agency
iStock/South_agency

Where would we be without Uber drivers? Probably still stuck at the pub or in some taxi line, wishing we were home in our pajamas instead. But while many of us take Uber rides all the time, we often don't know much about the experience of driving for the company. Mental Floss looked into what it takes to become an Uber driver, why they dread four-star reviews, and and why they just might profit if you vomit.

1. It’s pretty easy to become an Uber driver ...

There are only a few basic requirements to become an Uber driver. Applicants must have an eligible four-door vehicle, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and at least a year of licensed driving experience in the U.S., or three years if the driver is under 23 years old. Of course, they must also be of legal driving age. Applicants’ driving records and criminal history are checked via an online screening process. (Some critics of Uber have called for stricter security screening, arguing that drivers should be fingerprinted to better identify bad actors. In response, Uber has said that fingerprinting would pose “an unnecessary burden and cost.”) The process is usually relatively fast. Nichole Visnesky, a student who used to drive for Uber part-time in Greenville, North Carolina, said her application was approved within 24 hours, and she was driving shortly thereafter. “The car that I was driving wasn’t even in my name at the time, but it was still OK,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. ... But driving for Uber isn’t for everyone.

While it’s easy to get up and running as a driver, the job isn’t suited to everyone’s personality and skill set. For one, it requires good customer service skills, according to Catherine, a former Uber driver in Pittsburgh. Like any job in retail or food service, that sometimes means biting your tongue when dealing with difficult customers. “A friend tried to [drive for Uber] but got into an argument. Obviously it’s not for her,” Catherine tells Mental Floss. And because driving requires some physical rigidity and mental focus, it can be draining, too. “You get very tired because you’re constantly driving, sitting in the car, and you do have to pay attention,” Catherine says. “I would not have been able to do it full-time.”

3. Uber Drivers disagree about whether or not the pay is worth it.

If you peruse the “r/uberdrivers” forum on Reddit, you’re bound to see some differing opinions on the pay scale, which varies depending on “when, where, and how often you drive,” according to Uber. “Driving for Uber is a waste of time. Only do it if you’re homeless/jobless,” one Reddit user wrote last year. Shortly before the company's May 2019 IPO, many Uber drivers even went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber driver compensation averages about $11.77 per hour, after deducting for Uber's fees and driver expenses.)

Yet both Visnesky and Catherine say they have had positive experiences. Catherine said she drove in the evenings and on weekends and earned anywhere between $200 and $800 per week, depending on how many hours she put in. She said the pay was enough to help her get through a tough time financially. “I love driving, so it was a perfect way to make money on my own terms and make more money than I would make in a store,” Catherine said. Visnesky said she mostly drove on Fridays and Saturdays and earned between $80 and $470 per weekend.

4. A four-star review can get an Uber Driver fired.

The Uber app
Melies The Bunny, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Maybe your Uber driver missed a couple of turns, so you decide to rate them four stars (out of a possible five) at the end of your trip. You may think this is still a pretty good review, but your driver probably feels differently. “Uber doesn’t educate its passengers as to what the rating system means, and how they should be applying it,” an Uber driver named Bob, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told PBS. “And I understand it’s perfectly reasonable in a five-star rating system to reserve your fifth star for the best situations, you know? Michelin stars for example. A four-star review in any normal situation would seem great! And, unfortunately, a four-star review on Uber’s system is a vote to have the driver fired.” That’s because drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings dip below a certain threshold; this varies by location, but is roughly around 4.6 stars. According to Uber, “There is a minimum average rating in each city. This is because there are cultural differences in the way people in different cities rate each other.”

5. Some Uber drivers put party lights in their car to make passengers happy (and get better ratings and tips).

Many of Visnesky’s passengers were drunk college students, so she decided to make their ride a little more memorable. “I eventually got lights to go under my floorboards, and they would get in my car and be like, ‘Whoa it’s the party Uber!’ They would be so stoked for it,” she says. Not only did it serve as a good icebreaker for conversation, but it also helped her ratings. Kahseem Panchoo, who at one point drove for Uber in New York City, also tricked out his 2013 Chevy Suburban by installing a light strip and disco ball. "Since people love to party, it matches their mood," Panchoo told the New York Daily News in 2016. "If they're going to a party or if they're coming from a party, they get excited." (It paid off, too. On one particular night, he received a $100 tip.) Bottles of water, snacks, and phone chargers are also surefire ways to impress passengers. Visnesky said she invested in two kinds of chargers for her car—one for Android and one for iPhone users.

6. Uber drivers might turn a profit if you barf in their car.

Three girls get out of a car
iStock.com/Rawpixel

A typical Friday night for Visnesky usually involved shepherding drunk students around town, so she always kept plastic bags, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning supplies on hand. During the year and a half that she drove for Uber, two people threw up in her car on two different occasions. One person was too drunk to know what had happened, and the other laughed and said, “I feel so much better now.” Though she let the first person slide, she filed a claim for damages in the latter case. She took a picture of the mess and sent it to Uber, and the customer was charged accordingly. “I was given like $80 for damages but I probably didn’t spend more than a few dollars to clean it,” Visnesky said, explaining that she just went to a car wash and wiped down her seats. “I only charged them because they were such jerks about it and laughed afterwards.”

7. Returning lost items can be a major inconvenience for Uber drivers.

According to Uber, the average driver returns 11 lost items per year. Phones, cameras, and wallets are the most commonly forgotten items, but there have also been reports of a mannequin, deer antlers, and fish tank (with fish and water inside) turning up in the backseat of a car, according to Uber’s Lost & Found Index for 2019. Naturally, the larger the object, the more difficult it is to return—and prior to 2017, Uber drivers weren’t compensated for returning objects. “It can be inconvenient,” Catherine says. She has gone out of her way to return both a phone and a wallet to separate passengers. However, Uber eventually started charging riders $15 for each lost item that was returned, and riders were also given the option of tipping their driver. Still, drivers have to fill out a form in the app when they return an item, then wait three to five days to receive the $15.

8. If they’ve gone out of their way to be friendly or helpful, Uber drivers think you should tip them.

The option to tip drivers wasn’t built into the Uber app until 2017; by then, the precedent may have already been set. Both Visnesky and Catherine said younger, college-aged passengers typically never tip. While neither of the women said tipping should be viewed as mandatory, they both agreed that tips are welcomed in exchange for good customer service. “I do think if I’ve gone out of my way or you’ve kind of made it a hassle, maybe you should consider that when you’re paying me,” Visnesky said.

9. Some Uber drivers want passengers to be more courteous when discussing new movies and TV shows.

Two women talk in a car
iStock.com/RyanJLane

Let’s suppose that you and a friend just watched Avengers: Endgame and you’re dying to discuss it during the Uber ride home. Just be mindful that your driver might also be dying to see it, and probably doesn’t want to have the ending spoiled for them. “I would be really upset if someone ruined Game of Thrones for me,” Visnesky said. When in doubt, ask your driver if it’s okay to talk about a certain show or movie. You might even get a five-star passenger rating for taking this extra step.

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

iStock.com/shironosov
iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
iStock.com/SolStock

According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

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