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.

14 Secrets of Cruise Ship Workers

iStock/Remus Kotsell
iStock/Remus Kotsell

From an outsider’s perspective, working on a cruise ship might seem like a dream job. What could be more glamorous than getting paid to travel the world by sea, without having to pay for housing or food? But as with many “dream” jobs, there are a few significant downsides to consider before you fill out an application. We spoke to a few cruise ship employees about what it’s like to live and work on a floating hotel.

1. Americans are the worst cruise workers.

On most large cruise liners, the majority of staff and crew are not American. “On any given contract, you’re working with about 64 nationalities,” says Kat, who spent three years working for a major cruise line. There are a number of possible drivers behind this statistic, but one is that cruise ship employees work really long hours and almost never get a day off, which isn’t particularly appealing to Americans used to a 40-hour workweek and relaxing on weekends. “On my worst contract, I was working close to 300 hours a month,” Kat says. “Yeah, you might be in beautiful places, but you’re so tired sometimes you don’t even want to go out and explore. A lot of times they won’t even hire Americans because the rate of people quitting is so high.”

Americans are also more expensive to employ, even if they do the same work as their counterparts from developing countries. Sam, who worked on Princess Cruises for two years, says her monthly salary of $1100 was higher than that of her Filipino boss. According to Sam, the official reason the ship gave was that the dollar is worth more to people from developing countries than it is to Americans.

2. Cruise ship workers are trained for pirate attacks.

It’s rare for pirates to take on a massive cruise ship, but it can happen, and if it does, the crew is prepared. Nolan, who worked for both Princess Cruises and Oceania Cruises, says he was trained to get all guests away from windows and spray the intruders with giant water cannons.

“Our ship can totally outrun their little dinghies,” he says. “We could spray them with water and they’d be helpless.” Other ships may be equipped with Long Range Acoustic Devices that emit loud, painful noises to deter attacks. That’s how a luxury cruise liner escaped a pirate attack off the coast of Africa in 2005.

3. Want to lose weight? Work on a cruise liner.

While passengers are feasting on steak and scrumptious seafood, the staff and crew aren’t so lucky. “Imagine eating at your high-school cafeteria three meals a day, seven days a week for a year,” writes one former cruise ship worker on Reddit. Kat recalls strange offerings like goat foot stew. The unappetizing food, combined with the many hours spent running the length of the ship, often mean crew members lose a significant amount of weight during their time at sea. “I would lose about 10 to 12 pounds per contract,” Kat says.

Gavin, who worked as a waiter for a major cruise line, said the crew would occasionally get treated to whatever leftovers remained from the passenger buffet, but “it would disappear so fast.”

4. Crew members sometimes mess with passengers.

Life at sea can get a bit monotonous. “It got mundane really fast,” writes one former worker on Reddit. “It was basically the same comedy of errors each day of the week, with a different ‘cast’ of passengers each week.”

Some crew members shake things up by getting a rise out of passengers in the form of good old practical jokes. According to another former crew member, “a favorite was while in a passenger area say to another crew member, loud enough to be heard by passengers, ‘Meet you in the bowling alley tonight!’” Of course, there wasn’t actually a bowling alley on board. “Then we'd wait for the comment cards to come in: ‘Why do crew get a bowling alley when we don't?’”

5. … and chance are the workers might be drunk.

When they’re not working, employees are probably drinking and partying. “We partied our asses off,” Gavin says. “We joked about how it makes a frat house look like a monastery.” The staff get their own designated watering holes on board, referred to as the crew bars, where the drinks are dirt cheap. “At the passenger bars they were charging like $15 for a drink and we’d go down into the crew bar and you could get a beer or mixed drinks for $1.25,” Sam says.

And what happens when you give copious amounts of cheap alcohol to people who are cooped up together for months at a time? “It seems like a cliche, but everyone was hooking up with each other,” Sam says. “In a lot of the crew areas there were these huge posters about STD prevention.”

The crew is regularly threatened with the possibility of random breathalyzer tests (and drug testing), but even this isn’t always enforced. “There was a strict limit on our ship of no more than .04 blood alcohol content at any time,” Gavin says, “but as long as you didn’t make a fool of yourself, you wouldn’t get randomly breathalyzed, so people would break that rule all the time.”

6. For the crew, hooking up with guests on the cruise is strictly forbidden.

So you spotted a cute crew member on your ship and are thinking of chatting them up? Good luck with that. Having sexual relations with a guest is one of the fastest ways for a crew member to get fired. This is mainly to protect the cruise line from reputation-damaging accusations of abuse. Ship security keeps a close eye on crew members day and night. That doesn’t mean hookups never happen, but if a crew member is caught in the act with a guest, they’re kicked off the ship at the next port.

7. Crew passengers are almost always being watched.

“It is safe to assume if you are outside of your cabin you are probably on camera,” Gavin says. “In the event of any kind of emergency, they could pull security footage at any time.”

8. Passengers have a lot of power over how much the crew gets paid.

At the end of a journey, you might be asked to rate your experience and share any praise or complaints on a comment card. These reviews are taken very seriously and often translate directly into salaries and bonuses for workers. “For most people, their salaries are quite low and they rely on those bonuses,” Kat says. So if you leave a bad review and mention someone by name, you can be sure they’ll feel the impact on their paycheck.

“The very best thing you can do for a crew member is to write a glowing review, mentioning them specifically on your comment card,” says a former cruise worker on Reddit. “Their superior’s superiors take note of that.”

9. Some cruise workers have double lives.

“You get a lot of married people that have their own separate lives on the cruise ship,” Kat says. “I’ve worked with couples that have wives at home and a whole different relationship while they’re on the cruise ship. It’s kind of like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.”

Gavin says one of his fellow employees lived as an out-of-the-closet gay man while on board, but was still closeted on land.

10. They have no idea what’s going on in the world.

“You stop following news and sports and pop culture,” Gavin says. “You’re really kind of isolated out there.” It can be difficult (and expensive) to find an internet connection while at sea, so many ship workers completely lose track of current events while on contract.

11. They speak in code.

Crew members have shorthand codes for everything from fires to medical emergencies, which they can announce over the loudspeaker without alarming passengers.

Code Adam: a child is missing
Code Alpha: there’s a medical emergency
Code Oscar: man overboard
Code Bravo: fire on the ship

12. The cruise ship has many mafias.

But not the kind that will make you an offer you can’t refuse. According to Sam, the crew members on her ship were split into “mafias” based on their country of origin, and each mafia dealt in specific goods. For example, the Indian mafia was in charge of getting good food for the crew parties, she says. Because Sam worked in the youth center, she was tasked with providing art supplies for crew costume parties. “That’s just one of the economies of the ship,” Sam says. “Everyone is always trying to figure out what they can get from another person.”

One former cruise ship worker says the Filipino mafia was known for getting good booze at all hours. “If you wanted anything after hours, they would get it for you! The crew bar would close around 1 or 2. If you wanted to keep drinking, but were out of booze, you would just go to the Filipino mafia and get what you needed. You paid a huge markup obviously, but it was still pretty cool!”

13. There’s a morgue on board.

Roughly 200 people die on cruise ships every year, and cruise lines need some place to store the bodies safely until they get back to shore. As a result, many ships have small morgues on board that can hold five or six bodies. “We definitely had a morgue on board,” one former ship employee told me. “Because the line was for older demographics, we had people die on the ship pretty regularly.”

14. They will leave you behind.

If you leave the ship for an on-land excursion, make sure you get back before departure time. Cruise lines pay massive fines if they overstay their port time, so chances are high the ship will leave without you if you’re running behind. “You’re on your own,” Kat says. “They won’t wait.”

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Know About Sephora

iStock/RiverNorthPhotography
iStock/RiverNorthPhotography

It’s the store that’s all about that face … and nails, and skin. Makeup mecca Sephora was first born as a perfumery in 1969. French business owner Dominique Mandonnaud wanted to remove fragrances from behind the counter and allow customers to touch, smell, and spritz on the scents. Three-plus decades later, the cosmetics juggernaut—which is currently in the news for shutting down its stores for an hour today (June 5) to host diversity and inclusivity workshops for all of its 16,000 employees—employs the same client-first philosophy. (Did you know you could get a free 15-minute makeup service at any location?) Try on these other facts.

1. BEAUTY IS (SORT OF) IN THE NAME.

The official line is that Sephora originates from the Greek word sephos (which the company claims means "beauty") and the name Zipporah—she was Moses’ exceptionally pretty wife in the Book of Exodus. Not everyone buys this explanation, however, noting that "sephos" is nothing like the ancient Greek word for "beauty" or "beautiful."

2. IT'S A TOURIST DESTINATION.

The exterior of Sephora's Paris flagship
iStock/serts

Approximately 6 million cosmetics-seekers stroll through the company’s Parisian flagship store on the Champs-Élysées every year. That’s almost as many annual visitors as the Eiffel Tower receives.

3. CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT A PRODUCT? THAT'S COOL!

Stores will take back makeup—even opened products!—within 60 days of purchase. Employees admit it’s often heartbreaking for them to have to trash barely-used makeup.

4. SHOPPERS CAN SCORE TONS OF PERKS …

Along with complimentary mini makeovers, stores offer a 45-minute session when customers spend $50, and a 90-minute consultation (it includes a makeover and personal shopping session) when they shell out $125. The company’s (free) Beauty Insider program also has its benefits. Signing up means you can attend any beauty class gratis and each dollar you spend nets you a point that you can use towards fun gifts. (In some cases, they’ll even let you go into a negative points balance to score the product.)

The company also tracks your purchases to give you recommendations for other products. (Bridget Dolan, VP of Interactive Media, told Forbes that 80 percent of their transactions “run through our loyalty program.”)  Spending $350 a year catapults you to VIB (Very Important Beauty Insider) status and gains you access to private shopping events and first dibs on new products. Shell out $1,000 annually and you get Rouge Status—that means free two-day shipping on all orders, unlimited in-store makeovers, and invites to chic store events. At one, VIBs got the chance to meet Jennifer Aniston!

5. … AND MORE SAMPLES THAN THEY KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH.

Sephora employees are told that customers shouldn’t leave without new products to try. That means you can get a trial size of just about every product they carry. (Most makeup products can be tested in-store and they’ll pour any liquid product, such as a night cream or fragrance, into a sample-size vial.) The general rule, say employees, is that customers are entitled to three samples each trip. Shopping online? Each purchase comes with a choice of three freebies. And while the store rarely has sales, you can score big at the site’s Beauty Deals section.

6. GETTING A SPECIFIC PRODUCT RECOMMENDATION CAN BE TRICKY.

Employees aren’t allowed to refer shoppers to particular brands. So instead of asking for their favorite lip shade, it’s smarter to ask which lip products perform the best. (Translation: What are other shoppers buying and not returning?)

7. NEED THE PERFECT FOUNDATION? THEY HAVE AN APP FOR THAT.

Okay, well, it’s a device. The handheld Color IQ scans the surface of your skin and then finds the scientifically precise foundation—there are 1,500 options—for your visage. To create the library, the Pantone Color Institute researched and mapped out 110 different skin tones.  

8. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

Women shop for makeup at Sephora
iStock/wdstock

Each store is divided into three distinct “worlds”: fragrance, skincare and color. In a 2008 interview with Jezebel, one employee spilled on the lingo. The sales floor is known as the “stage” (which makes everything else “backstage”), employees are called “cast members,” and managers are dubbed “directors.” As for the required all-black outfits, they’re not uniforms, they’re “costumes.”

9. EMPLOYEES REALLY ARE BEAUTY EXPERTS …

Some cast members undergo a month of intensive, all-day training at the company’s beauty school, Science of Sephora. There, according to the company’s website, they learn about “skin physiology, the history of makeup, application techniques, the science of creating fragrances, and most importantly, how to interact with Sephora’s diverse clientele.”

10. … AND THEIR MEDICINE CABINETS ARE STOCKED.

A woman stands in front of a makeup display in Sephora
iStock/arinahabich

Employees have said working at Sephora means constantly receiving new products from companies to try out. A particularly good sales day can also net a salesperson a “gratis ticket” from their manager. Plus, there’s the 20 percent employee discount that jumps up to 30 percent during the holiday season.

11. LOOKING GOOD IS A REQUIREMENT.

Part of the employee handbook: thou shall embrace eyeliner. Cast members are told to wear a certain amount of makeup while working.

12. THEY'RE WARY OF RESALE.

One cast member says they limit people from buying more than six identical items (unless they offer a good reason, such as bridal party gifts). Explains the employee, “This is to discourage people reselling our products at their own establishments.”

13. UNPOPULAR PRODUCTS USUALLY GET THE BOOT.

Stores keep lists of the products that get returned most often, and the products that don’t work are phased out over time. While it's hard to nail down an official list of frequently-returned goods, individual employees will occasionally open up about the company's most loathed and/or most misunderstood makeup.

14. SEPHORA'S APPEAL IS WIDE.

Susan Sontag at an event in Weimar, Germany in 2002
Susan Sontag
JENS-ULRICH KOCH/AFP/Getty Images

In 2014, the L.A. Review of Books dug through the contents of a Power Mac G4 once owned by Susan Sontag and discovered the famed author was on Sephora’s Beauty Insider mailing list.

A version of this article first ran in 2015. It was updated in 2019.

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