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.