So, you want to become an audiobook narrator? Maybe you’ve always wanted to read stories out loud for a living, or maybe, like me, you woke up one day and thought it sounded pretty cool. Whatever your reasons, there are a couple things I want to make very clear right at the start…
- If you’re looking for a little side hustle that you can dip your toes into quickly and make some sweet extra bank, this might not be for you. I’ll explain why in a bit.
- I’m by no means an expert here. I’ve done five projects at the point of writing. I’m only at the very beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful journey into narration. So this is really just a little rundown of some useful tips that I’ve learned across the course of the last year, resources I wish I’d known about straight off the bat, and some pointers to hopefully help you land your first book.
Basically, I’ve had a few people ask me how I got started, and this is the result of that. I hope it’s helpful!
Check that you actually want to become an audiobook narrator
Narration is one of those things that sounds great in principle, before you realise the mountain of work that goes into it. And while ‘I read books aloud for money’ encapsulates the core of narration, it leaves out all of the prep work you’ll need to do beforehand, the discipline, retakes, and pickups you’ll need to do during, and the editing, proofing and mastering you’ll move onto afterwards.
Sean Pratt, one of the most successful narrators in the business (over 900 audiobooks to his name), has a handy test for evaluating your passion and commitment at this stage. You can head over here to his site and check out his advice in full, but it basically boils down to…
- Take a book off your shelf
- Read it aloud for two hours every day, restarting the sentence every time you fluff a word or a line
- Do that for two weeks
Now, there are plenty of folks who’ll say you don’t need to do this bit if you want to become an audiobook narrator, but getting set up for this sort of thing can be expensive and time-consuming. If you spend a load of time and energy and money, only to realise that it’s not really for you, that would be a shame, right? This is a great opportunity to get used to reading aloud. Even better, record yourself! Use your phone, the headset you use for Skype, whatever works. Use the time to learn more about your voice. Play with approaches, performance, pacing. This is the start of you working out who you are as a performer.
Bookmark Narrators Roadmap
Karen Commins, an award-winning narrator from Atlanta, has helpfully curated some of the very best tips in the business for fledgling narrators such as you and me. Narrators Roadmap is one of the best resources on the web, with a plethora of articles and advice for budding narrators and audio producers. This is all incredibly sage advice from people who have spent years, decades in some cases, in the industry. Their experience is invaluable.
Once you’ve read through everything there, check out this Facebook Group for indie narrators. Read the terms of that group carefully, and be sure to search for any question you might have before posting it. The Group has been running for years, and chances are that the question you desperately want to ask has probably been answered many times before.
There can be a fair bit of snark from the veterans, especially if people come bumbling in without having taken the initiative to read around and do their due diligence, so don’t be that person. It’s a great place to lurk, though. You’ll pick up stellar advice simply through osmosis.
Treat your space
Before you go ahead and start researching the best mics for audiobook production, which is what I did, consider the space you’re going to be recording in. You don’t need to shell out thousands for a StudioBricks pod, but consider your surroundings. You’ll want to surround yourself with soft furnishings. Blankets, duvets, cushions – all useful things. There are literally hundreds of tutorials on YouTube for fashioning your own acoustic panels (I love a bit of Booth Junkie) and so this doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. Remember to slap a rug down if you’ve got a hard floor, and consider putting some dampening overhead if you can.
Essentially, a bad mic in a well-treated space will always trump a better mic in a poorly-treated space. Even if you’re working with a dynamic mic like a Shure SM7B, which is what I’m currently using, the difference between treated and untreated space is night and day. Once you notice the difference, there’s no going back. I learned this the hard way.
Don’t waste your time with any mic stand isolation screens – those little shell-like thingies that you attach to a mic stand and wrap around the back of your mic. They don’t work, they’re pretty much useless, and they’ll inhibit your ability to read your script. Get some screens, get some panelling, buy a rug, and get cracking.
Find a DAW you’re comfortable with
Your choice of Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW for short) is key, as it’s the thing you’re going to be spending the most time in. This is basically a fancy way of talking about the software you’ll use for recording and editing your narration. At the free end of the spectrum is the excellent Audacity. Audacity is a great tool for getting started. Again, there are myriad tutorials out there for getting the most out of the software. Also, did I mention that it’s free. And good.
Of course, there are other options out there. I myself have become quite a fan of Adobe Audition, but there are others who swear by Studio One or Reaper. Getting coaching is a great way of moving up a few rungs of the ladder quite quickly, and working with someone like Don Baarns can help you get setup with DAW presets that can make the process of editing an audiobook significantly quicker.
Sign up to ACX
There are various places where you can cut your teeth and get some great experience, but the quickest route to market is also the busiest. Kindle did wonders for budding authors and made self-publishing a viable option for anyone with something to say. ACX – the Audiobook Creation Exchange – aims to do something similar for audiobooks.
ACX is Audible’s indie production hub. Authors and Rights Holders come and post their books, and narrators (or producers) audition for the right to bring them to life. As a narrator, it’s important to upload a couple of samples to showcase your range, and then you can dive in and start searching for projects you’d like to audition for. I won’t lie, there’s a lot of dreck out there, but the same holds true of narrators and producers too. It’s also predominantly dominated by authors looking for US-accented narrators, so get practising if, like me, you’re a plummy Brit. But it’s arguably the quickest and most straightforward way to learn by doing with the potential for also making some money along the way. There are those who will tell you to get some coaching, pay your dues doing projects for Librivox, and other public domain outlets. They’re not wrong; that’s great advice. But once you’ve done one or two, or you’ve gotten some decent practice or a few coaching sessions under your belt, head here.
A few other observations
- Narration is a craft. There’s so much to consider, so much to take in. It pays to take a bit of time and do the research. Even if you don’t plough hours and hours into the steps above, it’s worth taking seriously. As with any creative market, your actions will cause ripples, however small, that will affect your fellow artists. Bad behaviour breeds bad habits, so take the time to learn industry standards, and make the most of the advice from those who’ve gone before.
- Get some coaching. Whether its vocal performance, breath control, protecting your voice, accents and dialects, mic technique, acoustic treatment for your recording space, audio engineering, mixing, mastering…there’s a lot. Asking for help, even if it’s just a session or two to point you in the right direction, can save you a lot of time and get you to a point where you can command decent remuneration more quickly.
- A nice voice isn’t enough. Being told you’ve got a nice voice is pleasant, sure. But you have to have a passion for books, for reading and performance and characterisation to get through a 10-hour project, especially because if you’re editing it yourself, it’ll likely take you five times that to complete.
- Give yourself breaks. It can be quite a lonely thing, narration. It is a very solitary activity: you, your voice, and the audio void. Listening to yourself back for hours on end is enough to drive anyone mad. Don’t over-extend. I’ve had vocal surgery, it sucks, and fatigue breeds sloppiness. Stay hydrated, get in the habit of doing warmups if you can, and take regular breaks.
- Be patient. Success won’t come overnight, and it’s important to work at a pace that’s manageable for you. My daytime marketing job can get pretty busy, so I set a fairly chill goal of doing five audio projects before the end of 2020, and I just successfully accepted the offer for the fifth a couple of days ago. There are folks doing five books a month on the side and smashing it, but you’ve got to work out what’s best for you. Take your time and don’t burn yourself out early on. Every book is a marathon, not a sprint.
That might all sound a bit heavy, but I just don’t want to bullshit anyone who might be interested. The upside seems pretty obvious to me: it’s a lot of fun! If you love books and the thought of bringing them to life excites you, then don’t be discouraged just because the process can be tough. It’s also addictive, engrossing, and enormously satisfying. For me it’s a creative outlet I wish I’d jumped into earlier on.
Hopefully this has helped a little bit and provided a bit of a starting point for interested parties. As I say, I’m no expert, and this is all heavily subjective. This by no means a comprehensive guide to becoming an audiobook narrator. But the guys who wrote the articles listed over on Narrators Roadmap are experts. Please, if you’ve got any questions, or would like to hear more about my process, hit me up and drop a comment. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to expand upon, just let me know. I’ll likely do a couple more of these and continue to chart my own experiences in the world of narration. If you do give it a go, I’d love to hear about your journey too! 🙂
You can check out some of my own samples and learn a bit more about my process when it comes to taking on a project over in the Audiobooks section of the website.