“Can I take you to coffee and pick your brain?” NO. READ THIS BLOG.
I began my narration career in 2008. That’s when the economy tanked and my job evaporated. I was lucky enough to have a husband with a stable job, and I now had the chance to finally figure out what I “wanted to be when I grew up”.
Having an unfinished degree in broadcast journalism, I decided to investigate if some aspect of that focus could work for me at this stage of my life. I attended a community education class about voiceovers and began voraciously researching the field. I read all the articles and columns I could find about it, listened to podcasts, took coaching and business mentoring in the voice over area, and was eventually directed to Recording For the Blind and Dyslexic, to volunteer narrating, in order to get a feel for audiobook narration. I was smitten. I knew it was what I wanted to pursue, and so I continued to volunteer recording for RFB&D (which is now known as “Learning Ally”).I joined the Audio Publishers Association and as many voiceover/narration/audiobook groups on social media that I could find.
It was a hell of a lot of work.
Good thing I’m a hard worker.
Now if you’re reading this, it means you must have some interest in checking out the field of audiobook narration; maybe you’re a friend from a former part of my life. The reason I’ve directed you to read this blog post is because people come to me more often than you’d think, wanting to pick my brain over coffee. Repeatedly, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time crafting lengthy emails to friends who ask me about getting into narration, only to never hear from them again. So I finally decided to blog about it and simply invite inquisitive people to read it.
But why do I balk at being asked out to coffee for a brain-picking session? You’re asking for me to freely give the information I worked so very hard to learn and stay abreast of, for the price of a cup of coffee. My time is valuable, as is yours, no doubt. If I’m out having coffee, that means I’m NOT in the booth recording, or performing a myriad of functions that keeps my business running. I worked very hard to find out if this occupation would be viable, interesting, and something I could continue into my retirement years. You can do this too. If it’s important to you, you SHOULD do the footwork yourself. This is the best way to learn, and the lessons will stick far better than simply hearing about my experiences. Remember that old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
An excellent starting point is to watch this video by acclaimed narrator, Sean Pratt.
He has narrated close to one thousand audiobooks, and is a narration coach. His advice is excellent.
Here are some additional helpful links to get you started:
And if, after checking out these resources, you still want to spend time with me picking my brain about audiobook narration, my rate is $100 for a one-hour session. This is a very reasonable rate, and I will share with you what I have learned through my years of experience and hard work, plus answer your questions to the best of my ability.
Steamy romance and erotica make up a very popular and lucrative genre in the literary world and I’m curious about how a narrator handles the subject matter, from a performance perspective. A narrator must verbally act out those intimate scenes, saying words that many people only ever utter in the safety of a darkened room with someone we love and know intimately.
A major comment I’ve seen in audiobook reviews is that male narrators should NEVER use a falsetto voice to portray a female character. There are other ways to get the listener to willingly suspend disbelief and buy into the performance. For instance a male narrator might add a touch more breath to his voice, or speak more hesitantly or softly, based on the persona of the female character he’s voicing. Women narrators who bottom-out their voice in a strained baritone delivery when narrating a male character, also risk ruining the listener’s buy-in, not to mention their narrating voice. Many female narrators have found that adding a touch of gravel (aka “vocal fry”) to their voice goes a long way in bringing a male character to life. These are just a couple of technical aspects of narrating dual point of view romances. Now let’s delve into what goes through some female narrators’ minds when voicing this very sensitive genre.
I am privileged to have been invited to join a secret group of females who narrate “spicier” books under a pseudonym. Despite the fact that my connection with these women is facilitated by social media, my imagination created a kind of film noir setting…
IT WAS A DARK AND RAINY NIGHT…
I walked quickly down the desolate narrow alley lined with trashcans and the occasional scrawny cat digging through the day’s discarded scraps. I pulled the collar of my trench coat higher up around my ears. I began trotting faster down the alley, and the staccato echoes of my own steps chased me to the end, where a chain-link fence rose high up into the night. Raindrops spattered my face as my eyes followed the fence to its full height, and squinted at the razor wire looped around the top. I shuddered and turned away, finding myself face to face with a heavy metal door recessed into the side of the old brick building. I knocked three times as instructed and waited for the small panel near the top to slide open. After a moment, it did, and a set of beautiful, mysterious eyes fringed with luscious, heavily mascaraed eyelashes appeared. Without saying a word, she opened the door and beckoned me to enter.
I hurried in and had to step quickly to catch up with the figure of my hostess in her flowing hooded cloak, disappearing down the hallway to my left. Another few turns in the labyrinthine hallways, and I found myself standing at the edge of a room. It was lit only by candles and there must have been two dozen similarly shrouded figures grouped in small clusters throughout the room, conversing in muted tones. The cloaks they wore ranged in color from deep burgundy to a rich forest green, black to royal purple. No face was visible, and as they noticed my presence, all conversation dwindled away. Suddenly, as if on cue, they soundlessly glided to sit in a circle in the center of the room. One of the women spoke in a low, mellifluous voice, asking “What do you seek to know?”
I stammered the words out in a rush: “I-I-I was wondering if you all narrated under a pseudonym, and if so, why?”
The murmuring among the group was brief and another answered: “Yes. We chose to remain anonymous out of consideration to our families, our clients, and our friends. While we believe in what we do, we do not wish to cause undue distress to those aforementioned, and feel that using a pseudonym is a fair way to continue without causing harm.”
I scribbled this response in the small damp notebook I kept in the pocket of my trench coat. “Do you like the content you’re narrating?” I squeaked out, slightly intimidated by the sonorous, articulate tones emanating from the dark hoods. No wonder they’re romance narrators… they sounded great.
Again there was a brief period of discussion, and then a different, more feminine and seductive voice issued forth: “We enjoy it. A well-written story is the key. Sexuality is a part of intimate relationships. So when an author, whether the book is fiction or non-fiction, writes in such a way to inspire someone, it makes it exciting and fun to narrate. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a spicy fantasy now and again? If listening to a sexy story ignites someone’s passion and they can share it with their partner, then that can only be a good thing.”
The sultry, husky, five-star voice of my hostess chimed in: “Seriously, I love helping people embrace their sexuality. We’re inundated with so many images that imply only perfectly beautiful people are sexy and that is so not true. Everyone should feel sexy and desirable. Even though I don’t write the books I narrate, I look for things that reflect my own values and beliefs. If I can connect to it, then my performance will help the listener connect as well. I’m all about being positive and helping people have a positive sexual image and experience. Intimate moments can easily be undone by insecurities and self-doubt. Good sex is not contingent on being perfect, it’s about being free and relaxed and comfortable with someone who totally adores you for you.”
That was interesting. I pressed further: “Are there some books you won’t narrate?”
A gorgeous dark green velvet hood turned my way and a tough-girl tone resonated: “My line is very clear. I will only narrate romances that encourage sex-positive, pleasurable experiences. If the book contains non-consensual sex (rape or dubious consent) or anything illegal (like under-aged sex or violence), used as a way to derive sexual pleasure, I will decline the project. I have known too many people who have been victims of sexual assault/abuse, so I cannot, in good conscience, narrate books with that material used for that purpose. Also, there is often a fine line between this behavior and BDSM. An author who researches/is part of that lifestyle knows how to represent it in a way that is consensual and not abusive. I appreciate that.”
Nearby, a lovely warm voice weighed in: “It’s my voice going out into the world and it matters very much to me what I attach it to. It’s a piece of my soul. If I discovered a book I’d agreed to narrate contained episodes of non-consensual sex, I wouldn’t even think twice about pulling out of the project, giving my apologies. (We don’t always have time to pre-read a book before we accept the project.) It’s ok to have boundaries.”
A whispery voice piped up from across the room: “I bow out. I don’t want those stories out in the world, and I can’t give voice to them. What I love about erotica is it’s empowering to many women sexually and emotionally. I guess the only thing would be if there was rape that happened in a story and it’s part of the woman’s arc and she overcomes that, then maybe. But the scene couldn’t be written to titillate. It is a tough issue. I had this come up in the middle of a book series, and finally decided to go ahead because 1. it was unfair to drop out in middle of series and 2. it was an important event for the girl in forming her identity. And, it was ultimately a story of triumph over despair. It is very difficult to pull off an unbiased performance when it happens though.”
Noticing many hoods nodding in agreement, I understood that this was a group of secure, thoughtful women. I decided to change the subject and bring some levity to this somber gathering. I uttered one last question: “Have you had any bloopers or funny experiences while narrating this spicy stuff?”
A tall hooded figure leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial tone: “When I first started recording these I was working at a studio in Los Angeles with an engineer. At first it was a little uncomfortable due to the intimate and graphic scenes and then there were times when the scenes or script would push nerves to the edge and the engineer or I would lapse into a fit of laughter. One particular time I happened to glance out my little window and notice the engineer was no longer manning his equipment. I stopped reading, and opened the door and he was on the floor laughing hysterically. Sometimes you just can’t help but laugh.”
I closed my small notebook and slipped it back into my deep pocket. I gazed around the circle at these secretive, intelligent women, and in unison they rose and slowly filed out of the room in one straight line. Then my hostess turned to me and led me from the room, through the maze of hallways, and deposited me unceremoniously outside the heavy metallic door, which closed with a clang behind me. I shivered, alone in the wet alley, the steady drizzle plastering my hair to my head. Reflecting on the strange events of the evening, I mused that it was one of the weirdest interviews I’d ever conducted. And one of the most fun.
It has been a long-standing topic of discussion in narrators’ circles: “Do I need a pseudonym?” Usually it is the newer narrators who are unfamiliar with the reasons one would choose to record audiobooks under a different name, and are trying to decide if they need one. However, I was reading some discussion threads on Goodreads recently, and it appears some audiobook fans and even authors are not sure of why a narrator would choose to record under a different name.
Authors have long written under pen names for a variety of reasons, and not surprisingly, narrators share many of the same reasons for maintaining a separate identity:
-the content is controversial
-to protect friends and family from being associated with the material
-to protect family from easily discovering your work
-to protect a body of previous work
-to protect a publisher/at a publisher’s request
-to protect a “day job”
-to keep work in different genres apart
– to make their name easier to remember and spell
As I perused the Goodreads threads, I stumbled across a discussion from May of 2013, in which the participants were posting impressive lists of narrators and their pseudonyms. I was taken aback at the casual treatment of narrators’ attempts to keep their identity hidden! I read on, curious to see all of the comments, because I know of many narrators who are active members of Goodreads, and I wanted to learn of their reactions and input on this topic.
The overriding sentiment throughout the discussion was heart-warming for a narrator to read: the folks who were posting these exhaustive lists were enthusiastically “outing” their favorite narrators because they wanted to be sure to follow them, no matter what genre he/she narrated. One message posted by “Diana”, stated,
“Today (May 1) Audible released 31 (!) new titles in the romance category. I’m a heavy duty buyer in romance and I was disconcerted to find that I recognized only 2 of 31 narrator names. I left the site without buying anything because I was only interested in a couple of the books and I’m not inclined nor do I have time for sampling 31 (!) unknown-to-me narrators.”
Subsequent comments speculated on the reasons narrators use a pseudonym. One guess was that it was the publisher who requested a name change; another thought that it was the narrators’ concerns that they might be typecast, and mentioned that in utilizing a pseudonym, narrators were doing a disservice to the readers. Then a member known as “Lea’s Audiobooks” contributed a very important component that should have both authors and narrators perking up their ears:
“Most of these unknown narrator names you are seeing though are first time narrators – more often than not with little to no training. It’s the ‘anyone can read an audiobook in their closet at home without a director’ concept that’s sweeping the industry with lower priced books and often unknown authors. You have probably heard me rant on this but the main thing to remember is that if you buy one of these from Audible and don’t care for the narration, return it. It’s easy – you can return as many times as you want (although I’d be afraid to overuse it) and it sends a message that you don’t care for sub-standard performances all in the name of getting just any romance fix.”
The takeaway lesson in this exchange is (if you’re an author) take care in choosing your narrator, research them, their body and quality of work, and seriously consider the “pay per finished hour” rate structure over royalty share payments, as the better narrators refuse royalty share deals and often demand higher rates. If you are a narrator, do your very best on each production, which may include hiring a professional sound engineer to ensure the technical aspects of your recording are excellent, and also invest the time and money in professional coaching.
As I continued to read, a comment from a narrator popped up. And what a narrator it was who posted! Simon Vance, multi-Audie Award winner and house-hold name to audiobook aficionados, said:
“Let me jump in here and explain why I, and probably most of the long-term narrators in that initial list, might be found to have narrated under different names… When I came to the US it was standard policy for narrators to have different names for different publishers – apparently it was a hangover from when each publisher liked to have their own ‘team’ of voices… -and I’ve never done any erotica…honest!”
Simon’s explanation was a surprise to me, because I’d always thought that a narrator would choose to record under a different name primarily because of sexual or controversial content and the propensity for A) being discovered by your kid playing around on the school library computers, or B) the chance for creepy stalkers to find you and latch on.
So I decided to ask a well-respected fellow narrator why she chose to use a secret identity.
“I use a pseudonym to protect my clients that don’t write erotica and would prefer not to be associated with a narrator that does erotica – particularly those that write teen fantasy fiction or religious themed books. I chose it after much deliberation and some trial and error – my one author disliked my first attempt, so I went back to the drawing board. I realized I would only be comfortable if it had something to do with me, like a long ago nickname (Pippi from Pippi Longstockings) and that’s how I came up with Pippa – and then Jayne just popped into my head. It seemed right for Pippa.” – Pippa Jayne
Well, Pippa’s thought process certainly made sense to me. But how does a narrator decide when to give credit to their avatar, and when to record under their own name? I know that each narrator employs a set of criteria and values to help clarify which name to record under, and popular narrator Andi Arndt was gracious enough to share hers with me:
“When I’m offered a book, and it is already classified as erotica, it definitely goes into the pseudonym category. If there’s a judgment call to be made, some of the things I look at are:
- Is the AUTHOR using a pseudonym, especially one that’s designed to sound mysterious and/or secretive?
- If I use Ctrl+F on the script and go looking for certain anatomical euphemisms, are they rare or abundant?
- Is the love story the central point of the plot, or is the plot more of a device used to justify a change of locale for the next intimate adventure? Either is valid, not being comparative, but they do fall into different genres.
- This is a big one for me: does anyone ever laugh in this story? Humor can keep a book in the Andi column, and if people are laughing together during an intimate encounter, that’s healthy human sexuality, something to celebrate.”
Both Pippa’s and Andi’s diligence and thoughtful consideration of their projects and clients speaks well of their work ethic and the respect they exhibit for their craft. It got me thinking that maybe I could come up with a good, foxy moniker and start seeking out some spicy romantica to narrate! Nothing wrong with trying new things, right? So I solicited suggestions from a few narrators on Facebook…. The most prevalent advice was “GOOGLE IT!” This would hopefully prevent me from choosing a name that is already in use by someone famous, nefarious, or notorious, or someone who is already a well-known author or narrator.
Other well-intentioned advice included choosing a combination of my initials, middle name, and maiden name. Or how about combining the name of a textile with my favorite food? Or a beloved pet’s name plus a type of seasoning? Hmmm. I think I need to mull over this a bit more before I settle on a suitable alias.
Then it occurred to me that if I chose to narrate material that would require me to hide my real identity, how would I audition, market myself, and interact with the authors and publishers for whom I wish to narrate?
Further inquiry brought this guidance (specifically for narrators):
If I want to create a presence on ACX where I can upload samples of my spicy narration, without having my name associated with it, I need to create an alternate profile using my new spicy narrating name. (I’m leaning toward “Jacquard Ganache”.) Authors and rights holders can search for a producer using ACX’s customizable search feature. Filters such as gender, accent, genre, language, payments, and many other categories can be selected to narrow the search. If I were not concerned about having my sexy narration demo show up under my real name or have my real name show up when someone narrows their search to erotica producers, I could simply audition for and accept jobs using my original profile, and then just record my pseudonym in the opening and closing credits, and when I finish and submit my narration, specify to ACX which name I wish to show in the credits online.
Maybe I want to create a complete identity for my avatar, underscoring the separation between my real self and my bolder alter-ego, (I’m not sure about the “Jacquard” thing. How about “Spunky Terragon”? I was thinking about how we like to grill out on weekends, but “Spunky Buttrub” was just too much). I can build a website using my new name as the domain name, including an email address and social media accounts for Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and whatever platform I want to utilize. Now I have to think about how much time and energy I want to put into having my alias post and participate on these social sites. My head is beginning to spin… But if this sounds daunting, I’ve learned that it is not uncommon for narrators to adopt more than one pseudonym!
Then there’s business cards, letterhead, swag, podcasts, guest appearances (who to be? Myself? My avatar?) If I REALLY want to establish a secret identity, I can get a DBA (“Doing Business As”…research it; it can be different in your own state), open up bank accounts using the DBA, or even consult a lawyer if I want to find out how to be really super secret. But it’s probably overkill, unless you’re crazy successful, as well as very, very private.
Well, I hope I have helped enlighten you to the reasons behind preserving your real name, and how to go about creating a life for this new you. I think I’ve decided on a fierce, sultry, uninhibited new narrator-name. But I can’t tell you what it is or it wouldn’t be a secret.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT AUDIOBOOK CREATION
One day, my young son and I were shopping for a wedding gift for a friend. As always, I made my way to the audiobook section to see what was on the shelf. Lo ‘n behold, I was tickled pink to find one I’d narrated! It struck me then, that most folks have no inkling of how audiobooks are produced. Why should they? UNLESS YOU’RE AN AUTHOR.The audiobook industry continues to grow at an astounding rate, as evidenced by double-digit increases in sales annually. If an author neglects to plan for an audio version of his or her work, it’s tantamount to leaving money on the table. I’m relieved to say that many of today’s authors are very familiar with the benefits of releasing their books in audio format, and even bank on the popularity of the narrators they choose, to attract and build a loyal fan base. However, some authors are still unsure of what is involved in the creation of an audiobook, and this blog aims to answer the more frequently asked questions.
Q: Where do I begin?
A: There are two main avenues for audiobook publishing. For many rights holders the most popular route is through “Audiobook Creation Exchange”(www.ACX.com), which is Audible’s audiobook publishing platform and is owned by Amazon. (A rights holder is the person or entity that owns all rights required to make a book available for production and distribution as an audiobook. This may be the book’s author, a publisher, a literary agent, or the author’s estate.) For those rights holders who publish their books with a traditional publisher (for example, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, etc.) those publishers will also usually produce the audio version of that book. Both of these avenues of producing audiobooks will ultimately list the audiobooks on Audible and iTunes for retail sale. For this blog, I will focus solely on audiobook production using ACX, and since most audiobooks are downloaded, I’ll skip over explaining about producing an audiobook on CD.
Q: How much will it cost me?
A: There are many factors that impact the cost of audiobook production. If you decide to use ACX to make your audiobook, your expenses are largely dependent on what you choose to pay your narrator. Rates for narration can be structured in three ways: royalty share, pay-per-finished hour, and a hybrid of the two where the rights holder and producer agree to a royalty share contract, but separate from ACX, agree to an additional pay-per-finished-hour contract.
Royalty share means that you pay nothing up front to your narrator, but when the book is sold, you and the narrator share a percentage of the profit. This can be up to 40%, split between the two (meaning the narrator and the rights holder each get up to 20% of the profits) But this is not quite an accurate view of earnings, as many audiobooks are purchased from Audible with credits. When a narrator auditions for a royalty share book, several factors are taken into consideration. Some of the criteria used to predict whether it will be worth the narrator’s time to record, include sales of the ebook, (not simply downloads, but actual sales), if the author has a robust marketing plan, the social media presence an author maintains, the genre of the book (paranormal romance will typically sell better than a non-fiction book about glaciers, for example), how prolific an author is, and if the book or author has won awards. Royalty share books will also attract newer narrators, as many of the more experienced narrators command compensation beginning at $250 per finished hour. Most narrators have experienced narrating at least one audiobook on royalty share basis, and never even came close to recouping decent payment on it.
If you choose to pay your narrator per finished hour, ACX has tiers of payment from which the rights holder can choose, which are calculated by how long your audiobook ends up being. These tiers are 0-$50, $50-$100, $100-$200, $200-$400, and $400-$1000, paid per finished hour. You may think that this is excellent pay for just reading aloud! But keep in mind the industry average seems to be that 6 hours are needed to record, edit, and master 1 finished hour of audio. (“Master” means to apply certain effects to the audio files to enhance the sound.) Depending on the narrator’s skill and the difficulty of the text this number could be less or greater than 6 hours. Obviously if your book contains complicated character names, numerous foreign words or phrases, or other text which requires additional research before narrating, it will take longer for the narrator to produce that one finished hour. Here’s an example: a non-fiction book chronicling the history of the pharmaceutical industry ends up being ten hours long. You can bet that the narrator had extensive research to do in order to make sure he/she could accurately pronounce all those company and drug names. All of that tricky verbiage will also slow down the narration process, and then the time spent editing will tend to be longer, as well, to make sure pacing and pauses sound natural. A book like this could take more than 60 hours to produce! So paying $200 per finished hour for a ten-hour audiobook is not exorbitant at all, when one considers the amount of work that goes into each production.
The third payment option that is cropping up more and more, is a hybrid deal, where the narrator agrees to perform the audiobook for royalty-share, and also enters into an agreement on the side (separate from ACX) in which the rights holder pays a per-finished-hour rate, usually much lower than what the narrator would normally agree to. For example, the rights holder and narrator agree to ACX’s royalty share agreement, but exchange emails on the side and establish an agreement for the rights holder to pay $100 per finished hour upon completion of the audiobook. (The amount the RH pays is not set in stone at $100 pfh. Hybrid deals are negotiated, so the RH could pay less or more than $100pfh + royalties.) ACX is aware of this practice, and has no issue with it.
Q: How much money will I make off of my audiobook?
A: It depends! Factors that affect how an audiobook sells include the popularity of the author as well as the narrator. Also the author’s marketing strategies and content of the book have significant impact.
Q: Should I narrate my own book?
A: You may be familiar with the phrase: “Don’t try this at home.” We are further cautioned that attempting to do whatever it is we’re watching that we think looks easy; we will probably end up with unfortunate results. The same phrase is a good rule of thumb for audiobook narration. While an author might think they would naturally be the best choice of narrator for their own work, this is usually not the case. The exceptions occur mostly in non-fiction, or in the rare instance that the author is an outstanding performer. Professional narrators study their craft, invest in professional training, and are able to connect with the text, often utilizing accents and other vocal techniques in order to best portray the author’s intent. A good narrator can believably portray both male and female voices by simply altering their breathing, tone and pitch, but it is often an acquired skill that the narrator has practiced and honed over time. In addition, most professional narrators are capable of operating their own recording software and have a good working knowledge of the various pieces of equipment needed to produce an outstanding recording. They typically invest thousands of dollars into high-quality equipment and in developing a sound-proof environment in their home, in which to record. They are cognizant of how certain foods and drinks affect their ability to enunciate clearly and without digestive “sound effects”, and also know how to care for their voice so that they sound consistent throughout the recording. A good narrator can often make the story an engrossing experience for the listener, whereas an untrained individual (even if they wrote the story!) may perform the text in such a way that the listener is bored, disinterested, or even irritated, and may ultimately quit listening, or even worse, write a bad review for the audiobook.
Q: Where can I find more information about the audiobook industry?
A: There is a wonderful organization called “Audiobook Publisher Association” or, the APA (www.audiopub.org). The website features news articles about the APA and the industry, and provides links to press releases and recent coverage organized by date.
There is also a magazine called “AudioFile” (www.audiofilemagazine.com) which is published six times a year. It is a print and online magazine whose mission is to review unabridged and abridged audiobooks, original audio programs, commentary, and dramatizations in the spoken-word format. The focus of reviews is the audio presentation, not the critique of the written material. AudioFile is a great resource to go to when one is looking for a publisher, narrator, or simply to keep up with the industry.
I hope this blog has proved enlightening about audiobooks and their production. I welcome your comments and questions!