Ann Richardson

FOR NARRATORS JUST STARTING OUT – “Best Practices”

 

Best Practices are there for our safety

FOR NARRATORS JUST STARTING OUT– BEST PRACTICES

Social media is rife with advice for audiobook narrators. Usually we’re giving it to one another, and usually it’s hit or miss whether you get solid, “best practices” advice from seasoned pros. Newbies are quick to chime in with their experiences, and fellow newbies don’t always take the time to “Audible” the advice-giver (narrators’ equivalent of “Googling” someone) to make sure they’re qualified to stand as an authority, and thus, absorb faulty, misleading, or plain wrong information.

I’ve put together a general list of “Best Practices for Audiobook Narrators” that will hopefully clarify some questions that surface in our community, over and over and over and over… As with anything, do what you want to, new narrators, but please know that these points are time-tested and true.  Can you become successful in other ways? Yes, you can, anything is possible, but the guidance in this blog is here to help you, to smooth your way, and hopefully help our industry avoid poor-quality audiobooks which may dissuade listeners from continuing to listen to audiobooks.

Before I launch into the list, this must be stated: LISTEN TO AUDIOBOOKS. Listen attentively. Many of the questions that are brought up on social media can be answered by listening to good audiobooks! If you’re not sure what a good audiobook is, subscribe to AudioFile Magazine and it’s newsletters, and read them word for word. This is very important. Now, on to the meat and potatoes…

  1. DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB. Being an audiobook narrator is not an instant income replacement for a full-time employee in nearly any field. It takes money to make money, as you’ll see in subsequent points. The reason this is number one, is that if you don’t have the money to start this career journey the “right” way, you’ll be tempted to cut corners on vital things such as hiring a professional proofer/editor/mastering engineer, or purchasing legitimately solid equipment, or getting professional coaching in performance and business aspects of this occupation.
  2. GET PROFESSIONAL COACHING. Audiobook performance is not simply reading aloud. Different genres require different performance techniques. The business of being an audiobook narrator should also not be approached on a “seat of your pants” philosophy. A business coach can help you chart a course for growth, both financially and in relation to your portfolio. VET THE COACH BEFORE YOU HIRE HIM/HER. There are excellent coaches, and then there are those who don’t have the experience in the industry that would qualify them to instruct others. If you’re unsure how to vet a coach, lurk on the social media groups for narrators and pick a seasoned pro to private message and ask them for their recommendations. You could also do a search of the group to find posts that contain coaching recommendations/endorsements.
  3. PURCHASE EXCELLENT EQUIPMENT. You don’t have to go for the top-of-the-line most expensive microphone you can find, but do not start out with bargain basement equipment, hoping to make enough money to later upgrade. Industry standard for audiobook recording is a large diaphragm condenser microphone that plugs into a preamp, that boosts the signal that goes into your computer and then your recording software. Key to purchasing equipment that will best serve your needs is to test it first, optimally, in the place where you will be using it. Some retailers will let you return microphones, so if you purchase several and do a mic shootout in your own recording space, you can return the ones that don’t sound so good for your voice. It’s a very good idea to hire a professional engineer to help you pick the right equipment, especially the right mic for your voice, as well as guide you in creating a nice, quiet environment in which to record.
  4. LEARN ABOUT THE INDUSTRY. Be voracious in your learning. Join as many audiobook and narrator social media groups as you can, and comb through the posts. Use Google to research publishers, fellow narrators, equipment, sound-proofing your booth, and many more things. Basically, if you can think of a question, do the very best you can to research it before you give up and ask someone. Of course, if you’ve taken coaching, you should be able to reach out to your coach if you have a question from time to time. Just be respectful. If your questions are frequent and lengthy, you should hire the coach for refresher sessions. This is their livelihood and they should be compensated appropriately. A smart move would be to join ACX and devour their “HELP” section. They give tutorials on recording, engineering, specs and more. Another excellent resource is the Audio Publishers Association. When you become a member of this organization, you have instant access to their archives of webinars. This is a TOTAL GOLDMINE of information on a broad list of topics.
  5. AUDITION APPROPRIATELY. This means that if you find a book on ACX that you’re interested in auditioning for, make sure you can perform what the book’s profile says it is. For example, if the description says it’s set in Ireland and the heroine is South African, you need to be able to sustain these accents for the duration of the book, unless the rights holder specifies they want neutral American, no matter what. Or, another example, don’t audition for an erotica book when you have reservations about narrating that type of material. The last thing you want to do is accept a job, then realize that you don’t want to narrate it after all, and back out of the contract. That’s not good for the rights holder, who was counting on you to fulfill your obligation, and it’s not a good way to form your reputation or what is called today, “branding”.
  6. BECOME AN EXPERT. If you’re auditioning for audiobook work through platforms such as ACX, Findaway Voices, or something else, you are responsible for being the professional who produces the audiobook. YOU handle all aspects of performing, recording, proofing, editing, and engineering the audiobooks you agree to produce. The rights holder is not necessarily your collaborative partner (read: they are not responsible to proof your work and catch all of your mistakes.) The rights holder DOES have the right to listen and collaborate with you in this manner, but ultimately it is your responsibility to deliver a retail-ready audiobook. You are responsible for knowing how the industry handles citations, chapter headings, figures/charts/illustrations, whether or not to read the dedication, what goes into the retail sample, and where to go for pronunciation help (NOTE: It’s not always the author!). A rights holder on ACX quite often has never gone through the process of making an audiobook, and thus does not know what common practice is when it comes to details such as this. I would further stretch that to include that they may have never even listened to an audiobook although this is rapidly changing. If you happen to be working with a major audiobook publisher, they will have all the answers you need.
  7. CHARGE AN APPROPRIATE RATE. Familiarize yourself with SAG-AFTRA minimum rates, even if you are not a member of the union. Audiobook narration is not something you should discount because you’re “new” or your deadline needs to be longer because you work during the day, or whatever. Giving a lowball rate drags down the whole industry.
  8. PRE-READ AND PREPARE THE MATERIAL BEFORE YOU BEGIN RECORDING. This is of such importance that I cannot stress it enough. Here are some hurdles that can spring up during narration when one has not taken these very basic steps:
  • -a character you’ve voiced throughout the book suddenly reveals in the last chapter, that they have a strong accent.
  • -questionable content you may not ethically want to narrate, surfaces. You’ve already recorded a sample for the rights holder’s approval, and you are fully in the middle of narrating the text. Now is not the time to back out of your obligation.
  • -difficult pronunciations slow down narration to the point of affecting your performance and deadline. You need to research pronunciations and have them handy so that you can correctly pronounce those words on the fly.
  1. HIRE A PROFESSIONAL PROOFER/EDITOR/ENGINEER to do the post-production on your project. It is entirely commendable to learn how to do these necessary tasks yourself, but the bottom line is that you read the text with your own comprehension. You will probably not catch much of what a different set of ears will catch. Plus, the level of excellence on your final product will be much better than you could produce, being that your focus is on performance and connecting with the text, NOT on wearing all those other hats. “But I can’t afford to hire out!” you say.  I encourage you to go back and re-read #1.
  2. WORK WITH THE RIGHTS HOLDER ON AN INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED TITLE, BUT DO NOT KOWTOW TO UNREASONABLE REQUESTS. Best practices here are that you seek input on the first 15-minute sample you submit, and, choose a segment of the book that includes the main characters in dialog, or an especially suspenseful scene, or if it’s a romance, a spicy scene, or even a smattering of each of those. “First 15” does not mean the first 15 minutes of text in the book. This is your chance to show the rights holder your talent, and to sync up with what they want for their book. After they’ve approved that sample, you’re off to the races. Now you record the whole book, then upload it for the rights holder. She/He can then listen to and provide feedback limited to correcting errors, not to ask for re-reads with their directorial input. If there happens to be changes to the manuscript, you of course have the power to make changes to your narration free of additional charge to the rights holder, but extensive changes should be charged for on top of the agreed-upon rate.
  3. MAKE EVERY SINGLE DEADLINE. MAKE EVERY SINGLE DEADLINE. MAKE EVERY SINGLE DEADLINE.

You are embarking on this journey to become the best narrator you possibly can be and work for the best clients you can think of, whether that means independently-publishing authors, or the “big” audiobook publishers. You may come to realize that this is an endeavor that you gradually ease into, while you continue working your “day job”. Very few people can quit their day job and replace that income immediately, with their audiobook narration earnings. It usually takes years before a narrator can earn enough to sustain themselves/their family on their narration income.

Many, many individuals have been down this road before you. We’ve made many mistakes and come away better for it; that’s how Best Practices are established. You have every right to make your own way in this arena, and run your business the way you want to, but please remember that we are a tightly-knit community. We want each other to succeed and put quality product out there at a reasonable price. As has been said before by my colleagues, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

“Never make fun of someone for mispronouncing a word. It means they learned it by reading.” Anonymous

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Curious About Becoming A Narrator? Learn To Fish…

Putting in the time...

“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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPzPi-_0Xi8
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:
www.audiobookmentor.com
https://www.deyaninstitute.com
https://patfraley.com
https://johnnyheller.com/
www.audiopub.org.

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.

Narrating the Spicy Stuff

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.