Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts, Rock Creek Station, Nebraska (photo credit Linda Dahlberg)
The career advice that has helped me the most…
When I began pursuing audiobook narration, I was no stranger to the ways of being an independent contractor (freelancer). I had just come off of a four-year stint as an after-market sales person in the automotive industry. I like to think of it this way: I did the impossible, I sold things to car dealers. It entailed traveling over 500 miles per week in the San Francisco bay area, visiting some very upscale, high-line dealerships, as well as some tiny used car lots in some very sketchy corners of places like Oakland and Richmond. Once I acclimated to the environment and learned how to “speak the language” I was able to move past my trepidation of doing my job in a male-dominated industry, and to serve my clients with efficiency and competency with a caring, personal touch. If my client asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer, I figured it out quickly and helped them solve their issue. I made it my goal to know every dealership personally, including the departments with which I interfaced. I knew the rates my company charged them on which products, I knew the intricacies of their insurance policies, I knew the demographics of their clientele, and I knew each dealer principal, general manager, finance manager, detail department head and service department manager by name (as well as many receptionists and janitors). I visited close to 100 dealerships a month. I knew how to hustle, and I grew a thick skin. I also learned to treat my career with much respect, and not settle for mediocrity. If I needed an answer, I went to the best possible sources to discover it. If I wanted to present a product to a dealer, I learned not to begin with anyone less than the ultimate decision maker. I did not trust leaving my materials or messages with subordinate employees to pass along to the owner. I did not trust second-hand answers, and I did not make excuses for not delivering what was needed or expected.
How does this translate to audiobook narration? It’s all about integrity and developing good habits. If you treat your narration career as if you are the best of the best and adhere to a few simple principles, you will go far. We all have what I like to call “wheel ruts”. (Did you know that the Oregon Trail’s wagon wheel ruts are still visible in at least nine places in the US?)
Practice makes Permanent, not Perfect (only perfect practice makes perfect)
If you audition on a casting site, and you are not ready to deliver an awesome product on time (i.e. recorded on good equipment, edited and mastered up to industry standard, performed to your best ability for which you’ve been trained) you are forming those wheel ruts. You make excuses like “I wasn’t happy with my audition because my new mic had not been delivered yet” or “I think there was some background noise in my audition because my two toddlers were wrestling with the dog” and you submit it anyway just to see what happens, then you’re etching those ruts deeper. You’re allowing yourself to turn in sub-standard work and it becomes easier each time you do it.
Or you don’t take the time to make an excellent demo to post on your website or profile on the casting sites. You instead post a sample you thought turned out “pretty well”, or you even sink to the level of posting or submitting a commercial demo. Nothing screams “I’m unprepared, I’m a newbie, I haven’t taken the time or care to do it right and I won’t when it comes time to voice your book, either” like poor presentation of your skills. And those wheel ruts get cut deeper.
Say you post a question in social media group, and you begin with the phrase: “I did a search of the group but didn’t find anything, maybe it was because the UPS man delivered my new hula hoop and I got distracted, so anyway…” and you query something for which you haven’t even tried to research or figure out on your own. You’re not only digging those wheel ruts deeper, but you’re now broadcasting to peers and potential clients that you don’t care enough to put in the time and effort to figure it out on your own.
Set high standards for yourself and stick to them!
This is manifested in the following ways:
Don’t audition if you don’t have the proper equipment, recording environment, performance skills, or ability to deliver on-time. I know it’s hard to restrain yourself when you find a project that you feel would be perfect for you, but if you want to avoid digging wheel ruts in the wrong direction, you’ll hold yourself back until you’ve made sure you’re able to deliver the best you are capable of. I recently saw a quote somewhere that said “You wouldn’t criticize a flower bud for not emerging fully bloomed” and this is salient here. No one expects you to be stellar right off the starting line. But if you know your efforts are half-baked and you’re turning out a product that you know you can do better, then don’t do it! Wait and work toward achieving the best you can, and THEN submit it.
Don’t trust your career to social media. Be aware that if you want your career to skyrocket to success, you have to feed it only the best things. Seek out professional coaching if you have a performance question or issue. Contact the organization you’re having trouble with (for example a question on a casting site, or professional association) before you take it to Facebook and complain to the group. Hire a professional engineer/editor when you have technical issues. By posting your question on social media, you have no control over who is responding. John Doe may respond with astounding authority, and you feel your question is unequivocally answered, but if you do a quick search on him on Audible, you discover he’s narrated three 45-minute cookbooks. Not exactly the top-of-the-line advice you need.
Ask yourself: Would you want to work with you?
When performing, communicating with clients, or posting on social media, are you living up to excellent standards? Or do you find yourself continually making excuses as to why something you’re doing is not up to par? Do you regularly miss deadlines? Or are you conducting yourself in a professional manner that encourages repeat business? This entails learning and practicing thoughtful responses, posts and emails. You should conduct your business as if it’s the white-glove service those ritzy hotels provide. These are good wagon ruts to form and stay in.
You’re only human; you have to start somewhere and you will make mistakes. But if you strive to be the best, continually reassess your actions and reactions, and seek out the very best when you need an answer or advice, then your trajectory cannot help but shoot skyward. Perfect practice makes perfect.
A kind listener, a new friend, took the time to send me this gift of a classic I’d narrated…
This summer, my dear husband and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in Sedona, Arizona. We love the area, the food, and the activities. We took a “Pink Jeep” tour into some Indian ruins and did a little hiking. Our guide, Don, was articulate, genial, knowledgeable, and devoted to his occupation. We enjoyed the short drive to our destination as we each introduced ourselves and shared a smidgen about ourselves. The other couple was a teacher and her husband who loved woodworking. My husband was able to share some discussion about his affinity for woodworking, and when it came time to tell about myself, I said I was an audiobook narrator. To my delight, the Jeep was full of enthusiastic readers and listeners! Don took us on a lovely tour of the ancient ruins and really piqued our interest in the local history. As he dropped us off at the end of the tour, he asked for my business card, and indicated he’d like to listen to one of my narrations. So, I gave him one and told him to email me and I’d help him pick one he’d likely enjoy.
About 2 weeks later, Don emailed me, and I helped him find an audiobook he’d be sure to enjoy. The classic “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” by Kate Douglas Wiggin, was what he settled on, and I mentioned how much I enjoyed narrating it. I mentioned, however, that I had never been able to find the original print book in any bookstores or antique malls, and then wished him happy listening.
Fast-forward to December 31, when I drove to the post office and picked up my mail. A package was waiting for me, and lo ‘n behold, it was an old hard-back copy of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” sent by my friend, Don! He’d vacationed in New England over the fall and came across it in an antique store and remembering my lament at not being able to find one, he picked it up and sent it to me. How cool is that!?
That is just the tip of a HUGE iceberg of nice people I’ve gotten to meet and know over the years I’ve been a narrator. The overwhelming good will, camaraderie, and generosity of my peers, clients and listeners have kept me afloat many times when I felt like quitting.
Other side effects of being an audiobook narrator? Learning new words (at least to me) like “hirsute”, and “floccinaucinihilipilification”, and then trying to use them in casual conversation; knowing the proper way to say common abbreviations out loud, such as “I.E.”, texting shortcuts like “IKR”, and many Latin phrases, and TONS of biblical words. (All of this would make me seem a bit hoity-toity, if only I could remember them long enough to use them.) And the obvious draw, I got to read. All. Day. Long. I got to read the most fascinating books I would not have chosen for myself and broaden my horizons.
But one of the coolest side effects of being an audiobook narrator has been the ability to work from home and somewhat control my work schedule. I was able to be home in the afternoons when my boys came home from school, ready with a snack to get a recap of their day. I could take the dogs to their vet appointments mid-morning, and I could occasionally take off on a spontaneous afternoon fishing trip with my husband (knowing I’d be recording while they slept, to catch up and meet those deadlines.)
Aside from these wonderful benefits, I get the peace and joy of bringing an author’s words to life. That is really good for my soul.
The Angel in the Book
I could see the puffs of my breath in the light of the streetlight, as I quickly trotted two houses down to my neighbor’s home, awkwardly juggling a Christmas gift tucked under one arm, a bottle of wine under the other, and a fruit tart in my hands. The women in my close-knit cul-de-sac have been gathering together for years now for our monthly bunco night, reveling in each other’s company and catching up on milestones and events around the ‘hood.
I knocked on her door. A rush of warmth, laughter and delicious smells met me as I stepped into her beautifully decorated home. Exquisite desserts and appetizers covered every available inch of space on the counters and kitchen table, and the livingroom table was heaped in anonymous gift bags and boxes to be exchanged later, in lieu of our usual bunco game.
The laughter and stories around the dinner table made the food taste even better, somehow, and there was no rush as we moseyed into the livingroom, dragging kitchen chairs in and squeezing all of us around that pile of unmarked gifts. A quick group photo, and then the game began. Our hostess read a special poem with directional words included in it, and upon hearing those words, the gifts were passed around sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. At the end of the piece, we each had a different gift than when we’d started. One at a time we opened them, and if we wanted, we could “steal” someone’s gift instead of opening the one at our own feet, and so it was that I was the owner (briefly) of a plush, furry blanket, an electric wine bottle opener, a Moscow Mule set (alcohol included!), until finally, with one woman left, that was stolen from me, too! I’d had my eye on another decadently soft, fluffy blanket, and had every intention to steal it, when I saw there was one unopened gift bag left and felt compelled to choose it instead of the petty larceny I had planned.
Out of the bag came a very beautiful angel, crafted skillfully from a book, it’s gown and wings formed by the folded pages. I, and many of my neighbors marveled at the coincidence of my ending up with that particular gift, since I am an audiobook narrator and thus, an avid book lover. Now, the premise of the gift exchange is anonymity, but I looked around those lovely faces in the circle and asked who made this gift that fit me so perfectly. The artist was across the room and raised her hand. She said, “I was thinking of you when I made that.” I got a little choked up as I thanked her, and with blurry eyes, looked it over again, and then gently placed it back in its bag.
The gift exchange over, we began to disperse, some of us refilling a wine glass or nibbling on an hors ‘d oeuvre, or just moving to chat with someone we hadn’t had a chance to talk with yet. The artist came over to sit by me and explain how the angel was made, and another neighbor came over and asked what book was used to make the angel. I brought her out of the bag and as I turned her over in my hands I froze, my heart stopping for a moment when I read the title of the book, “The Christmas Box” by Richard Paul Evans. In a flash I was transported to 1995, sitting by my father’s bedside in the hospital. The flashing lights of a heart monitor and the rhythm of the respirator breathing for him weaving a sad background to my voice, as I read this very same book aloud, to his unresponsive face. I remembered the smell of sterile equipment and the faint aroma of the peach lotion my sister and I had massaged into his feet and hands earlier in the day. But in the wee small hours of the morning, there I sat in his darkened room in the ICU, tears streaming down my face, as I read him this beautiful Christmas story about a widow and a young family that comes to live with her.
Quickly refocusing my attention on the here and now, and the book-angel in my hands, I couldn’t contain the sob that escaped me, and tears began to course down my cheeks. I was so embarrassed to be crying at this happy gathering, and felt my face grow red as I tried to squelch the emotions that overwhelmed me. My angel-maker gracefully and perceptively distracted me by describing how she crafted the gift, and I was so grateful for the chance to regain my composure, if only for a moment. I wanted to share with everyone how touched I was by this poignant coincidence, but every time I opened my mouth, my voice quavered in a high-pitched choking sound, and I would break down again. I think word eventually made it around the room, and my dear friends who were not clustered around me as I blathered, now all know the reason for my emotions.
The day after the party, as I write this, my emotions are still raw and near the surface, and I feel a headache coming on from the effort of keeping them under control. I need to get into my recording booth and finish narrating a book whose deadline is a bit too close for comfort, and if I cry, I lose half an hour of valuable work time, due to the drippy nasal tones that will be audible I my voice. I have placed my book angel outside my booth on my great grandmother’s antique sewing machine, which houses my recording equipment. There she will stay, long after the Christmas decorations have been put away in the garage. I am so grateful to have been in the presence of dear friends when this happened, and I am also grateful that the memory of my father is present with us this Christmas in a new and beautiful way.
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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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