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
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.
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.
Narrators’ Hidden Identities
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!