Last updated 3/15/21
One question that I’ve seen and heard repeatedly from authors and listeners is: How is a narrator selected to read the audiobook?
In addition, many authors tell me that they want to narrate their audiobooks for financial and/or artistic reasons.
At first glance, the author might seem to be the most logical choice for the narrator. The author has labored over every word in the book and obviously is the person most familiar with its arc and important points.
However, many avid listeners refuse to listen to books narrated by the author because they have frequently discovered that the writer is not necessarily the best performer. In fact, the annual consumer surveys from the Audio Publishers Association show this consistent finding:
“Audiobook consumers place a high priority on quality of narration. Non-fiction and fiction listeners alike prefer a professional voice actor to the author as a narrator.”
I always advise authors and publishers to select the narrator who can best serve the text. The following 3 questions guide the casting process:
1) Is the book fiction or non-fiction?
2) What narrative point of view (POV) is used in the book?
3) Who is paying for the production costs?
Fiction Or Non-Fiction
Professional narrators almost always perform fiction books because they have the acting training and experience necessary to convey the wide range of characters, accents, and emotions in the story. I know of only a few instances where devoted listeners raved over an author’s rendition of a fiction audiobook. These books were set in the same geographic location as the author, and the characters shared her accent.
Author performances of their non-fiction works, especially memoirs or comedic essays, are much more common. Listeners often comment that they enjoy hearing the voice of the author as she tells her own story.
Regardless of genre, listeners still expect an engaging experience. Listeners commonly complain that authors have not had vocal training and therefore are more likely to offer a dry read, speak in a monotone voice, and breathe at points that make the writing sound choppy.
An experienced narrator reads and absorbs the entire book and perhaps does additional research to understand the setting, as well as perfects dialects and determines correct pronunciations.
Point Of View
Beyond genre, the narrative POV affects the choice of narrator.
Either gender can perform texts written in third person. The narrator’s gender typically would match the gender of the main characters.
For instance, if a man wrote a book in third person that has a majority of female characters, he shouldn’t narrate the audiobook. A female narrator is the natural choice. If the number of characters for both genders is about equal, the narrator might be the same sex as the author.
In narratives with first person POVs, the narrator should always be the same gender as the main character in fiction or the author in non-fiction. The opposite gender will not sound right to the listener and will drop them out of the book. You can only suspend belief so far!
For example, two narrators recently related a similar situation. They each had a friend who wrote a book, and the friend wanted the narrator to voice it. In both cases, the friend wrote a personal, non-fiction account and was the other gender from the narrator in question.
Of course, the narrators wanted to honor the friendship and hoped to do the work, but they were a terrible casting choice for the material. In fact, one of them was a man who was asking about narrating his female friend’s memoir detailing her survival of domestic abuse. I cannot even imagine a scenario when choosing a male voice to speak in first person about this sensitive issue would be a wise decision!
A popular trend these days with romance books is to split the text with alternating chapters in first person POVs for both the hero and the heroine. These books require a dual male/female narration in the audiobook. Otherwise, the listener would fall out of the story and might return the audiobook because a single narrator could not sound credible for all of the text.
Another narrating trend gaining in popularity with first person POVs is a duet narration, where each narrator performs all of their gender’s dialogue throughout the book. This narration style carries the highest price tag as both actors ideally need to record together at the same time, either in person or via video chat. If they aren’t in the same studio, matching the sound quality can be a big challenge. Recording separately can lead to disjointed dialogue because the actors wouldn’t have the benefit of hearing each other. As I explained in this article, editing the dialogue is an extremely detailed, labor-intensive process, further adding to the production expenses.
The answer to question 3 about the costs of production may mandate that a professional narrator be employed.
When an author publishes with a traditional publisher, that publisher may produce an audiobook or license the audio rights to another publisher without the author’s input. These print and audio publishers schedule the audiobook production and pay all of the costs: recording studio, engineer, director, producer, and narrator. The author usually is not offered the option of narrating his title. Instead, the producer would go through her known pool of talent to solicit narrator auditions and make casting decisions.
An audiobook performance is very different from a staged, short reading at a bookstore. Just as it takes time, focus, coaching, and practice to become a skilled writer, the same is true of becoming a proficient and efficient audiobook narrator. For this reason, even indie authors who were considering narrating their books may find it cheaper and easier to hire a narrator than to attempt to become one.
Although it seems like we’re simply reading aloud, narrating an audiobook is an extremely challenging and demanding performance medium! Most people hate the sound of their own voice because they aren’t used to hearing it. Here are 9 other things professional narrators do that authors usually struggle with:
- Understand the subtext and add the appropriate emotion, inflection, and tone for each word without speaking in aural pattern like a newscaster or a children’s sing-songy rhyme.
- Be like Goldilocks when setting a reading pace. The tempo can’t be too fast or too slow; it needs to be right for the material.
- Read all of the words on the page in the order they are written, without adding, subtracting, or transposing any of them and still tell the story in a convincing way while maintaining the right accent, character voice, and/or tone. Whew! Even writing that list was tiring!
- Develop believable character voices and maintain consistency of those voices through multiple recording sessions spread across a number of days. All voices and tone should sound the same throughout the entire book so that it sounds like it was recorded in a single session.
- Record in an ultra quiet environment free from extraneous noises like children, pets, appliances, aircraft, and lawn tools. The microphone hears all of those sounds. If they make it into the final recording, listeners are annoyed by the poor production quality. You even need to wear quiet clothes!
- Minimize lip smacks, tongue and teeth clicks, breathing noises, and stomach rumbles while still sounding natural.
- Re-record any sentences that have mistakes. If I make a mistake in words, inflection, or character’s voice, we stop the recording, and I say the sentence again. If I decide I want to play a different emotion, we stop the recording, and I say the sentence again. This process occurs constantly during the original recording sessions.
- Finish the recording sessions in the time allotted, which can be an aggressive schedule. The industry rule of thumb is that it takes 6 hours in real time to produce 1 finished hour of audio. A 10-hour audiobook therefore may require 60 or more hours to record, edit, proof, correct, and master the audio files.
- Ensure that any corrected recordings will have the same sound, character voice, and energy as the original recording. I play back my original recording so that I can reproduce it when recording the correction. The new audio is seamlessly inserted into the original. The whole book should sound as though I read it in one sitting.
While some narrators pay hourly rates for studio rental and an engineer, many professional narrators create audiobooks in our own studios. Doing so means that we overcame a minimum of 4 additional technical challenges that give authors fits:
- Established a dead quiet space for recording. I live in such a noisy area that I took the extreme and expensive step of building a soundproof room onto my house!
- Purchased and learned how to use an appropriate microphone, hardware interface to the computer, and computer. A telephone headset microphone is suitable for telephone audio, not an audiobook.
- Selected recording software and survived the steep learning curve in understanding how to use it to record and save audio files.
- Studied the techniques of editing and mastering the recordings to eliminate mistakes and make the audio sound pleasing to the ear, or hired a freelance editor to perform these tasks.
Aside from these 13 apects of narration, a big reason that most authors don’t narrate their audiobooks is so that they can stay immersed in their writing and create more books!
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of InD’tale Magazine. I’ve updated it and added more links.