How do I become an audiobook narrator?
Have you been told that you have a nice voice? Do you love reading aloud to your kids? Do you make a living as a commercial voiceover or as a narrator of medical or corporate scripts? Then recording audiobooks will be a natural fit for you, right? No! Not necessarily! We encourage you to think twice before you embark on this career path.
The audiobook industry is growing rapidly, but it remains very competitive, with specific artistic, technical, technological, and business requirements. It’s also by far the most time-intensive genre of voice acting work for the least amount of money. There is no shortage of narrators, and while projects may at times be plentiful, the life of a freelance narrator is like any other freelancer, with ebbs and flows in the amount of work.
For the vast majority of narrators, even those at the highest levels of the business, an agent will not help build an audiobook career. Narrators are responsible for maintaining relationships with casting directors, producers, and publishers and for booking their own projects. Independent audiobook narrators run their own small businesses, so it’s necessary to balance not only the creative demands, but also the financial management, record-keeping, tax preparing, billing, marketing, professional networking, self- and project-promotion, scheduling, and other essentials of any small business. It is possible to become a successful, full-time audiobook narrator, but it demands focus, determination, skill, stamina, professionalism, reliability, talent, flexibility, financial investment, and time.
The audiobook industry has changed dramatically over the decades, but this has not: The best audiobook narrators are also thoughtful readers, so bringing a love and understanding of the nuance of language and literature is a key component of achieving excellence in the craft.
In years past, actors who recorded books worked exclusively in professional recording studios, guided in their performances by audiobook directors and given technical support by professional sound engineers. The most successful narrators learned their craft in this manner and bring this quality of experience to their work. While some books are still recorded with that degree of close oversight, many books today are recorded by narrators working alone in home studios, self-directing and self-engineering their work before sending their digital recordings to publishers for editing and proofing.
This means that to be successful breaking into audiobook narration, aspiring narrators will need not only excellent acting skills and a healthy, flexible, relaxed vocal instrument, they will likely need some degree of audio recording and engineering ability, as well as a reasonably sound-proof space, a computer, a microphone, a preamp, and various software. While one can get started in audiobook narration with a fairly small investment (using a low-end microphone, inexpensively appropriating a closet to serve as a recording booth, using free recording software, etc.), over time, a successful audiobook narrator might invest thousands of dollars in training, space, and equipment.
Most audiobook publishers and producers currently work under a union contract with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). If you're not currently a member of SAG-AFTRA or its sister union, Actor's Equity, contact SAG-AFTRA for further information on membership and benefits.
Some Words of Caution:
Audiobook narrators typically have little say in what books they record, or in what genres they are cast. You might aspire to narrate classic literary fiction, but your voice may be perfect for modern romance novels. Or someone may have a passion for sci-fi and fantasy, but most often find herself asked to narrate history and business books. While every narrator has the right to graciously say “no thank you” to any audiobook project, it would be unwise for anyone to enter the field without a willingness to narrate most anything and everything, including books they would never themselves read for pleasure or enrichment.
Audiobooks are paid by the finished hour, and most professional narrators do not exceed a 2 to 1 ratio, meaning that for every finished hour the listener hears, it took the actor two hours to record (so the actor worked about twenty hours to complete about ten hours of content). It takes time and practice to work up to this level of efficiency, especially if someone is beginning their work at home, without an engineer or a director. In addition, narrators are generally not paid for their time to do any retakes, nor are they paid for any of the prep time required, including reading the script, preparing any dialects, researching the proper pronunciation of unfamiliar vocabulary or proper names, or any other work prior to recording. And there are few opportunities for royalties in the audiobook world, so audiobook voice actors work paycheck to paycheck, like most freelancers. Audiobook narrators can make a good living, but they’re not likely to become wealthy from this work alone.
Still Interested in Pursuing an Audiobook Career?
The following are a few suggestions for how to break into the industry:
Invest in specific audiobook acting training. Even if you're a trained actor with credits on stage, on screen, or in voiceover, you still need to learn technical and creative skills that are specific to the craft of audiobook narration. Seek out classes from audiobook coaches and directors, but do your homework. As in any industry, not every person who professes expertise is, in fact, an expert. For referrals to reputable, experienced audiobook teachers and coaches, contact the APA staff.
If you're not a trained actor, begin with some basic acting courses and/or classes in improvisation at your local college or university, or join your local community theater. Read aloud, record your voice, and listen to the playback. Listen and listen and listen to professionally-produced audiobooks, in order to pick up on how audiobook narrators create masterful performances and emotional depth and truth as they bring work off the page. Such performances include believable opposite-gender voices; dialects, as called for by the author; appropriate pacing and phrasing; compelling and connected narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction); and other acting challenges.
Attend the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference (APAC). This annual conference brings together all the members of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), including audiobook publishers, casting directors, and studio directors; voice actors with a range of experience; members of the media who cover the industry; and more. Each year the conference includes opportunities for networking with casting decision-makers, as well as offering programming intended to serve the needs of both publishers and narrators, with sessions such as how to self-direct and how to manage work flow in a home studio setting, how to prepare and research a script, how to self-promote and market, and how to stay abreast of industry trends. The conference often includes performances from the most seasoned narrators, which offers a great opportunity to experience live the excellence of the craft of audiobook voice acting. Get to know (not solicit) the professionals involved in the industry.
Record a series of professional demo tracks. Demos are essentially the audiobook narrator's resume, and showcase one's ability to do male and female voices, different emotions and settings, a variety of dialects or languages, and more. The key is to set yourself apart from the thousands of others eager to break in. It's not enough just to have a “great voice.”
Email demos to companies you would like to work for, once you've researched who within the company casts narrators. (Using each publisher or producer’s website for this research is best, as each company may have distinct requirements for submission or undergo staff changes.) Direct your message to the appropriate casting person, and be prepared to follow up.
Read AudioFile Magazine, the leading publication for the audiobook industry, which is full of news, reviews, profiles, and information about the world of audiobooks
Have additional questions? Contact the APA office or Robin Whitten at AudioFile Magazine, and they'll put you in touch with someone who can help.