How to Become an Audiobook Narrator
Do you love your voice and ever wonder ‘What if…?’ Audible Studios’s Kat Lambrix breaks down the skills you need to turn your narration dreams into a professional reality with expert tips and guidance.
August 23, 2021
So, you want to learn how to become an audiobook narrator, but don't know where to start? Say no more—we've come up with a thorough guide on everything you need to know about this type of vocal art. To provide even deeper and hands-on insight, we've enlisted the help of Audible Studios's very own Kat Lambrix, who dives into everything you need to know about being an audiobook narrator. Starting with basic information about how audiobook narration works, you’ll find techniques and skills to build upon, plus practical advice on breaking into the field and finding audiobook narrator jobs. You'll also get some welcome guidance for long-term career planning and resource suggestions, all from one of the foremost experts on the subject.
So You Want to Be an Audiobook Narrator?
Many people want to become audiobook narrators because they love books and audiobooks, and they like reading aloud. Others are inspired to follow this path because they’re told they have a unique talent and a great voice for narration. While those are both great starting points, it takes a lot more than a pleasant voice and a love of audiobooks to become a successful audiobook narrator.
Listening to an audiobook isn't simply about reading the words on the page: an audiobook narrator must have the skills and empathy to bring a book to life for the listener.
From a business standpoint, many audiobook narrators work as freelancers, so you must be organized, professional, and have the ability to work on your own time, meet deadlines, and keep track of invoices and contracts. While it might not be the most stable career choice at first, if you're passionate about audiobook narration, it can be a dream job.
What Skills Do You Need to Become an Audiobook Narrator?
It goes without saying that audiobook narration isn't just a hobby; it's a career. And like any career, there are certain skills required to just get started. So, before you dive into the world of narration, make sure that you can confidently say that you possess the following:
Background in Acting
It may seem obvious but having some type of foundational knowledge of acting makes a huge difference when making the transition to narration. "Narration is an acting gig. You're embodying different characters, you're telling stories. So, it's really important to be able to do that," Lambrix stresses. "Lots of people have gone to theater school. Some people have come to us from other parts of the acting world. But no matter what, being able to act is a foundational skill…you’re telling a story, and it’s not your story."
Ability to Differentiate Voices, Accents, and Dialects
This may seem like another given but knowing how to expertly embody characters of different backgrounds is an essential skill that will separate you from other narrators. “Inevitably you'll run into a scene with seven sisters or four women who are in their 30s, and you have to find a way to make their voices all sound distinct for your listener,” says Lambrix.
Getting through a day of narrating may seem simple: you’re sitting down for a few hours and reading a book you like (hopefully) out loud. But in reality, these hours can chug along and exhaust you in the process, so it’s important to be able to keep up as best you can. “We tend to record about six hours a day. So, you have to physically be able to do it. And it's a lot; it's not just sitting and talking," Lambrix acknowledges. "It's breath control. It's knowing when to be loud. It's knowing when to pull back. Those quiet scenes can be just as fatiguing as the the big loud ones, because you’re handling a lot of emotion and a lot of nuances.”
And finally, research! Now how does this fit in? You’re just narrating a book, right? But what happens when you’re in the studio and you stumble across a word, country name, or anything else you aren't familiar with how to say? Doing your research beforehand can go a long way towards making your narrating skills that much better. “So rather than pretending to know it all, the ability to know what you don't know, and to go out there and do that research is important,” says Lambrix.
Plus, this research may save you from potentially embarrassing situations in the booth. “We were recording a nonfiction book and the narrator watched a video of an interview with this person and used the pronunciation of their name for the book. It turned out the interviewer said the person's name wrong. So, the narrator said the name wrong throughout the entire book.” Needless to say, research goes a long way!
Refining Your Skills as an Audiobook Narrator
You’ve identified that you have the necessary skills to get started, so how do you further refine those skills? “Practice!” Lambrix emphasizes. “It's a great idea to go to your bookshelf, close your eyes, and pick a random book to narrate. Maybe it's a book you don't like–that's even better. And go and read that and see if you can do it. Because the fact is, you don't always get to read what you want to read.”
Learn from the Pros
Much like anything else, you can get better and learn a lot from experts in the field, so listen to your favorite narrator–a lot! “Listen to people who are best in class at what they do. And then see where you can take those things and incorporate them into yourself,” says Lambrix. “The more you do it, the easier it gets. The more you prepare, the more you can step into the booth and just let go.”
Getting Started as an Audiobook Narrator
Most everyone in the industry recommends that you start by practicing on your own. Read aloud in a quiet, enclosed space where you won't be distracted, and get a feel for reading slowly, clearly, and with distinction. If you mess up, take it from the top. Don't be afraid to mark up your "script" and practice reading aloud while also scanning ahead to know what's coming up. Build up your stamina. Then, record yourself reading, play back the audio, and critique your performance. Identify areas to improve. It helps to identify and practice various vocal patterns, dialects, and accents. There are also voice-over classes you can take to master different narration styles.
When you feel confident in your abilities, consider recording a demo. This is the perfect time to invest in a good quality microphone, noise canceling headphones, and a pop filter (a screen that goes in front of your mic to filter out the sound of your breath and the noises your mouth makes while speaking). Set up a quiet studio area. There's no need to remodel a room in your house to be soundproof, but you want the best possible environment for recording. You'll also need a computer with recording software, such as GarageBand or Audacity, and it won't hurt to know a few things about sound editing in order to put together the cleanest recordings. Most audiobook narrators also read off of a tablet screen, so you might want to invest in something that will allow you to read and scroll ahead without noisily flipping pages. Once you've finished your demo, you can use it on your website or in your profile for one of sites listed below.
How to Find Work as an Audiobook Narrator
Now you’re ready to start looking for work as an audiobook narrator–where do you begin? Thankfully, there are plenty of routes to enter the world of narration.
Volunteering to Read
One of the simplest, and likely most rewarding, ways to get into narration is by volunteering to read for the blind. While this method may not pay, it’s a good way to get your foot in the door while doing a service for someone–a winning proposition. “Volunteering to read is a great way to refine the narration skills that you’ve been practicing. But it’s also a great way to meet other people in the space,” says Lambrix.“ A lot of really well-known narrators do volunteer work as a public service, which is lovely.”
Networking In-Person and Virtually
No matter your career path, networking events are always a great place to meet others in your field and potentially find your next job. The same holds true for narrators. You’ll be able to meet other aspiring narrators, learn tips and hear advice from pros, and even pitch yourself for potential gigs. “Networking is really important. You can consider joining the Audio Publishers Association. Pre-COVID, they hosted mixers, and events. But even now, they're actually doing producers speed dating, virtually–which has been awesome,” says Lambrix.
Create a Standout Website to Showcase Your Work
Especially today, being able to market yourself online is key to gaining any traction in the narration space–so having a strong website is essential. You should have a good selection of samples that showcase your talents and abilities. To stand out even more, be sure to highlight some skills that can potentially set you apart, like fluency in another language or a specific topic that you’re an expert in. “When I'm looking for a narrator, or when I'm researching somebody, I will listen to their samples. And it's always better if you have them easily accessible on your website,” says Lambrix. In short, the more you can showcase, the better off you’ll be.
While this may seem unrelated, it goes back to that old adage of “treat people how you want to be treated.” The narration industry is tight-knit, so if you give off stellar first impressions, this will only benefit you in both the short and long term. On the other hand, if you’re abrupt, dismissive, and rude, you’ll likely find it hard to find work. “People in the industry are nice and really willing to share what they know. So, if you're putting that good energy out there, it's going to come back to you. Because, people are not hesitant to recommend actors,” says Lambrix.
Resources to Find Work
You might want to gain some experience before auditioning for major audiobook publishers, so consider looking for work on Guru, Freelancer, Fiver, or Upwork. You might not find audiobook narration jobs right away, but you can build your portfolio. More audiobook-specific venues for jobs include ACX.com, VoiceBunny.com, and Voices.com, though some of these platforms are looking for narrators with experience.
What to Expect on Your First Day in the (Home) Studio
So you landed your first narrating gig—congrats! Now, what does a typical day look like? Once you’re in the booth, your day will be relatively straightforward. You’ll normally record for about six hours with brief breaks throughout. Be sure to use these breaks to eat, stretch, and do whatever you need to do to stay loose and focused. “I’ll walk through the studio and see people doing pushups or jumping jacks or yoga. So do whatever you do. You want to sound the same at the end of the day as you do at the beginning of the day,” says Lambrix. “Because somebody who's listening isn't going to start and end their day with you. They're going to listen all the way through.”
During the day, be sure to take advantage and connect with those around you if you’re in a studio. Remember the tip above about networking? Here’s your opportunity to do just that, even if you are a bit more conservative in your approach. “Get to know everybody at the studio. Talk with your producer, your engineer. Figure out how they like to work. Let them know how you like to work. And then make sure that you're getting your styles to mesh,” says Lambrix.
At the end of the day, whether you’re recording on site or at home, you’ll likely finish off with something called “pickups,” which are essentially do-overs for any audio mishaps. Maybe there was background noise or your producer wants you to go back and repeat a line. This will be the time to do it. But don’t worry–just because you have pickups doesn’t mean you aren’t doing a good job. “Everybody has pickups–even Richard Armitage. It’s not a big deal,” Lambrix assures.
Rising Through the Ranks as a Narrator
For many aspiring audiobook narrators, it’s not enough to work on a single book–you want to work on many! But how do you go from being hired for your first narrating gig to your 20th?
Find Your Unique Voice
While you may be skilled as a narrator in general, the most successful audiobook narrators typically have found a specific niche that they focus on. Let’s take award-winning narrator Ray Porter as an example. While Porter is an outstanding narrator in his own right, he particularly shines in science fiction and thriller audiobooks. Because of this, he’s the go-to narrator for many high-profile sci-fi and thriller releases throughout the year. “Figure out where your voice fits. If you have a great voice for sci-fi. really dig in on sci-fi. Develop great relationships with your authors, publishers, and producers in that genre and really dive right in,” says Lambrix.
Harness the Power of Social Media
Social media platforms can be incredibly useful tools for people across many professions, but particularly up-and-coming narrators. From connecting with other narrators and reaching out to authors and publishers, there are plenty of ways to make social media your best friend during the course of your narrating career. "Put your work on social media. See what people's reactions are—see what people are engaging with. Lots of narrators have social media followings, and listeners find them through their accounts. Sometimes authors even approach narrators through their social accounts," Lambrix says. So, be sure to slowly but surely build out your social media presence. There's a good chance that you'll land your next gig because of your efforts!
Get Better Through Coaching
It's a simple formula: the better you are at one particular skill, the more people will reach out to you for your expertise with that skill. It's the same with narration. So even if you're landing gigs left and right, be sure to consider a dedicated narration coach to help you fine tune your skills. Remember, just because you have a coach doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong or you aren't good. The opposite is true—you're trying to perfect your craft, which is a huge step in the right direction. "Even if you've done 20 books, if there's something that you're just not getting or you really need to get to that next level and it's just not happening for you, reach out and find somebody," Lambrix advises. "There are a ton of great audiobook coaches who can help you. Maybe it's just something that you're not hearing, but somebody else is going to listen and say, 'Here, let me help you make this better.'"
How Much Can You Make?
The amount of money you’ll earn as an audiobook narrator will definitely depend on your experience and the publisher you work for. Some audiobook narrators get paid per hour of finished audio, but keep in mind: payment must also cover the amount of time you prepare, record, and edit your audio. Some publishers may have you come into their studio, where you'll work with a director or producer and a sound engineer, and then you'll be paid by the hour. Some audiobook narrators are members of SAG-AFTRA, which means their rates are subject to further rules and negotiations. Many professional audiobook narrators also have agents to help them navigate negotiations and find jobs. But for someone just starting out, you can expect to earn less than established talent.
It's important that you understand how to manage your time wisely, so that you're working efficiently and getting paid fairly.
How to Build Your Career as an Audiobook Narrator
Once you've polished off your narration skills, gathered the tools you need for a home studio, mastered audio editing, and have a few voice-over and narration jobs under your belt, you can send demos to major audiobook publishers and audition for the opportunity to narrate traditionally published audiobooks. Most major audiobook publishers have a section on their website where potential narrators can submit demos. You might not get your first choice of genre or book when starting out, but this is a career that requires patience, determination, hard work, and lots of stamina.
You might also consider networking with other voice actors and learning as much as you can about the audiobook industry. Read AudioFile, keep listening to audiobooks, and study different types of narration and performing techniques to grow your skill set. Oftentimes, one opportunity will lead to another, so always be professional, kind, and gracious to anyone you work with.
Resources for Audiobook Narrators
If you want to know about becoming an audiobook narrator from an established pro and an industry insider, we recommend checking out Storyteller: How to Be an Audiobook Narrator by Lorelei King and Ali Muirden. Lorelei King is best known for her work on Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Patricia Briggs's novels, and many more beloved books that have earned her Earphones Awards plus the distinction of being named Audiobook Narrator of the Year and a member of the Audible Narrator Hall of Fame. Ali Muirden is a producer and director who has been nominated for a Grammy Award. Together, they reveal many of the top secrets in the audiobook narrating industry. King and Muirden offer practical advice on the nitty gritty work of narrating, from preparing for a job, marking up your scripts, and researching before recording, along with tips on expected in-studio behavior and troubleshooting recording issues. They also touch on how to market yourself and future-proof your career, making Storyteller an indispensable guide for anyone who’s passionate and serious about becoming an accomplished and successful audiobook narrator.
This article was updated in August 2021 to include guidance from Kat Lambrix by Audible editor Luis Gonzalez.