Five Things Every Audiobook Beginner Should Know

Gary Terzza is a UK-based voice over artist and coach who runs a popular voice over master class and has trained successful actors like recent guest blogger and Audible Approved Producer Anna Parker-Naples. Today, he joins us to offer a handful of helpful tips for audiobook newbies.

To Begin At the Beginning

Gary TerzzaMy first encounter with an audiobook was back in 1976. As a mediocre student I was going nowhere with my English literature studies, but an enterprising teacher opened my 16 year old ears to something quite remarkable – a box set of vinyl records of the play Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, with the ‘first voice’ part read by the sonorous Richard Burton. Have a listen to Mr. Burton’s narration below.

Suddenly, the Welsh actor’s distinctive and assured delivery brought this sleepy fishing village vividly to life. Here was one voice (Burton) becoming the same as the storyteller’s (Thomas) so that the two were indistinguishable.

From that day onwards I realised that a truly good voice actor speaks the writer’s words with total conviction.

Today I passionately believe this is at the core of all voice overs and is especially true in audiobooks.

So what should you be mindful of when embarking on your audiobook career? Here are five things to keep in mind as you progress.

1. Audiobooks Can Be Very, Very Long

Last year I received an urgent call from one of my voice over students. Sonia (not her real name) was panicking, and quite rightly so. She had never performed a voice over before, but an author had contacted her about reading a 110,000 word novel in the style of Jane Austen. She loved Austen, but 110,000 words frightened her, because it sounded like a lot.

Time HeadShe was right – it is. In fact that is approximately 11 hours of listening time or what we call ‘completed audio’.

“How can I do 11 hours of reading and recording all in one go?” she asked nervously. I responded with the good and bad news.

The good news was she did not have to do the whole read in one go. The bad, was that 11 hours of completed audio would take her 44 to 55 hours to record, edit and review. That equates to a couple of weeks’ work including essential breaks and weekends off.

“It was a baptism by fire,” she told me later “but very enjoyable.” In fact it took her nearer 70 hours to complete because of technical issues (she was grappling with unfamiliar software and hardware), but the author loved the end result.

The lesson? Never underestimate the amount of time it will take you to produce an audiobook. Not all projects are over 100,000 words (the average audiobook is about 9 hours long), but I would allow a ratio of 4 to 5 hours of your time for every completed hour of audio. Make sure you clear your calendar before starting.

2. Don’t Read the Book – Tell the Story

At first glance this may appear contradictory. Surely reading is storytelling? Well no, not quite.

Boy LibraryIf you have ever read a story to young children (especially as a parent) you will notice that you have a highly critical audience. If the characters do not sound convincing, your young listeners will soon let you know – in fact my eldest son was particularly critical of my delivery of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which I have to admit I would sometimes skip through nonchalantly.

I soon realised that I had to be genuine in my delivery; I had to believe in what I was saying 100%, because my son would soon let me know if I was just “going through the motions’.

Likewise, your listeners want you to narrate the story with complete conviction. Remember too, you are talking to them and not at them.

Like Richard Burton, you should completely immerse yourself in the story so that your voice doesn’t just sound like the author’s (metaphorically), but is inseparable from the author’s.

3. Choose Your Book Carefully

GelatoWhat do you like to read in your spare time? Do you prefer crime fiction, historical tales, or romantic novels perhaps? Imagine you absolutely hated science fiction, but were forced to read Arthur C. Clarke; well that is what it’s like if you get stuck narrating an audiobook that you don’t chime with.

In some areas of voice overs it does not matter if you like (or even understand) the subject matter. A 30 second radio commercial for toilet paper does not mean you have a predilection for all things bathroom related.

But an audiobook narration is different. You will be reading thousands upon thousands of words. Remember Sonia? She lived and breathed her author’s book for weeks and she probably even dreamt about the characters!

Carefully selecting a book you will enjoy is crucial.

So how can you make sure the project you are embarking on is for you?

Check out the book on Amazon. Every title profile on ACX has a link to the print/eBook edition on Amazon, and you don’t even have to make a purchase. Just open up the preview pages and have a read through. Can you hear the voice in your head? Do the words speak to you? If so, this could be a job worth taking on.

Perhaps you don’t like (or don’t yet have the chops for) doing character voices, in which case I advise you stick to nonfiction, or avoid novels that are peppered with a diverse range of vocal personalities.

If the book reads well, chances are you will enjoy the narration.

4. Know Your Author

Once you are in the happy position of accepting an offer on ACX, it is time to form a very special relationship. This is between you and the book’s original voice – the writer.

Reading RoomOn ACX, you’ll audition using pages from the book itself. Once you’ve been selected to narrate, you’ll produce a 15 minute portion of the book and submit it for the author’s or publisher’s approval before moving forward. She will then take a listen and make some critical observations.

  • Is the pace correct? Does the tempo need to be slower or faster?
  • How is the general tone? Is the narrator in tune with the spirit of the book?
  • Are there any mispronunciations of names or fictional places?
  • If there are characters, do they sound convincing?

The rights holder may then request some adjustments based on the answers to the questions above. Once you have been given the green light, stay in touch with your new client at regular intervals as she will want to be kept up to date. If you have a bad cold or anything else that might put you behind schedule let her know straight away.

Remember, cultivating a relationship based on respect and understanding is the best way to smooth any rough water you might encounter.

5. Be  A Producer

In the early days of your audiobook career you will likely be recording from home. That means taking on the role of editor, performer and producer – three hats on one head…. yours.

Getting the sound right is essential, so spend some time creating a home studio. It doesn’t have to be grand or expensive, just practical and comfortable. There are two basic aspects to domestic recording: the hardware and the acoustic space.

Old EquipThere are lots of options in terms of microphones. Check out ACX’s previous post on mics, or visit some of the voice over community groups on social networks such as Facebook , Linkedin and Google +. They are very helpful and supportive.

In terms of software, I recommend using Audacity. It is flexible, easy to use, has lots of training videos on YouTube, and best of all, it’s free. It is ideal for audiobooks and all your other voice over work.

Achieving the required ‘deadness’ in you room is a little more tricky. ACX has also covered the key elements of home studio construction, and you can read that post here. Your aim is to remove the inherent ambiance that every room possesses and create an echo free environment. This helps your voice sound direct and intimate – as long as you are close enough to the mic.

Starting out in the world of audiobooks need not be daunting. If remember these key points, stay focused, learn as much as you can and never give up, success could be on the next page.

What’s your top tip for audiobook beginners? 

21 responses to “Five Things Every Audiobook Beginner Should Know

  1. The main thing to remember in audiobook narration was already mentioned in the article, but to repeat, talk to the listeners, not at them. Think of yourself sitting on the front porch and telling this great story to a good friend who is right there listening to you.

  2. Enjoyed it – thanks. Caveat: eventually an ACX narrator will record something he/she doesn’t like or something that pays a very small royalty, or both. The icing has long since been wiped off the cake because of so many “companies” such as Bee Audio, Voiceover Planet and others taking the sweet titles. But if you keep trying, hone your skills and get smart vis a vis branding of your product (which is you and your voice) you may get lucky and score a delicacy while reading that hard roll.

    • You’re for sure positively right Clay. I joined ACX a few months after their start-up in 2011, and at that time I could audition for any book and was immediately offered the job. Can’t do that no more.

  3. Good article Scott.

    Alex Hyde-White


  4. thank you,very informative

  5. Pingback: Audiobook News & Reviews: 02/24/15 | ListenUp Audiobooks

  6. Nice article. As an author the biggest factor for me was storytelling. I’ve listened to many an audio book and the best ones were always the ones with 1) stories I liked and 2) a fab narrator. So it’s the same for listeners in choosing what to listen to as it should be for narrators narrating. When I held auditions I was looking for someone who could be passionate with me about the project. I couldn’t ask for a better narrator. 🙂

  7. This said it all! I tell people all the time to pay attention to how long the book is. It can be so exciting just to get that first book many don’t notice the small but very important details of the book. Thanks for the great article!!!

  8. Great article and all very true. One thing I would add is take character notes. Its very easy to pick a voice for a character and then have them reappear in a chapter much later on…and completely forget what voice you originally did! Consistency is important.

    • Hopefully an author can jump start a narrator on that and hand over bios and details to the main characters if not every character

  9. Martin Colvill

    Enjoyed your article very much. Couple of things I would add: 1 learn to love reading. I’m one of those people who read everything from box labels to … well anything written I can see. If I’m reading a novel rather than listening to it I envision the voices as I think they sound. It’s fun! And number 2, it doesn’t matter what age you are when you get started. Younger is better because you have years to develop and practice. But when you are older if you’ve practiced (usually by oneself) you can still read parts that might normally go to a younger sounding talent. Due to a serious accident I cannot do the job I’ve been doing for the past 18 years. Though I started in radio in 1975 and worked it and voice work until 1998, I was always concerned with making money NOW. With my new situation I am finally getting to do that which I have wanted to do for 35 years and even though my first 2 auditions were turned down, I was contacted by two separate authors to voice their books. THEY contacted ME! Maybe seems like small potatoes to some but it is a start and at 58 that is nothing to sneeze at. I’ve been blessed with a voice that has served me well over the years and now hopefully it will start bringing in the bacon. Don’t get discouraged with “thanks but no thanks” as this is part of the process. As in writing (my rejection file is MUCH larger than my acceptance file) it will come with time. Be patient, do your best and be ready for when that ‘Break” happens.

  10. As an avid audiobook reader, I would agree with the author, and also add that if the book involves accents, please research and practice the accents first. There is nothing worse than an audiobook with the wrong accents.

  11. I have found one of the best ways to develop voices is to read childrens books. I have a six year old and I read and sing to her every night that I am home. In the car I will talk to her in different character voices. She will always give honest feed back on the voice that I am doing. it is a great way to develop a character/voice in a safe environment. Your kids will laugh at you and with you, and you get great practice with minimal emotional scars. Plus your playing with your kids.

  12. Nice article ! Well explaimed.
    I have a friend creating an Audiobook now and I am following the process. I will start a childerens series of audiobooks too. You can easily record a good quality sound following some easy steps and you don’t really need expensive equipment.
    You need to focus on the narration and create prosody and feeling. Don’t worry about mistakes. They can be removed later. Just clap hands close to the Mic to indicate the mistake and continue.
    Record in a room where there is minimum reverb/echo and boominess cos you don’t want to record that too.
    Be about 20 – 30 cm from the Mic and do some test recordings with approximately the loudest you will get during the recording. Too close to the Mic with too high input will distort the sound and too far will record a lot of room sound and the voice will sound distant. It’s not so difficult to find the sweet spot.
    When you are done its better to find someone to edit it and produce it well. To remove mistakes, gaps, noise, etc, enhance the sound and make it professional. There are good online services with good affordable prices if you do some research. My have good prices.
    My friend is doing it with cos they gave better prices and also helped the recording process to get better quality for free.

  13. Watch YouTube videos and learn how to correctly master your audio BEFORE you submit it……it’s really not hard, just complicated.

  14. I think this is a superficial article and rather misleading. Reading a Jane Austin novel and finishing in 40 to 70 hours, really? What a load. If one is an actor, is genuinely talented and disciplined and is respectful of material you will need much longer and you will want much longer. When I listen to just how poorly many narrations are done I hear this attitude. First rule: take acting classes for a year just to see if you have talent, 2. avoid Voice over instructors at all costs, generally they are not actors but money merchants 3. repeat steps 1 and 2 twice more. If finally you do discover you have serious talent and verbal ability set aside 300 hours for your first classic and begin. Expect that it will still fall far short of real quality but practice,practice,practice.

    • YES! Thank you for validating my experience. It took me 4 months to narrate and edit my first audiobook, a 6.5-hour scholarly work. The pre-reading time was so important in order to nail down pronunciations. Additionally, voice fatigue precluded me from doing multiple recording sessions per day. (They were error-ridden when I tried.) The hours of editing time shocked me. Finally, it takes time to respect the body by taking frequent breaks from the computer.

  15. Hi Gary,

    I recommend using OcenAudio – as it has built in punch and roll which makes editing long form SO much easier and quicker. – and check the tutorial here to turn on P+R correctly.

    Enjoyed the post!


  16. As an author of Catching Hell available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, I’d like to have the book available as an audible. Could someone please point me in the direction on how I could have it completed and ready for purchase?

  17. As a LISTENER, I can attest to the fact that poor narration is a distraction to the story. The voice of the narrator should not be the star, rather the voice of the author. Bad accents (or a man doing a woman’s voice badly & vice versa) in particular will make me turn the book off and never “pick it up” again, but it’s often more subtle, like inappropriate emphasis, constant mispronunciation and and over-dramatization.

    When I find good narrators I look for more books that feature their talents. When I run across a bad one I will avoid the book entirely, no matter how interesting it sounds.

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