Audible Approved Producer Joe Hempel took up audiobook narration and production on a dare. Over the next few years, he invested his full focus into learning his craft, and made audiobook production his full time career in 2017. 176 audiobooks and 6 ABR Listener’s Choice nominations later, Joe joins us to share the highs and lows of his journey and the value of leaning on his fellow creatives in times of need.
Q: How did you become an ACX Producer?
A: I became a narrator/producer in an odd way. Back in 2014, I was starting to gain some traction as a book reviewer, writing for sites like Horror Novel Reviews. I reviewed an audiobook, and while I took pains to avoid being overly harsh, I did give it a poor review. I was later contacted by the narrator and told “If you think you can do so much better, you do it.” I had always enjoyed books, and I loved audiobooks for the way the narrator’s performance brought the book to life, so I took the challenge. I did a little bit of research and found my way to ACX back in late 2014. I happened to notice that an author I’d recently reviewed had a book up for audition, so I reached out, and ended up producing his audiobook. At that point I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons, but I realized that this was something I loved. About 3-4 months later, I still found myself longing to be a part of the publishing world. So, I came back with a new perspective and built up from there.
Q: How did you make the leap to full-time audiobook narrator/producer?
A: In late 2015, I was at something of a crossroads in my life. I found myself shopping for my kids’ Christmas presents at the Dollar Tree because I had no money. I felt like a failure because I wanted to provide for my kids better than I was provided for, and I wasn’t doing that. At that point, I made a conscious decision: I was never going to be in this position again, and I was going to make sure of that by getting good at audiobook production. From there, I became more active in online audiobook communities like the Indie Narrators and Producers group on Facebook. I listened to everything those who came before had to say, I watched what they did, and I took as much audiobook work as I could handle. I picked some winners (and some non-winners) on the Royalty Share side, but I kept at it and started to see an upward trend to my abilities and earnings. This took a lot of sacrifice, including sleeping three hours a day in order to do both audiobook work and my full-time job.
In the middle of 2016, I started to get a good mix of both Per-Finished-Hour work and Royalty Share work. By the end of 2016, my royalties were closing in on my monthly salary at my full-time job. I figured if I could keep finding good titles and marketing myself as a serious narrator, things would continue to improve. I was beginning to learn how to network by watching how narrators I admired utilized social media, and how to market myself to authors that didn’t have audiobooks. People were now approaching me to produce their titles! All my hard work was starting to pay off, but there was still something missing, and I didn’t figure out what that was until a few months later.
Q: What was it that you were missing?
A: A creative partner. In my opinion, it’s incredibly important to have that one professional colleague you can talk openly with, someone who keeps you focused and motivated when you feel like a fake, who you can celebrate the successes and excitement with. For me, that person is Melissa Moran. We began working together in 2016 when Melissa posted in the Indie Narrators and Producers Facebook group, seeking a partner for dual POV (that is, male and female) romance narration. I was looking to give the genre a try, so I put my hand up, we submitted together, and ended up landing the book. From there, a natural friendship bloomed. Since we were at roughly the same point in our careers, we kept the same crazy schedule. We made audiobook production our full-time careers within a few months of each other, and we started getting hired by publishers around the same time. We found ourselves comparing notes more and more, and in the beginning of 2017, we started working as a dual romance narration team (and marketing ourselves as such).
Melissa is someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to complain to when things aren’t going well, someone to share celebrations with. We check in on each other’s progress, offer encouragement, and help build confidence. We seem to do better together at conventions and workshops than we do separately. It’s wonderful to know that someone is there to question my sanity when I’m about to make a wrong turn or to give me the lift I need when I’m down. Almost a year and a half later, we are still celebrating successes and trading marketing ideas. I encourage everyone to find that person. This can be a solitary business, but no one person will make it without someone else’s help.
In 2017, I made more money than I’ve ever seen in my life on ACX, and with that encouragement, I fired my boss. I quit my job mostly due to what I was making on ACX royalties. At almost 40 years old, I finally feel like I’ve got a handle on life, but it all started with clicking “I’m Done” on that first project.
Q: How do you make sure you continue to grow and improve in your audiobook career?
A: For one, I listen to audiobooks every day. You absolutely cannot be successful in this business without being an avid audiobook listener. Listen to those that are better than you; listen to those that are where you want to be. I’m a big audiobook fan, so I’ve turned the passive listening I’d be doing anyway into active listening that helps make my own performances better. If I’m trying to build a specific skill, like giving an engaging nonfiction read or transitioning between moods in a novel, I’ll listen to something by Sean Pratt or Scott Brick. When I’m looking to develop character voices I’ll study Marc Thompson’s work on the Star Wars audiobooks. I try to learn as much as I can from these performances before I start bugging fellow narrators for tips or advice.
I’m also continuously getting coaching and attending workshops. I have studied with Sean Pratt and Scott Brick, I’ve used Jeffrey Kafer’s Audiobook Mentorship a few times, and I’ve gone to workshops put on by Johnny Heller and others. These are some of the top people in the business, and for good reason! Listen to them, and take their advice.
Q: What is your favorite piece of studio gear?
A: My booth and everything inside it. I enjoy horror pop culture. I’ve got a signed Pop! figure and mask from Kane Hodder, a mask from Derek Mears, and a signed machete from CJ Graham—all of whom played Jason Voorhees in various Friday the 13th films. They keep me company while I’m spending hours upon hours in there.
Q: Do you have a fun hobby or skill unrelated to your audiobook work?
A: I worked in professional wrestling for 10 years in production and as a referee, and got to meet most of the wrestlers you see on TV today (if you’re into that sort of thing). I also play fingerstyle guitar and have built up a nice little collection of vinyl records. I’ve always got something spinning, whether I’m prepping a book or writing this blog post. The words you’re currently reading were soundtracked by Rod Stewart/Faces Live from 1973.
Joe Hempel has entertained listeners with over 175 audiobooks ranging from horror to romance, and mystery to non-fiction. Joe still lives in Cincinnati with his three amazing children, enjoys running marathons, and bringing words on a page to life. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.