We’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of ACX this spring by sharing career journeys from some of the amazing indie creators who have used ACX to share their stories with the world over the last decade. Read this blog series from the beginning, or read on to hear from our next celebrated storyteller—narrator, producer, and expert audiobook educator Karen Commins.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
Beginning in fifth grade, I knew I wanted to do voiceover work. I started listening to audiobooks in the 90s when I was already volunteering as a reader for the Georgia Radio Reading Service, and decided to become a narrator. In 1996, I wrote to Frank Muller, who was one of the industry’s titans. I found his contact info and sent him an email with just a few questions, like how he got his work and whether he worked at home or in a commercial studio. He very kindly replied with enough info and encouragement that I knew I could do it.
Fast forward to 2013—after working consistently through ACX for a couple of years, I made what some would call a radical career decision. I wrote to my 3 commercial agents asking them to remove me from their rosters, explaining that I wanted to devote all of my attention to audiobooks. I left online groups that discuss any voiceover topics that weren’t specifically about audiobooks and I changed my website to remove demos for and testimonials from corporate clients.
This eliminated the distractions of commercial auditions, developing marketing campaigns for corporate clients, updating 2 versions of my website, and wasting energy comparing myself to other voice talent and pressuring myself to make my career look like theirs. My life revolves around audio books, and I couldn’t be happier!
How has ACX affected your journey, and what would you recommend to first-time narrators as far as learning about their craft and the industry?
Although I had narrated a few audiobooks, taken a workshop with Pat Fraley, and attended APAC and two APA job markets, I couldn’t get traction with publishers. Most recorded in LA or NY, cast local talent, and didn’t hire narrators with home studios. I will always remember the excitement I felt in January 2011 when Audible invited me to be one of the beta testers for its new site, acx.com—the fact that I had a home studio was a key reason they chose me. The audiobook world opened up for me that day!
I devoured everything on the site. I didn’t —and still don’t—audition for every title. Instead, I carefully choose the titles for audition to suit my voice, style, and interests. I recommend that newcomers do the same to build a portfolio they’d be proud of. I continue to watch ACX University videos and read all of the help articles to maintain an expertise about the site and narration resources.
I advise newcomers to listen to good audiobooks every single day. Read AudioFile Magazine and choose award-winning audiobooks in genres you like and want to perform in. I’m not just listening for the story or entertainment, I’m critically listening to hear:
- How is the narrator phrasing the words?
- Do the character voices sound like believable people or cartoonish caricatures?
- How did the narrator interpret the book differently that I might have done?
- Are any words mispronounced?
- Can I discern where a correction was inserted?
Continuing coaching in audiobook performance is essential regardless of your background. Audiobook narration is an intimate medium with acting requirements that are unlike any other role. A list of vetted coaches is available on NarratorsRoadmap.com.
You can learn so much from being active in the narrator community. I joined the Facebook group Indie (ACX and Others) Audiobook Narrators and Producers and started answering questions about ACX from other narrators. After a while, I created this FAQ for the group. You do need to be wary about the online advice you accept. I’ve seen other Facebook groups and some on Reddit where veteran narrators participate, as well as many more that don’t include any experienced voices in the membership. You need to observe the group interactions to discern the professionals who consistently dispense advice that you can trust.
What’s your favorite thing about being an independent producer?
During my previous 30+-year career as an IT specialist at everyone’s favorite government agency, I arose before dawn and drove to an office 30 miles away in Atlanta rush-hour traffic in all kinds of weather. Once there, I worked diligently on management’s priorities and solved problems with users’ hardware, software, and data.
Now, I’m grateful every day to enjoy such tremendous freedom! I only do work that is meaningful to me. I plan my work around my life rather than planning my life around my work, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to submit audiobooks I’ve published for review and award consideration. AudioFile has reviewed my work three times, my audiobook Road To Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell by Anne Edwards was a finalist for the Voice Arts Awards, and my audiobook So Big by Edna Ferber was a finalist for the Independent Audiobook Awards.
Who was most instrumental in getting your career going (besides you)?
I am beyond blessed and exceedingly grateful that my husband Drew, who is the hero of my life story, has been a full partner in my career since day one. He’s helped me in big ways, like agreeing we should get a home equity loan and construct an addition onto our previous house for my recording studio. He’s helped me in small ways, like listening to scenes and helping me select one to perform during classes. He directs all of my recording sessions, he maintains my websites, updates my mailing lists, and most recently, he disassembled my WhisperRoom booth and assembled my new Studiobricks booth!
How has your career grown since first coming to ACX?
Being an audiobook narrator fulfilled a life’s dream, but I’ve learned that it too narrowly defines me and what I’m capable of and interested in doing. In the last 10 years, I’ve become a leading expert on audiobook production, especially when using ACX.
I’ve written articles for the ACX blog about marketing (here and here) and performing audiobooks. I’ve also written my own blog, contributed to other sites, been a featured guest speaker on an APA webcast along with numerous videos and podcasts, and I’ve presented sessions at Johnny Heller’s Splendiferous Workshop and APAC. In 2018, I participated on ACX’s panel for VO Atlanta, where we discussed “Creating Your Audiobook Career,” and later that year, I was a guest on ACX University where I talked about “Acting With Intention.”
In 2019, I launched my own site, NarratorsRoadmap.com, which is the destination for narrators of all levels! It contains original content, a curated list of links to an incredible array of resources, color-coded calendars for eight types of worldwide events, a reviewers directory searchable by genre, and several exclusive video courses.
To celebrate my 10 year ACX-iversary, I developed and taught a three-hour webinar for VoiceOverXtra a few months ago titled “Put Yourself in the ACX Drivers’ Seat.” It includes 90+ slides and an extensive list of resource links to help narrators make an appealing profile, search for and vet titles and Rights Holders in the system, communicate effectively, and establish effective work flows. The recording and materials are available on my Shop page.
What important connections have you made on ACX?
The entire ACX staff has been unfailingly kind and helpful to me in all our interactions, and Debra in Support deserves special mention. I’ve met so many publishers and authors through my auditions and narrations on the site that I can’t possibly list them all!
I joined the Facebook group I referenced shortly after it began in 2013. Originally, it was a group devoted to narrators on ACX, and it has grown to over 8000 members. I can’t say I’ve met all 8000+ people, but the number of narrators I know through that group is staggering. A few of those folks are now among my most cherished friends!
How do you define success in your career?
I’m doing creative work that matters to me and helps other people. I would say I’m wildly successful!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the industry since getting started?
The audiobook industry and my previous IT career in the federal government share many aspects—you’re expected to conduct yourself in a professional manner, which includes showing respect to other people, keeping the team informed about the status of your projects, undertaking training on an ongoing basis to maintain and improve your skills, and meeting or beating your deadlines.
A major difference for me has been learning to stop comparing myself to other narrators. I admit that I still sometimes struggle with this issue! We may all be headed in the same general direction, but we have different missions and are on completely different paths to get there. I love this quote from Ernest Holmes: “We should never watch to see what another is doing or how he is doing it, for when we do this, we are limiting our own possibilities to the range of another’s vision.”
What do you aspire to next?
I always have short, medium, and long-term goals. As a narrator/producer/publisher, I’ll soon start recording a wonderful autobiography that I excavated from the public domain. Later on, I’m planning to license the audio rights to some more titles that I want to narrate, produce, and publish. I’m also eyeing two books with the hope of producing full-cast audiobooks from them.
NarratorsRoadmap.com is fast becoming my life’s work! Drew and I are constantly updating the site. I’m planning some more articles and video courses, and we’re currently building a mammoth casting directory. Stay tuned!
Keep an eye on the ACX blog for more career retrospectives from ACX’s finest!