As audiobooks are the fastest-growing segment in publishing, I have been researching that market. One thing I realized is that choosing a narrator is probably the most important decision you make when you turn your book into an Audiobook. People who love audiobooks may buy your audiobook because they like your work, your genre, your cover, or your price. When they actually start listening to your audiobook however, one of the most important factors to decide whether they’ll continue listening to the end, is the quality of the reading.
So, how do you choose the right voice? Leaving out the financial aspects (if you can afford to pay the narrator the fee he is asking for or if you choose a royalty scheme), there are a few issues to take into consideration, from “demographics” to acting performance. Here are a few tips.
So. Man or Woman? Younger or Older?
These questions are mostly answered through the characteristics of your book. Obviously, if your book is written in the first person, you need to match the voice to your own narrator. If your narrator is a young woman, so should be your voice. If he is a middle-aged southern cop, you obviously need an older man, possibly with an accent (we will discuss accents in a moment).
The choice is less obvious if your book is not a first-person tale. In this case, there is no rule of thumb, but there are several issues you can take into consideration to form a preference.
For example, if you have a strong character in your story, you could match accordingly the gender and age of the voice. Consider whether your book has more younger/older or female/male characters and how this impacts the listener.
Your audience characteristics could also indicate the gender and age of the voice. If your audience is children, they could expect cheerful young voices or a grandmother narrator. If your audience is male, they may expect a male voice (and some, probably, a hot female). Audience preferences may relate to genre: romance read by women, action thrillers read by men, YA novels read by young voices etc.
However, looking beyond gender and age stereotypes could be interesting and result in a surprising and captivating reading. A thriller read by a young woman capable to express angst and fear? A romance read by a sexy male voice? It might work wonders, depending on your story. It is for you to decide.
A last demographical characteristic of your narrator is accent. Who could imagine Hercule Poirot speaking in perfect Oxfordian English? However, it would be too tiring to listen to a whole Poirot adventure in Belgian accent English. Therefore, although your book or character can have some strong geographic feature, that should probably be hinted at, rather than be a main quality of the voice. In any case, any accent should remain understandable to the regular, untrained ear, or it would become too tiring and a reason to leave the audiobook unfinished.
Your text as actor material
Beyond the choice of a younger/older, feminine/male voice, an important issue is its quality and its capability to produce an exceptional narration that will have listeners hanging to their earbuds.
Authors with established experience in audiobooks, as well as many audiobooks producers, often suggest that you should prefer a narrator with some acting experience. An actor, rather than a simple reader, should be able to:
Give each of your characters a distinct sub-voice
It is important for the listener to easily recognize characters when listening to the audiobook, especially if you have a lot of dialogue. To do that, the narrator needs to study your characters, possibly discuss them with you and describe their personality. This should then be translated into a distinctive sub-voice. A narrator with some acting experience or training can do this more easily. Jim Dale, the well-known American narrator of all seven Harry Potter audiobooks, famously did more than 330 character voices!
Convey emotions and energy
Again, some acting experience can go a long way toward producing a narration where sadness, joy, fascination, enthusiasm, doubt, fear, cold, sickness, courage, bliss, etc can be evident in the tone, pace or intensity of the voice. The energy of each scene should also be conveyed. For example, an action scene may need a quick pace, whereas a love scene might require a slower narration. Your ideal voice should come with a gear stick – and know how to use it, too.
Power (and risk) lies in numbers
If you are turning a whole series into audiobooks, you need to consider how that impacts your choice. For example, if your series has the same main characters, listeners to the first audiobook might expect to find the same narrator in the next audiobooks of the series. So, choosing your narrator for audiobook 1 carefully becomes even more important.
To choose your Voice, you will listen to two types of samples:
Samples available through Internet sites like AMX, audiobook producer sites etc.
Each narrator showcases small narrative samples, often of different genres, from fiction to marketing. You will probably listen to many, many samples, some of them more than once before you end up with one or more voices that attract your attention. Then, you will typically ask these narrators for an audition passage.
An audition passage is an 800-1,000 words sample from your own book. You will ask the chosen narrator(s) to read and record this for you before you make a final choice and sign a contract. Select a challenging audition passage with plenty of dialogue, a character with an accent, an emotional turn or an increasing/decreasing pace. This way you can test if the narrator can differentiate his tone, pace and voice to suit the needs of your book.
Once you have your audition passages, it is finally time to choose. Or not. Just because most people do so, doesn’t mean you have to. If no audition passage satisfies you, move on. If you have an opinion but feel you need a second one, find a few experienced audiobook listeners in your entourage and have them listen in. Some authors ask for the opinion of their readers, much as you might do with A/B testing of your book covers.
However, keep in mind that you need the narrator’s permission to publicly submit a sample of his work. After all, you don’t have a contract yet. Just like you would not want the audition passage of your (possibly still unpublished) book to be publicly shared by your narrator, he would not appreciate you doing so, either. You may also need to pay for the material if it is to be publicly used (because narrators understand that giving a choice to your fans is also a great marketing technique, so they will charge you). Many narrators have a strong opinion on that point, so make sure to ask for permission.
At this point, you might as well want to investigate your narrator a bit more. Maybe they have a personal site where you can find out more about their experience. They have probably recorded other audiobooks – go on and buy some to listen to, rather than relying on samples. Maybe you know some author with whom they have worked and you can ask for an opinion on their professionalism. If you are considering a series, due diligence in selecting a great, trustworthy narrator becomes even more important.
Some also check audiobook reviews to see if a specific narrator has a good reception with the audience. However, as an author, you know how to treat reviews with caution, right? So use them as an indication, and not as carved on Moses’ stones.
Become a Listener
What would a narrator recommend you on your quest for the voice?
Well, the answer seems unanimous to this one: Listen to audiobooks before you produce your own. As an author, you have probably read lots and lots of books in your genre, either because you love to read, or from professional curiousness and conscience. Unless you listen to a few audiobooks, you do not know what to expect, what you like, what you dislike, what directions to give your narrator etc.
To become an experienced audiobook author, you must first become an experienced audiobook listener!
This post was originally written for Azure Fire Publishing.
Thank you, Nicholas, for this valuable advice.
Yay! Glad you found it useful 😀
Very useful thank you Nicholas. I have usually narrated my own in the past and for others but I just don’t have the time. My husband only listens to audio books as he can do that driving, working on the house and garden or exercise and I am aware it is a growing market. This was very helpful.
Yay! Thank you so much, Sally 😀