Having an audio version of your book is non-negotiable in today’s market. Audiobooks are the fastest-growing type of book. The growth of eBooks and paper books is flat, but audiobooks are growing by double digits every year, and if you create one, you’ll need an audiobook narrator.
We recently explored how to use Hindenburg Narrator to record your own audiobook, which I typically only recommend for nonfiction authors. If you’re writing fiction, you’re probably better off hiring a professional narrator with the skill set to make your novel come alive.
But who do you hire?
How do you find the perfect narrator for your audiobook?
James L. Rubart is the former co-host of the Novel Marketing podcast, and he has answers to our audiobook narration questions. He’s a best-selling Christie Hall-of-Fame author of more than ten novels. He’s also a professional audiobook narrator.
How do I know if I should record my own audiobook or hire a professional?
Thomas Umstattd Jr.: How do I know if I should record my own audiobook or hire a professional? You’ve done both. How do you decide?
James L. Rubart (Jim): To help authors decide, I ask them to consider how confident they are with performance. Would you feel confident performing on stage at your local community theater? If so, you probably have the mentality and skill to narrate your own book.
If you don’t like being on stage with other performers, you should consider hiring a professional. An audiobook narrator is essentially an actor. Even nonfiction narration requires some acting. When you get behind that microphone, you must perform at a level the audience accepts as professional. If you don’t perform professionally, your audiobook sales will suffer.
Thomas: In fiction, you perform the audiobook as much as you read it, but you’re not fully performing it. An audio drama brings in more voices and sound effects, but most authors don’t create audio dramas for their books.
There’s a place for audio drama, but it’s typically more expensive. An example of excellent audio drama is the Star Wars series of books. When everyone else hired a narrator, Skywalker Sound hired a team of actors to perform the Star Wars books.
Most authors don’t have that budget, and most readers don’t expect an audio drama. An audio drama requires the book to be adapted. For example, text attributions are dropped. Some readers don’t like the adaptations because the book gets abridged, and suddenly it’s a different product.
Where can an author find narrators to audition to narrate their book?
Jim: Whether you’re looking for an editor, agent, or narrator, the best place to look is in the books you love. Listen to an audiobook, and if you love the delivery, start with that person.
The other place to start is ACX. ACX is a marketplace where authors connect with narrators and audiobook professionals to produce their books.
You can post your job on ACX and ask narrators to audition. I recommend getting a lot of auditions. Right now, there are many narrators available. Do not settle for someone you think is “pretty good.”
Hire the person who can nail it.
Thomas: When you’re researching narrators, you can search Audible for names. Audible includes the narrator in the product details. You can click on their name and see other books they narrate.
Remember that narrators also have fans. I like Kate Redding and Michael Kramer. If they have narrated a fantasy book, I will buy it simply because they narrated it.
Jim: Audible also lets you listen to a sample so you can get a feel for the narrator without spending a dime.
Thomas: Findaway Voices is another place to connect with narrators. It has become especially popular with indie authors. Like ACX, Findaway lets you host auditions, but it also offers more flexibility than ACX. Their pricing and rules are different.
Which is better, ACX or Findaway?
Jim: One year ago, I would have chosen ACX, but now I prefer Findaway. I let my most recent client choose between the two. After checking out the pros and cons, he agreed that Findaway was preferable.
Thomas: ACX locks you into a seven-year exclusivity commitment to Amazon, and that’s really restricting. Many authors want to promote their audiobooks with a Chirp deal. Chirp is owned by BookBub, and it’s a great way to get hundreds or thousands of downloads on your audiobook in a single day. ACX won’t allow you to do a Chirp deal, but Findaway will. On the other hand, ACX pays you a bit more per book sale.
How complicated is it to hire a narrator through ACX or Findaway?
Jim: To find the best voice for your book, choose a portion of your book for potential narrators to read. If it’s nonfiction, choose a difficult selection with complicated words or location names so you can hear whether they can deliver it in a warm, approachable way.
For fiction, choose a section that includes narration and dialogue between characters. See if the narrator can differentiate the voices. If I am hiring for a romance book, I’d want to see if a male narrator could do a convincing female voice or if a female narrator could do a male voice without sounding silly.
Choose a section of your book that will stretch the narrator.
How do you choose whether a man or woman should narrate your book?
Jim: I have narrated all my own novels except for one where the main protagonist was female. The bulk of the book is from her point of view, so it made sense to hire a female rather than narrating it myself.
Start with the context and feel of your book. Don’t hire a warm fuzzy narrator for a thriller unless they can adapt to the genre.
Thomas: It’s important to match the narrator to the protagonist. Much of the dialogue and description will be in the protagonist’s voice. You want the narrator to read in their natural voice most of the time.
If you have a female protagonist and a male narrator, he’ll have to stretch into his female voice for most of the book, which could be hard on his voice and compromise the quality of the performance.
Readers won’t care much about your narrator unless you change the narrator mid-series. Suddenly they’ll care a lot. Even if the second narrator is better, the voice is different, and readers typically prefer the voice they recognize.
In the Monster Hunter International series, most of the books have a male protagonist, but in book six or seven, there’s a female protagonist. Even so, the author didn’t choose a female voice because the current narrator knew the voices for all the characters.
TV shows used to swap out actors to play the same character, and people did not like it.
Jim: If your book is written in first-person, you don’t want a guy doing a first-person, female character. It’s too jarring. A first-person male protagonist needs a male narrator.
How much does it cost to hire a narrator?
Jim: How much does it cost to buy a car? It depends. You can get a junker or a Lamborghini or anything in between.
First, find out how many books the person has narrated and which genres they’ve done. If they’ve only recorded two books, they probably don’t have the experience level I want. I look for a narrator who has done at least ten books.
When hiring a narrator, you have three payment models to choose from.
Pay Narrator 50% of Royalties Forever
A pure royalty model allows the narrator to receive 50% of the royalties you earn on the book forever. The benefit is that you have zero up-front costs. In this model, you can have your audiobook produced for free. That’s why there’s no excuse for not having an audiobook.
Receiving 50% of your royalties on an audiobook is better than receiving zero royalties on an audiobook you didn’t create.
The downside is that you probably won’t get a great narrator. Most good narrators won’t take that deal because they don’t know your sales history. By the same token, authors who sell lots of books don’t want to share half the royalties because they know how many books will sell. They can afford a better narrator on a different model.
You can find a good narrator with that pricing model, but you’ll have to research and dig.
Pay Narrator a Fee + Royalty Percentage
In the hybrid option, you pay the narrator a fee for narrating the book and a percentage of the royalties. That percentage is somewhat negotiable.
Pay Narrator Upfront Per Finished Hour
You can agree with your narrator on a per-finished-hour rate. If it takes them four hours to narrate and produce one hour of finished audio, which is pretty realistic, you’ll know upfront how much it will cost you. This model allows you to keep all the royalties forever.
Thomas: Paying per finished hour is the standard model in the industry. You pay by the finished hour, not by how many hours the narrator worked on it.
How much does a narrator charge per finished hour?
Thomas: What’s the cheapest and most expensive narration rate you’ve seen?
Jim: I’ve seen $50 per finished hour, which would be $500 for a 10-hour book. If anybody offers you that rate, run the other direction. No experienced narrator with the skillset would do it for that little.
Thomas: Somebody who is just getting started may offer a lower price to build their portfolio. They may still do a good job, but you need to know what to look for.
If neither of you has produced an audiobook, you have a recipe for disaster. But if you’re looking to save money, there are sometimes diamonds in the rough if you know how to dig.
Jim: I’ve seen narrators charge up to $850 per finished hour. Those are professionals whose names on your book would help you sell copies. You’ll pay for their skill as well as their celebrity. The association of their name with your book will increase your sales.
Working With Celebrity Narrators
Thomas: I’ve seen Hollywood celebrities charge four digits rates for narration. You’ll pay a lot if you want Elijah Wood, James Earl Jones, or Patrick Stewart to narrate your book.
Working with a celebrity is different because you book them through their talent agency, not through Findaway Voices or ACX.
Some celebrity narrators are famous because they’ve narrated 200 books, not because they were in a movie. If you can afford $1,500 per finished hour, you can hire C-list or B-list actors who are phenomenal voice actors.
I was listening to a Stephen King book last summer, and I thought I recognized the voice of Will Patton. I looked it up, and it was him. Will Patton appeared as a supporting character in Remember the Titans.
Don’t discount your chances of getting an actor. Many underemployed actors did some popular shows long ago, and they’re no longer acting. But they’ve got a good microphone and a home studio. Narrating audiobooks is a reliable source of income for them.
Whatever your budget is, it’s better to have an audiobook done by a cheap narrator than to not have an audiobook at all. Even a cheap narrator will probably do better than you will. A narrator probably has a better microphone, and they know the proper microphone technique.
Get an audiobook produced. Many people will not read your book if it’s not on audio.
If you like multiple narrators who auditioned, how do you pick the best one?
Someone You Enjoy Working With
Jim: Remember that it’s called “show business,” not “show friendship.” On the other hand, I want to work with people I like. I’d start the elimination process by visiting with each one on the phone to see if there is a connection.
Long-Term Commitment to the Industry
Thomas: I’d choose the one committed to the industry for the long term. If you’re writing a series, you’ll want a narrator who can stick with you through the series. Don’t hire someone who’s dabbling and won’t be interested in narration when you finish your third book.
Good Microphone Technique
Second, I’d evaluate the performance. Look for a crisp “s” sound and not a sibilant “s.” They need to have good microphone techniques without breath sounds or plosives.
You’ll want to invest in good headphones to evaluate their microphone technique. I recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-M20X Professional Studio Monitor Headphones. They cost about $50.00. With a good set of headphones, you’ll be able to hear many differences between good and bad narrators. You may not hear the difference if you listen on your iPhone or built-in laptop speakers.
People listening to audiobooks use expensive headphones. They’re using $200 AirPods, which pick up sounds you won’t hear if you listen on bad speakers.
Listen for accent shifts. A rookie narrator won’t give a consistent performance of the different characters. The characters start to blend into each other and sound the same.
Make sure the chapter sample they read includes the hardest words to pronounce. Whether it’s an Indian tribe or a location, they need to pronounce it correctly.
Clear Policy on Making Changes
Jim: Ask a potential narrator how they will work with you on changes to the audio.
Some narrators do the work you hired them to do, and they’re done. Others will change every tiny thing you want them to change.
You probably want someone in the middle who will make changes but can also tell you what sounds good. You definitely don’t want the person who says, “You accepted my first 15-minute sample, and you have no input from here on out.”
Clarify the terms before you hire.
Professional Recording Software
Jim: I attended a conference workshop earlier this year on how to be an audiobook narrator. When I looked on Audible to learn about the instructor, I discovered he’d only done three books.
If you find someone you like, go to Audible, find out how many books they’ve done, and listen to each sample. Take your time and do your research.
What do you do after you contract with a narrator?
Thomas: After you’ve narrowed it down to three candidates, received feedback from your Timothy, and signed the contract, what happens next?
Jim: ACX helps automate the process. After you approve the narrator, you start the process. Your chosen narrator must send you the first 15-minute recording by a certain date.
When you get that first audio file of your book, you’ll know if it’s going to be great or not. Those first 15 minutes should sound great because that will be what the final product sounds like.
Some authors I’ve worked with only want me to contact them when I’m done narrating the entire book. Other people like to listen to the chapters as I complete each one. If that’s the case, I upload a rough MP3 that hasn’t been sweetened, compressed, or mastered, and then the author can give me feedback.
How to Give Your Audiobook Narrator Feedback
Thomas: I advise authors to give lots of feedback early in the process. You want to know immediately if your audiobook narrator pronounces your characters’ names correctly. Don’t wait until they’re four chapters in before you listen and discover a mispronunciation.
Give feedback right away so you don’t become a bottleneck on your project. Give the feedback early so your narrator can apply it to the rest of the book. If you do, you’ll find that subsequent chapters will require less performance feedback, and you can concentrate on the characterization and intonation.
Jim: An author I recently worked with told me that one character needed to sound more humorous. The character was chuckling and laughing inside, so I delivered it that way based on his feedback.
I ask questions upfront about the background of the scene or character and how the author wants the character delivered. A narrator can deliver a character in many different ways. Don’t wait until your narrator is half done with your book before you tell him the character has a chip on his shoulder.
If your narrator doesn’t ask you these questions, be proactive and give them all the information you created in your character’s backstory. It will inform your narrator’s performance.
You could also host a Zoom call where you and your narrator talk about each character and their backstory. Your writing might have been a little weak in certain areas, but if your narrator understands your character, they can compensate for weak writing with their performance.
That strategy works with children’s books in our house. Some of our children’s books aren’t so good, but sometimes I can fix it with a good read-aloud performance and keep my kids interested.
How does the narrator keep all the voices straight?
Jim: Hindenburg Narrator has a system that allows you to upload a file so you can listen and remember how a character sounds while you’re narrating.
See how it works in this demo video:
As an audiobook narrator, my technique is to embody that character. When I see that character coming up, I embody everything I know and feel from the backstory. The more character background I know, the more authentic it sounds in the final performance.
After the book is recorded, how are the files edited and uploaded to Audible?
Jim: You can hire a narrator to do the editing and mastering, or a producer to do some of that for you.
I don’t do all the editing. I do the first pass and cut the parts where I screwed up a sentence or took a big breath. After the first pass, I send the file to another audio editor, and then it comes back to me. I master it, sweeten the files, and do a little compression.
Audible has stringent audio requirements. You must have between 0.05 and 1.0 seconds of time at the start of each chapter.
Your audiobook narrator can implement those requirements and upload the file to ACX. ACX will tell the narrator if a file is too loud or too soft. They will get feedback from Findaway or ACX. Hindenburg has a feature that will quickly check and fix the requirements for you.
Thomas: The author doesn’t interact with the narrator’s audio editor. As the author, you don’t need to learn all that complexity. Narrators handle the complicated technical bits because it’s their profession.
After your audiobook is uploaded to Audible, how do you pay your narrator?
Thomas: You pay them through ACX or Findaway. Both companies handle the 1099s and the taxes.
Jim: If you’ve never done it before, a good narrator can walk you through the process.
Thomas: If you’re using Findaway for wide distribution, you’ll need to enter metadata and make distribution choices. An experienced narrator can help you with those details and offer tech support, so don’t feel intimidated by it. Much of the metadata can be copied and pasted from the metadata you entered for your ebook.
Jim: If you want to narrate the book yourself, don’t let this conversation dissuade you. Perhaps you’ve written a memoir and can’t imagine anyone else voicing your story. Proficient narration is a lot of work, but if you’re determined, go for it. You can become a really good narrator.
How can an author hire you to narrate their book?
Jim: Send me a sample of your book. I’d love to read it and see if it makes sense for us to work together.
Thomas: If they don’t pick you, you won’t hate them forever because you’re used to auditioning. Every actor gets gigs and loses gigs. So it’s not personal.
Jim: Not at all.
To connect with Jim about potentially narrating your audiobook, visit him at secondmilestudios.com.
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