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How to Narrate an Audiobook: A Step-By-Step Guide

How to Narrate an Audiobook: A Step-By-Step Guide

When you’re getting started in voice acting, it can be tempting to decide to narrate audiobooks because, “It’s just reading, right?” Well, I did some research and the truth is, no it’s not.

How do you narrate an audiobook? A lot goes into narrating an audiobook. You need to be able to act. You need the right gear and the right recording space. You need to be able to edit and master your recording. And you need to know how and where to find work.

In this article, we’ll look at audiobook narration for beginners like you and me.

An Overview of Narrating Audiobooks, According To ACX

ACX is like the place to get audiobook work. It’s a website, owned by Amazon, that connects narrators and book authors. And it’s where (nearly?) all Audible audiobooks come from.

Important: ACX doesn’t accept unfinished work. You’re not just a voice actor with ACX. You’re a producer. (They have strict submission requirements.) It’s all on you to get everything ready so they can just upload it and sell it.

According to ACX (source), these are the basic steps involved in becoming an audiobook narrator:

  1. Create a profile on ACX. Include your acting and audiobook experience. (You have to be a US, UK, Canada or Ireland resident.)
  2. Upload samples. You can put up an unlimited number of samples. Each should highlight accents, genres and styles that you can perform.
  3. Decide how you want to get paid. You can get paid a rate per finished hour or you can share 50% of the royalties with the author.
  4. Audition. Search for books on ACX and record a sample. If the author (or publisher) likes your read over everyone else’s, you’ll get an offer.
  5. Accept the offer, agree on delivery dates and start recording the first 15 minutes. Once the client accepts the first 15 minutes of audio, you’re good to go. Record the rest.
  6. Polish the recording. If you don’t know how to edit and master your recording to ACX’s standards, then this is when you’d hire someone else to handle that for you.
  7. Get paid. You’ll either get paid per finished hour or you’ll get paid royalties. Your work here is done. Rinse and repeat.

That’s a pretty good (and pretty basic) breakdown but ACX isn’t the only place where you can get audiobook narration work. It’s just the biggest and best-known website for it.

Other places to get audiobook work include:

  • (Don’t expect to charge industry standard rates here.)

Step 1: Work on Your Acting Chops

It should probably be called “audiobook voice acting” instead of “audiobook narration”. If you want to succeed as an audiobook narrator, you’ll need some (serious) acting chops.

According to one article I read, a lot of audiobook narrators started out on stage, as actors, than in a booth as voice actors. Which means that, unless you already have acting experience, you’ll need to work on your acting chops.

The easy way do that is probably to enroll in some acting classes. But if you’re on a budget, then there’s nothing wrong with taking your classes on YouTube. There’s tons of great info on YouTube.

The key to making YouTube work for you is to actually record yourself as you practice. And then listen to (or watch) your previous take before you do another take. That way, you’re creating a feedback loop which lets you see just how good (or bad) you are and where you need to improve. This is a much faster way to improve by yourself than just “hoping” you’re doing it right.

Step 2: Get The Right Gear

As an audiobook narrator, you’ll need the right gear. You’re getting right in the ears of your listeners. A bad recording won’t cut it.

Tip: Check out my gear and resources page for gear that the pros recommend.

Here’s a quick (prioritized) rundown of what you’ll need as an audiobook narrator and why:

An acoustically-treated recording space. I’ve put this one first because even the best mic can’t save you if you’re recording in an untreated room.

If you record yourself in a room that hasn’t been “acoustically treated” then you’ll get a lot of echo in your recording and that will sound awful (and be distracting) for your listeners.

You don’t necessarily need an expensive studio but you do need to prepare your recording space. Check out these videos by Mike Delgaudio (The Booth Junkie) to learn more about how to set up good recording spaces.

Quiet space. This is different than having an acoustically-treated recording space. You can have a perfectly treated recording booth but still have really loud sounds still making it into your recording. Things like vacuum cleaners, helicopters flying overhead & dogs barking can all ruin your recording.

So you need to find a time (and space) to record that’s really quiet. Turn off airconditioners and fans. Make sure nobody’s home. Or ask everyone in the house not to make any loud noises like turning on the vacuum. That kind of thing.

A good microphone to record yourself. Skimping here could mean that you get less (or no) job offers. The general recommendation is to use a good XLR mic and audio interface. USB mics are mostly shunned by voice actors but there are some good ones out there. Just don’t expect to pay less than around $400 for them.

A pop filter. When you say certain letters like “p” and “b”, a lot of air will come out in a single burst, hitting your mic. This creates a “pop” sound that is not fun to listen to. So you need a pop filter in front of your mic so that the air is diffused and doesn’t hit your mic.

Headphones. You’ll need to be able to hear yourself so that you can fix mistakes while you’re recording. The last thing you want to do is have to get back into your recording space because you didn’t notice some clothes rustling or mouth smacks and clicks during your first take.

A tablet, phone or e-reader. These are great because they help you avoid page-turning sounds. It can be tough to record a sentence split between two pages without also recording the sound of turning the page.

Recording & editing software. It’s obvious that you’ll need software to record yourself but you’ll also need something that can handle editing. Every time you record, you’ll need to edit out mistakes and bad takes. You’ll probably also need to normalize the audio which means making it the same volume throughout.

Quiet clothes. A good idea is to wear quality cotton or wool. You don’t want to wear nylon or polyester because any shifting or shuffling you’re doing while recording will get picked up by your mic.

Tip: Check out my gear and resources page for gear that the pros recommend.

How To Get Started

Now that you’ve got some acting chops and good gear, let’s look at how to actually get started.

Kevin Clay is an experienced audiobook narrator and, in this video, he describes how he got started and what he did to go from making under $20 in his first year to making over $20,000 in his second year.

In a workshop Kevin went to, a guy said that you shouldn’t edit your own stuff. You should always get a pro to edit your recordings. And that may be accurate but if you’re just starting out, then that’s not going to work for you.

A professional audio engineer is going to cost you $70 to $90 PFH (per finished hour) to get that done. So, in the early days, you’ll need to learn how to edit and produce your own recordings. And then, later on, when you can afford to hire someone, you’ll know what to look for.

A lot of pros say that you shouldn’t charge less than $200 PFH. And that’s not great advice if you’re just starting out. You can start out at $70 PFH to get some experience. Learn the ropes, and then charge more as you get better.

Kevin says that, to stay motivated, you have to do this for reasons other than “just for the money”. You have to really love telling a story.

Another way to stay motivated is to do it for the listener. Sometimes, the book you need to narrate just isn’t your kind of book. In those cases, think about the fact that somebody out there is waiting to hear that story. Do it for them.

Some people in ACX have made $10k in a month. How do you get there? Practice, practice, practice.

Get some experience on royalty-share jobs. These are easier to get because they don’t cost the author anything up-front. So a lot of first-time authors will consider using you, even if you don’t have experience.

Also, you’re going to need to invest. Invest in your gear and invest in yourself. To do that, get some practice in. Record yourself a few times. Then find someone who’s doing well and ask for advice. You might have to pay them some money. This is the part where you’re investing in yourself.

Kevin went from under $20 in his first year to over $20k in his second year. And he did that by investing in a coach.

He went on YouTube and searched for “audio narration tips”. He says that any good coach will have good tips on YouTube. Watch those, learn from them, and then contact the coach and hire them to take yourself to the next level.

According to Kevin, these are good coaches to look out for:

Why should you pay for help? Because that’s how you get on the fast-track to success. You can skip most of the blunders the average voice actor will make when starting out. You can learn the exact techniques and methods professionals use to succeed in audiobook narration. And you can do it all in months instead of years. (Assuming you actually practice what they preach and work on yourself. Having a coach isn’t a cure for laziness.)

Kevin spent $400 on a really good narration course. And that’s what took him from under $20 to over $20k. He made his money back more than 50 times over in the year that followed. That’s a no-brainer. It’s totally worth it.

Of course, if you can’t afford a voice coach right now, then get as much free advice as you can (from seasoned professionals) and practice, practice, practice.

But that doesn’t mean asking in forums. You can get a lot of bad advice that way. Find someone who’s actually succeeding and ask them.

And also, save, save, save. Maybe in a few months to a year, you’ll be able to afford a course or a coach to help get you to the next level.

Another tip from Kevin is to pay attention to your negative reviews. (I said reviews, not YouTube commenters.) You reviewers are real clients who are giving you an oportunity to look at yourself and your work objectively and grow from where you are to a level where other clients will more often want to hire you.

But that doesn’t mean that you should take everything to heart. You shouldn’t. You might have a voice (or style) that one client hates and another client loves. So look for areas of improvement that come up over and over, from different clients.

More On Getting Started, This Time From A Beginner (2 Months In)

By May of 2019, Merphy Napier had been narrating audiobooks for just 2 months. She did a Q&A on her YouTube channel all about it and this is (some of) what she said:

How do you get audiobook jobs? Whenever she’s ready to start a new job, Merphy looks through the books that are available, filters them down and then auditions.

Authors put up a description of the book and an audition script (which is often 2 pages of the book, with different characters.) They’ll also have author notes, where they talk about what kind of book it is, what kind of theme it features and what accents are in the book.

Using this info, she can figure out what books she wants to audition for and which ones she’ll pass on.

Sometimes authors find her and ask her to narrate their book. It works both ways.

What if you get a book you don’t want to do? Just say no. There’s a lot of info on ACX about each book, so you can usually tell if it’s a book you want to (or can) narrate. If it’s not for you, give it a pass.

How do you narrate an emotional scene? Audiobook narration is acting. Especially if you’re doing fiction. So if the character is breaking down, you need to break down, if they’re excited, you need to get excited. You have to act out the book so that you can bring those emotions across to the listener.

Do you need acting experience? Yes! Some sort of experience in acting is important. You don’t need a degree or anything like that. But you do need to be able to act.

Do you need different voices? Absolutely, yes! There will be times when there are multiple characters going back and forth and you need to be able to help the listener “see” those characters in their minds. Using the same voice for each character just wouldn’t work.

For Merphy’s first few jobs, she charged just $50 per finished hour. It was a lot of work but she was learning on the job. At the time that she put out that video (about 2 months later), she was at $100 per finished hour which is pretty normal for a beginner.

The takeaway is that audiobook narration is work that you can “up-level” in pretty quickly. It’s all about your performance and production quality. If you can nail that, then you can charge as much as more experienced professionals.

(If you can’t deliver, it’ll come across in your auditions and you just won’t get the gigs.)

Merphy says that intermediate pay is more around $250 to $350 PFH. Very experienced voice actors earn more like $500+ PFH.

4 Quick Performance Tips from a Pro

Suzy has narrated over 100 books. These are her tips for audiobook narration:

  • Underline the names of the characters in books so you know when they’re coming up. Keep your own notes of each character. How old are they? What characteristics do they have that might come across in their voices?
  • Underline delivery cues like, “she whispered” or “he shouted”, at the end of a sentence. You need to know that stuff before you read the line, so prepare by underlining those before you hit record.
  • The voices can actually end up being the easy part. The hard part is the stamina of committing to the story for hours and hours. It can be difficult and draining. One of the books that she’s narrating in that video is 17 hours long. And it can take 4 hours to record and edit a single finished hour. That’s 68 hours of hard, lonely work.
  • You’ll also narrate books that you wouldn’t normally read. So you have to learn to respect the story and the audience. Narrate the story the way the audience wants to hear it. The way the author intended for it to be heard. Don’t read it the way you’d read it for yourself.

In my research, I came across some other good tips for someone getting started in audiobook narration.

Tip: “Skim” The Book At Least Once

Skimming the book at least once before sitting down to record will help you figure out who the characters are and how to voice them at different parts of the book.

But multiple pros recommend that you don’t read the book in-depth until you hit the booth. That’s because you want the scenes to still feel fresh when you’re recording. That way, you can react to what’s happening in the book and not sound bored. And, of course, it’s more fun if you’re not 100% sure what direction a scene will take.

Tip: You Should Be Able To Read Fast

As a narrator, you’ll need to read through the book at least once before you record. If you’re a slow reader, that could really delay you in finishing a job.

In some cases, narrators only got a book a few days (or the day) before they had to start recording. So being able to skim the whole book in a single sitting will help a lot.

Of course, when it comes time to record the audiobook, reading fast shouldn’t be on your mind at all.

Tip: Wear Lip Balm

January LaVoy says that the first time she recorded an audiobook, her lips were chapped and bloody by the end of the day. Now she won’t record without lip balm.

How Long Does It Take To Record An Audiobook?

It takes a lot of time and work to record an audiobook. It can take as much as 4 hours of recording and editing to get 1 hour of finished audio.

You’re getting paid per finished hour (PFH). Which means that a 17-hour audiobook could take you as long as 68 hours to record.

Be prepared for many hours in the booth and in post-production.

Audiobook Performance Masterclass

That’s all for this article. You should have enough info to get you started. If you’re looking for some performance tips from real pros, watch this video featuring Scott Brick.

A great way to use this video is to record a few pages of a book, then watch (or re-watch) the video. And then record the same pages again. And see where you improved and where you still have room to improve.

Good luck!