Audiobooks represent a rapidly growing market for publishers and voice actors alike. The easy access most people have to smartphone devices these days – combined with long commutes – makes for a market hungry for audio content.
If you’ve got a great voice and some acting talent, you might even have the chops to make a living on producing that content. Read on for my beginner’s guide on how to get paid to narrate audiobooks.
Who Can Narrate?
If you have a voice that people like to listen to – and you know how to infuse your voice with emotion – you may have what it takes to narrate audiobooks. Just having a good voice is not enough, of course.
Narrating a book calls on many different vocal skills, and the skills required depend on the genre. Nonfiction often requires a narrator to take a dry text and turn it into something with energy that can hold a listener’s attention. Fiction may require half a dozen different voices as you read dialogue or change points of view. Poetry requires a certain rhythm, and children’s literature may call for silly voices.
If you’re interested in being a narrator of audiobooks, it helps to have some training as an actor. Whether you studied acting at university or have taken some acting classes on the side, the skills and instincts honed in acting transfer beautifully to narration. Not every actor would do well in a soundproof booth acting against nothing – most often, narrating is a solo activity – but those gifted with great voices and the skills to act with them are golden.
In addition to having a good voice and some acting chops, you also need a lot of patience and the ability to perform consistently. While narrating text, you may have to do multiple takes to get a passage right. After you’ve finished recording, you may have to do pick-ups, as well, which are mistakes you notice or changes desired for the final recording. It’s important to be able to match the tone of voice you had in your original recording when you go back and change things.
The Narration Process
When working from home as a narrator, you’ll either be working with a production company or directly for an author or publisher. When working on a project, you’ll have a text to read and a deadline for delivery either of raw recordings or the finished audio file. As a freelance audiobook narrator, most of your clients will be authors or small publishers, and you’ll be expected to do the post-production on your audio files and deliver a finished product.
Once you receive the text you’ll be reading from, you’ll need to do any appropriate prep work. This includes reading through the material to familiarize yourself with the text and establish the flow. You should also note any accents required or words that you’re not sure how to pronounce. Then, do your research – for example, listen to recordings of accents or find a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar words.
Once you’re ready – and working in a quiet place with good acoustics – you record yourself reading the text with the appropriate level of energy, variety of voices, correct pronunciations, and anything else required by the work. If you’re doing a long piece, recording each chapter separately helps when you’re working in post to prepare the final product. This may sound like a simple process, but keep in mind you’ll have to keep track of your recording software to ensure it is recording correctly along with reading aloud and doing a bit of reading ahead so you know when you need to make any vocal transitions.
In post, you’ll work to make sure all the recordings are good, clean quality and identify where you need to record any pick-ups. You’re serving as your own director, quality control, and sound technician. After making the appropriate edits and adjustments, you deliver to your client.
On the other hand, if you’re working with a production company, you mostly just worry about narrating and let the company handle all the post-production. You may also work with a director in that case, who’ll give you feedback on your performance so you can make changes accordingly.
Beyond your voice and acting skills, there are several other things you need to set yourself up as a work-from-home audiobook narrator. These items are all pretty essential, and winning well-paying jobs will depend on the quality of the product you can deliver – which is directly proportional to the quality of your equipment.
A computer: You can do your recording on either a computer or a laptop, but it must be able to run the latest versions of the recording and editing software you’ll be using. Your computer also needs to feature the correct ports to handle an external mic and separate headphones.
A mic: If you’re interested in winning and keeping clients as a narrator, do not skimp on your mic. A great voice and a fantastic performance can be ruined by a cheap mic that generates too much noise or records poor quality audio. Read reviews and do some research on which mics other home-based narrators use.
A pop screen: A pop screen is usually a circular mesh filter about the size of your hand that you position between you and the mic – not only does it protect the mic from possible accumulation of spit (it can happen! and does), but it reduces any popping noises from fast-moving air after we say certain sounds like p’s and b’s.
Headphones: You can only deliver the best audio if you can hear what you’re recording; this means that your headphones are another piece of equipment you shouldn’t cut corners on. You need a quality set that will let you hear everything so you know when you’re hitting your quality standards and when you need to try again.
A tablet or e-reader: When you’re reading while recording, the last thing you want is to introduce unnecessary noise into the mix. You should have your text on a device such as a tablet or e-reader so you just silently touch a screen to advance your text. Having the material on this kind of device also lets you adjust the text size to work for you.
Recording & Editing Software: You need a robust program that can record clean audio with as little compression as possible, along with a program that can do all the editing that may be required. This includes noise reduction, removing pieces of the recording, splicing in recordings from another file, and more.
Prepared recording space: It’s okay if you can’t create a dedicated home studio, but you need to prepare your recording space to achieve the best sound possible while recording. That includes putting sound-absorbing material on the walls – which could be as simple as egg crates – or purchasing a small desktop sound booth.
Appropriate wardrobe: Don’t wear anything into your recording booth that makes a lot of noise. If there’s any source of noise that you have control over, make sure you use that power to minimize the potential for noise.
Quiet: When recording from home, you need to make sure that you’re set up for quiet. This may involve turning off the air conditioning while recording, ensuring you’re not recording near major appliances, and/or recording at the time of day when there’s very little ambient noise inside and outside of your home.
Where to Find Work
ACX is Audible's Audiobook Creative Exchange, and connects you as an audiobook producer directly with authors (or other rights holders) who have audiobook projects. Working with ACX, you’ll be producing the complete audiobook, from doing narration to editing and preparing the final files. Audiobooks created via ACX will be sold on Audible's site along with Amazon and iTunes. You set your own per-finished-hour rate or may choose to share royalties with the rights holder.
Brilliance Audio is an independent audiobook publisher that's been in the business for about 35 years – and they’re happy to hire new audiobook narrators. They encourage narrators new to the business to spend some time practicing their craft and to submit a demo disc with both straight readings and readings reflecting full voice characterization and related acting. It is unclear whether they only hire audiobook narrators who can come in to their Michigan offices to record or if they allow for work-from-home narrators.
Fiverr has a solid audiobook section with narrators offering their services for the titular $5 (and then upcharging for various project features, turnaround time, and more). It’s not the best place to score high rates, but doing a stint at Fiverr can serve to get your feet wet and get some professional samples completed for your audio clip portfolio.
Podcasts number in the hundreds of thousands and many of them need the vocal talents of narrators to create their content for them. While there’s no centralized creative exchange for podcasts, you can Google around for narrator guidelines once you identify a podcast you’d be interested in working with.
Voices.com provides a platform for voice actors and audiobook narrators to demo their talents and be auditioned by authors or others looking for vocal talent – either in the audiobook sphere or elsewhere. There’s a free membership that gives you basic access to find jobs, and a premium membership at $399 per year (that works out to $33.25 per month) which gives you the ability to audition for jobs, priority ranking in their search engine, and more.
Your Own Website is an important part of building a narrator career – it doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be polished, professional, and show your potential clients what you have to offer. It’s a place to put your contact information, detail your offered services, and showcase your audio clips.
How Does It Pay?
There’s no simple answer to how much you can make as an audiobook narrator – job rates fluctuate too much among the various platforms for remote narrators. It’s important to note that project rates paid “per finished hour” mean per audiobook hour – each of which may take you several hours of recording, rerecording, editing, and finalizing to deliver. Royalty-sharing options when it comes to audiobook jobs also aren’t always that great unless the audiobook becomes a runaway success. At the same time, don’t underestimate the power of creating passive income opportunities.
Depending on the rates you negotiate, you could make anywhere between $100 per finished hour to several hundred per finished hour. It could be even more, or it could be less. But some audiobook narrators with average income have cited the $100 per finished hour rate, and those who belong to the entertainment union SAG-AFTRA cannot take less than $225 per hour.
Now that you’ve got the basics, start putting together your recording booth and get your demos out there. People out there can’t wait to listen to you.