Audiobooks for Fun and Profit – Part 3: Hiring a Narrator

In this series, we began by discussing whether or not you should narrate your own audiobook and followed up last month by describing what you need to narrate your own audiobooks.

That’s certainly one option, but we didn’t really talk about another way to make your audiobook: hiring a voice actor to do the job for you. That’s what most professionals do, after all, so we would be remiss if we didn’t talk a little about it, starting with…

The Pros and Cons of Hiring Narration for Your Audiobook

I think that it is fair to assume that you want to have, or are at least interested in having, an audio version of your book. Once you’ve made that decision, the next one is whether to hire it done or to do it yourself. 

The advantages of hiring it done over doing it yourself include:

  • You don’t have to record yourself reading the book, which can be very time-consuming
  • Professional voice actors usually read better than professional writers
  • You don’t have to buy recording equipment and software
  • The final production value will likely be better

The disadvantages include:

  • You lose control over important aspects of the audiobook
  • You have to pay for the recording
  • It can take longer to organize everything
  • Adding a new team member increases complexity
  • For non-fiction, you lose that extra connection with your reader if you don't self-narrate

There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all universal answer to which way is best for you, but if you consider these pros and cons you’ll likely come up with a good answer. If you do decide to move forward and hire a narrator, here are the top ten things you should keep in mind. 

Top Considerations When Hiring a Narrator For Your Audiobook

1. Consider Demographics

Age, gender, accent, and similar things you’re not allowed to consider for most jobs can be very important when it comes to selecting who will narrate your story. 

As an over-exaggerated example, your first-person story from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl should not be read by a man in his eighties with a voice like a lifelong smoker. A nonfiction book about the neuroscience of military conflict will lose gravitas if it’s read by a young woman with a valley girl accent, or by a young man who sounds like Matthew McConaughay in Half Baked.

It’s okay, if not entirely politically correct, to consider these concerns when vetting potential candidates. 

2. Make a List of Names

This is especially important in fantasy and science fiction, but useful for almost all books. Prior to any kind of audition, and certainly before actual recording, create a small voice file where you pronounce all of the proper nouns in your book. 

If you do that, your reader will know from the outset how to pronounce all the hard-to-pronounce words in your book. If you don’t do that, you risk one of two things happening. Either they’ll get some wrong and you’ll have to ask them to re-record with the correct pronunciations, or they’ll get some wrong and you’ll have to live with an audiobook where they mispronounce important names. 

Best to get ahead of it all and coach your narrator in correct pronunciations from the beginning. 

If your book is set in the real world, consider regional pronunciations like “Barcelona” vs. “Barthelona” or “Prague” vs. “Praha”. Make sure your narrator is on the same page with you in those cases. 

3. Ask About Their Technology

One advantage of hiring a professional narrator is that they will have better sound equipment than you. This is one of the benefits of hiring a professional for almost anything: they have reasons to invest in the tools of their trade, which lets them do better work than amateurs with a similar skillset. 

During the vetting process, ask about:

  • What kind of microphone they use
  • What computer or tablet they record the files to
  • What software they use to record
  • What kind of sound editing they do
  • What their recording area looks like

You ask those questions for two reasons. The simplest is so you can confirm their setup is better than yours. The second is more subtle.

While listening to their answers, don’t just note the technical specifications. Listen to how they answer. Do they sound like somebody who knows a lot about the gear of their trade, or do they sound like they just bought things off a list they read on a blog post? The former isn’t always a sign of a better narrator, but it is more often than it isn’t. 

4. Check the Portfolio

Every professional narrator will have a few voice clips for you to listen to as part of their portfolio, but go beyond that in two important ways. 

First, check out a few of their finished works. Use your monthly audible credit, or check something out from the library, or splurge and buy an audiobook or two. Don’t fall deep in a rabbit hole and listen to thirty hours of audiobooks (unless you’re really enjoying it), but do listen enough to get a full sense of how they sound. Do this with a couple books in different genres, if you can find them, to get a sense for the candidate’s range. 

Second, reach out to the authors and producers for one or more of the audiobooks they’ve narrated. Ask how that narrator is to work with as a professional and a person. This can give you early warning about anybody who’s talented, but difficult. 

Bonus Tip: Look up the reviews on their back catalog of audiobooks and see what readers think of them as a narrator.

5. Read Your Book Out Loud

This is time-consuming but can make a big difference in both the quality of your finished audiobook, and how long it takes to get it finished. 

Take the time to read your book out loud to yourself. Any place you find yourself stumbling over a sentence, make a note. If your book hasn’t been published yet, consider making edits. Things that are hard to read out loud are hard for readers to comprehend. 

If your book is already published, you can’t edit. Instead, make notes for the narrator warning them the passage will be tricky. That way they’ll approach it forewarned, and navigate it better on the first try. 

6. Cast a Wide Net

The audiobook narration market is wide and varied, and has not yet been centralized. It’s scattered all over the web. Although many narrators maintain a portfolio on multiple sites, you’re better off looking at several sources so you don’t risk missing out on the perfect candidate. 

Your best candidates will be members of pay-to-play sites, where they have to pay a subscription fee to get listed. These vet out any amateurs, only letting in people serious enough about a narration career to pay the price of admission. 

A few of the better sites to find a narrator include Bodalgo, Voice123, VOPlanet, and The Voice Realm. You can also look at marketplaces geared specifically towards audiobook narrators at Findaway Voices or ACX.

7. Know Your Audience 

This calls back to our first consideration, but is so important we wanted to mention it again. Your audience will react differently to different voice types, which means the wrong narrator can create a bad experience for your readers. 

Start with the demographics your readers are most likely to respond best to, then drill down. For example, female listeners when listening to males prefer a voice that suggests the reader is large. Male listeners prefer male narrators, but when listening to a female prefer a voice that suggests the reader is small. And even then, those preferences may change from genre to genre.

You will need to do market research on this. Begin with nailing down who your core listener might be, and then look into the sorts of voices they prefer.

8. Choose a Smart Sample

Part of your selection process will include inviting several candidates to record themselves reading a section of your manuscript. Choosing the right section can make a big difference in how well this goes. 

Send three pages of dynamic content, preferably with dialogue between main characters. This will give you a chance to hear their baseline narration, how they handle dialogue, and how they differentiate between different characters speaking. You’ll get a better sense for their range that way. 

By contrast, if you just send them three pages of exposition, you’ll only learn how they sound with one kind of writing. 

9.Give Plenty of Background

Although your book will give some character backstory, worldbuilding, and other details to the reader, you needed to have more information in your head when you wrote. Without it, that lack of context would have left many scenes nonsensical and disorienting. 

The same is true for your narrator. In a scene where they know both what a character is doing, and why they are doing it (only one of which is on the written page), they will read that scene more powerfully than if they lacked that information. 

Character bios, world gazetteers, and vignettes are all good ways to convey that information. So is making sure they know they can contact you with questions. 

10. Budget First and Budget Last

Start your search for a narrator by knowing the most you can spend on the project, then search only within those who will charge you what you can afford. There’s no point in considering somebody who you love, but would go over budget if you hired them. 

Once you’ve set that upper limit, forget the budget. Hire for quality and ease of working relationship, and ignore the price tag completely. 

More than one writer has opted for their second-or-third-favorite candidate because the price was lower, even though they had more room in the budget. If you start with a hard upper limit, let yourself spend the money within that range. You’ll be happier working with the best option.

Budgets can vary based on project, and most narrators charge per finished hour and average about 9,800 words per hour. So a 100,000 word novel would be a little over 10 finished hours. Your narrator may cost anywhere from $50 to $200 per finished hour for less experienced narrators, and if you want to hire a member of SAG-AFTRA then their minimum rate is $250 per finished hour and can go up into 4 figures depending upon how popular they are. That can be a lot of money up front, but especially if they can bring their own audience it can pay off in the long run.

The Ball is in Your Court

Okay. Now you know almost everything you need to make a decision about producing your audiobook, and what to do to act on that decision. In part 4 we cover a final production topic on auto-narrated audiobooks, which can save you time and money but may limit where you can sell your book. We'll finish up by talking about where and how to sell your audiobooks.

We’d love to hear about how it’s going, so pop into the Facebook group and give us some updates. Be sure to include links to resources you discover, and especially to where we can hear the final product!