Becoming an Audiobook Narrator with Ilyana Kadushin
Making your big break into the realm of audiobooks can be a challenging, yet rewarding path to take as a voice over artist. Narrating an audiobook takes practice, stamina and an overall passion for the material you are reading and becoming an audiobook narrator take practice.
As an audiobook narrator you have to make a connection with your listeners and engage them in a way that is vastly different from other categories of voice over work.
Take it from Ilyana Kadushin, an award-winning audiobook narrator who got her big break when she became the audiobook narrator for the “Twilight” saga by Stephenie Meyer. Having narrated audiobooks from genres such as Sci-Fi, Mystery and Romance, Ilyana knows what it takes to work at your craft, keep your passion alive and finding your narrative voice through the art of storytelling.
Becoming an Audiobook Narrator
Q: How did you break into the audiobook industry?
I had already been working with an agent as a voice actor and going out on auditions and doing work in voice overs for commercials, television and radio and even promo work on television networks. With each year that I was in the business, I became aware of different aspects of voice over work.
I first became aware of audiobooks when I was in a bookstore and I saw the audiobook for “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, narrated by Jeremy Irons and I remember thinking: “Oh wow audiobooks!” I hadn’t really had an awareness of them and thought ‘Wow these really incredible actors are doing this and this is interesting.’ I didn’t even quite know who the demographic for audiobooks was, although I was quite the voracious reader myself.
In 2004, I remember asking my agents about audiobooks and then I had my first audition to read for the audiobook version of “Twilight,” the first book in the saga by Stephenie Meyer. Back then, that book was circulating in the young adult publishing world and it became really popular. And the rest is history!
Q: Can you give us a rundown of the audiobook industry and how you got started?
For the first several years of being a narrator, I was approached directly by the publishers and authors. So, not really auditioning, just being offered and going and setting up the sessions. I should say, my trajectory is a little bit different than most people will encounter, as I was able to narrate a really high-profile book in the very beginning of my career, and that brought me to the attention of a lot of really big publishers. Fourteen years later, the business has changed (with more online platforms available for finding audiobook narrators).
I’ve also done auditions where producers and publishers wanted to see if I was the right fit for the book. Now cut to today, where there’s a lot of independent publishers, and since I have my own studio there are a lot of direct offers that come from the author. Where the offers come from or how they get to me varies based on the content.
Preparing for the Recording of an Audiobook
Q: In regards to preparation, how do you get set up for audiobook narration?
Typically, I get anywhere from 1-2 weeks [to read the manuscript before stepping into the recording booth] sometimes more if the manuscript is ready. With “Twilight” I had a little bit less time. I was sort of thrown into the proverbial fire for my first audiobook, which really helped me learn how to prepare fast. With those books, the manuscripts were given to me in a short window, in order to protect the property as the book wasn’t released to the public yet.
In a first read through, you might follow the main character’s point of view, understand all the peripheral characters and what motivates them during the journey of the plot. If it’s not condensed time, then I might go through a second pass to mark things more specifically.
But, I do often say to my students there’s a certain amount of preparation that you do, but then when you get into the recording studio, there is also a certain amount of improvisation that happens just by being in the moment and connecting with the words of the author. It’s a combination of preparation with your own performance spontaneity.
That’s why audiobook narration, out of all the voice over performing that’s out there, from advertising commercials to cartoons, really takes the largest degree of acting. Good audiobook narration take good acting, good preparation, a good understanding of your voice, and a good understanding of how to embody the different characters and the intention and emotion the author has put in the scenes and the lines. It’s challenging work!
Q: Describe your recording process when narrating an audiobook.
Audiobook narration is a marathon as opposed to a sprint. You are really sustaining yourself through the story and all its parts and nuances. Commercial voice overs are more of a sprint. Anybody who has run a marathon knows that you have to sustain yourself and find ways to bring yourself through longer periods of time.
Color coding the text is great for the eye-brain-mouth coordination – this is something I tell my students – your eyes and your brain are going to the page and registering something and then it’s coming to your voice. Having a writing pad helps too – sometimes you have to write down notes and highlight important parts.
Q: What is your preferred way of recording and what techniques do you use to stay motivated throughout a long-form narration read?
There’s this very isolated experience to a narrator – you’re in a vocal booth – sometimes you are both the narrator and sound engineer. And you’re in there for good bits of time so you have to be at peace with the isolation. It’s that focus and that concentration that can be, at times, very tiring. But you have to reconnect your connection to the material, periodically check in with yourselves, and make sure you’re not on auto-pilot which can sometimes happen with longer books – it’s human nature!
I always prefer to have two other people in a recording session – an engineer who is just running the session, and then a director who is listening to me and giving suggestions, which keeps me on my toes and that triangle relationship is what keeps me inside the material. Having those little conversations with people is very important. I also take lots of tea breaks and close my eyes occasionally. I like to move my body and stretch.
How you hold your body in the seat – in relation to the microphone – is very, very important. You need to make sure you’re not getting stiff because that will influence your voice. I always recommend taking periodic stretches and making sure your spine and proper alignment of your body is there – that’s why it’s a marathon. As I’m reading, I often think: do I need to make adjustments in my body, or to my breathing?
Keeping Your Status as a Successful Narrator
Q: What keeps you motivated to be a successful narrator?
I’ve narrated some books that are wonderful reads, really engaging, and full of incredible characters, as well as books that are really powerful in their messages. Other times, you narrate books that are not so inspiring – but the material is really important. When I’m working on a really interesting book, I just honor that book and keep my read to what the author’s intent is, that’s where my motivation comes from.
When I’m working on a book that is not so inspiring, I have to stay present, stay in my body and my breath. It really is as simple as the material.
I had the privilege of narrating a memoir by Nadia Murad, “The Last Girl.” When you have the privilege to work on something that you feel you are being given a great honor and a great responsibility it keeps you going. Because I am passionate about bringing my art to causes that I need to be engaged with, a book like this just inspired me because I wanted to be the voice to bring her story to everyone. When you have the good fortune to do that, the work is effortless.
As far as staying motivated in the business – that’s what you’re signing on for as the life of an artist and actor – you’re going to have ebbs and flows of success. There will be times when you’re getting a lot of work, and times when you’re not getting work, times where you have to pursue it, times when it comes to you and that’s your job. It’s to ride out those times where there is uncertainty.
Q: Why you do think producers and publishers connect with you? How would you describe the “Ilyana” style that they’re seeking?
I guess over the years I have looked at how others have been describing me. As a narrator I think about how I am perceived. For a long time – because I did so much young adult material- I was described as an adult who sounded young, who had that youthful approach and could do youthful characters. But since my entrance into the business I’ve done so many different genres.
I narrate with a lot of empathy and emotion for the story and the characters. [I have] a lot of passion for what the characters are going through, and making sure that I’m connecting and expressing that.
Q: How do you know when you’ve become successful as an audiobook narrator?
I don’t know if there’s a way for narrators to track monetary success for their books. You can look at bestseller lists to see if your book has made it on the list – but even being nominated for an award is a good indication of your success.
In my career, I went from thinking, ‘I’m doing my first audiobook narration, this is great and I just hope to have a long career in this,’ to suddenly over the next two years (2005-2007) receiving letters from fans all over the world. My books were on audiobook best seller lists for 5 years in a row.
If you get a little too addicted to “How are my books selling?” and “What are people thinking?” you need to step back, as that shouldn’t be your barometer. You should know whether you are giving a good performance or not and stand behind your performance.
Q: What are your favorite types of audiobooks, both as a narrator and a listener?
I’ve had some fun multicast experiences. While recording “Dune” by Frank Herbert (which won an Audie award for best Sci-Fi multicast), I got to work with a couple of actors in the booth – which doesn’t happen often.
As an audiobook fan myself, I would say I prefer to listen to a solo narration as opposed to a multicast narration. Someone that can make the exposition mesmerizing. The exposition is where the author is just describing what they’re seeing, it’s not dialogue. They could be describing a day before the character is even in the scene yet and the narrator commits to bringing you into the exposition. It’s nice when they play with the details of what you’re seeing in your mind’s eye.
Advice for Other Voice Actors
Q: What advice do you have for other voice actors who are looking to become audiobook narrators?
The first thing I always say – if you have an interest in it and you’ve never actually had the hands-on experience of reading a book – a lot of people like the idea of something and they haven’t actually felt it in their body and in their voice – they haven’t had an opportunity. So, go to a senior citizen’s home or a place for the blind, or a place for children and read to people out loud and really feel what that’s like to have to sustain narration and to feel that someone’s listening. Just feel that in your body. That, to me, is very important – to understand that someone’s listening and that what you’re doing with the language is landing in their ear.
For new voice actors: If you don’t have any samples of yourself online – create something. Record yourself reading something. Be clear that it’s not a book you’ve done, but that you’re doing a sample and put it out there so that people can hear what you do. (Note: If you’re looking for books, or excerpts to record for your demo, you can use these audiobook voice over scripts – will link to scripts when published you should be aware of the copyright laws that surround recording a published book – link to copyright article).
You [also] have to have a good business head. If you’re just 100% artist and you don’t think of how to monetize your business, that’s unrealistic. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with that, but in this day and age in the audiobook business you have to have a great online profile and have the same motivation for business as you do for your craft.
More expert advice on how to become an audiobook narrator.
About Ilyana Kadushin
Ilyana Kadushin is an award winning narrator who has many accomplished works including over 80 titles for audiobook narration. She is also a musician with Lythion Music, film producer, co-host of the podcast “No, I Know” and an activist. She can also be found inspiring young minds at NYU Tisch School of the Arts where she teaches students on a range of subject matter including audiobook narration. You can find Ilyana online at ilyanakadushin.com, on twitter: @IlyanaKadushin and on Facebook.