How to Become an Audiobook Narrator: Expert Advice
If you want to become an, you’re in good company. Voice actors of all experience levels have found this line of work to be incredibly rewarding. But how did they get started?
We spoke with Audie award-winning narrator Tavia Gilbert to gather tips on how she launched a career as an audiobook narrator.
What skills do you need to be an audiobook narrator?
In a nutshell, aspiring audiobook narrators should work on developing the following skills:
- A solid understanding the different kinds of narration
In this interview, Gilbert walks us through the different types of narration, her experience and preferences for narration styles, and she provides insights into the most important skills that an aspiring audiobook narrator ought to develop.
Can you define the different types of audiobook narration?
Gilbert: A handful of narrators I know don’t vary their voices at all (known as solo narration), but, by and large, successful audiobook voice actors are differentiating each character with their voices. At times, they’ll act out a large cast of every gender, race, and geographic origin imaginable, which is still referred to as solo narration.
A duet-narration is when two actors cut in every line of dialogue in the scene, like an audio play.
Multicast is a distinction that could describe, for example, a book written in four distinct points of view, with four actors performing each individual character.
Lastly, a full-cast production is like an audio drama, with individual actors performing various roles.
What type of voice over narration do you usually do (solo narration, duet narration, multi-cast, or full-cast)?
Most of my narrations are solo voiced, fully-characterized narrations, but I’ve done a wide variety of work, from multicast to full cast work, too.
What is it like to voice multiple characters? What is it like to work with multiple voice actors on the same book?
Voicing dozens, or even over a hundred different characters, demands not only acting skill, but careful organization and thoughtful choices. You have to keep clips of character voices and refer back to them to ensure that they’re consistent throughout a book or even a series. Coordinating with other actors is usually about keeping continuity of pronunciations, and checking in about character voice choices, as well.
What type of audiobook read is your favorite to do? Narrator? Character voices?
I love performing characters, but the narrator of a book – whether they’re reading a piece of literary or genre fiction or a work of non-fiction – also has a distinct sound, point of view, pacing, tone. The narrator is also a character in the book. If it’s a business or self-help book, that narrator is still a character – a person with a unique and specific perspective. Performing a wide variety of characters in a project can definitely be fatiguing, but it’s tons of fun.
Do you think different genres of audiobooks require a different type of narration?
No! No matter what the book, the narrator’s work is to be a medium between the author’s intention and the listener. So, whether I’m performing a mystery, science fiction, philosophical nonfiction, or anything else, I’m being attentive to and intuitive about pacing, rhythm, emotion, specificity, character, the story arc, diction, relaxation, etc. I’m being present, moment to moment, thinking the thoughts of the character or the narrative, feeling the feelings.
What would you recommend to other voice actors who want to become an audiobook narrator?
If you’re a reader, you love language, and you have both acting skills and small business skills, then audiobook narration is for you. A successful narrator has a small business as a voice talent independent contractor, and the work requires stamina, organization, communication, professionalism, and self-management. You’re responsible for delivering 8, 12, 16 hours of work at a time to a publisher or producer, and coordinating with their team to get it ready for the listening public. That is a serious responsibility.
There’s money in audiobooks — I’m a SAG-AFTRA member and most jobs contribute to my pension, and afford me health insurance. But it’s very demanding work. For those who think they might be interested, try reading alone, out loud, in a closet, and going back to the top of the phrase every time you make a mistake. If you still enjoy it after an hour, then consider putting in the time to develop the skills necessary to make a go of it in audiobooks. Join the APA. Listen a ton. Just because you’re successful in another genre of voice acting, or on stage or screen, doesn’t mean you don’t have new skills to learn behind the mic. It’s a technical art form and you have to be able to manage at once all aspects of the work — acting, self-directing, engineering, delivering a great performance.
Developing Narration Skills
A critical part of developing the ability to narrate audiobooks includes exploring every type of narration and finding ways to manage those projects that work for you.
Over time, Gilbert has experimented with all forms of narration and has figured out how best to tackle each project regardless of what kind of narration her projects call for. In another interview, Gilbert said that she “definitely takes risks” when it comes to providing her cinematic and performative narrations.
Read more from Gilbert about how she manages the business of being an audiobook narrator, and how she prepares a book for narration before stepping into the studio.
Narrating an Audiobook? 3 Tips for Successful Narration
When you narrate an audiobook, you’re taking on the role of a guide: someone who knows the way.
Just like the voice at Disney World that tells you to keep your arms in the vehicle at all times, the narrator is tasked with providing audible guardrails to keep their dear listener on track.
What does it take to narrate well? Here are 3 things you need to do for a successful voyage:
1. Knowing All
As a narrator, you need to know how the story ends before you even step up to the mic. Being informed is key to building your confidence as a performer.
A good narrator is in full control. He or she knows the terrain, anticipates the ups and downs of a journey and serves as a constant, like the reader’s North star.
The narrator does not purposefully mislead his or her listeners. You are tasked with ferrying the audience from one end of the story to the other. The words you say are deliberate and measured. You should never be surprised by the text or anything that a character does. After all, you know everything!
2. Being Objective
While one of your main responsibilities is to communicate the author’s intent, you also need to keep yourself at a bit of a distance from the reader.
Narrators often tell stories from the sidelines. They have a full view of what is going on and because of their vantage point, can let an audience in on privileged information many of the characters do not have.
Your perspective is free from emotion- you’re telling it like it is. Like a good journalist does, the narrator does not take sides or reveal bias. You’re presenting the facts (or the story) as the author intended it to be received.
As objective storytellers, narrators achieve the ultimate balancing act.
3. Painting the Picture
People enjoy listening to audiobooks because they love being told a story. A professional narrator is an expert at doing this. Great narrators breathe life into a text while infusing each word and punctuation mark with color and meaning.
Drawing the listener into a story using only your voice is an art. However, being able to jump from the voice of the narrator to other distinct characters is also an art. By being adept at both you have the power to endear a listener to a character or make them cringe at the mere sound of their voice.
Separating character voices and giving them unique attributes as dictated by the text is an adventure in itself. The more characters there are, the greater your opportunity for vocal experiment within boundaries set by the author.
However, always keep in mind that while there is room to improvise with the workings of your instrument, a balance must be struck with the words to maintain integrity. You’ve made an agreement with the author, and also the audience, that your part is to be played with authenticity and a connected autonomy.
About Tavia Gilbert
Tavia Gilbert is a producer, writer, and acclaimed narrator of more than 650 solo, full-cast, and multi-voice audiobooks for virtually every publisher in the industry, and is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and Actor’s Equity.
Gilbert has been a recipient of the 2019 Audie Award Winner for Best Inspirational Fiction, 2018 Audiobook Narrator of the Year (Booklist Magazine’s Voice of Choice), 2017 Best Female Narrator Audie Award, and is the creator of The Abels podcast.
She has been nominated for Audie Awards more than ten times, she is a three-time nominee and one-time winner of Voice Arts Awards, and she is the recipient of dozens of Earphones Awards, a ListenUp Award, and three Parent’s Choice Awards.
Additional Resources for Aspiring Audiobook Narrators & Producers:
- Abridged vs. Unabridged Audiobooks: Pros and Cons
- How to Make an Audiobook: Narrator Recording Methods
- How to Make an Audiobook [An Independent Publisher’s Definitive Guide]
- The Evolution of Audiobooks: From the First Audiobook Recording to Digital Downloads
- Benefits of Audiobooks
- Audiobook Boom: Why Publish Audiobooks?
- Using a Full Voice Over Cast vs. a Single Narrator for Audiobooks
In search of a voice for your audiobook? Sign up for Voices and get matched with award-winning talent to narrate your audiobook today.