In any industry, the amount of effort, drive, commitment, and passion a professional puts into their work is directly related to the success they’ll experience. Put another way, 50% effort = 50% success. 100% effort = 100% success.
This fact rings true for audiobook narrators, ten-fold. This particular line of voice over work is one of the most demanding and requires stamina and overall commitment in order to be truly successful. However, for those who are willing to put the work in, can be rewarded with one of the most amazing careers around.
We were so fortunate to connect with Audie Award Winning narrator, Tavia Gilbert on the topic of finding success in the industry. She is a performer, business woman, and producer – the triple threat of audiobook narration. If you’re interested in learning about what it takes to become a successful audiobook narrator – this is the article for you.
Here is our interview with her:
The Audiobook Business
How did you get started in the audiobook business?
I was a classically-trained stage actress living in New England, where I’d moved to study audio production and storytelling at the Salt Institute after completing a BFA in Acting in Seattle. I thought I would return to Seattle after finishing that documentary radio certificate program, but I ended up staying in Portland, Maine for well over a decade. I was doing professional theater and on camera work, working part-time job as a litigation paralegal, and realized there was simply not enough work to sustain a full-time living, so I decided to pursue voice acting in earnest, where I could be far more entrepreneurial and self-employed. It was just at the time home studios were becoming a part of the industry model, so I got intensive coaching in the audiobook genre, listened voraciously to learn the craft, joined the Audio Publishers Association, subscribed to and read AudioFile Magazine, the industry’s trade publication, and attended my first Audio Publishers Association Conference. I got my first audition for my first audiobook in the fall of 2007, and more than 10 years and over 500 books later, I’ve narrated work in every genre for virtually every publisher in the industry.
Can you give a run-down of how the audiobook business works? Are you typically approached by authors, or publishers, or producers?
I’m approached by authors, publishers, and producers. I’m either offered an audition or a booking. An offer for a project is accompanied by a synopsis and the manuscript (hopefully, [but] not always! Sometimes the script will come later), either a recordable version or a prep version, along with the rate of pay, the deadline, and the estimated number of finished, or listening, hours. It’s specified whether I’m recording punch and roll (stopping and starting with each retake) at home, or straight record (the recording rolls until we take a break) in a studio with support.
It generally takes me about two hours to record one finished hour [of audio] if I’m working in my home studio, and about one and a third hours to record one finished hour if I’m working in a Manhattan or Brooklyn studio with an engineer and/or a director. From home, I deliver chapters to the publisher that are raw-edited; they deliver a list of corrections I need to make, and they take care of all the editing and post-production. In the studio I’ll return for a quick pickup session after the initial recording is complete.
I also manage full production for authors who approach me directly, contracting with them to deliver market-ready (recorded, edited, proofed, corrected, and mastered) audio, ready for upload to listeners.
Whether fiction or non-fiction, I read and prepare the manuscript — looking up unfamiliar terms, especially proper nouns and technical language, marking any character descriptions and voice details the author has specified in the text, and noting all of the post-dialogue attributions (i.e. “he hissed,” “she shrieked,” “he said with a sneer”).
Does speaking with the author help or hinder your creative take on the book at all?
[Speaking with the author] probably doesn’t have any impact on my creative take on the book, but it’s lovely to meet people whose work I love. Some writers were dear friends before I narrated their work, like Stephanie Kallos, my college voice teacher, or [they] became dear through the process of narrating their work, like Erin Blakemore.
How do potential clients get in touch with you?
People find me through my website, TaviaGilbert.com, through social media, [and sometimes] because we’ve met at an industry event, such as when someone has seen me on a panel at a conference or somewhere I’m teaching.
I also connect with people via direct outreach, by referral, or because someone approaches me based on reviews or accolades in publications like AudioFile, Library Journal, or Publishers Weekly. Or [sometimes people connect with me after learning about] news about an award, like the 2017 Best Female Narrator Audie Award for Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me.
How would you describe the “Tavia” style of audiobook narration that clients come to your for?
My style is very cinematic and performative. I’m best at creating deeply emotional, true to life dialogue, work that requires specific technique of tone, pace, and timing, like suspense or humor, and raw, intimate, or particularly challenging work. I use my breath a lot in my work. Breath is the body language of audio. And I definitely take risks.
What motivations really drive you to be successful as an audiobook narrator?
I love language, writing, and story. I earned an MFA in writing, so I truly want to be excellent in everything I do. I think stories change the world — they save lives, comfort souls, make us feel we are not alone, teach us empathy. I know what it’s like to be on the side of the listener. After years in the business, I’m still a committed audiobook listener. it’s a humbling thing – knowing that people bond as deeply with my performances and my voice as I do [with] the voices of the actors I love and listen to. I want to be the best I can be for the writer, for the listener, for the person who needs the story or the information at the moment they encounter it. That’s an important and intimate relationship, and I respect it.
Would you be willing to divulge how you prepare a book before recording it?
In iAnnotate on my iPad, I mark every unfamiliar word or word I need to double check pronunciation on (like Houston Street in NYC, for example) in red.
I mark every chapter heading in yellow, so I can navigate between chapters easily.
Every new character is marked in pink, and all character descriptions, including socio-economic background, physical description, and any other characteristics are highlighted in orange.
All post-dialogue attributions are marked in green.
All specific voice direction by the author gets marked in blue (“his Texan drawl,” “her warm soprano voice”).
Other than that I don’t mark the script, unless, very occasionally, the scene is with many characters in dialogue at once, without clear attributions (“Tom said,” “Danielle answered,” “Fred interjected”), and in those rare instances, I’ll use various underlining colors to quickly distinguish who is speaking when.
Looking for more audiobook preparation strategies? We’ve created an expert roundup of audiobook prep methods used by the best of the best in the industry.
Anything else you’d like to share about your craft, and what takes a voice actor from being a narrator to an award-winning narrator?
Narration is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a labor intensive art form, but it offers an opportunity to connect deeply with people whose lives you have the chance to make better, if only during the time you share as voice and listener.
I think what has brought me success in this industry is commitment, devoting a great deal of time to doing a wide variety of work, giving myself over to the work fully, honoring and respecting the craft, always learning and growing and stretching, listening to audio and nurturing a passion for sound and language, deepening my understanding of the craft writing all the time, and paying attention to the world around me — listening, observing, be present.
I also maintain close and authentically caring relationships with the clients and writers who entrust their projects to me. All those qualities are part of a carefully crafted, and deeply satisfying, career, with tremendous growth, challenge, creative enrichment, and opportunity ahead, I hope!
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