What You Might Not Know About Narrators And Audiobooks

This morning I went to Audible.com to refill my iPod so I could listen to another audiobook. I’ve always loved audiobooks, even before I started narrating. I love being told a story. My favorites are mysteries…because I think the heavy plot and action lends itself well to a good listen.

I made a little mistake though….I clicked on some of my own books to see what people thought. I’m constantly trying to get better as a narrator, and I’ve certainly improved over the years. In the beginning, I tried to sound like a man with the male characters, but eventually dropped that for more subtle reads. When I listen to an audiobook, for me, I don’t expect the narrator to sound like the opposite sex. For me, it’s about characterization. How does a character speak? Are they fast, slow, do they upspeak, are they breathy, are they kind? And if you listen to people, really listen to them, there’s a whole range of voices. Women don’t always speak high. Men don’t always speak low. Anyway, for one reviewer in particular, this was the worst choice ever.


Most of the books I’ve narrated are rated around 4 out of 5 stars. It’s hard to know what they’re rating. Are they rating strictly the storyline or the narrator’s performance, and how do you separate the two?


Anyway. This one reviewer listened to a series I recorded and book after book said I was horrible, paused in weird places, and my male characters were too feminine sounding. She was venomous in her review. And, you know, it did hurt my feelings a bit. I also felt terrible for the writer. Had I failed her? Did she wish I hadn’t narrated her book? It also made me question my choices as a narrator. I’ve certainly made some missteps…but am I the worst narrator out there? I’m not the best, I know that. I know that my voice is well-suited for fiction with strong women characters. I do well with romances and mysteries.


I’m not going to defend myself. I’ll just keep trying to improve. But the comments did hit a sore spot. All of this got me thinking about the industry, and some of the reviews criticized things that are beyond a narrator’s control. So…here are some things you might not know about narrating. This is my experience, and might not be true for everyone, but here it is.

1) Narrators are not allowed to contact the author. I wish this weren’t so. I’d love to talk to the author and ask them what they want. I’d even try some voices for them for characterization, but I’m strictly forbidden to contact them. The most I can do is send them a tweet or reply on their website…and even that could get me in trouble. Directors can sometimes talk to the author, but rarely.


2) Some reviewers hate women who try to sound like men. Others hate it when women don’t sound enough like men. What’s a narrator to do?


3) Narrating is incredibly difficult. I have people coming up to me all the time saying “I should be a narrator. I read to my kids all the time.” I smile. I nod. Maybe they would be great…but…you have to read, interpret, perform, do characterizations, accents, differentiate between sexes, sometimes read foreign phrases, and read every single word as written all while making as few mistakes as possible. It all comes down to time and money. Read this paragraph aloud. Cold. Try to not take breaths between commas or periods. Try not to make a single mistake.


4) I get usually three days to record a book. There isn’t time to practice and finesse. You read and hope it’s good. If you make too many mistakes and they have to add a day to record, you probably won’t be hired again.


5) I prep all the books I record, but sometimes I’m only given a script a few days in advance. Most of the times, this is because of issues from the publisher. Everyone’s got a deadline and when one person is late, it affects everyone in line.


6) The director decides if a word is pronounced correctly. I’ve had many discussions and debates over words and names with directors. You’d be surprised how different a word sounds with a different accent on just a syllable. I have to defer to the director. Sometimes they want me to say foreign phrases with the right accent. I feel ridiculous doing it, but they want it right. Authentic. I’ve been slammed for narrating a book in an accent. I didn’t want to do it. The director insisted I do it. I did it. The fans of the book and the author hated that it was read in an accent. The blame fell on me. I was never hired for that author again, and lost three years of work because of it.


7) People rarely review products they love. They might give it stars, but they don’t write a review. If people hate a book, they’ll send venomous reviews. Reviews matter. Bad reviews matter more. I guess this is good because as a listener you have a lot of power. But a series of bad reviews can get a narrator fired. For real.


8 ) I put my heart and soul into every recording I do whether I personally love the book or not. I love the sound of words aloud. I love getting lost in characters. I love telling stories. It’s why I’m also a writer.


I guess this has turned into a little bit of a defense on my behalf. Maybe it’s because it plays on that whole “I’m not good enough” thing I have sometimes. So, I am taking these reviews to heart…but just in the sense that I’m trying to get better. The more reviews I read, the more it seems like the pendulum is swinging back to people preferring big differences between male and female characters. I’ll try it. We’ll see what happens.


If you’ve actually read this really long blog (sorry about that) I hope, if anything, it makes you think a little more about the business of producing an audiobook and what goes into it. By all means, post reviews and be critical. There’s a difference though between critical and hurtful.


I’m going to go post some positive, supportive reviews of books I’ve read and listened too. Got to cleanse the palate.