Six Things My VO Husband Wants Authors to Know About Narrators (And the Audiobook Process)

If you follow this blog, you're bound to be familiar with my husband. I often write about him because, apart from the occasional lost chicken, he's the most interesting thing to wander past my office on a daily basis. If not, all you need to know before diving into this post is that he earns his coin by yarking* into a microphone in a padded room every day. And, yes, he's the sane one in the relationship.

As a professional voice actor, he has been quietly (from afar, via a complicated, years-long series of grunts, groans, and barely-contained bursts of rage) teaching me exactly what to say in a post such as this. So, if you're unhappy with any of the suggestions or confessions listed here, take it up with him.**

1. Narrators don't have to read your book. They really don't.

In fact, if we're talking strictly in numbers, it's a waste of their time. Audiobook narration offers one of the poorest returns on a voice actor's investment. Dollar per minute, there is far more of a stable livelihood to be found in commercial jobs, e-learning, and voicing telephone systems than in the time-consuming, emotionally draining field of fiction reading. Simply put, they're not in this for the money. They're doing it because they love it. Embrace the common ground and recognize that they have every reason and desire to turn your novel into the best audiobook it can be.

2. They wish the contractor-client relationship was as important to you as it is to them. 

It isn't uncommon for authors to post a job for auditions when they haven't the slightest intention of hiring anyone who responds to it. While there's nothing at all wrong with going through the same ACX channels as everyone else (which does initially list your title in the open auditions tab), if you already have your narrator lined out, please say as much in the information field of your script. Auditions take time and effort to craft. Beyond that, if a voice talent is auditioning, it means they've already (however tentatively) carved time in their schedule to complete the project -- time they may or may not be able to fill, depending on how long an audition takes to close. I know it can be tempting to leave that call open for just a few days so you can listen to the interpretations of numerous, talented people as they perform your book. But, just as you'd never expect a well digger to set up his or her drill rig in your front yard before letting them know that you've already had the thing replaced, don't waste a voice talent's limited time by making them audition for a job they aren't getting. While you're clearly not intending any unkindness, it does mark you as someone who may not respect what goes into it from their end, and they're apt to avoid collaborating with you in the future.

3. Please don't be THAT author.

You know the type. They find a mother list of narrators and send personal, over-flattering messages to each and every one of them in the hopes of snagging a massive pool of potential voices for their book. While these solicitations can be reaffirming, they often come with the false undertones of a job already offered. Remember all those times that you showed up to what you thought was an interview only to find out it was really a pyramid scheme pitch? Same thing. Don't cut and paste a grand speech about how perfect a narrator would be for your book, how no other voice in all the world would fit the bill so well as theirs, and please, please, please would they consider being your one and only, truly special audiobook star only to later request that they bop their way to the back of your audition line. The most important part of any collaboration is honest communication. If you're soliciting a narrator, flatter to your heart's content. If you're soliciting auditions for a narrator, be upfront and honest about it.

4. You often ask the wrong questions.

Because marketing makes up so much of what we do, we writers tend to zero in on the idea of utilizing a voice actor's platform rather than their talent and expertise. Drop by any forum where the question "What should I look for in a narrator?" is asked, and you will see authors strongly encouraging one another to ask potential voice talents about their Twitter followings or Facebook likes before entering into any contract. Voice acting and writing are very different fields. A narrator's connections are more likely to be audiophiles and tech professionals than potential customers. Asking them to hawk your wares via social media is not only ineffective, it can be quite insulting. If they're taking a chance on you with the royalty-share option, then of course they will use their own methods and means (which are likely to be quite different from yours, and that's a good thing) to help your title sell well. You needn't ask. If, on the other hand, you intend to pay a per-finished-hour rate, then it's unprofessional to expect them to put in time and effort that nets them nothing in return. In either case, leading with a question about their social platform is a poor idea. Instead, ask them about their setup. Do they use industry standard equipment? Are they technically adept and what types of quality checks will they run? Decide up front whether it's more important for your book to have a good performance or a clean listening experience. Look for actors and give bonus points for backgrounds in audio engineering. You'll come away with a far better product than if you'd asked whether or not they're an active blogger.

5. Just tell them what you want, already.

Problem: Few things are as groan-enducing as an author who posts their entire novel as the audition script alongside the phrase, "Just read whatever you think is best." Unless they're willing to read the entirety of the book before auditioning, they have no idea what that is.
Solution: Prepare a short script that showcases the most important aspects of your book: main characters, plot tone, and scenes that require intense focus (a love, action, or heavy drama exchange). This will not only give you the best idea of what they can do for your story, it also presents the two of you with the opportunity to discuss methods and to get the important parts ironed out before you've even started on production, which will save you many headaches down the road.

Problem: You, the author, realize in the third chapter that the reading for chapter two was -- oops -- from the wrong draft of your manuscript.
Solution: Be sure to give them the final copy of whatever they will be reading. Reasonable changes will happen naturally as the process occurs, and that's fine. But you should have committed to your novel as a completed work long before having brought it to the audiobook level of production.

Problem: Oh, and, could the narrator just go back and quickly reread the last sixty or so lines for this character who you just realized would sound so much better with an accent?
Solution: Character voices, too, should be decided in the earliest stages. It can be helpful to prepare a casting list to present alongside your final copy so your narrator can work toward the type of performance you're looking for.

This isn't to say that you aren't allowed to ask for changes or that you should never defer to your narrator's better judgment as to how the book should unfold. Only to highlight the need for proper communication and a little self-discipline. If you want the best of all possible outcomes, come to the table fully prepared and have an open conversation with your business partner.

6. You don't want sound effects. 

No, you don't. They know you think you do, but you really don't, and here's why. Unless an audiobook is a full-performance production, complete with a large cast and the removal of all dialogue tags, sound effects will only do one thing for your readers. It will distract them. Far from the pleasant surprise you think it might be for John's steps to actually be heard as he's walking on this particular type of floor, when a listener is unprepared for a random sound effect to be thrown into this one section of this one scene, it jars them out of the book -- immediately and altogether. They spend a few seconds realizing that the sound was from the audiobook and not, in fact, a burglar in the upstairs room they don't have. Then they repeat the process when another sound effect crops up ten minutes later. If they don't put your book down in the first few chapters, it's a guarantee that they'll finish it thinking it was rather abrupt and choppy, even if they couldn't quite say why. Your reviews will be poor and your word of mouth probably won't exist. Add to that the extra workload ("Just a few sound effects" = "Just adding another thirty minutes to every finished hour of the audiobook") you're requesting of your narrator, and it's just an all-around bad idea. So, no, you don't want sound effects. Stop asking.

*I'm not actually sure what "yarking" is, but it totally sounds like it should be a thing, doesn't it?
** At your peril, bearing in mind that he's quite a bit bigger than I am. He also has a stunning beard, which is likely to dazzle you just long enough for him to coat you in burger fat and throw you to the German shepherds. You know what? Now that I spell it all out like this, you probably shouldn't take it up with him. Those dogs are only a breath mint shy of shooting raw sulfur from their mouths and you don't deserve to have that all up in your face. No one does.

(All images courtesy of Gratisography or Unsplash.)

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