How to Become an Audiobook Narrator
While readers and writers have skeptically watched the fluctuating publishing industry in recent years, one literary market has caught us all a bit by surprise: audiobooks.
An audiobook (sometimes stylized as “audio book”), like the name suggests, is a recording of a book that readers can listen to. Somewhere along the path of lengthy commutes (pre-COVID 19, anyway) and ubiquitous smartphones, a market for audiobooks erupted — people who don’t otherwise read much.
Whether you’re on a treadmill or have a couple hours to kill before boarding your flight, audiobooks are a great way to fit in learning and entertainment. Not to mention, it’s a nice reprieve from staring at a screen all day.
How to Pursue Audiobook Narration as a Career or Side Gig
While this market explodes — audiobook sales totaled a stunning $1.2 BILLION in 2019 and hit eight years of double-digit revenue growth — you may be wondering how you can get a piece of the pie.
Whether you’re a budding voice actor or seasoned recording professional looking into how to become an audiobook narrator, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll touch on the industry as a whole, what you need to get started and, of course, how much you can get paid.
First, let’s tackle a couple of Audiobook-101 topics.
What are the Most Popular Audiobook Platforms?
Like we mentioned, audiobook popularity has been on the rise for about a decade. This booming market makes it imperative for authors and publishers to get traditional books into audio form ASAP and on the most popular platforms: Audible (owned by Amazon) and iTunes (owned by Apple).
Enter Amazon’s Audiobook Creative Exchange (ACX), which connects audiobook narrators with books to narrate. Like other publishing services you’ll find at Amazon — CreateSpace for print-on-demand books, CDs and DVDs; and Kindle Direct Publishing for ebooks — ACX simplifies the process of producing an audiobook from start to finish (you can view their comprehensive guide here on how to get started)..
So, to recap, two of the top players in the industry are Amazon and Apple *quelle surprise*.
With that said, there are quite a few indie audiobook publishers out there, too.
SUMMARY: You can publish audiobooks through giants such as Audible and iTunes, as well as smaller houses.
How Long Does it Take to Record an Audiobook?
Speaking of “from start to finish,” how long does it take to actually record the thing?
To put it bluntly: It depends. And it can vary based on a number of factors.
For instance, if you’re working with shoddy equipment (where you may have to abandon recordings or re-record often), you’ll add to your total time. Whether or not you have a home studio or need to rent space can muddy up your timeline, too. Whether it’s your first or 500th recording will also add to your tally.
A 350-page audiobook will be roughly 10 hours of audio, and take about 35 hours to record and edit it, according to Sound Adventurer. Writer Peter Mitchell saw varying numbers, and based on the average data he saw, he found it took around 3.5 hours — of both recording and editing — to arrive at one hour of polished audio.
SUMMARY: It can take anywhere from a couple hours to several days (and longer) to record and edit an audiobook, depending on a number of factors.
How Much Can You Make Recording Audiobooks?
So, similarly, the data varies here. Depending on your years of experience, where you’re located and whether or not you’re a union worker can affect your wages.
ACX doesn’t set or recommend rates for producers to charge. But, it does point out many narrators are members of the SAG-AFTRA union, which lists minimum rate restrictions. For instance, if you’re a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), you’ll be paid $139.25 per hour as a new narrator, according to Sapling.com. Veteran narrators command about $168.25 per hour. So, either group would make over $1K for an eight-hour-day’s worth of work.
These guaranteed rates vary by publisher/producer. Author Roz Morris tells authors to expect to pay around $200 per finished hour for audiobook narration.
If you check Indeed and gig-work sites, you’ll find a range of responses there, too. For instance,a quick search on Indeed pulled up a few six-figure jobs for voice-over artists.
SUMMARY: You can make over $100 an hour if you’re in a union. You can also find gig and full-time salaried work for voice professionals, and payment will vary.
Equipment that Audiobook Narrators Need
Of course your voice is important when it comes to narration. But it’s not the only tool you need to be successful in the field.
If you want to become an audiobook narrator, you need solid equipment. And when it comes to equipment, there are a few good items you need to get started:
- A laptop or PC
- A quality microphone
- Audio editing software (such as Audacity or Garage Band)
You might want to purchase noise-canceling attachments, items to better sound-proof your home studio and a microphone stand, to name a few.
The Ins and Outs of Working as an Audiobook Narrator
Now that we covered some ground, let’s dive deeper. We’ll touch on how voice professionals can find work in this field, prepare for jobs and more.
How to Become an Audiobook Narrator: One Woman’s Story
Actor Kris Keppeler has been doing voice-over work for over a decade.
“I got started through freelancing and bidding on work,” Keppeler said. “I bid on a short audiobook and got that, and it went well. When ACX came along, I started auditioning there… It’s taken a little bit to discover where my voice fits.”
Based on her experience, Keppeler shares some advice — and warnings — for anyone interested in doing audiobook work.
What You Need to Know Before Auditioning
Before you spend months auditioning to land your first gig, we have some tips to help you get started.
“My voice just fits with audiobook work,” Keppeler said. “Actors are especially tuned in for audiobook work, by the nature of our training.”
That’s because actors learn how to voice multiple characters, necessary for fiction narration in particular. Even for nonfiction, acting training can help you animate narration and make a book interesting.
“You definitely have to have some training,” Keppeler said. “If you regularly listen to audiobooks and like them, that’s a good starting point. But you have to have a real desire to do this kind of work, because it’s a lot of work.”
How is narrating an audiobook different from just reading a book aloud?
“When you read a book, you’re seeing and hearing things in your mind,” she said. “When you’re narrating that book, what you’re seeing and hearing in your mind you have to then vocalize. That’s not easy!”
Because an audiobook listener relies entirely on your narration, painting the picture just right (and meeting the author’s vision) is vital. It’s a distinct difference from other voiceover work, like commercials, where images or video complement the narration.
Because of this need to draw the reader into a made-up world, narrating fiction requires acting skills. Not everyone is cut out for it.
But, “nonfiction has its own challenge,” Keppeler said. “Sometimes what you’re reading is kind of dry, but you still have to make it interesting.”
She says it doesn’t necessarily matter whether a book is interesting to her.
“At this point, whether it is or not, I am narrating it and finding the interesting bits for me and putting it into my voice,” Keppeler said.
Even if you don’t enjoy the subject matter, you can still enjoy the process of producing the book for readers.
- Acting training can be beneficial to voice acting.
- Regularly listen to audiobooks to pick up on technique.
- Since a listener will be following your voice (and won’t have visual cues), you have to vocalize what you’re seeing and hearing in your mind for them. This is a skillset on its own.
- Practice, practice, practice! And don’t feel bad if a certain genre, or narrating in general, isn’t for you.
Learn Proper Technique
Before landing her first gig through ACX, Keppeler submitted auditions to the platform for well over a year.
Why does it take so long to land a gig?
Some of it, Keppeler says, is just learning how to narrate correctly. “I had some coaching that finally brought me to the point of doing a fairly good job.”
Author Joanna Penn recorded the audio versions of some of her own books. If you can’t afford coaching, she offers some tips for beginners at The Creative Penn to help you get started.
Some tricks to consider:
- If you’re new at recording, schedule sessions a few days apart to ensure you have enough energy.
- Try to avoid dairy before recording. Same goes for foods like peanut butter or anything that clogs up your mouth or throat (yeck!).
- Try to modulate your breathing so you don’t end up holding your breath. This has a real effect on stamina.
- It may take a while (months or even years) to get your foot in the door.
- Consider hiring a voice coach.
- Bottle your energy ahead of recording sessions so your voice will be fresh.
- Avoid certain foods and drinks before you record audio.
- Learn proper breathing techniques.
Find Your Niche
Once she’d mastered the audiobook reading techniques, Keppeler said, she had to find her niche.
She used trial and error. She took whatever narration work came her way, and listened to client feedback. When an author liked her voice, she knew it was a good fit.
“In voice-over in general, there are so many different genres,” she said. “Most people find you have certain specialties and certain ones don’t fit.”
Once you know your voice and which genres are the best fit, she says, jobs come much more quickly.
Only audition for gigs that fit your voice, and the success rate is much higher. You can even search for books by genre.
“I’m becoming a bit of a nonfiction specialist,” Keppeler said. “[When it comes to fiction], it’s hard to learn to do the different voices… Fiction books are heavily character-based, so you’re going to have to handle [those] unless you’re hired to work with a group, but that’s not that common.”
- Finding the right niche will take some trial and error.
- Listen to client feedback and don’t be afraid to experiment with different genres.
- Once you find a fit, stick with that niche so you can grow in that specialty.
The Challenges of Audiobook Narration
Some of the work involved goes beyond just recording the voiceover. “Especially if you work through ACX, you have to do the production yourself,” Keppeler said. “[That’s] editing and mastering yourself. There’s a technical learning curve.”
Audiobooks require hours and hours of editing, making them much more labor intensive than a lot of other voice-over work.
“What I learned editing smaller jobs contributed a lot to being able to jump into audiobooks,” Keppeler said.
So you might consider starting small.
Search online for voiceover jobs — you’ll find promotional videos under five minutes or corporate training videos of five to 15 minutes.
Even online course videos requiring a few hours of voice-over are much shorter than most audiobooks, which run closer to 10 to 15 hours. Hone your skills on smaller jobs and work your way up to the lengthier projects.
What about contracting the technical stuff out to an audio editor? Keppeler says that for what you’re paid, it’s not usually worth it for an audiobook.
You’re expected to record, produce and deliver a finished product. Any additional help you bring in will cut into your pay. Keppeler says you’re better off just learning to do it yourself.
The Creative Penn also offers a few editing tips:
- Avoid page turning noises — read from a tablet, Kindle or other electronic device.
- Turn off any devices’ Wi-Fi connections and set them to Airplane mode to avoid static noises. (They may be there, even if you can’t hear them.)
- Each ACX file needs to be a single chapter of the book. It’s easier to record these as separate files rather than cut it up later.
- The ACX technical requirements mean you have to add a few seconds of Room Tone at the beginning and end of the file.
- Recording audio can be labor-intensive work.
- Consider mixing smaller audio jobs into your workload.
- You can pay for audio editors and other professionals to help you with the finished project, but it’s often worth learning these skills to keep more of what you earn.
- Always be aware of — and avoid — any excess noise when recording.
Earning Royalties for Audiobook Work
Keppeler says most freelance audiobook work will be paid in royalties. As you might guess, this reduces an author’s upfront cost — as well as their risk in hiring you.
While ACX may be a good place to find the work, the pay is usually lower, especially compared with freelance broker sites that aren’t dedicated solely to audiobook narration. When you record an audiobook with ACX, you’ll choose between setting your own per-finished-hour rate or splitting royalties 50/50 with the rights holder (usually the book’s author or publisher).
If you charge a flat rate, you’ll be paid upon completion of the book. Royalties are paid monthly based on sales from the previous month. Mostly, Keppeler focuses on short books she can quickly complete. And she gets paid a flat rate of about $100 per finished hour, rather than royalties.
“I have done royalty deals but only on ACX with short books,” she said. “I don’t want to tie up my time, because you [typically] make very little on royalty books… I have four royalty books [on ACX], and about $20 trickles in every quarter.”
Whether or not a royalty deal pays off is largely based on an author’s platform, The Creative Penn points out. Research an author before signing an agreement.
If you’re just looking for a quick job and aren’t concerned with long-term sales, you can work with an author regardless of their audience. Set a flat rate, and get your money when the job’s done.
But if you want to develop a long-term relationship with an author and you’ve found someone with a sizable audience, you may be better off with the royalty deal.
Long term, you could make much more money in sales royalties. Your working relationship with the author also will be strengthened, because you’ll be invested in the book’s success.
- Most freelance audiobook work is paid in royalties.
- If you record an audiobook with ACX, you’ll often either set a flat rate or split royalties with the rights holder.
- There are pluses and minuses to royalty deals; figure out what will work for you.
Where to Find Audiobook Work
As with any freelance work, booking a gig directly with the client in your network allows you the most autonomy in setting your rate.
Bidding through an exchange site like ACX offers the lowest of both. “I only go out to ACX when I don’t have other paid work,” Keppeler said.
ACX makes it difficult to achieve one of the staples of successful freelance work: repeat clients.
Keppeler said the platform isn’t really set up to connect authors with narrators long-term. Instead you audition for each job. It eliminates a huge opportunity for narrators to work with an author on a series or future books.
What ACX is good for, she said, is building your portfolio. If you’re just getting started, the platform gives you an opportunity to hone your chops.
Practice your narrating and editing skills through auditions, and improve from author feedback. Once you land a few gigs, use those as samples to land clients elsewhere.
As audiobooks increase in popularity, Keppeler is seeing more audiobook work appear on Upwork. Freelancers, she says, tend to be better for general voiceover gigs, but not audiobook narration.
Whether you want to be an audiobook narrator, do voice-over work in a recording studio or do something else in the audiobook industry, there’s never been a better time. Check out job postings, casting calls and freelance work, and network with other voice actors.
Begin auditioning, and see what happens. Put that great voice of yours to good use!
- You find audio gig work on platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer.com, and on exchanges like ACX.
- Your past gigs will help you land future (and potentially more lucrative) opportunities.
If you’re just getting started in voice-over work, try browsing Upwork for smaller projects you can use to find your voice, build your technical skills and grow your portfolio.
Or reach into your network, and get creative to find freelancing gigs on your own.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are the top FAQs regarding audiobook narrators and audiobook narrator jobs.
How Much Does an Audiobook Narrator Make?
A voice actor in a union can make about $100-$200 an hour to record an audiobook. Depending on the gig and a host of other factors, compensation will vary per person and per job. Refer to the section “How Much Can You Make Recording Audiobooks?” in this article for more information.
How Much Do Audiobook Narrators Make a Year?
Related, this will depend on a number of things, from your years of experience on the freelance circuit to what type of salaried job you get. The range is anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to tens (or even hundreds) of thousands a year.
How Do I Become an Audible Narrator?
Amazon has a guide for budding Audible audiobook narrators.
Can Anyone Be an Audiobook Narrator?
Technically yes, though you’ll increase your chances of getting hired with training or coaching, lots of practice and past successful work you can showcase. In general, being an audiobook narrator would be an aligned gig for voice-over artists, vocal talent and other voice actors.
Dana Sitar and Kathleen Garvin are contributors to The Penny Hoarder.