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How I Found My Audiobook Narrator

I’ve been an audiobook addict for years. I listen to an average of two books per week while commuting or doing housework. As someone with the equivalent of two full-time jobs, multitasking with audio is the primary way I experience books. If they weren’t mine, I wouldn’t have time to read my own epic novels! Having my four books converted to audio for book lovers like me was an absolute must. But how?

First, I educated myself about the audiobook production process. Great resources to get me started were Joanna Penn’s book Audio for Authors (I went for the audiobook, of course); this YouTube series by author and narrator Catherine Bilson; this Kindlepreneur post; and this FAQ at NarratorList.com. I also picked the brains of my fellow indie historical novelists with audiobooks to find out how they’d done it. They were Melissa Addey, Lars D. H. Hedbor, Susan Higginbotham, Susie Murphy, and Michael L. Ross, and they were so helpful.

I knew audiobooks aren’t cheap to produce—we’re talking thousands of dollars. Some indie authors narrate their own books, but this wasn’t for me. I’m not good enough with accents, and my books have a smorgasbord. Nor do I have access to a quiet space or the right equipment. I could have hired a production company to find a narrator for me, but doing the search myself helped keep my costs down.

When hiring a narrator, there are two main payment paths: Royalty Share (RS) and Per Finished Hour (PFH) as well as a couple of hybrid options. Royalty Share means the narrator records the book for no money upfront in exchange for a percentage of the royalties the audiobook earns over a set period of time, usually 50/50 with the author for seven years. Per Finished Hour means that the Rights Holder, in this case the author/publisher, pays the narrator an agreed amount for every hour of the finished audiobook, say 10 hours. A narrator can read roughly 9,300 words in a finished hour. The narrator puts in say 80 hours total on the book, but they get paid only Per Finished Hour. They’ve done prep work like mastering an accent and learning how to pronounce local place names. They’ve also done retakes because nobody sits down and records a whole chapter perfectly in one sitting.

Because of all the accents in my books, I knew I needed an experienced narrator to do my characters justice. I also write long books (requiring more hours in the recording booth) with steamy sex scenes (which some narrators don’t want to read). I knew these factors would narrow the pool of possible narrators. I decided to pay PFH. As an artist who values fellow artists’ work, this method made me more comfortable than asking a narrator to take a gamble on me with RS. So I saved my money, and an insurance settlement allowed me to afford PFH if I could find a narrator who wasn’t asking top dollar, which can be $500/PFH. On a 15.3 hour audiobook like mine, that’s $7,650. For one book.

How to find this narrator? An author needs to put together an “audition script,” selections from her novel that she asks prospective narrators to record. Then the author decides on the performance she thinks fits her work best. It’s important to choose representative excerpts containing both narrative and various character voices. The recommended length of an audition script is 3-5 minutes.

With a family saga like mine and such a large, diverse cast, I knew that length wouldn’t be enough. This narrator was actually auditioning for my whole series: four long novels, almost 60 finished audiobook hours total. The Lazare Family Saga is my life’s work, and I would be paying this narrator more than I’d spent on anything in my life. I needed to know the narrator was versatile enough to handle my epic books, that they could do a French accent and a Charleston accent and an Irish accent; male, female, and child voices; act in tragic scenes without going over-the-top; understand my sense of humor; read sexy scenes and not sound silly; and hopefully sing a few 19th-century songs as well.

My audition script was about 10 minutes long, snippets from five scenes. I saw this as part of the screening process: if the narrator didn’t care enough about my project to read it all, then they wouldn’t be a good fit. Only one of the 34 narrators who auditioned didn’t read the whole script. (But if everyone in your novel has similar accents and you don’t need so much versatility, don’t waste narrators’ time by exceeding the recommended script length as much as I did.) In addition to the scene snippets, I included the context of each scene, who the characters were, and how they should sound.

I posted my audition call in three places: ACX (owned by Audible/Amazon), NarratorList, and a Facebook group for narrators. The narrator I selected ended up seeing all three calls. I detailed the genre, the word count, the accents needed, the content warnings, the upper limit PFH I could afford, that my timeline was flexible—everything a potential narrator needed to know when considering my project. Since the text version was already published, I linked to it on Amazon so the narrators could see the reviews and read the opening pages if they wanted. In the Facebook group, even narrators who weren’t interested commented to praise the thoroughness of my audition call. If you want to do Royalty Share, you’ll also need to explain your current sales and future marketing plan so that the narrator has confidence the book will sell.

I left my audition call open for two weeks. I got the most responses in the first week and the majority through ACX. (I should note here that I hate the antiquated, clunky, frustrating ACX interface and its practically nonexistent customer service. If the site had been live when I was searching for a narrator, I would have started with Findaway Voices Marketplace.) I invited some narrators to audition after fellow authors recommended them and I’d already heard their samples. But for most, their audition was the first time I heard their voice.

Inside a recording booth: acoustic panels in the background and a microphone and pop shield in the foreground. A pop shield protects the microphone from “plosives” like p sounds, which produce harsh puffs of air that you don’t want to hear when you’re enjoying a story.

I anxiously listened to each of the 34 auditions as they poured and trickled in. I put these narrators into an Excel spreadsheet, noting who’d done well with the French, who’d done a convincing Irish accent, whose natural voice I particularly liked, who could do sexy, what their weaknesses were, etc. Did they understand and express the emotion in my words without overacting?

Sometimes I communicated with the narrator through ACX Messaging (again, hate) or email as well. If the person seemed genuinely enthusiastic about my book, that made an impression on me. Other narrators seemed to be primarily interested in showing off.

Most narrators had websites or at least profiles on ACX or NarratorList. I listened to the samples they’d posted so I could get a sense of their range beyond what I’d heard in their audition. I found the books they’d narrated on Audible and Overdrive, where you can listen to 5-minute samples. What other genres had they narrated? Any historical fiction like mine?

I left the call open to both male and female narrators. Did I want someone who could be me, only better? Or did I want a male voice, since most of my point-of-view characters are men? I received 24 auditions from men and 10 from women. Of my Top Five, the narrators who were so good they gave me chills, three were men and two were women.

I sorted the narrators into the very scientific categories of: No, Probably Not, Low Maybe, and High Maybe. None of the narrators were “perfect.” None of them read every line with the emphases I would have given each word, and almost no one pronounced all the French names correctly. I’d already learned from Mr. Hedbor that I would have to “let it go” as I listened, that no narrator would recreate the voices in my head 100% of the time.

But on some things, I would have to stick to my guns and ask for changes, like the narrator who made my thirty-one-year-old priest protagonist (who’s supposed to be sexy) sound like a gawky, drooling teenager. “How easy would this person be to work with?” became a significant factor. Did the narrator seem like someone who would take offense if I insisted they change a voice or pronounce Ève the French way, or did they seem like a true collaborator, someone who could take feedback and run with it—as long as I trusted them most of the time? Did I think I could trust this person to get my books right most of the time?

The official process on ACX is that after the author has approved the audiobook’s first fifteen minutes, the narrator proceeds with the rest. The only changes the author can request after that are proof listening errors, where the narrator skipped or changed a word. One of the reasons I chose the narrator I did is that he’s allowing me to listen to each chapter as he records, and he’s open to implementing feedback beyond the first fifteen. But I am endeavoring to “let it go” unless he’s pronouncing something incorrectly or his performance is changing the meaning of my words.

Before I made my decision, I asked for a callback, a second audition script with different scenes. I’d ended up with very few lines from my heroine, Tessa, so I asked for more of her as well as a full verse of song. Price was also a factor. Most of my auditioning narrators did not provide their PFH rate; but of those who did, I was pleased to discover that price did not necessarily equal quality. My top two narrators, who did provide their rates, were at the low end of the scale. Before I signed a contract with my final pick, I contacted a couple of the authors who’d published audiobooks with him to ask if they’d recommend him.

After years of anticipation, months of research and preparation, and fourteen days of anxiety, I found a narrator who is the total package—even if he did pronounce Ève the English way in his audition. We fixed that, because he’s open to feedback. He is a consummate actor—he also plays roles on the stage. He’s great with accents. He’s American, but he studied acting in Ireland. And boy howdy, can he sing! He seduced me with “Danny Boy” before I even asked for a song. Above all, his speaking voice is perfect for my priest and doctor characters. His voice is warm, versatile, rich, expressive, and soothing—he has great bedside manner, so to speak! He sounds like someone I want to confide in because I trust he’ll truly listen and give me good advice.

His name is Dallin Bradford, and I know he’ll win an audiobook award someday. Don’t take my word for it. Have a listen for yourself. Do you think I chose wisely?

You should be able to enjoy Dallin’s full performance of Necessary Sins next month, May 2022.

P.S. Since there can be only one, I wrote kindly-worded rejection letters to the 33 narrators I decided not to choose. Most of them wrote back to thank me. One even said it was the best rejection letter she’d ever received! Apparently letting narrators know they didn’t get the part isn’t industry standard. But I’ve been on the other side of rejection letters as an author querying literary agents. I know how heartbreaking it is to receive a form rejection and how frustrating it is to receive NO RESPONSE AT ALL. Writers and narrators are fellow artists who owe each other the courtesy of a kind, definitive answer. If you’re an author auditioning narrators, I encourage you to send every one of them a reply.

P.P.S. In January 2023, after I’d completed all four of my audiobooks with my narrator, my local chapter of the Historical Novel Society asked me to give a Zoom talk about my audiobook journey. You’ll find the script here: Turning Your Novel into an Audiobook. It covers the same topic more thoroughly and from the perspective of an indie author with published audiobooks.