An Unedited and Mostly Transparent Account of Becoming a Successful Audiobook Narrator, Part I
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those
things which… most surely [brought me to where I am today, or at least many have asked me to put it forth in writing], Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, [and other audiobook narrators], It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding [or at least my own understanding] of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, [okay, I don’t actually know a Theophilus.. or even a Theo], That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein [I embarked upon my career as an audiobook narrator].
- KJV Bible, Luke Chapter 1 verses 1-4. Brackets added. My apologies. I’m probably going to hell now.
A little over 6 months ago, I quit my dayjob in favor of one of my passions: Storytelling. Specifically, narrating audiobooks. It will be 3 years ago this February that I first started looking into it consciously, but my subconscious had been kicking around the idea for more than a decade. But it was February 2018 that I started taking action. A night shortly before my 39th birthday my wife and I were settling down for the night for our version of "Pizza, Booze, Telly" (yes we're Dr. Who Junkies), & she said something to the effect of “Hey – you should check out this website that I found – ACX.com.
You can audition to narrate audiobooks.” For more than a decade, I’d been reading every night to our kids. Anything from Harry Potter to Jane Eyre to Hank the Cowdog. (That’s what happens when you let everyone take turns picking what book they want me to read). More than once, I had expressed how much I would love to narrate audiobooks. It didn’t take much to get my attention. I enjoyed my job, but I knew this was something I could excel at & enjoy.
Within 24 hours, I had my profile set up on ACX.com. I had never recorded myself before, so I googled about ACX & narrating. I signed up for Krystal Wascher’s Audiobook Challenge. She’s got some good pointers and some good recommendations on equipment to get you started. I don’t know that I would recommend her course for others starting out, partially because I feel like she’s still very much on the beginning side of things as well. She’s assembled some good information and has good advice, but considering her total finished hours on audible is only 140 NOW, nearly 3 years after I took her course, I don’t know that I’d qualify her as an expert (granted, I know she narrates under a different name too – so do I – I’ve got 20 hours logged under that name already). There is better information and advice to be found from Sean Pratt or NarratorsRoadmap.com. My total finished hours on Audible right now is sitting at more than 196 with 20 hours sitting in ACX’s bottleneck of quality control queue, and more than 20 hours in books on other venues aside excluding audible. So at this point, I still wouldn’t qualify ME as an expert when it comes to Audiobook Narration. I do think I’m pretty good at what I do, but I’m also continually looking to improve. But to give at least credit where credit is due… Krystal Wascher has a good little challenge to get a newbie going and excited.
Wow I can get off on tangents easily.
Back to my journey: I got a cheap USB Mic from the music store the next day and within a week I was auditioning for audiobooks, including some WAY beyond my then ability. There are narrators and coaches out there who will caution you against this. Its what I did & I don’t regret it. I got turned down on several, then I got 2 offers in a day. Because I hadn’t yet watched videos or read about how royalty share is a bad idea for a narrator (especially if you don't check how the book is selling to begin with), and because I hadn’t done anything professionally with it previously, I jumped at the chance on both. And I did that a few more times. I don’t think its any kind of career killing move. In fact, I’m willing to bet nearly every “successful” narrator who started on ACX started this way. If you have 50 titles, you’ve narrated, I’m willing to bet at least one of them is a complete clunker. My first efforts were fraught with technical rejections, poor quality recording equipment, poor recording space, poorly edited manuscripts (at least one that was barely a step above Engrish). But I was learning and I even enjoyed what I did.
My first royalty check came at the end of April 2018 for a whopping $13.87. WOOHOO!!!
I recorded nightly & in the mornings and on Saturdays. I kept auditioning. When I
came across a book anywhere that I liked, I checked to see if it was available on Audible. On one such occasion, my wife had just finished reading The Way of Aloha: Lana’i by Cameron C. Taylor. She had read some of his other material, and I liked the part she showed me. It was a newer release, so I found his website, reached out to him & we met for lunch in June of 2018. He had a couple of books that he had recorded but had been rejected by audible for technical reasons. I had recorded an audition for him that I played for him as we had lunch. That to me is when I really started learning & growing as a narrator. Cameron was the first author who I met directly & I brought him to the ACX platform. I have since narrated 5 books with him & we plan to continue to partner.
But my equipment & space were still garbage. I tried closets & they worked okay. At least if I turned off the fridge on the other side of the wall… That summer I probably lost more in food spoilage than I brought in from narrating. But I still was having fun and learning. I kept auditioning, kept recording what I had been selected for, kept improving my skills & knew I needed to get better equipment. I landed my first paid finished hour gig that fall right about the same time I landed a whale of a cough. I went a month without recording a word & my enthusiasm was equally as up at this point. When I finally started to get better, I discovered something that I’ve remembered since… Resting your voice is important when you're sick, but don’t coddle it indefinitely. I had tried all kinds of things to get rid of my cough, but it just wasn’t working. I had a book to narrate that was finally going to yield at least a little paycheck. I had to get it recorded. I finally decided I just had to push through & make it work. After my first recording session in over a month, my throat and voice felt BETTER than it had before the session. So I got back to it & the cough was gone within a week. The book was done within a month. I was able to take most of the paycheck and put it toward some much better equipment. (I then got an MXL-770 with a Scarlet 2I2 if you’re wondering – not perfect or incredibly expensive, but INCREDIBLY better than what I had been using).
I was busy at work and doing pretty well there at that point too. My royalty check in November of 2018 was a $4.60. And I only had 1 title still waiting to be done that I had agreed with Cameron to record. I was kind of at a low point with my journey at that point. None of my auditions were going anywhere. But I also had just gotten my new mic. By this point, my hobby career had cost at least as much as I had gotten out of it & I was spending so much of my free time editing, auditioning and so on. I asked my wife when I had a particularly low day if she was really ok for me to keep going with this. Her response has been an inspiration anchor point to me ever since. “I’ve never seen you so happy.” That did it for me. I had planned on recording A Christmas Carol
for friends & family that year already, so I poured myself into that project in a new recording space. My new mic wouldn’t work in my old space. It was too sensitive & the room was too echo-y. So my studio moved from my wife’s music store spare office to my in-laws spare bedroom. I got it set up pretty well & did a pile of auditions once I was done with A Christmas Carol. I posted A Christmas Carol on my Soundcloud account and started using it as my calling card along with my auditions.
I went back through all the old books I had auditioned for that were still open for auditions & messaged the rights holders. I started to follow up regularly on anything I auditioned for. January of 2019, I got 3 offers in a week. One was just an offer after I had sent a follow up email on an audition I had recorded 6 months before. My subject line? ‘Finished Audiobook by March 1st.’ I had emailed them every month since I auditioned without hearing a word back. It was a book I REALLY wanted to narrate.
In February I got 2 more offers, and my first hybrid offer. This was before Royalty
Share Plus was an official thing. Maria Grace’s Pemberly: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon was listed as a Royalty Share project, but she had also said in the comments that she was willing to pay an additional stipend because she recognized that as a narrator, it's nice to eat now as well as five years down the road. While partnering with Maria isn’t the only key to my success, it sure helped me move my time frame up considerably for going full time as a narrator. I took the stipend payment and started my website. Now instead of sending potential authors and listeners to my ACX profile, Audible, Soundcloud, or any other choice of places that were someone else’s platform, I could communicate my message directly to them from my own platform. My narrative was now my own. Even if my initial website design was simplistic and minimal (I’m not saying that its perfect now by any means – like me, it’s a work in progress).
Before I go much further – I want to talk about how “success” is such a loaded term, as is failure. I have books that I’ve made less than $20 on. Are they failures? Maybe. Probably close to half of my income from audiobooks has come directly from my partnership with Maria Grace. Do I view that as a success? Yes. But anything is not an end unto itself. I viewed my first audition as a success. Because I did it. I didn’t get it, but I did it! The “failure” books? I’ve got dozens of reviews from them, most of them still on the positive end of the spectrum. I learned from what was in their pages. I improved in the process of narrating them. They add to my overall corpus of material. Do I hope they’re what folks will judge my performance by? Not really. But it was a lot easier to approach Cameron Taylor and say, "I’ve produced 2 audiobooks, maybe we could partner," than it would be if I came to him as a complete unknown. When I auditioned for Maria Grace, the half dozen books I had produced said something about me. I was able to get it done. The fact that I chose to record A Christmas Carol just because I wanted to also showed that I’m passionate about my craft. Plus, I was able to narrate something written by one of the most skilled writers of all time, fixing my name next to Charles Dickens. Success is what you define it to be. To me, I am a successful full time audiobook narrator. Success for me means I’m happy. It means I love what I do. It means I’m getting compensated for the time and effort I put into it. Sometimes that compensation is monetary. Having a reviewer say they could listen to me all day and all night is compensation. Being mistaken for Richard Armitage is compensation. Getting goosebumps while in the recording booth is even a compensation. Having an excellent author write a blog post about how I’ve spoiled them for any other narrators is compensation.
But there is a bottom line here to be dealt with as well. Warm fuzzies don’t pay the mortgage or put food on the table. But after my first royalty check from narrating Pemberly – I decided to reinvest in my business again, and this time on a grander scale. I bought and built my studio starting in August of 2019. I crunched the numbers, and was at the point that I knew I could now count on X amount per month, which would cover the monthly payment for my storage shed & materials to convert it to a functioning audio studio. No longer would I be at the mercy of anyone else’s space and time (or so I thought, at least). In the very least – no more 5- or 15-minute commute to record. Meaning instead of 1 book every 1 to 2 months, I could guarantee output of at least a book a month, and that was while I was still working full time with an hour and a half commute. Like so many other things, the more you put in, the more you get out. I was to the point where I had more books under contract than I could produce in 3 or even 4 months. Several of my authors were booking me for an entire series, or at least getting in line. My pipeline was becoming steady enough that I knew I could afford more regular investment in my business.
In the meantime, my dayjob that a year before I had still loved… Well.. I didn’t anymore. I was a butt in a seat. My boss that I got along with left right about the time I started my partnership with Maria Grace. In the next year, my enthusiasm for my side gig burned bright and my distaste for working for “the man” grew. When “the man” doesn’t hire replacements, but just redistributes hats again and again. It begins to become apparent that working for “the man” was not going to be any more of a sure thing than working for myself. Gradually, the nails fell into the coffin of my commitment & excitement about my dayjob. Number crunching on my side gig went into overdrive. Plans began cycling. What was originally a thought of 2 years away got pushed up 6 months at a time.
At the end of 2019, I was approached for the first time out of the blue by an author about a project. Didn’t have to audition. Brad Swift found me & I partnered for the first time with another professional narrator (Meg Price) on his book The Fringe Candidate. I’ve now produced 4 books with Brad & we plan on continuing to partner. I’ve still never recorded an audition for him. Shortly after signing on to do his initial project, Ken Brown reached out to me about narrating Call to Purpose. I did have to audition for that one, but it came the day after my wife and I had discussed my timeline for exiting my dayjob & contemplating pushing it back a month. I got confirmation that I would produce his book Call to Purpose that resonated so well with me personally that the final nails were put in the day job’s coffin. I also signed contracts with Paul Arvidson to narrate Dark and Jenelle Schmidt to narrate King’s Warrior that same time, along with books 5 & 6 of Maria Grace’s Jane Austen’s Dragons.
I gave my 2 week notice to “the Man” mid March. Right when things started shutting down. The week after my last day, everyone who worked for this particular “man” was telecommuting. And my former boss was calling me at least weekly to guide him through how to do my old job. That was now more than 6 months ago. Has my income matched what it was working for “the man” yet? No. Has my job satisfaction increased? Exponentially. And now I can wear my pajamas if I want OR I can wear my absurdly loud Bollywood inspired jacket.
There is SO much more I can say about my own personal journey on the road to – and now as – a successful audiobook narrator. Hence, part 1. In upcoming blog posts I’ll cover the following:
· Working with authors
· Working with Publishers
· Gaining and interacting with an audience.
· Working with other narrators.
· Working with editors.
· Recording methods
· Recording spaces
· Recording Equipment
· Taking care of my voice
· What defines Success, What defines Failure and Why you should want both.
· One size seldom fits all
· Parting ways amicably
· Opening communications and keeping them open
· Getting reviews, Getting good reviews and Dealing with negative reviews and the difference between a negative review and a poor review.
· Royalty share, Paid Finished Hour, and Royalty Share Plus.
· Payment methods
· Poorly edited manuscripts
· Pronunciation woes
· AND MORE!!!
I’m going to try to make this a weekly thing in order to be writing regularly & answering questions for those who may have them. I hope you enjoy it. If I miss a week or a month… Life happens. And I’m probably busy editing my next audiobook.