Sound Check Part 1: How I Found My Audiobook Narrator

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In ancient times, people told each other stories. Grandmothers told tales of spirits. Bards told tales of heroes. Priests told tales of gods. Nobody read anything. Writing has existed for only about a tenth of the time Homo sapiens has walked the earth, and reading has been a commonplace skill only for the last half millennium, since the invention of the printing press. Novels have existed for less time than that.

These days, literacy is more or less universal (except in some places where access to education is limited). Yet more and more people are listening to audiobooks. (Remember when they were called “books on tape”? Quaint, huh?) A lot of people listen in their cars or while exercising. People probably like the time efficiency, where they can listen while doing other tasks, but I also suspect many want to simply hear stories again. There’s the nostalgia of our parents reading aloud to our younger selves at bedtime. And there’s the ancestral longing for oral traditions. Perhaps we miss the crackle and snap of burning logs, while the storyteller’s voice embedded itself in our dreams.

Last fall, a Goodreads reader asked if I were going to release an audio version of A Wizard’s Forge. Intrigued by the idea, I created an ACX account and read some of the FAQ pages, but I didn’t pursue it until this spring. I was fairly daunted by the process and thought I would have trouble finding a quality narrator without paying a boatload of money. But, at the encouragement of some writer friends, I recently took the plunge. The search turned out to be much easier and more fun than I expected, and I decided to share my thoughts on it how it’s gone so far.

Note: results may vary. I found my narrator through ACX, and my experience is limited to that platform.

Step 1. Set up a title.

ACXprofileThis is pretty easy, especially if you already have a KDP account. I did it last fall, and I can’t remember the details of it, except it’s the usual filling out of forms and providing relevant book links, etc.

I hope it goes without saying that you must own the rights to the content to set up a title profile and proceed with having an audiobook produced.

Based on the number of words in your book, ACX will calculate an estimated length of your audiobook recording in hours. A Wizard’s Forge is around 120,500 words, and ACX estimated it would be 13 hours of audio. This number is important for the fee calculation when you are making offers to narrator candidates.

During set up, you’ll decide whether you want to distribute the audiobook exclusively through Audible, or through multiple outlets (including iTunes). I decided to go with exclusive distribution, because the royalties are higher and it’s easier (since this is my first foray into audiobooks, and I want to keep things simple).

You will also provide a description of your book, such as the one from your book sales page on Amazon, and any additional notes you have for prospective narrators. For production purposes, I wanted to make the project appealing to actors (as opposed to readers), so I provided the following information with that in mind:

A Wizard’s Forge is an award-winning blend of science fiction and fantasy with a highly intelligent but deeply troubled young woman as its main protagonist (think Jessica Jones or Lisbeth Salander [Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] in a fantasy setting). Over the course of the novel, Vic (short for Victoria) transforms herself from a shy scholar with low self-esteem to a fierce warrior with telekinetic powers, but she remains vulnerable to the machinations of the villain, who sexually abuses her and attempts to brainwash her at the beginning of the story. The role would be a really juicy, layered challenge for any voice actor, and I look forward to hearing the auditions of anyone willing to take it on.

The book has four POVs in total–Vic (a woman), and three male secondary protagonists. When the book begins, Vic is 15 and the male characters are in their late teens (17-19); Vic is ~20 and the men in their early to mid twenties for the last 2/3 of the novel. Of the male POVs, Prince Ashel (Vic’s romantic interest) is a renowned singer, Earnk is the patrician son of a tyrant, and Geram is an educated but unsophisticated soldier. Although the protagonists are all young (teens to twenties), this book has adult themes and is intended for that audience.

I have a small but growing fanbase consisting of 400 newsletter subscribers, 750 Facebook followers, and 950 Twitter followers. The book has garnered two awards this year and is under consideration for more. I hope to use these honors to build my fan base, and I’d love to have a talented voice actor to help me extend my reach.

Step 2. Prepare an audition script.

ACX recommends a 1-2 page excerpt from your book, which should take 3-5 minutes. My audition script was 4 double-spaced pages and took the narrators about 7 minutes to read. I provided a longer script because I wanted to hear how the candidates would handle three very different scenes: a dark, disturbing one between protagonist Vic and antagonist Lornk; a light, flirtatious encounter between Vic and her romantic interest, Ashel; and a tense battlefield rescue from the point of view of Vic’s friend Geram.

It’s possible the longer script might have put off some potential narrators, but I received plenty of auditions, many of which were outstanding. One narrator even used my audition script as one of her audio performance samples.

When I prepared the script, I titled the different scenes and provided a brief set-up, so the narrator understood the background of the action I asked her to read. I also provided some pronunciation guidance.

Scriptshot

Step 3. Determine your narrator search criteria.

This step boils down to what sort of narrator do you want, and how much can you pay them?

ACX offers the following filters for your search:

Genre–the usual assortment of fiction and nonfiction genres, ranging from business to erotica to children’s lit. As you might guess, I ticked the box for Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Gender–Male or Female (yep, it’s a binary choice). I chose Female, since my primary protagonist is a woman.

Language–English, French, German, or Spanish are the options. You can probably guess which box I ticked.

Accent–a large assortment, ranging from various American and British regions, through the European continent, and across Asia. I chose General American and General British, and of my top four picks, two were American and two were British.

Fun fact: I imagine Vic speaking with an American accent. Lornk has a German accent (strongly influenced by Ralph Fiennes’ performance in Schindler’s List), and everyone in Latha has a British accent–but I don’t necessarily require the narrator to replicate my mental tics in this regard.

Voice age–ranges from young child to elderly. I ticked the box for Young Adult because of the youth of my main characters.

Vocal style–there are a lot of options here, from tonal quality and pitch to general emotional range. I ticked the box for Low to Mid Range, because I prefer altos to sopranos. I also chose Sarcastic because Vic is a rather arrogant hardass.

Payments–this is where your budget comes into play. The options include royalty share alone (where you pay nothing up front but promise to split any sales royalties 50/50 with the narrator), and then different PFH (per finished hour) rates ranging from $50 to $1000 PFH. Per finished hour refers to the duration of your finished audiobook. As mentioned above, A Wizard’s Forge was estimated to be 13 hours long, and any PFH fee is based on that figure, whether the narrator somehow managed to record it in 13 hours or it took her 50 hours. I explain my payment choices below.

Location–where the narrator lives, which can be important for coordinating communication (eg, if she lives in Australia and you live in the U.S., there will likely be a substantial delay in message responses, due to the time difference).

Audible approved–narrators who meet certain requirements (eg, a minimum number of completed Audible projects) receive an “Audible approved” certificate. You can be fairly certain that narrators who are Audible approved won’t flake out on you, but a narrator who doesn’t have this designation may still be excellent.

For the purposes of your initial search for narrator candidates, you don’t have to decide on your final budget, but it helps to provide a framework. A lot of authors don’t have the money to pay PFH fees, so their only choice is to offer a royalty share deal. There’s nothing wrong with this, but be advised that narrators will usually agree to royalty share only if:

  • They fall head over heels in love with your work and are willing to narrate it for the sheer joy of reading your prose aloud
  • They are just starting out and are looking to build their portfolio
  • You’re already a best-selling author and a royalty share deal will probably be more lucrative than a PFH deal

A narrator’s job is to produce a clean recording, without misspoken words, background noises, hiccups, etc. This requires a lot of work and dedicated recording equipment (preferably in a sound booth or at least a sound-insulated room). A lot of retakes and audio editing may be needed to produce a high-quality recording, so a narrator might easily spend 2-3 hours working on each finished hour.

I got some insight into how much work narrators do when one candidate accidentally sent me her uncut audio file. When she said the wrong word or verbally stumbled in some other way, she would pause for a few seconds, clap her hands (to mark where the clip should restart), repeat the line, and carry on. Her uncut audition was about 20 minutes long, for about 7 minutes of finished material.

With all that plus my own finances in mind, I ticked the Payment search criteria boxes for Royalty Share and $50-100 PFH. I also decided these would be negotiable terms for the right narrator.

Step 4. Make your project available for auditions

When you’re ready, release your audition script baby into the wild and see what happens. I put my script up on a weekday evening and had my first audition back within a few hours–which was pretty exciting!

Step 5. Identify potential narrators and invite them to audition

You can simply wait for narrators searching for projects to see your title, decide they’re interested, and submit an audition, but this could take some time and you might not like what you get. I may have received my first audition within a few hours of posting A Wizard’s Forge, but several days passed before I received the second. In the meantime, I searched for candidates using the criteria explained above. The ACX system generated a list of about 25 or 30 female narrators who like performing science fiction and fantasy, and I listened to audio samples from all of them and made a list of those I liked (including starred candidates that I really liked), which was about 12 or 15 voice performers. Then I sent each an invitation like the one below.

ACXinvite

Nearly everyone I invited responded to let me know whether or not they were interested, some with questions about my flexibility on the payment terms. Once these matters were settled, I sat back and watched the auditions filter in.

Step 6. Listen and choose your favorite narrator

Over the next 3 weeks or so, I received a half dozen auditions from people I invited and another half dozen cold auditions from people who didn’t turn up when I searched for candidates, but who saw AWF was an available project. Many of the cold auditions were pleasant surprises (in fact, I ultimately picked one of them), and some of the invited auditions were disappointments.

I listened to each audition as soon as possible after it came in, and then, based strictly on first impression, sorted it into the Like or Dislike buckets already set up on the ACX site. Whether I liked the audition or not, I sent a thank you note to the narrator and let her know I’d be back in touch after I made a decision. The first-cut like/dislike sort was roughly 50/50.

With 6 good auditions in hand, I decided it was time to pick one, and I devised a set of judging criteria. Mind you, I’m a rank amateur at this, and I’m sure the terminology I used in my categories shows it. Nevertheless, here’s the chart I made and the scores of my top 6 candidates:

ACXchart

I used a 1-5 Likert scale to assign numeric values to each category, and I included some qualitative comments (eg, you’ll see I thought a couple of narrators sounded a little like Siri–not a good thing). I also had one column for qualitative notes such as the number of Audible credits and any awards. I also looked at their websites (if they had one), and looked at listener reviews of their work, if any were available.

As you can see, the scores of the top four were really close–within 0.4 points of each other. The two British narrators had a lot going for them, but everything else being equal, I ruled them out because in my head, Vic sounds American. So, it came down to Narrators 4 and 5, with total scores within 0.1 point of each other. N4 had more experience just edged out N5 in terms of her performance of dialogue and more emotive text. But, she was a bit flat and Siri-like during the descriptive passages, and AWF has a lot of those. Meanwhile, N5’s overall performance was outstanding, especially on those descriptive bits. Even though she didn’t have as much Audible experience, her credits included a really cool ongoing audio drama podcast, which is still under production and released through iTunes. The podcast pretty much wowed me, and it clinched the decision. I decided to make N5 an offer.

Step 7. Make an offer

In the end, N5 (whose identity will be revealed after the audiobook is done) and I agreed on hybrid compensation, which includes royalty share on top of a PFH fee. The ACX platform includes a contracting procedure with fair terms for both parties. However, it isn’t structured for hybrid deal; you have to choose either royalty share or PFH. I contacted the ACX staff, and they said that if we wanted to do a hybrid agreement, we’d need to do the second part outside of their system, on our own. N5 agreed to this, and I prepared two contracts. The first covered royalty share and was created through the ACX platform so the royalties could be paid to the narrator on an ongoing basis, without my involvement.

ACXcontractRS
The ACX contract for royalty share, arranged through the ACX platform.

For the second agreement, which covered the PFH fee, I wrote a very basic contract (using the above ACX terms as a template) and included a copy of the ACX Audiobook Production Standard Terms as an appendix, with language specifying where the terms of the ACX standard contract applied. Both parties signed a PDF version sent via email.

ACXcontract
Excerpt from the separate contract for the PFH fee. 

The narrator and I agreed to everything before I sent the contracts for her to sign.

Step 8. Close out the audition phase of the project

Once N5 had accepted the offers and signed the contracts, I sent a note to each of the other narrator candidates, thanking them for taking the time to prepare and submit an audition, and wishing them luck in the future. I only had to contact 12 people, so this wasn’t a great burden, and many expressed appreciation for the personal contact.

N5 will be working on the AWF recording over the summer. Once the production phase is over, I’ll be back with another summary of how it all went down.

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4 thoughts on “Sound Check Part 1: How I Found My Audiobook Narrator

  1. I’m getting ready to start this process and this post was very helpful – especially the hybrid payment arrangement since that is outside the ACX process. I also like the way you evaluated and ranked the auditions. Thanks for the thorough detail. 🙂

    1. Good luck! I hope you find the process as enjoyable as I am. Since posting this, I’ve received the first 15 minutes from my narrator (it coincidentally arrived seconds after I hit “publish” on this post), and it’s awesome. So far the experience has been fantastic.

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