Inside the Narrators Booth: Things You Never Knew About Audiobook Narrators
Audiobooks are a phenomenal way to experience stories, as they are brought to life with transportive narration, colorful character voices, and moving emotion. The best audiobooks put listeners right into the story, and the narrator often fades into the background. But sometimes when I’m listening to an audiobook, I can’t help but wonder: What was it like for the narrator reading this book? What happened inside the recording booth? Were they moved by the story too? I’ve wondered about the lives of audiobook narrators for years. So when I had the chance to interview six prolific audiobook narrators about their experiences, I jumped at the opportunity to look behind the scenes.
I first got a glimpse into the audiobook recording process earlier this year as an author. My book Queerly Beloved was released in May, and in March, I was involved in the audiobook narrator selection and preparation process. I exchanged emails with my narrator, Kimberly M. Wetherell, about name pronunciations, characters’ accents, and background. Those emails spun into an online friendship, and when I visited New York City a few months later, Kimberly and I met up for a drink and to chat books. I couldn’t help but pick her brain about how she got into audiobook narrating and what she loves about the job. I was completely fascinated by everything from her in-home recording booth to how she researched new dialects to what clothes made the least noise.
I immediately wondered if I could bring together some of these insider perspectives for an article. Kimberly enthusiastically agreed, and even helped me connect with five additional audiobook narrators to learn more. Collectively, the six narrators I interviewed have over 30 years of experience and have narrated well over 1000 audiobooks. They shared a wealth of information with me about life in the recording booth. Please join me for this tour through some of the most interesting and surprising aspects of being an audiobook narrator.
Audiobook Narrators Are Multi-Talented
Of the six audiobook narrators I interviewed, five mentioned a background in acting on the stage and/or screen. Many of them cited their acting experience as great training for their audiobook narration careers. But acting wasn’t the only creative talent they found useful.
“I have always been a voracious reader and, as an actor, of course I want to play all the parts,” said Hope Newhouse, who worked on stage in France for a decade before transitioning to narration. “It was a match made in heaven! My acting training has been such an asset for creating a variety of characters, as well as preparing accents. I also definitely credit acting and singing classes with the voice support and control necessary to read aloud for hours a day without losing my voice!”
Ron Butler had just finished the series True Jackson VP on Nickelodeon when he was cast in his first audiobook project.
“Being an experienced actor really helped with my transition into narrating, understanding story, and how to develop and sustain character performance. I’m also a singer/musician, and I think every author has their own rhythm and musicality, and that’s often how I ‘plug into’ a book,” said Butler.
Kimberly Wetherell’s narration skills come from a lifetime in the entertainment industry. “First as a classically trained actor,” she said. “Then an opera producer and director — which required knowledge of multiple languages and honed my ear for the musicality of dialects, and has proven to be wildly good training for narration — and then as a filmmaker, which shaped my cinematic storytelling abilities, also ever so important when narrating an entire book.”
…And Sometimes They Have to Wear a Lot of Hats
If you think audiobook narrators walk into a booth, read a book out loud, and call it a day, you’re massively underestimating all the work that goes into their job.
Kimberly Wetherell pointed out that, in addition to all the characters they play, narrators also perform a lot of jobs. “You’re running a small business, auditioning, hustling, bookkeeping, calendarizing, reading, making notes, developing characters, studying dialects, looking up words you don’t know or know how to say properly, narrating (and self-directing) in a tiny, hot, padded box (or closet) for hours and hours each day, every day, and then, if you’re not sending off your raw audio to engineers for post-production, you’re also doing the audio editing and mastering before uploading it for publication,” she said.
“A lot of narrators start out (or continue) to do all aspects of post-production: proofing, editing, mastering,” said Cindy Kay, who has narrated audiobooks by bestselling authors like Chloe Gong and Ryka Aoki. “I’m a pretty good proofer but editing…ugh. I’m so, so grateful for editors and engineers. I bow down to their talents.”
Some of Them Even Use Multiple Names!
If you think the voice of a new-to-you narrator sounds familiar, you might have stumbled upon a secret identity.
“I created a pseudonym for romance because my brand is most associated with literary fiction, nonfiction, and middle grade/YA,” said Ron Butler. “I use a specific register and timbre of my voice for romance that I want associated with my pseudonym’s brand and that I feel really targets the romance market.” Butler shared that the voice of his pseudonym Evan Parker is growly and big-hearted.
“I’m pretty open about my pseudonym, Vivian Bradford, and she exists mostly to distinguish which books aren’t ‘mom-safe.’ Not that my mom listens to audiobooks, but you never know when she might start,” said Kimberly Wetherell. “Also, because I would love to narrate more middle grade and YA books, and I’d hate for a kid to pick up a dark romance loosely inspired by The Wizard of Oz, but learn the shocking way that we are definitely not in Kansas anymore.”
While Butler and Wetherell are open about their secret identities, not all audiobook narrators are. They use pseudonyms for a wide variety of reasons, and listeners should respect those boundaries. The narrators I interviewed said that listener speculation about pseudonyms on public forums is decidedly not cool.
They REALLY Love Books
Many listeners think of audiobook narration as a dream job, and a lot of the folks living that dream are equally thrilled by all the books they get to read for work.
“I love that my job is getting to read good stories,” said Hope Newhouse. “I am coming back from vacation right now and I can’t wait to get back to work. I don’t know a lot of people who feel that way at the end of their vacation. I especially enjoy creating characters. I have so much fun with well-written dialogue, whether witty or emotional. But I am also a total literature nerd, so a poetic description or getting a chance to narrate something classic is also a huge joy for me.”
Ron Butler also talked about the joy of getting wrapped up in a good book. “Sometimes I’ll get to near the end of a book, and I’m so moved by it that I struggle to finish because I’m weeping so hard,” Butler said. “King and the Dragonflies and Ghost of the Innocent Man are good examples. Being involved in such a beautiful thing, is a beautiful thing.”
…But Audiobooks Take a Lot More Work Than Just Loving Books
A passion for books is helpful, but audiobook narration is not for the faint of heart.
“It is very hard work! We really do lock ourselves in a tiny box and talk to ourselves for hours and hours a day. Altogether, it takes about six hours of work to create an hour of audio, so a lot of work goes into a full-length book,” said Hope Newhouse.
Newhouse also pointed out how the payment process differs from other voiceover work. “Unlike other types of voiceover where you are paid based on how widely distributed the ad/video/etc. will be, narrators are often just paid a fixed rate per finished hour, so the success of an audiobook doesn’t usually mean more money for us. Because of how many hours of work you have to perform to make a living compared to other voice work, this job is full of people who are passionate about this particular career. It’s a very self-selecting, book-loving group.”
Kimberly Wetherell discussed how much work goes into successful narration. “You’re not just reading words when you’re narrating, you’re telling a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to see the whole picture in your head at all times to know how each scene is part of the whole, and also know how to tell the story without the aid of visuals and still keep a listener engaged. It’s a lot trickier than many folks might think. ”
“Sometimes there’s language that’s tough to wrap your mouth around,” said Ron Butler on the challenging aspects of the job. “There are times when dialogue or concepts were not written with audio in mind. Things that read well on the page don’t always sound natural when spoken. Making stuff like this ‘work,’ or sound more natural, is one of the toughest parts of the job. Then there’s trying to sound like ten different people sitting around a dinner table talking…”
They Care About Getting the Details Right
The narrators I interviewed made it clear that they care deeply about giving every book they narrate appropriate time and attention, and that often involves a lot of research.
“Personally, I like to know absolutely everything I can about the characters, their backstories, the locations, quirky little Easter eggs, inside jokes, et cetera,” said Kimberly Wetherell. “So much of performing a book well and capturing the author’s voice and intent is buried in the subtext, the tone, the environment — things that aren’t written. So as much as I can know in advance, the truer to the book I can be.”
“I really like understanding the geography in a story,” Ron Butler shared. “I’ll look up locations on a map, read the background on topography, culture, and customs. If it’s an imaginary world, and the author hasn’t provided a map, then I’ll draw one for myself. I love maps — every book should come with one!”
…And Spend a Lot of Time Working on Accents and Dialects
A lot of research and preparation for audiobook narration involves accents, dialects, and words and names that are difficult to pronounce.
“Because I am bilingual and enjoy language/accent work, I often get books that require me to learn new accents or pronounce words in other languages,” said Hope Newhouse. “That can be very challenging, especially when the turnaround is fast, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Shiromi Arserio, who has narrated audiobooks by authors including Roshani Chokshi and Tasha Suri, considers herself an accent chameleon. “I listen to accents and mimic a LOT, which is why my own accent is so confusing and difficult to place.” She also shared some of her tactics for learning new accents. “For foreign accents, I like to listen to the ambassador for that country because they’ll probably have studied in England or the United States and have a definable accent that will still be easy for listeners to understand. It keeps me from going too far with an accent.”
Ron Butler also shared a little about his process for accents.
“If there’s an accent I’ve never done before — the most recent was Scottish — then I do a deep dive to prepare. I research on YouTube, movies, coaching from a native speaker, et cetera,” he said.
Narrators mentioned words that have tripped them up recently, from seemingly easy words like “gasped” to extremely complicated words, like the village Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales. Another narrator had to seek help from colleagues on how best to pronounce a text message of “Sdighqkdjhqmisutheiwxetzjs.”
It Can Be a Lonely Job
This one may not come as much of a surprise: sitting in a recording booth can be a bit lonely.
“You’re doing the lion’s share of the work by yourself, with very little guidance from anyone else,” Kimberly Wetherell said. “You have to be a very independent and motivated person to do this job. Having been a wandering freelancer for my entire career made that aspect of the job much easier for me. I’ve always worked alone. But it’s a big shift from someone who may have come from a more traditional nine-to-five background with a support staff, and for some, that might be the hardest adjustment to make.”
…But They Also Have a Great Community
Although doing the work can feel lonely, the strength of the audiobook narrator community came up again and again in interviews.
“Narrators are the best colleagues!” Hope Newhouse said. “We do work alone a lot of the time, but it means when we get together, we are very excited to see each other and we are active in virtual forums where we share useful information and help each other out with things like pronunciations or performance questions.”
“Spending so much of our time alone makes the narration community really tight,” Kimberly Wetherell shared. “We create all kinds of opportunities to connect. Technology is a godsend in that department, since we’re all over the world, not just in larger entertainment hubs like NYC, L.A., or Chicago. What the world learned how to do during the early months and years of the pandemic lockdown, narrators had been doing for years, considering most of us already worked from home and had been voluntarily self-isolating!”
They Can Do It All
One of the most exciting parts of audiobook narration, especially for narrators from an acting background, is getting to play every role in the story. And that can be incredibly challenging, especially in books with dozens — or even upwards of a hundred — different characters.
“Honestly, I just love getting to play ALL the roles,” said Shiromi Arserio. “I’m greedy like that. I love getting to play characters that nobody would ever normally think to cast me as!”
Ron Butler agreed. “I love a book where I get to play a ton of different characters. Being able to act all those different parts is really challenging and fulfilling.”
…And They Can Work as a Team
While audiobook narrators are accustomed to recording an entire book by themselves, they also often get to work with another narrator for dual narrations, or three or more narrators for multicast narrations. While this can change the amount of recording, the narrators still have to read and research the entire book, as well as working together on pronunciations, voices, and more.
“I love love love multicasts, mainly because I’m such a fan of other narrators that I can’t believe I get to work on the same projects as them,” said Cindy Kay. “So I get giddy. But they also mean the same amount of prep but you’re only paid for the parts you record, so it means a bit more work than a single-narrator project.”
Hope Newhouse said she enjoys multicast audiobooks as a listener. “But I think as a narrator I have more mixed feelings,” she said. “We don’t always record on the same schedule as our co-narrators, so sometimes they have already made choices and we have to match even if we would have done it differently or sometimes we just have to make the choices and hope the other person/people will be able to work with them because we have the time in our schedule when the other narrator hasn’t had time to prep yet.”
They Nerd Out About Exciting Projects
Many of the narrators I interviewed talked about thrilling moments in their careers where they got to work on books by authors they love or narrate books that they connected with personally.
Shiromi Arserio counted among her happiest moments as a narrator, “Getting to narrate Alien: Into Charybdis and getting cast to narrate Noah Hawley’s book, Anthem — both of these were huge fangirl moments. Also, getting nominated for Audies for The Jasmine Throne and Beatrix Greene. I was completely blindsided.”
“One of my happiest moments was after my first big networking event,” Hope Newhouse shared. “I had been narrating a lot of straight romance, which can be super fun, but at the event I went around telling all the publishers I met that my dream book would be a young adult story with queer characters, and a week later Harper Audio sent me Summer and July by Paul Mosier, the sweetest YA/MG novel involving a first lesbian crush, and it just made my year. Now I get a lot of those kinds of books, but that was the first one and it made me so happy!”
…And Sometimes They Get to Directly Ask the Authors Their Questions
I was lucky as an author to get to speak directly with my audiobook narrator. That isn’t always the case — especially when working through big audio publishers who prefer to act as middlemen between the narrator and author. But narrators usually have some avenue to ask the authors their questions before recording.
“When working with audio publishers, the producer and director communicate directly with the author and relay any notes to me. It’s rare that I have a direct line to the author in those cases,” said Michael Crouch, whose audiobook narrations have earned him Audie Awards, Earphones Awards, and AudioFile Magazine’s Golden Voice Lifetime Achievement Honor. “On the other end of the spectrum, independent authors sometimes reach out to me directly with requests to narrate their audiobooks. In these cases we email back and forth, talk on the phone after I’ve read the book, then I’ll record a 10-15 minute narration sample for them to listen to. After that I jump in the booth and hit the ground running.”
Hope Newhouse talked about extra content authors sometimes provide to inspire narration. “When authors publish fan art or cover ideas or quotes or any content related to the book, that can help me artistically,” she said. “Sometimes an author will provide character or performance info that the publisher will send me and sometimes I will ask the publisher for the author’s input, usually on character background or name pronunciation. For example, when I narrated Among the Beasts and Briars by Ashley Poston last year, we were not directly in touch, but I made a list of the place and characters names in her fantasy world and she recorded them all for me!”
They Often Record From Home
The majority of audiobook narrators work from home, where they are generally expected to have a professional recording booth, or if not, a soundproofed closet. Although outside recording studios exist, they’re generally reserved for celebrities or authors narrating their own books.
“Many audiobook narrators — and many voice actors now after the pandemic — record from professional home studios,” Hope Newhouse said. “I had to learn a lot about recording equipment and sound proofing and sound engineering in order to get set up.”
Kimberly Wetherell pointed out the cost of home recording booths. “I can’t lie, I love the commute alllllllll the way over to the other side of my apartment and the ability to have my dog curled up at my feet as I record, but the expense of having what’s known as a ‘broadcast quality’ home studio is no joke,” she said. “It can cost in the upper four to lower five figures, depending on how geeky you are about your equipment and what sort of acoustic treatment you need depending on where you live.”
And unlike other areas of the entertainment world, narrators don’t get paid or reimbursed for the money they shell out for booths and recording equipment. Whereas sound and lighting professionals, makeup artists, and others are paid a rental or “kit” fee for use of their supplies and equipment, audiobook narrators don’t receive additional payment for the technology in their homes that’s required to produce professional-quality recordings.
…And They Really Hate Outside Noise
One of the trickiest parts of audiobook narration, whether you’re recording at home or elsewhere, is controlling unwanted noises inside or outside the booth. And I quickly learned that narrators develop superhuman hearing.
“It’s just really funny how obsessed you can get with a quiet space,” said Shiromi Arserio. “It’s hard to switch off. I will get annoyed when I hear landscapers or street noise around my house on days I’m not recording. My ear has become so attuned to even the slightest noise.”
“I never thought I’d be so obsessed with quiet,” Cindy Kay agreed. “I can hear sprinkler motors running through two walls, family members beating eggs upstairs, you name it. I recently got pissed off wondering what a noise was — it was my hoodie string hitting the back of my chair.”
In fact, I learned that our bodies make all kinds of noises that can cause trouble on recordings. “I had no idea how much I burp until I started recording audiobooks. It’s common for me to stop recording and literally pat my stomach and burp myself,” said Michael Crouch.
Hope Newhouse had another bodily fun fact to share. “Did you know sometimes your eyelids make a little click when you blink if you are dehydrated? I didn’t before this job.”
It Gets Toasty in the Booth
Almost all of the narrators I interviewed talked about just how warm it gets in a recording booth. Hope Newhouse said it best: “A small enclosed space plus body heat gets hot even in the winter, but it’s hell in the summer!”
It’s a hard problem to address. Any tools for air circulation in the booth, like air conditioning or fans, create a mechanical sound on the recording. And any technology that might be used to mask those sounds runs the risk of altering the sound of the narrator’s voice. Avoiding heat stroke is a constant concern.
…And They Dress (Or Undress) Accordingly
Without the use of air conditioning or fans, narrators rely on ice packs and clothing choices to keep them cool.
“You might be surprised at how little clothing narrators wear when recording in the summer,” Shiromi Arserio shared. “Ice bras, narrating in bikinis, cooling cloths, these are all very common for narrators because it gets so hot in the booth. I’ve never gone so far as to record naked, but I have it on good authority some narrators do.”
Hope Newhouse agreed. “Readers might be surprised how many books I have recorded in very little clothing, a wet bathing suit, or standing on ice packs. You also have to choose your clothing based on how much noise it makes. I had no idea I had so many swishy shirts or pants until I started recording audiobooks.”
They Love What They Do
Despite all of its challenges, audiobook narrators find a lot to love about their jobs.
Cindy Kay has a lot of favorite aspects of her work. “The books! The authors! The community! The number of times I finish the day book stoned from the gorgeous scenes, characters, stories, swoon. And meeting people who are so talented and supportive of each other — the community is so refreshing. I can’t believe I get to do this,” she said.
Michael Crouch pointed out the thrill of getting into the narration groove. “With audiobooks there’s so much material there’s no way you could possibly rehearse it all,” he said. “I found that scary at first, but eventually I found it liberating, because it forces you to work from your gut. You have no choice but to get out of your head and into your body. When you find a good flow, there’s nothing like it.”
…And They Might Have Tails
We know they’ve got lots of tales to share, but do they also have literal tails?
“I think the fact that we all have vestigial tails might be a bit of a surprise,” said Kimberly Wetherell. “It’s a prerequisite for the job, in order to stay properly balanced and aligned in our booth chairs all day.”
She’s probably joking. Or is she?
Where to Find the Narrators
I want to give a huge thank you to all the incredibly gracious narrators who offered up their perspectives for this piece. If you’re interested in checking out work by the audiobook narrators I interviewed, you can find some of their recent and upcoming projects below.
The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The Oleander Sword by Tashi Suri
The Villa by Rachel Hawkins (co-narrated, Jan. 3, St. Martin’s Press)
It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror edited by Joe Vallese (co-narrated, Oct. 11, The Feminist Press at CUNY)
Dirty Steal by Lauren Blakely and KD Casey (co-narrated under pseudonym, Oct. 19, Nothing to Lose Productions)
Rachel (forthcoming multicast play, Brilliance Audio)
Groundskeeping by Lee Cole
Last Summer Boys by Bill Rivers
In the Key of Dale by Benjamin Lefebvre (Nov. 1, Arsenal Pulp Press)
The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford
Direwood by Catherine Yu
Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo (Oct. 25, Tordotcom)
Every Bird a Prince by Jenn Reese
Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality by Eliot Schrefer
The Deception by Kim Taylor Blakemore (Sept. 27, Lake Union Publishing)
Kimberly M. Wetherell
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water by Angie Cruz (co-narrated)
I Survived the Wellington Avalanche, 1910 by Lauren Tarshis
My Second Impression of You by Michelle I. Mason
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