People bought over $2 billion worth of audiobooks in 2019, and the market continues to expand. If you’ve written a nonfiction book, it should be available in an audiobook format. But who should narrate it — you, or a voice actor?
If you have an inclination to narrate your own book in audiobook format, I encourage you to do so. There are exceptions, of course — if you have trouble reading aloud, have an accent that’s hard to understand, or have a terrible grating voice, perhaps you should consider having an actor do the narration. But if you like to read out loud and are excited about your book, go for it!
Will you be a better narrator than a voice actor would be?
An actor brings to bear skills that you probably don’t have — a skill with using their voice to imbue words with emotion, for example. And voice actors typically have neutral accents and a voice timbre that is pleasant to listen to for hours at a time.
But you have one quality the voice actor will never have — you wrote the book. You know how the people you interviewed and quoted felt when they spoke with you. You know which parts are supposed to be lighthearted and which are serious, and what points you really want to drive home. You can bring those elements to the audio recording in a way that no one else could.
If the author is a decent reader and puts in the effort to making a great recording, their interpretation is always going to be better than an actor’s. And the listener will appreciate hearing directly from the author. So if you get the chance to narrate, take it.
If you have a publisher that holds the audio rights, discuss this with them. (Some will reject authors as narrators, but most recognize the value you can bring.) If you hold the audio rights yourself, you or an audio producer can contract with Audible to create and publisher the audio.
Here’s how to maximize the chances that your audio narration is both pleasant and successful.
1 Work with an experienced audiobook producer.
Some authors — experienced podcasters, for example — have sophisticated home recording setups. But even if this is you, I encourage to you work with an experienced audiobook producer in a studio, rather than attempting to record the book yourself.
The producer has exactly the right equipment to record your voice. They will read along with you in the control room and catch you if you skip or mangle a word. And they’ll edit the audio recordings, catching and fixing flubs, and assemble them into the best possible audio files. They’re also typically used to dealing with publishers and audiobook distributors like Audible.
I’ve written about how you can spot a crappy self-published book. For the same reasons, you should avoid creating a crappy self-recorded audiobook — your reputation is on the line.
2 Practice reading aloud.
Reading aloud is not something we do every day. You should get used to it.
When I was recording my first audiobook, I had confidence that I could narrate it well because I frequently read aloud to my children. We graduated from Dr. Seuss to The Little House on the Prairie and Harry Potter. So I was comfortable reading pages and pages of prose.
Of course, that’s not the same as reading a nonfiction book you wrote. So sit down in a room and start reading — and maybe record yourself to see how you sound. If you can do that for ten minutes or so, you’ll be ready for the studio. If not — or if you find it a frustrating and painful experience — maybe you should reconsider that voice actor.
3 Set aside the time.
You can’t rush a narration.
A typical book recording is five to ten hours long. It’s going to take twice that for you to record it — because you are human, you will make mistakes, need to go back and restart, and require breaks. So you’re looking at ten to 20 hours in the studio, depending on how many mistakes you make and how many breaks you take.
If you can spend the time, it’s worth it. But if your mind is elsewhere because of all those hours, your recording will reflect it. Good author narrators sound authoritative, not anxious.
4 Don’t just read. Narrate.
You are not here as an expert reader. You are here as the author.
When you write, you hear the words in your mind’s ear. Now you are creating a recording to get those words into your reader’s ear. They should hear it as you hear it, in your head.
That means you are telling the book. In some parts, you tell a story. So tell it as a story. In other places, you are making a point. So drive that point home. Some parts are lyrical — narrate them poetically. You can get a little louder or softer, read slightly faster or slower, and use pauses for dramatic effect.
If you are a public speaker, you are used to using your voice and your body to convey these emotions. You no longer have your body as a tool, but you still have your voice. Your public speaking skills will help.
In general, you need to overdo it a little compared to what you imagine. You’re more likely to miss the mark by being too slow, even, and boring than by exaggerating the emotions. If you’re concerned, try it and then ask the producer’s opinion — and listen to your voice as they play it back. They’ll tell you if you’ve gone over the top.
No one wants to listen to you shouting and shrieking for seven hours. But they don’t want to fall asleep either. You need to keep people interested by connecting the words with the emotions behind them.
5 Use audible punctuation.
Readers have punctuation to guide them. Audiobook listeners don’t.
That means you need to use your voice to communicate how to parse the words and sentences.
You’ll develop a standard-length pause at the end of a sentence, maybe half a second. Pause a little longer at the end of a paragraph. Pause longer at the end of a section or chapter. Pause for every comma, but a little less.
Make your questions sound like questions.
When narrating a series, use the tone of your voice to help the listener recognize that they’re hearing a list. Up, up, up, and down. (Notice how important the Oxford comma is in communicating that list!)
You also need a way to indicate a chapter title or section heading. I usually use an even intonation, going down a bit, and a longer pause after that. The reader hears that sentence fragment and says, ah, that’s a heading.
6 Create workarounds for visual elements
If your texts has graphics or tables, you won’t read them. That creates gaps.
You’ll have to leave out portions of the text that say things like “See Figure 2.”
If you want, you could put those graphics online on your book site, and read a note that refers audiobook listeners to them.
7 Prepare for tricky parts
Your manuscript has land mines. You need to know where they are and deal with them.
Track down the pronunciation of names or places you may not be familiar with. In one book I narrated, there was a case study about an Italian executive named Guido. I contacted him and confirmed that his name was pronounced Ghee-dough, not Gwee-dough. And before I read a section that referred to Zappos founder’s Tony Hsieh’s, I asked my social media friends how to pronounce his last name (it’s “Shay”). These are problems you can ignore when writing, but not when reading aloud.
If your text includes a word that’s long or unfamiliar, say it a bunch of times until you’re comfortable with it. If you stumble on omnichannel or transubstantiation each time you mention them, it’s going to be a long day at the studio.
It’s not just words that will trip you up. There are parts of your text that are funny or sad or shocking. That’s great in writing. But you can’t be laughing or crying as you narrate. Read them aloud. Read them again. Read them again, until you can get through them without cracking. Emotion in your narration is fine, so long as it doesn’t interfere with your getting the words recorded.
Oddly, it may be helpful to the listener if you don’t read the sad parts with a sniffle. Let the words do the work. Read them in a slow, neutral tone and the listener’s mind will generate the images and emotions for you.
8 Take breaks when you are tired
When you are tired, you will make mistakes. You’ll skip words, or mispronounce them. Your producer will likely catch these errors, but it will take you longer to lay down the audio.
You’re better off taking 15 minutes off, or breaking for lunch, and coming back to it with a fresh head.
And don’t schedule an 8-hour reading session. You’re not impressing anyone; nobody cares that you did the reading in one sitting. Break it up across several days and the quality of the result will be better.
9 Take note of errors.
The best time to do the audiobook is when the copy edits are done and the text is rock solid, but the page layout is not quite complete.
While you are reading, you’ll find errors. Reading aloud is a good way to catch little mistakes.
Take note when you do. And fix the errors before you finalize the pages.
10 Great writing is easier to read.
Good writing has a rhythm to it. It has long and short sentences. It flows. It’s entertaining to consume.
Bad writing is repetitive or hard to follow. It may have sentences or paragraphs that are too long and ponderous. And it may be full of unusual or jargon words that are hard to read.
If your writing is good, you’ll find reading it aloud to be enjoyable. You’ll fall in love with your own prose. This is a good feeling to have about a book that you’ve written.
If your writing is bad, reading it aloud will be an onerous chore. If it’s hard for you to read, imagine how hard it is for the reader at home.
Your own prose is likely somewhere in the middle. Parts of it will sing. Parts of it will drag. Take note as you read aloud. And resolve to fix those draggy parts in your next book. You’ll be doing a favor, not just to your future self as a narrator, but to all those people reading your book in print as well.