How to Break Into Narration



Okay, I’m asked constantly how people can get started in the business of audiobook narration, and for the last six months or so, I’ve been promising everyone that I’m writing a blog on just that subject, so if they’ll just check my website regularly they’ll find the advice they’re looking for. Well, it’s taken me way yonder too long, and all those people are probably sick and tired of checking back by now, but I’m finally doing what I committed to so long ago. This is it: my advice on how to break into this industry.

The most important thing: just like with any type of voiceover work, you’re going to need a demo to send off to publishers. For those who’ve never heard of this, a demo is just a short collection of vocal tracks, all dolled up in a pretty package to best convey the idea that YOU are the person who should be reading the next novel by Stephen King or Danielle Steele. It’s essentially an audition in absentia, and a common tool in the voice-over community, and in fact, many if not most aspiring VO artists already have one.

Here’s the bad news, though: for those of you who already have one, your standard VO demo won’t help you book an audiobook gig. Sorry, they just won’t. Voice-overs are short form, whereas narrating a book is about the longest form you can get. You’re going to need an audiobook demo, specifically created to show off those long form skills. Now you may be in denial, and thinking you might be the exception to the rule, maybe because your VO demo is so freakin’ cool that some publisher will just HAVE to listen to it and won’t care that you haven’t sent in the appropriate type. If so, let me tell you: do not hope for this. A friend of mine who’s in a position to cast new readers all the time told me he tosses VO demos right into the trash, unopened. No matter how cool your standard voiceover demo, it most likely won’t be heard. Trust me: go for the audiobook demo. (I’ve included the front and back images from my demo here; you can click on each image to enlarge it.)

The first thing you’ll have to do to make your demo will be to choose a minimum of five different genres to read. Why five? Why not just one or two? Well, there’s a lot of different types of books out there, and you need to show you’re adept at reading as many as possible. The genre choices are all up to you, though including fiction of some sort is an imperative; the vast majority of audiobooks published today are novels, after all, so show them what you can do with one. Pick a scene with a mixture of both narrative and dialogue so they can hear how you transition between those two types of writing. Also, pick a two-person scene between a man and a woman, for the exact same reason: the first detail any publisher will be paying attention to is how well this particular male narrator does with women’s voices, or female narrator handles males, and can he/she transition smoothly between them?

A smattering of non-fiction is also a good idea: biography, history, current events. Religious or self-help are good ideas, too. The genres (and sub-genres) to choose from are endless: children’s, young adult, science fiction, thrillers, romance. Pick a good variety, and make them as different as possible.

Of course, after picking the genres, then comes the hard part: which books, specifically, should you read from? This is the part that stumps everyone I know making their demos, the part where most people spend way too much time worrying, but seriously, don’t let this throw you. My advice? Pick your favorite book from each of the genres you’ve chosen – it’ll make a difference. Anyone who’s ever recorded a voiceover will know that if you smile while you say something in a recording studio, the listener will hear it in your voice. Well, in the same way, listeners will be able to tell if you’ve got a passion for the book you’re reading. It may not be an overwhelming impression, but it’ll be there, and in this business, subtlety is a good thing.

Next up in your decision-making process comes the length of each track, how many pages should you read, and here there’s no definitive answer. They can be as short as two minutes in length, as long as five or six. Don’t spend too much time deciding this one, just practice reading your scenes out loud and see how long they go; if it’s anywhere in the two- to six-minute range, fine; if not, cut. If you can, pick scenes that have a definite beginning, middle and end, because having some kind of resolution in your scene will definitely help you, as it’ll illustrate to potential publishers that you know how to move the story along from start to finish, that you can effectively transition (there’s that word again) between the setup, the delivery, and the payoff.

Your next most important concern will be to find a studio. Many voiceover artists and aspiring narrators have installed their own home setups these days, and should you know anyone with one, my recommendation would be to beg or barter your way into theirs. If not, then look in your phone book or do a quick Google search and find a local setup. It’s difficult to nail down prices on this, so I won’t offer any guesses here, because most studios will offer a wide variety of services, some of which are vital, others of which you may not need. Tell the studio owner what you’re doing and ask what his rates are, then shop around to compare prices. You’ll need him to provide an engineer for the session, and to edit the final product, unless you’re savvy enough to handle that on your own. You may find, if you live in Los Angeles or New York, that certain studios provide all those services, as well as classes that’ll essentially give you the side benefit of training and direction while you record. It’s entirely up to you whether or not you feel you need this. Don’t be afraid to say no thanks.

When the time comes to actually record your selections, start by slating your name: “Scott Brick – audiobook demo.” Remember to make this a separate sound file, not the intro to the first track. People should hear your name, even if they decide to fast-forward to the Romance section. You can be creative here in your title, but don’t go overboard. And when you record your selections, slate each one with the title of the book and the author’s name: “LAKE WOBEGON by Garrison Keillor.” That’s all you need, don’t list your name again in the individual genre tracks, it’ll sound really repetitive by the time someone has heard it five or six times on the same disc. After you’re done slating your selection, give just a two- to three-second pause before beginning, and leave the same length at the end of the selection to help separate it from the track coming immediately after. Make sure the engineer/editor you’re working with understands you need this; otherwise, you’ll finish on a really dramatic high note… and it’ll be followed up immediately by you slating the next title: WALTER THE FARTING DOG by…” It may sound funny here, but you don’t want laughs there.

(By the way, I’ve been asked repeatedly if there are any copyright issues to worry about, whether it’s cool to read from somebody else’s book or if applicants should write something original. Don’t worry about copyright: that only applies if you’re selling this demo, or broadcasting it somewhere, which you’re not. Pick whichever books you want, without worry of prosecution.)

You don’t have to take this next bit of advice as gospel, but I hope you will: enjoy your time in the studio as much as you can. Seriously, reading is a fun gig, and you should make the most of it. You also don’t want to sound nervous or distressed, you should sound as though you do this every day, and WILL do it every day when whoever hears this demo and hires you starts giving you work.

My last bit of advice on the recording process itself: don’t read all your selections on the same day. Seriously, if you can avoid it (and afford it), don’t. They’ll sound too similar, and you need them to sound very different, not just in tone but in pacing and energy. If you can only afford to get into the studio once, if time or money is a concern, then make sure each time you finish a track that you get up and walk around the outside of the building at least once. Otherwise your energy will be the exact same on each cut, and publishers will have a hard time distinguishing between them.

Now that you’ve got all your selections recorded and arranged in the order you want them, you’re pretty much ready to burn it to a CD. (And yes, CD is the preferred media. The days of cassettes are long past, so don’t even think about it. And not everyone will take the time to click on the appropriate link to where your demo is waiting to be downloaded from your website. Some publishers will, some won’t, but almost all of them will happily accept a CD.) Your packaging is up to you: you can go quick and cheap or intricate and expensive. That’s what’s known nowadays as branding, and unfortunately for our purposes, an entirely different subject. Fortunately there are some great resources out there to help you in this if you want to put the time, effort and money into it, such as Nancy Wolfson. While I haven’t worked with Nancy personally, I attended a seminar she gave at VOICE 2008 here in Los Angeles, and she had some pretty powerful ideas about branding. You can contact her website and see if she might be able to help you.

Still, at the very least, if you’re going to just do a simple label in a clear plastic CD case, make sure you’ve labeled your disc with your name and your contact information. If you go with a CD case label as well, make sure they BOTH have your contact information. God forbid the disc slips out of the case, the case gets lost, the publisher hears the demo and loves it, wants to hire you on the spot, but oh no, you’d only labeled the case and the disc is blank. At that point, it’s on to the next demo.

Now, you might still be asking things like, “But am I ready to make a demo?” or “You mentioned transitioning between narrative and dialogue, between male and female voices… how do I do those things?” Those are separate subjects, alas, and best handled with more interaction, but take heart: there are quality classes you can take, instructors whose opinions and guidance will be invaluable to you. Pat Fraley is an awesome resource, and he teaches all over the country, so don’t worry if you’re not in LA. I, myself, have also jumped into instruction recently and will be available in the near future, either here in LA or via video download… again, in the near future. And you should also definitely contact Stefan Rudnicki and Gabrielle DeCuir. They’re the folks who gave me my start in the audiobook business, and better teachers can’t be found anywhere. Pat’s website is a wonderful resource. There you’ll even find a free lesson posted, what he refers to as his Ed Asner lesson (near the bottom of the page). Pat can also be reached via email at Stefan and Gabrielle teach in conjunction with Dolores Diehl and the Voiceover Connection. Stefan and Gabrielle’s own private website is Skyboat Road Company, while their email address is Whoever you choose as an instructor can help you with whatever challenges you face while planning or making your demo. Once you’re ready, record it!

I’d like to point out something briefly: the people whose classes or resources I suggest here don’t give me any kind of kickback or gratuity for passing along business to them. I suggest their names only because of my experience working with them; I’ve observed or guest-lectured in both Stefan’s and Pat’s forums and can testify first-hand to their terrific skills at instruction. But don’t feel that you have to go to whomever I suggest; there are other resources out there, too. Pick someone you’re comfortable working with, that’s the most important thing. And remember that whomever you want to learn from, even if they’re on the other side of the country and you’re unable to travel to their class, if you ask nicely they might be willing to do private sessions over the phone, or perhaps even direct you via speakerphone while you’re in the studio laying down tracks.

Okay, at this point you’re done with your demo, and the question now becomes where to send it? Your best bet is to get AudioFile Magazine’s Audiobook Reference Guide, available from their website. It’s got the contact information for every publisher of audiobooks out there. Buy a copy, grab a package of CD mailers from your local office supply store, and start typing up labels. Or word-processing them. Geez, typing – talk about dating myself…

Okay, one last thing to quickly address: how best to market your demo once you’ve created it. Well, unfortunately, that’s another topic that’ll have to be addressed in another forum. Marketing is an acquired skill and requires extra effort and planning. I’m more than happy to help you with this as well, but won’t be able to do it here. Instead, I’ll be offering the first of what I hope will be many videos on the subject of audiobook narration available for download here on my website.

The first will be all about how to market yourself, and how to target specific companies where you have the best chance to break in. You’ve gone to the effort to create a kick-ass audiobook demo; now what do you do with it, how do you package it, and how do you make it work for you? How can you make sure it presents you in the most positive light? Sample topics will include how to write an appropriate introductory letter, which publishers to target, and the most important skill to employ while waiting to hear back. Future topics for this video series will be the specific skills I touched on earlier: how best to differentiate between character voices, how to make dialogue stand out from narration, as well as how to make choices that’ll keep your listeners coming back for more. There’s no release schedule for these videos yet, but I hope you’ll check back in at the website for information. I’m very much looking forward to making them, and I hope they’ll be a help to you.

Well, that’s it. This has been a long blog, but I hope you’ve found it instructive. I hope it leads to fun and rewarding work for all of you. I hope something you learn here will help you to score your first (and second, and third) audiobook gig, and most importantly, I hope that after you do, you’ll drop me a line and let me know. My email address, and hearing someone tell me they booked their first job is always the highlight of my day.

Thanks for listening,

Scott Brick






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