How Audiobooks are Made – Part One: Preparation and Casting

My name is Sam Devereaux and I’m the co-founder of Flying Pickle. I’m also a Voice Actor and I have been recording audiobooks for over 7 years. During this time, I have completed more than 80 titles of differing lengths and genres. This blog is the first of 3 parts in which I explain the process of making an audiobook

Audiobook narration is, essentially, a version of intimate storytelling that is as old as history itself. Despite this, I have come to realise that reading books into a microphone for a living is seen by many as a pretty exotic occupation. As a result, I am frequently asked how on earth such projects are undertaken. How do you learn all that text? Do you do all the characters? How do you do all the characters?! Is your larynx made of steel? How do you edit such a long recording together?

Audiobook narration is an exacting process if you want to do it well. And there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about exactly what I do when I narrate one (obviously my larynx isn’t made of steel, but the case of my microphone is.)

So, I thought it would be fun for me to explain to you lovely readers how I do it. Before I go any further though, I would like to point out that what I am about to reveal relates to my own process. Some of what I do will be very similar to other narrators and some parts might be unique to my own way of working. Nothing I say in the following paragraphs represents a value judgement of my esteemed colleagues, many of whom I’m sure have a completely different way of doing things!

Nor is this insight particularly relatable to those who ply the narrating trade in 3rd party studios. I am full of admiration for these hard-working narrators, such as my brother’s brilliant sister-in-law, Tania Rodrigues. These guys work to unbelievably tight schedules and manage to narrate superbly under huge pressure. I’m a madman in a box by comparison! Hopefully you’ll find what I reveal interesting and entertaining if not especially pertinent to those who read books in Audible’s own studios.

1 – Casting

“A website isn’t much good though if it’s not ranked very well by Google”

Before you get to utter a single syllable into the microphone you need to get a job. So, assuming you’re like me and don’t have an agent handling your audiobook castings where do you get the gig from? I have spent years building up relationships with a number of excellent production houses such as Audible, Bee Audio, WF Howes and Harper Audio. These companies make rights deals for audiobook recordings and then ask their casting director to match the title to the voice. For narrators like me, who work from their own studio, these relationships are vital and must be carefully nurtured.

I also put a large amount of effort into my website. I am often surprised by how little some voice actors seem to care about their website. Perhaps, if most of your work comes from an agent you don’t need to worry about it? For me, an attractive and user-friendly website is completely essential. It is my shop window and potential clients can discover so much about me by visiting it. Without even meeting or talking to me they can discover the quality of my work and my level of professionalism. They can decide if they like the “cut of my jib”!

A website isn’t much good though if it’s not ranked very well by Google. I spend a lot of time and money making sure my website can be easily found. As a result, I often record audiobooks for an author directly, giving me complete control of the creative process from preparation to proofing. This is an altogether more involved way of working and I’ll touch on it later in this series. Suffice to say, having complete creative control of a project is a very exciting way to work.

Once, I have been matched to a suitable project and signed the contract, I receive the script and the work begins…

2 – Preparation

“When I prepare a text for narration, I’m assimilating the writing style”

It is impossible to overstate how important preparation is to an audiobook read. Narrators don’t have to learn any of the text (in case you were wondering) but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to thoroughly read the text before beginning the recording. Why? Well, firstly it’s important to be aware of any technical challenges such as accents for characters and word pronunciations. Secondly, to take possession of the story and convince the listener that we are not just reciting words off a page, the audiobook narrator must be very familiar with the text. Otherwise, a very flat read will surely be the result!

When I prepare a text for narration, I’m not just flagging up research or vocal challenges that I must resolve as a voice actor. I’m assimilating the writing style. What is the author trying to say and how do they want me to say it? This is so important. After all, meaning and emotion are carried by more than just language. The detailed preparation required to reveal this intangible feel of a book is what separates an excellent read from a pedestrian one.

A good example of this is the series of books I narrated by Will Jordan. They are about the adventures of a British ex-SAS operative in the world of international espionage. A cursory glance shows the narrator a lot of violence and unrelenting action. However, a detailed preparatory read reveals the humour and emotional sensitivity that interlaces almost every page in the book. If the narrator fails to bring this sensitivity to life, then the author’s intention will not be fulfilled, and the soul of the book will be poorly expressed by the narrator.

Having ploughed through this preparation, researched difficult language, and made strong character choices, the audiobook narrator is now ready to commence the narration itself…