Audiobook narration tips for authors

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.

10 responses to “Audiobook narration tips for authors

  1. Just a fantastic list, Josh. I can’t imagine doing this myself for all sorts of reasons. Here’s a biggie: My narrator told me that Amazon’s quality-control checks will ding any book with too much ambient noise.

  2. I’ve bought two audio books in the last three months that use computer-generated narration. May I say I am not a fan. Some pronunciations of towns, etc. are awful. Not enough pausing. Be aware–the easiest option is not always the best.

  3. Josh – Whew, all excellent points, and completely true from my own experience.

    I can’t tell you how much fun I had trying to successfully pronounce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi when I was referencing his work on Flow. It was a few obscenity filled minutes of fun in the studio that I hope have been erased forever.

    One other aspect when an actor will be doing the work instead of the author. Don’t assume that they know the acronyms and pronunciations of words or phrases. For example, I was doing a lot of work in Enterprise 2.0 in the late 2000s. Is that Enterprise two POINT oh? Or Enterprise two DOT oh? Or Enterprise 2 point zero? Hard enough to know when you’re in the field, impossible if you aren’t.

    Let me suggest that two times the finished recording time is likely far less time than it’s going to take, especially if you’re doing the work entirely yourself.

    I did voice-over work for a 5 day workshop that I had written/created myself and was built for a specific client.

    To record that much material, it was easily 4-6 times the actual time recording, listening and editing the material compared to actual playback time for a listener/watcher. And I have a background in audio editing, so it was much more the upfront recording than the back-end production work that impacted my timeline.

    All told, your tips are spot on and quite thorough!

  4. I listen to dozens of nonfiction Audible books a year, most at 1.75 to 2.25 times the nominal speed. I used to believe that every reading benefits from a professional voice actor. No longer. More and more, I’m discovering authors whose narration is virtually as clear and professional as a professional narrator’s. And as you note, an author can lend the reading a heartfelt passion.
    In a book about animal rights and animal intelligence, the author started to cry as he narrated a passage about the death of a chimp!
    Moreover, professional narrators are not perfect. Recently, I listened to a book about physics. The professional narrator misread “causality” as “casualty”–not one, not twice, but three times in the span of a minute.
    I’ve also heard professional narrators misread the sense of a sentence. For example, they’ll take a sentence like, “Now, you might think that …” and misread the “now” as a temporal now, emphasizing it as if to say, “But tomorrow, …”
    I get how a narrator can fail to parse a sentence’s sense, and forecast where it’s heading, in real time. What I don’t get is why narrators–and even more, their producers–don’t immediately realize such a mistake and re-record it.

  5. As an experienced audiobook narrator, I agree with most of your suggestions and directions. As an experienced audiobook listener, I would say that one out of five authors can successfully narrate their own titles. Jimmy Carter? Abominable. Barack Obama? OK, but not great. Charles Frazier? Listen to Cold Mountain — it’s pitch-perfect. Few narrators could get as close to the material.

    The hardest thing to get past will be ego. Listen to yourself as dispassionately as possible reading a recorded chapter before you even consider narrating your own book. Ask someone you know and trust to be honest with you to do the same.

  6. This list is a great starting point in determining whether to narrate your own book.

    As others have stated, not every author is going to be able to narrate their work or, if they are, they still may not be the best fit for the listener, as Tom Pile stated above. I, too, am an experienced professional audiobook narrator, and, as Dan Kelsden states, your estimate of two times the finished length is going to fall short. Highly experienced narrators will be able to record at a ratio of 2:1 (studio recording time to finished audiobook length); narrators and authors who are less experienced will likely take at least twice that rate, or about 4 times the finished length of the audiobook, or more. If, as an author, you’re considering doing this, you should bank on 4-6 times, or about 32 to 48 hours to record an 8-hour audiobook. Remember also that you’ll only be able to record effectively 4 to 6 hours a day; the voice will only hold out for so long and you want to ensure that your voice maintains a consistent tone throughout the book.

    Also realize that professionally trained voice actors will approach any text with the proper preparation (including consulting with the author to ensure that their intent is appropriately conveyed through narration), and that an experienced narrator will take into account aspects of narration that a less-experienced narrator or author may not be keyed into, including pacing, proper breath support and control, intonation, etc.

    But there’s more to producing an audiobook than simply recording it. After the recording is finished, you’ll need to have the raw audio proofed by an experienced proofer who knows what to look for to ensure that you’ve recorded all the words, in their correct order, properly pronounced, and not added any words not in the text. Once it’s been proofed, then you can expect another 2 to 4 hours (or more, depending on how many errors were found) re-recording the errors your proofer found. And finally, the audio will need to be edited and mastered by a professional audio engineer to ensure that the final audio files will meet the audio specifications that Audible and other distributors require in order to pass their QC process.

    Approach this endeavor with realistic expectations of the process and with a good expectation of how your narration will be received by your listeners, and you’ll have a better chance to succeed. Remember, of course, that your blood, sweat, and tears went into the production of your book, and the production of your audiobook should also be approached with the same level of dedication and enthusiasm and professionalism that your work deserves.

    1. Gary, it’s interesting that your experience and mine are different. My audiobook recordings typically take 2x the total recorded length, not longer.

      I think the reason is 1) I’m highly familiar with the material, 2) I’m a pretty good reader, and 3) My audio engineer is extremely attentive and catches problems as soon as they happen, so I can go back and fix them. There is very little extra QC needed.

      Interestingly, when I have narrated chapters written by coauthors of mine, they take longer, because the cadences don’t exactly match the way my mind works. No reader would be able to tell the difference, but my brain knows I didn’t write what I’m reading.

      I know my engineer spends a lot of time on the final production, but that’s not included in the time I need to spend recording.

      1. Hi Josh!

        That’s totally valid, and I’m glad that your experience was so positive. A lot will of course depend upon your reading skills, your endurance (physical and mental), the abilities and involvement of the engineer, etc. And of course, reading your own material certainly helps. But even so, sitting in a room, reading and maintaining your engagement for hours on end over multiple days is not as easy as it sounds. 🙂

        I really should have clarified, however, that my figures were largely based on the assumption of working either without an involved director and/or engineer, or recording in a home-based studio. Indeed, working in a professional studio with a good director and/or engineer will likely allow that more efficient work flow, including fewer, if any, corrections that require re-recording. There are, of course, several factors to take into account in the process, though, and one shouldn’t be surprised if it does indeed take a little longer than expected.

        And yes, the post-production activities won’t involve the author/narrator; I just mentioned those to provide a complete picture of the process. All in all, this is a very informative post and a great place to start thinking about the process. Thanks!

  7. Listening to Christopher Reeve read his book “Nothing is Impossible” the listener gets used to the pattern of each inhalation. It definitely added to the book. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and among my favorites are the New Yorker Fiction and Writer’s Voice podcasts where writers read either their own or other’s work. Due to COVID, they have been letting some record from home, and the results are sometimes painful and unprofessional. It’s especially hard to listen to people who have annoying vocal patterns, such as swallowing the end of every sentence (or turning each into a question). An accent can be delightful, however. I listen to informational audio books at 2X, but books for enjoyment are best savored at normal speed.

  8. Love this post. Narrating my own books has made me a better writer, but even as a trained singer, I’ve found there’s a learning curve. And boy, I think really hard before I write about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I chanted that for several minutes before attempting that chapter.

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