Why narrating an audiobook is a LOT harder than you think
We discovered firsthand the secrets of making audiobooks – and what makes narrators like Stephen Fry and Thandie Newton such pros
If you’ve managed to find your way here, the chances are you’ll agree with the following: most of the time, reading is pretty easy. You’re probably able to find your way around these words without a hitch. And these ones too.
Reading aloud? It’s a little harder, sure, but certainly manageable for most. But recording an entire audiobook? That’s probably more difficult than you first think. A lot more difficult.
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That’s because, however pretentious it might sound, the very best audiobook narrators don’t just read a novel – they perform it. They inject life into a book, adding pace, emotion and tension with their voice alone. They have to do that while mastering all character accents, tricky location names and often foreign languages. And – here’s the kicker – they have to do it right first time.
These challenges mean if you take somebody who’s not a trained actor – say, the author of this article – whisk them off to Audible studios and make them record part of an audiobook, you’ll likely see the result – like the recording below – is bad. Oh god, it's so bad.
If you haven’t done your research on how to pronounce problematic words (in this case the archaic locations in Sherlock Holmes, such as "Maiwand"), didn’t annotate the text and have a producer ready to call out the slightest mistake through your headphones, it’s likely you’ll slip up a few times.
More like this
Granted, probably not as many as this. (Sorry for the swearing, Mum).
Looks like to learn the many skills of pulling off a perfect recording, you’ll instead need to speak to a professional narrator like actor Imogen Church.
Starting her audiobook career reading erotica for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (titles which were mainly listened to by “two old men in Southport”, she says), Church has been the voice of over 200 books, from Bridget Jones, to Crimson Peak and even a Sharon Osbourne autobiography.
In other words, Church is the perfect person to reveal the secrets of how audiobooks are put together – and just how much work goes into one recording.
If you want to be a narrator, you'd better listen up.
Prep time is paramount – and very short
Imagine, just for a second, you’ve been selected to narrate what’s tipped to be the greatest-selling audiobook of the year. Congrats! Now the bad news: you’ve got just three days to prepare.
That’s the average for a 10-hour audiobook, according to Church. “And the prep is so important,” she says. “In those three days, I need to mark up my digital version of the book – always on a tablet – with my own version of editing shorthand.”
What notes would you need to make? Firstly, there’s the obvious: the dialogue. Marking up the characters' speech in different colours helps you identify whose voice you need to use.
Take it from Church, you’ll definitely need it: “Sometimes authors will write long dialogues where they don't say at any point who is speaking. You really need to highlight those or you end up talking in a completely different character's voice. It’s just second nature to me to do this while I’m reading now.”
Then there are sentences like this: "'You need to speak quietly,' she whispered." Chances are that when reading the quote aloud you wouldn’t have seen the need to whisper until it was too late. You have to know a character’s tone before they talk – something Church achieves with a little note in the margin – a ‘Q’ in this case.
And that’s before you mark the beats (a signal to speed up or slow down the voice) and note any breathing points during particularly lengthy passages (particularly in Edwardian literature).
Then you'll have to learn how to pronounce any problematic words, whether they're a tricky medical term or in another language (“There's always books with French in! And I don’t speak French!” laughs Church).
You may even need to research what a character sounds like if they exist in real life. “While doing one of Sharon Osbourne's autobiographies I had to check what sort of voice these celebrities had that I hadn’t heard of,” says Church.
“I just wanted to know where they were from, mind. I didn’t want to do an actual impression of anybody. Well, except Ozzy. Giving him a normal voice would have been weirder than not to.”
So, once you’ve managed all that prep – in three days, if you’re a pro, remember – you’re ready to enter the recording studio. And that’s where things get really difficult.
Recording is not a sprint but a marathon. A long, long marathon
One of the most surprising things about recording an audiobook? Most of it is read out only once.
Although actors lending their voices to animated features such as Tom Hanks in Toy Story can dedicate hours to a single line, apply that technique to a ten-hour audiobook (the average length) and it would take several months to finish. Instead, narrators like Church can turn around a book in a week.
It’s a mammoth task. Although generally narrators record six hours of audio a day (which is broken down into four sessions, an hour and a half each), it’s an enormous time to spend talking. While the average person speaks 10,000 words a day, a narrator will get through that in two sittings.
“It sounds so ridiculous but it's actually an incredibly exhausting job,” says Church. “The first book I ever did, I had a headache for about a week afterwards.
“It’s because for those hour and a half sessions it’s literally just you non-stop jabbering. The whole time. There's no 'oh, I'm going to stretch my legs'. You're just talking non-stop.”
There is, however, one massive perk to a long stint in the recording studio: it’s incredibly comfy. While the producer perches behind a huge deck of equipment out of sight behind a glass window, the narrator enjoys a room specifically designed to put them at ease.
Not only does the narrator have a wide selection of plush chairs they can bring in the studio, they’re also free to use as many pillows, throws and blankets as they wish. The lighting, too, is at their control, with the narrator free to illuminate the calming beige walls as softly as they please.
Basically, whatever setup you need to get comfy, the studio will prepare it. “We did have one narrator that liked to sit in almost pitch black with a single spotlight on them. They had duvets all over them and they were all wrapped up,” recalls Content Director of Audible Laurence Howell.
“It’s a long time in the studio, so we do whatever it takes to get the narrator in the zone. For most people, there’s always one little thing they want – a special honey for their tea or something. We’ll get that for them."
However, according to Howell, there is something producers occasionally try and change to keep narrators alert. “We try and keep it a little bit cool to help keep people awake and not too zoned out and falling asleep!”
Acting skills: a narrator needs all of them
No, you won’t be on camera or performing in front of a theatre-sized audience. But narrating an audiobook is still a task that pushes most actors.
“It is a real skill,” Howell says. “Even with established actors doing their first book, we often get to the end and they'll go back and maybe they'll do the first couple of chapters because they were still finding their rhythm the first time.”
“There are a few exceptions,” he adds. “That includes the genius Stephen Fry – he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Also Thandie Newton. She can do a lot of characters and a lot of dialects and difficult words. And she loves it and it comes across in her performances.
“But narrating is its own art and one hard to get right. It's not easy.”
“I think audiobooks use every single acting skill but they all have to be put into your voice,” adds Church. “While I’m sitting still in a darkened room, I have to use everything I learned in drama school.”
Such as? Church says narrators have to learn how to build tension in a scene, the subtle art of capturing the emotion in your voice, or to build its power gradually before suddenly dropping with complete command of the breath.
If that sounds manageable then consider this: you’ll have to do that with every character and switch between them without a hitch – no matter how challenging their accents are.
“Imagine if you're doing a play. You get a month or six weeks to learn, say, a German accent to play a German character. All you will do is play that German the whole night for months,” explains Church. “I have to talk to myself in 14 different accents with no time in between to take a moment.”
This can get particularly tricky the more distinctive the accents. The prime example here: Australian and Kiwi. “With that I really had to put some practice in,” says Church. “I watched a lot of Flight of the Conchords.”
Another voice switch you might not expect to be so hard: Yorkshire and Cornwall accents. “I actually had to do a couple of lines and take a moment’s break with that,” says Church. “It was so hard to flip between them and I don't know why!”
Fortunately Church says that, when possible, she speaks to the author beforehand to see if they have any directions on how a character sounds. At other times, however, she has to rely on some very abstract guidance from the text.
“I remember one description: ‘from his accent you could tell his public school roots, but also that he was brought up on the streets of Glasgow’. And in another book, a character was said to be ‘very well-educated, but brushed with Indian’. How do you brush your accent with Indian?” (Author’s note: we don’t recommend trying it aloud if you’re reading this in public.)
With all this said, however, we should warn you that no matter how much work you put into your performance and distinct voices, you might not be appreciated by all audiences. Even your children.
“I have a competition going with my husband – who’s not an actor at all – with the bedtime stories. And my son will sometimes say ‘no, Daddy’s better!’” laughs Imogen. “I just have to tell them they’re wrong.”
Hearing the error of your ways
The goal for any narrator: complete the audiobook in one take. But sadly – even if you’re a pro like Church – this is virtually impossible.
“I probably say that I make a fluff per page,” she says. “And from what editors have told me, that’s quite low. The people who get lots of work are the people who can essentially just do it straight off.”
“It's usually the innocuous words where mistakes are made, such as swapping 'she says' for 'she said’. The kind of thing that when you're scanning ahead your mind decides to change it for what it thinks makes sense. Words like ‘as’, ‘if’ or ‘of’."
“But we have to make sure every single word reflects the book,” adds Howell. “We should be completely accurate to the text.”
Here's what it sounds like when an audiobook narrator makes a mistake.
Luckily, it’s not just down to the narrator to spot the mistakes. The producer is reading the exact same text as the narrator on the other side of the studio’s large glass panel and they’ll interrupt – ever so politely – to announce when something has gone wrong.
“Generally, though, if I make a mistake I'll know and I'll stop and just go back to the beginning of the sentence again – they'll snip that out at the end,” says Church. “But even if you're a well-read literate person you just get blindness, especially towards the end of the day. That’s when you need a producer to come in.”
That’s not all. It’s the producer who also has to check whether a narrator’s clothes are making too much noise – “There have been times where we’ve had to send somebody down to Tesco to pick up a T-shirt for the narrator,” says Howell.
And then there are unexpected noises from the narrators themselves: they have to use so much concentration and energy while recording that belly rumbling can be a problem. “Sometimes the only thing that will prevent it is a Full English in the morning!” says Church.
But perhaps a producer’s most important job is to check the energy levels during the recording. They have to listen out and advise the narrator whether they’re giving the performance slightly more or less oomph than the previous session.
“It’s really important as a listener you don't know when the audio was recorded – whether it was done the first or last thing on the day,” explains Howell. “Energy levels have to be maintained the entire way through.”
With all this in mind, Howell says the producer is so important that Audible spends as much time picking out and selecting a producer as they do a narrator. And that can often take much longer than the researching and recording itself.
However, even if the producer and narrator are flawless, there’s often nothing they can do about mistakes that appear in the original text. “Every single book I read has at least one mistake in it. Every. One.
“One time it was so bad. I was doing a recording for a self-help book and there was the sentence, 'it was much like EM Forster's Howards’ Way'. We went on and then the producer suddenly said: 'Hang on, Howards’ Way? Isn't that the 1980s show set in a yachting club? Does she mean Howards End, the book by EM Forster?’
“Between us, we thought: ‘We can't do this to this poor woman. It’s not fair!'. So it stayed in.”
Sometimes the text can throw up an error by simply being too rib-tickling. “Generally I'm very professional, but I have made myself corpse a couple of times,” admits Church. Although she says this normally happens when reading a particularly funny comedy book, the giggles can often be down to some misguided raunchy writing.
“I remember there was this one passage where the author referred to – and I think it was supposed to be a compliment to the woman – 'the cauldron of her c***'. Every time I read it we had to stop for a few minutes [laughs]."
Luckily for Church and the producer, there’s a whole team of editors just outside the studio scraping any mistakes – and bouts of laughter – from the audio.
“They'll be editing slightly behind what’s being recorded,” explains Howell. “They can keep a good pace. Generally, we say two hours in the studio equals an hour finished audio.”
Click here to hear what an unedited audiobook sounds like.
Another precaution comes in the form of proof listeners. Sitting down with the original text, they sift through the recording to make sure the audio quality meets the bar and that every word is correct.
And if a fault is found? “In some cases, we have to get the narrator back in because something needs to be re-done,” says Howell. “But often, [if a narrator has missed out a word], it’s there elsewhere in the text. We’ll take that and drop it in where it's needed and you won’t notice.”
However, despite all these safety nets, the performance – no matter how long – still relies on the narrator’s skill. “It's an art. People like Imogen Church make it sound really easy. And it's just not. Everyone thinks, 'I could read this out', but it's so much more complicated.”
“You've got to be an avid reader to do this job,” adds Church. “Because if you don't read then you won't have the concentration levels. If you're not a lover of reading then don’t bother. But if you love reading and want to get into it then read aloud at home. Just do it for ten minutes and see how it feels.”
In other words, if you want to be a narrator then there’s no better start place than here, reading these last few sentences aloud. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like your laughable – and rather sweary – efforts will be recorded and uploaded to a prestige entertainment website for all to hear, is it?
What a nightmare that would be.
You can listen to an Audible title narrated by Imogen Church here
Plus, we've put together a guide in case you've ever found yourself wondering, just how does Audible work?
Originally published in 2019