Choosing a narrator is one of the most important decisions an author can make when deciding to create an audio book. A bad narrator can kill a book whereas a great narrator can dramatically increase sales and income for an author. But how do you choose? What criteria do you use to find someone who is right for your book?
After publishing four Legendary Women of World History biographies in English (narrated by Richard Mann), two LWWH in Spanish, one Peers of Beinan novella, and both “American Poverty” and “Preparing for My First Cockatiel” since June, 2014, I have now experienced the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to narrators and the ACX system and can confidently break down everything into three easy to remember key criteria for choosing the right narrator for your book. These are the three Ps of audiobook narration, but they also apply to book translations on Babelcube which operates on a very similar system — except on Babelcube all contracts are royalty share only whereas ACX/Audible offers more choices.
Performance is what it sounds like. This is the quality of the audition and the quality of the delivered audio book. Quality includes “pitch, placement, and dynamics” as Richard Mann puts it in his introduction on his website. But it’s also recording the audiobook verbatim which I find Karl Thornton and Alex Freeman did exceptionally well on their books for me. Performance includes accents, pacing, word pronunciation, characterization, and so forth. All of these much match the book precisely so that the final book available for sale on Audible is at its best and provides the listener a great experience.
In addition to the audition itself, performance is assessed by narrator websites and ACX profiles. These are each narrator’s resume/CV designed to help authors figure out if the narrator in the profile matches the author’s needs.
It goes without saying that the more samples and more information provided in both the narrator profile and linked professional website (this can be one you build, or it can be your professional profile from soundcloud or another site showcasing actors, musicians, and/or voice artists), the more likely the author will find the right creative match for a specific book. Treat the narrator profile and website as a resume/CV and always treat the author as a hiring manager — because that’s exactly what she is. The author is hiring a performer to present her book and sell it to customers. Narrators need to present as much information as possible so the author can say “yes” and make an offer to narrate. That also includes having some method of contact such as an email address, phone number, and/or social media outside of ACX so that the author can talk by voice about the proposed project at hand.
On the surface, professionalism doesn’t seem like a key criteria for choosing a narrator. After all, it’s the creative factors in the performance that matters most, right?
Not exactly. Professionalism is about the working relationship. Someone can be very talented while also being difficult to work with. This includes communication with the author (especially if/when something goes wrong), word pronunciation, performance styling, performance issues, and really any number of hundreds of different ways things can go right or wrong along the way. The best narrators are very client-centric. They focus on what the author wants and needs and are quick to communicate problems or challenges that come up during recording. Great narrators ask the author in advance if they have a question or concern.
By contrast the bad ones put what they want first, are bad communicators, difficult to reach, ignore author requests, do not consult with the author creatively, and basically treat the author as their employee (or worse). One of my pay per finished hour narrators couldn’t be bothered to inform me his payment details in advance of the final book approval, despite knowing from previous pay per finish hour projects that pfh books are not accepted into the system as completed until the author pays the narrator and the narrator confirms payment. This sort of lack of professionalism not only makes the work process difficult, but it can also truly affect the quality of the book and therefore sales for the author.
Strong professionals make audio production easy and even fun. Weak professionals create stress and ultimately undermine and deliver poor quality work that doesn’t sell.
Price is the final criteria and it can be important. Price is obviously how much money the narrator is paid and which of the contract options the author and narrator agree upon. ACX offers two main types of contracts between authors and narrators. The first I alluded to earlier is where the narrator is paid per finished hour. This is exactly what it sounds like. When the author decides upon a narrator, s/he can offer to pay the narrator a fee based on the final book length. ACX estimates that length based on the number of words in the book. The author then uses that estimate to set a budget. If the narrator accepts the proposed rate, s/he is paid, usually by paypal, the final fee specified when the book is called final by the author. Once paid, the author and only the author receives payment from each audiobook copy sold.
The other option is royalty share. Royalty share means that author and narrator split the earnings equally and perpetually at a rate that never changes. Both author and narrator are paid for as long as the book is for sale, generally for the rest of the author’s and narrator’s lives plus a set number of years after author/narrator death. Hence, the narrator can earn much more money by royalty share and being paid per copy as the book sells over years and decades. It’s payment with an eye for the long term and it is my preferred contract term because generally I want my narrators to earn as much as possible.
Though royalty share seems perfect in many respects for authors and narrators who take a long-term view, there is one important caveat to be aware of before choosing it: if something goes horribly wrong and the author decides the final book is of such poor quality that it cannot be published at all, the author is on the hook for a flat fee currently around $500 if the contract needs to be terminated and the author decides not to offer it for sale. By contrast, in the same situation, if the author decides to not publish a pay per finish hour book, s/he pays the same fee to the narrator that is otherwise owed when the book publishes.
In other words, the author is not liable to pay more for a per finished hour book than the agreed upon pfh rate set out in the contract.
When choosing a narrator, performance, professionalism, and price all become important criteria to the decision making process. When the process goes right, authors and narrators form tightly bonded teams who create the best audio books for listeners that reflect the author’s imagination and creativity effectively. When the process goes wrong, great books get lost and often fail.