Being based in Los Angeles, CA, we here at JBI Studios know what it's like to hit LA traffic and experience long commutes. What's helped our sanity and the sanity of many other commuters is listening to audiobooks. It's a big industry: Pew Research found that 1 in 5 Americans listen to audiobooks with the two most popular locations being in the car or at home. As a result, the demand for narrators has grown and many voice actors are adding audiobook narration to their repertoire.
How did audiobooks become popular? What are some tips for someone who wants to become an audiobook narrator? We'll answer those questions in the blog below.
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Daily Graphic (New York), April 2nd, 1878
Audiobooks: A Short History
Recorded readings have been around since 1878, a year after the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison, when the nursery rhyme "Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle" was recorded to a phonograph record. At the time, audio recordings were not practical for daily use and it wasn't until 1932 when The American Foundation for the Blind recorded 30 minutes of book readings to vinyl records that such recordings were made more available. The following year, Congress passed an amendment for the Library of Congress to begin audiobook production.
What started as a way to assist the blind, recorded books soon became more and more popular with the general public. This is due in large part to the big strides in audio technology over the years: cassette tapes in the 1960s, CDs in the '80s, and then in 1995 Audible (which would become America's largest audiobook producer and retailer) allowed customers to download audiobooks to desktop computers.
The word "audiobook" came into standard usage in 1994, and now, 25 years later, individuals can have expansive audiobook libraries in the palm of their hand in the form of a smartphone.
Forms and Styles of Audiobook Narration
Audiobooks come in mainly four different forms: solo narration, duet-narration, multi-cast, or full-cast.
Solo narration is the most common form of audiobook narration and relies on a single voice actor to voice all the characters and narration in a book. Under solo narration are three different styles of readings: fully-voiced, partially-voiced, and unvoiced.
Fully-voiced readings are the most common: the voice actor vocalizes all the characters in a unique way that makes them distinguishable from each other. Partially voiced readings are when only the main characters are given unique voices and is usually done for material with a large number of characters making it too complex to voice each one individually. Finally, unvoiced readings are straightforward without any major dramatic vocalization or changing of the character voices. This type of narration is generally suited for non-fiction material.
Duet narration as the name implies, is when two actors voice the book, taking on different characters and is good for novels with two main protagonists. Multi-cast is when there are multiple main characters and each of them is voiced by an individual actor. A good example of this is the Audible version of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, written from three distinct character perspectives and each voiced individually by a different actor.
Full-cast narration is similar to multi-cast narration, the main distinction being that full-cast is generally for audio dramas with a large cast. Examples of this would be audio productions of Shakespeare and other theatrical plays.
Key Narration Tips
Regardless of the form of narration, the basics of vocal performance still apply: clear diction, correct pronunciation, and natural pacing. For audiobook narration, another skill is particularly important: stamina.
Audiobooks may require voice talents to record 4 to 6 hours a day. This will require stamina as well the temperament to do narration day in and day out. Narrator Sean Pratt shared a test he recommends for those deciding on whether to be an audiobook narrator or not (at 23:29 of this podcast episode): narrate a book for two hours a day, one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, for two weeks straight, everyday.
You may find out that you find the process fulfilling, that you want to work on refining your voice and building your stamina. Or you may find out that, as one test-taker told Pratt, you will never want to do this again in your life. That's okay, you still learned something!
If you decide you want to continue, there are other skills one must keep in mind, particularly for fully-voiced narration: character backgrounds, accents, the character's emotional trajectory, ways of speaking, and more. Even with non-fiction books, the narrator is a character who acts as the audience's guide into the world that the book explores.
As such, narrators have to do their own research so that they understand what they're reading. Instinctively, listeners can pick up when someone doesn't know what they're saying. Just a slight lilt of the voice or a sense of affirmation can change the reading of a text drastically.
A Look to an Audiobook Future
Whether you decide audiobook narration is a perfect career choice or is a form of torture for you, the industry is here to stay and is seeing some interesting developments. Audible recently developed a new speech to text feature powered by artificial intelligence. The program would transcribe onto the screen the text being read which would allow listeners to read along to the book that they're listening to. However, major publishers filed a lawsuit against Amazon-owned Audible, claiming that this is a violation of copyright law, essentially giving listeners a free copy of the text version of the book.
Another development in the audiobook industry is the use of artificial voices so that the human narrator may no longer be needed. Chinese search engine company Sogou used text to speech technology and audio clips to develop audio avatars of prominent Chinese authors to read the authors' books.
Though the delivery and production of audiobooks will change with technology, the demand for audiobook content to help soothe the pain of city traffic or to listen to at home while doing chores, is here to stay.
Planning on doing an audiobook recording? We're here to help! Make sure you got everything you need for an accurate audio quote by downloading our free checklist below!