“An audiobook narrator does not read their books…. they act them. We are voice actors, and our job is to act the scenes in the book and to become the characters so that the author’s words come alive for the listener.” – Gary Bennett
For most performers, the past 12 months haven’t just been “challenging” (to use a word that has been said so frequently during this time), they have amounted to tremendous professional hardship. Nearly all live performers are still waiting for the opportunity to take to the stage again, while on-camera performers have seen their work dramatically change because of safety guidelines.
On the other hand, performers in the audiobook space have seen little change in the way they work. In fact, while final figures are not yet available for 2020, 2019 was one of the most successful years in terms of audiobook sales, continuing several years of progressive sales growth. For performers looking for new places to take their career, audiobook narration is a rapidly-growing area. Just ask Gary Bennett, who has rapidly created a successful career as an audiobook narrator.
Full disclosure: I first learned of Gary when he was selected to record the audiobook for my book, Can’t Give It Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City, and he also recorded the audiobook for my most recent book, Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles. It was the first time anything I had written had been recorded as an audiobook, and I not only was thrilled with Gary’s professionalism and extraordinary work, but I also became fascinated by how audiobooks are created and felt that performers would be very interested to learn about Gary’s career path and success.
If you’re under the impression that an audiobook narrator simply opens a book and hits the record button, you’re in for a surprise. In this interview Gary details how he got his start in the business, honed his craft, his preparation methods and recording equipment, and, in addition, shares his advice on how one could get started as an audiobook narrator.
How did your career as an audiobook narrator begin?
I’ll start by noting that my entry into the field, while perhaps more typical than I realize, is definitely not the way it should be done, and if I had to do it over I would have proceeded much differently. More on that later…
I’d always been a big fan of audiobooks, mostly listening to them on long family car trips. I became a huge fan of one narrator in particular, Luke Daniels, who expertly narrates the Iron Druid Chronicles, written by Kevin Hearne. One day, during an extended break I was taking in running my engineering business, I came upon an interview of Luke wherein he described how he got his start in the business, and it suddenly occurred to me that people actually do this for a living, that narrating audiobooks was a career! I thought to myself, “What a cool job that would be!”
After listening to this interview, in which he mentioned the website ACX.com–which is where a lot of narrators get their start–I checked the site out. ACX is a kind of Match.com for audiobook narration: narrators sign-up and create a profile, and authors who wish to get their audiobooks created put their books up for audition. The site also has some basic tutorials on the process of creating an audiobook, the basic equipment required, some tips on improving your technique, and more. I had a little time on my hands, so I scoured the website and, just really for fun and to see what it was about. I created a profile, purchased some basic equipment, transformed my home office into a temporary recording studio, and created some sample audio clips to add to my profile. Then I found a few very short titles that I thought would be good to cut my teeth on and submitted auditions. I immediately received offers to produce three audiobooks. I was shocked, and more than a little worried. I didn’t expect to actually be hired to do this, and I very quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing and had a lot to learn!
I immediately sought out coaching and training resources, online and in my local area.
What voice training did you undergo to hone your craft as an audiobook narrator?
Ever since I received my first contract to produce an audiobook, I’ve pursued coaching in all aspects of the business, and even now, three years later, I’m typically working with at least one coach—sometimes two, depending upon the frequency—in addition to attending various group workshops and webinars. I found that you can—and should—be continually working to improve your craft and techniques. I mention all aspects of the “business” because this really is a business, and it should be approached like any other business when it comes to invoicing, tracking expenses, marketing, and so on. Although I ran my engineering business for 16 years, there are specific aspects of this business that continue to benefit from additional and continued coaching.
For most performers, 2020 was an incredibly challenging year for finding work. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case for audiobook narrators, who for the most part already work remotely. Can you talk about what you’ve accomplished in the past year?
For me, personally, 2020 was my most successful year-to-date. I chalk that up to two major reasons:
First, in early 2020, I was one of few select, very lucky narrators to be chosen by lottery to attend an audiobook-specific event in New York City sponsored by Harper-Collins. Speed-Dating offers the selected narrators to meet face-to-face with over a dozen casting directors from various audiobook publishers and distributors. As in many industries, success in audiobook narration is very dependent upon the relationships one builds, with authors, with fellow narrators, and especially with publishers and distributors.
In addition to this face-to-face event, I continued to enroll in web-based audiobook narration workshops and coaching, I solidified and made new connections to casting directors. As a result of these interactions with casting directors during the Speed-Dating event as well as some surrounding social gatherings, I was offered work with several publishers during 2020: Harper Audio, Hachette Audio, Tantor, Dreamscape, Podium Audio, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and others.
Second, the audiobook industry as a whole has been experiencing continued growth over the last several years. Although the specific numbers haven’t yet been released, I have a feeling that this growth increased even more during the pandemic, as people often had more time on their hands, or were eager to find some additional connection in their more isolated lives, and audiobooks offer that connection in a way that other media cannot. The experience of listening to an audiobook is very intimate—it’s just you and the narrator—and that experience can provide a very real connection that can offer a unique comfort in these isolated days.
Sample of Gary Bennett reading The Rhapta Key, Alex Hunt Adventure Thrillers, Book 1, by Urcelia Texiera
Can you detail what you do to prepare for a recording session?
Before each recording session, I have a series of warm-up exercises that I go through to loosen up. These exercises include both vocal warmups as well as physical stretching. Sitting in a small recording booth for many hours each day is both vocally and physically taxing, so it’s critical that I do everything to start warm and loose and stay that way.
What are the biggest challenges that you have experienced when recording audiobook narration?
Before entering this field, I had no idea how difficult it would be. I never really thought about it before—it’s “just reading a book, right?” Far from it. Firstly, an audiobook narrator does not read their books….they act them. We are voice actors, and our job is to act the scenes in the book and to become the characters so that the author’s words come alive for the listener. It takes a lot of mental focus and energy to stay engaged with the text, to suss out the hidden meanings and motivations behind the actual words, and to deliver the lines believably. Ideally, the listener should be so engaged that they forget they are actually listening to the book.
Secondly, as a home-based narrator, I wear several hats simultaneously. Because I work alone in my studio most of the time, I’m not only the narrator and voice actor, but I’m also the director and the engineer. Meaning that while I’m acting out a scene, the part of me wearing the director’s hat is ensuring that the lines are delivered with the appropriate emphasis and pacing and that they elicit the appropriate emotions in the listener. When I make a mistake, the part of me wearing the engineer’s hat is monitoring the recording software on my computer to make the appropriate changes and cues to allow me to re-record those mistakes.
Thirdly, something I never realized or would have thought to consider is my vocal health. My voice is the primary tool of my trade, and like any tool, it must be cared for and in top shape for me to do my job. In my other life, it was no big deal for me to show up when I wasn’t feeling great or a little under the weather; I could still get my job done. Not so with narration. A typical book will take anywhere from three to 10 days or more to record, and my voice must always be as consistent as possible, day in and day out. If I’ve got a head cold or some nasal congestion, for example, that will completely change the sound of my voice, which then will prevent me from recording in that condition. So I am so much more aware of my health than I ever have been.
And lastly, I face the challenges of running my narration business that any other small business encounters, including accounting and bookkeeping, marketing and advertising, IT and technical support, etc.
What most surprised you about the audiobook narration community once you began working regularly?
The audiobook narration community is unlike any other industry-centric community that I’ve ever experienced. Every single person I’ve met, and every interaction I’ve had with colleagues, has been nothing but generous. We are a true community and everybody is eager to help and offer support and applaud each other’s successes. I think much of that is because we work in a very isolated world most of the time–it’s just us and our microphone in our studio—and we, therefore, understand better than most the importance of being present for one another.
What were some of your favorite audiobooks to record, and why?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to narrate some really great books! The Dragon Mage series by Scott Baron was such a joy to narrate. The sci-fi/fantasy series spans nine books, throughout which we follow a central core of characters that really grow as the series progresses. I think what I loved most, apart from the excellent story arcs—within each book and across the whole series—was the fact that I got to know each of these characters so intimately; they almost became family to me in a way. It was quite bittersweet coming to the end of the series and looking back on the journey I took with all of them.
I also recorded a wonderful historical fiction book, Once We Were Here, by Christopher Cosmos, set in World War II Greece that follows three life-long friends as they grow together and fight for their country. I’m also a huge fan of Urban Fantasy, and I recently completed the three-book Lost Falls series that follows an arcane magic user as he fights to defend his small town from ghouls, ogres, vampires, and humans. The characters in that series were really endearing to me.
I could go on and on because I really have loved each book I’ve had the privilege to narrate!
Sample of Gary Bennett reading Zee Locked In, OVR World Online, Book 1, by Justin Monroe
One of your most recent releases is the audiobook version of Zoom for Dummies. Being that many people have spent much of the last year working on Zoom, what did recording that audiobook feel like during this pandemic?
It was incredibly relevant to be recording a book about a topic that had suddenly been thrust into the limelight of our lives. The book was exceptionally well-written, turning what could have been a very dry subject into a very enlightening, educational, and entertaining read. The author, Phil Simon, does a marvelous job of weaving examples of the Zoom technologies and features into real-life scenarios as well as sprinkling in some great pop culture references. I really enjoyed recording that book!
For performers who are interested in becoming audiobook narrators, what do you recommend that they do to get started?
Being an audiobook narrator is much more difficult than one might expect, and there’s so much more than simply reading a book. I think the first thing any prospective narrator should do is a little self-examination to see if they have the temperament for this career. A great resource for this is a little test that one of my coaches, Sean Pratt, put together: “So…You want to be an audiobook narrator?” He describes a simple test to perform over a few weeks simulating what it’s like to be in the booth day after day and will give a prospective narrator an idea of what life is like for us in the studio. If they get through this little self-test and realize that they haven’t been driven crazy and still want to move forward, great!
The next step would be to determine where they’re going to record. If they’re fortunate enough to record in a professional studio—which is much harder these days, not to mention potentially expensive and hard to schedule—then they won’t need to purchase any equipment themselves, but many narrators these days are home-based and record in their own studios or booths. In that latter group, the most important factor is setting up a quiet space that can be adequately treated to deaden reflections. If they can afford a professional recording booth, that’s ideal—I record in a Studiobricks booth, which is great—but many narrators record in well-treated closets or small rooms or have built their own booths, and there are a lot of resources that offer recommended techniques and materials.
In addition to space, then, at minimum, they’ll need to acquire some other components: a microphone (preferably a large-diaphragm condenser style), an interface (sometimes called a pre-amp) that converts the mic signal to USB or Thunderbolt), a computer, and the recording software to run on the computer (called a DAW, for Digital Audio Workstation). There are a host of different mics, interfaces, and DAWs available, and the choice of which combination of these will be determined by price, personal preferences, or perhaps recommendations from trusted sources. For me, I record using a Neumann TLM-103 microphone, an Audient iD14 interface, a very robust PC (outside the booth) running Presonus Studio One DAW. I also have an LCD monitor in the booth and a studio monitor (speaker) in the booth. I run the Studio One software to record, and I read from an iPad using the iAnnotate app. Finally, I also run Izotope RX 6 for post-production work (noise reduction, spectral repair, etc.) that I use for preparing auditions only; I outsource all of my post-production work to a professional audio engineer.
Once they’ve got a space and the equipment, the next step is to find some audiobook-specific coaching. Note the “audiobook-specific”, as there is a difference in the techniques used for commercial voice-over work vs. audiobook narration work. Getting coaching is probably the most important and impactful thing a new narrator can undertake. I am always coaching and continually working to improve my craft.
Are there any resources (websites, books, training, etc.) for audiobook narration that you recommend?
My friend Karen Commins has put together an excellent resource for narrators at all levels, Narrators Roadmap.
Part of our job is to ensure that we’re pronouncing each name or term properly, so we spend a lot of our time researching each book, notating proper pronunciations. Some great research sites I use include Forvo.com, Merriam-Webster, Youglish.com, YouTube (some care needs to be exercised here to ensure that the source is credible), and AudioEloquence.com, which is a compilation of many great sites put together by some of my colleagues.
There are several audiobook-specific groups on Facebook that many seasoned professionals participate in, offering advice and tips for our work. The best one for new narrators is the Indie (ACX And Others) Audiobook Narrators and Producers Group. In that group are resources for vetted audiobook coaches, engineers, proofers, etc.
When you’re not speaking into a microphone, what else are you up to?
I’m a private pilot, although the pandemic has made that more difficult to maintain. I’m hoping to get back up in the air this spring or summer! Additionally, I love spending time outdoors, whether it’s going on hikes with my three dogs (two Golden Retrievers and a Golden Doodle), or going skiing and snowboarding in the winter. I also play guitar (I’m not very good, but I enjoy it), play golf (again, not very good but I have a good time) and dabble a bit with programming various tools to make my job easier and more efficient. (I was a Professional Electrical Engineer and ran my own engineering firm for many years, and my mind still needs those more technical challenges!). I used to play video games quite a bit, and I think I need to get back into that!
Traveling is something I’m looking forward to enjoying again once the world comes back, as well as live music and eating out! Of course, I live for spending time with my beautiful wife and two great kids, watching movies or playing games, or doing puzzles.