How to choose the right narrator for your audiobook

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James Faktor is both Publishing Director for Lume Books, a digital-first indie press, and Founder of USound, an audiobook production service that helps authors and publishers with remote recording, editing and distribution.

With audiobooks enjoying a sustained period of growth, more and more publishers and authors are looking to get involved in the production process. The market boom may be well-documented, but the considerations around auditioning and casting a narrator are not!

At USound we work with a lot of people who are completely new to audiobook production, and our aim is to facilitate their desire to create their perfect audiobook. Sometimes they will know exactly what they are listening for. But often they will ask for assistance in picking their narrator(s).

The first thing we will do is look at the genre of the book. If, for example, the book is a non-fiction that calls upon the knowledge or experiences of the author, we may suggest that they give the recording a whirl themselves.

For Gib Bulloch, who is a top writer and speaker on how to get started in business, we strongly advised him to take on the narration as he grasped our delivery tutorial very quickly and knew his own story inside out. The audiobook can now make his readers and fans feel closer to him on a personal level, a connection which is essential to that genre of building trust.

For everything else, gender and age are the two initial concerns we address when picking a narrator for a project. If the book is first person or close third then this is relatively straight forward, but for shifting perspectives it becomes trickier to judge. Do you go for a narrator who represents most of the characters, or someone who transcends them all? Do you go for two narrators? Or more?

A skilled narrator should be able to embody and enliven a large range of characters regardless of age or gender, but if there are two first person characters with their own perspective then we would definitely consider two narrators. Casting two narrators is exciting because it makes the audiobook feel much more like a stage production which can create an unrivalled chemistry and enjoyment for the listener, particularly in romance. I’ve never been involved in an audiobook with more than two, but I would encourage it if everyone is on the same page!

One of the big questions for fiction is whether the narrator should be from the area where the book is set. Recording an audiobook is a long, sometimes arduous process and the ability for an actor to deliver one page of flawless dialogue in a particular accent is not the same as delivering a whole novel.

For a book set in the present day, I think the emphasis should be on picking a narrator from the regional area wherever possible, especially if the setting is integral to the plot. The authenticity of having a local narrate the story will enhance the realism of the surroundings and is a unique attribute of audio content that can add real poignancy for the listener.

However, if the book is set in a different time, then we would focus on finding a voice that can transport the listener regardless of where that narrator is from. Dreamland was just such a novel; set in 1920s New York, we went with a Londoner who managed to capture the glitz and glam of the era perfectly. The rich, elegant tone that Cicely Long brought to the part was spot on, and because the accent would also have been slightly alien to a native New Yorker, we didn’t have a second thought in casting her.

Final thought on all of the above: It’s about digging out what is inherent to the story and amplifying this unique aspect rather than covering bases. Once an author tells us the key to why their book is special, it’s easier for us to find what they’re looking for.