Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019.
While readers and writers have skeptically watched the fluctuating publishing industry in recent years, one literary market has caught us all a bit by surprise: audiobooks.
Somewhere along the path of lengthy commutes and ubiquitous smartphones, a market for audiobooks erupted: people who don’t otherwise read much.
This exploding market makes it imperative for authors and publishers to get books into audio form and on the most popular platforms — Audible (Amazon) and iTunes.
Enter Amazon’s Audiobook Creative Exchange (ACX), which connects audiobook narrators with books to narrate.
Like other publishing services you’ll find at Amazon — CreateSpace for print-on-demand books, CDs and DVDs; and Kindle Direct Publishing for ebooks — ACX simplifies the process of producing an audiobook from start to finish.
If you’re an actor or voice-over artist, you could make money working in this market.
Not sure where to start? Here’s our guide.
How to Become an Audiobook Narrator
Actor Kris Keppeler has been doing voice-over work for over a decade.
“I got started through freelancing and bidding on work,” Keppeler said. “I bid on a short audiobook and got that, and it went well. When ACX came along, I started auditioning there… It’s taken a little bit to discover where my voice fits.”
Based on her experience, Keppeler shares some advice — and warnings — for anyone interested in doing audiobook work.
What You Need to Know Before Auditioning
Before you spend months auditioning to land your first gig, we have some tips to help you get started.
“My voice just fits with audiobook work,” Keppeler said. “Actors are especially tuned in for audiobook work, by the nature of our training.”
That’s because actors learn how to represent multiple characters, necessary for fiction narration in particular. Even for nonfiction, acting training can help you animate narration and make a book interesting.
“You definitely have to have some training,” Keppeler said. “If you regularly listen to audiobooks and like them, that’s a good starting point. But you have to have a real desire to do this kind of work, because it’s a lot of work.”
How is narrating an audiobook different from just reading a book aloud?
“When you read a book, you’re seeing and hearing things in your mind,” she said. “When you’re narrating that book, what you’re seeing and hearing in your mind you have to then vocalize. That’s not easy!”
Because an audiobook listener relies entirely on your narration, painting the picture just right (and meeting the author’s vision) is vital. It’s a distinct difference from other voice-over work, like commercials, where images or video complement the narration.
Because of this need to draw the reader into a made-up world, narrating fiction requires acting skills. Not everyone is cut out for it.
But, “nonfiction has its own challenge,” Keppeler said. “Sometimes what you’re reading is kind of dry, but you still have to make it interesting.”
She says it doesn’t necessarily matter whether a book is interesting to her.
“At this point, whether it is or not, I am narrating it and finding the interesting bits for me and putting it into my voice,” Keppeler said.
Even if you don’t enjoy the subject matter, you can still enjoy the process of producing the book for readers.
Learn Proper Technique
Before landing her first gig through ACX, Keppeler submitted auditions to the platform for well over a year.
Why does it take so long to land a gig?
Some of it, Keppeler says, is just learning how to narrate correctly. “I had some coaching that finally brought me to the point of doing a fairly good job.”
Author Joanna Penn recorded the audio versions of some of her own books. If you can’t afford coaching, she offers some tips for beginners at The Creative Penn to help you get started.
Some tricks to consider:
- If you’re new at recording, schedule sessions a few days apart to ensure you have enough energy.
- Try to avoid dairy before recording. Same goes for foods like peanut butter or anything that clogs up your mouth or throat (yeck!).
- Try to modulate your breathing so you don’t end up holding your breath. This has a real effect on stamina.
Find Your Niche
Once she’d mastered the audiobook reading techniques, Keppeler said, she had to find her niche.
She used trial and error. She took whatever narration work came her way, and listened to client feedback. When an author liked her voice, she knew it was a good fit.
“In voice-over in general, there are so many different genres,” she said. “Most people find you have certain specialities and certain ones don’t fit.”
Once you know your voice and which genres are the best fit, she says, jobs come much more quickly.
Only audition for gigs that fit your voice, and the success rate is much higher. You can even search for books by genre.
“I’m becoming a bit of a nonfiction specialist,” Keppeler said. “[When it comes to fiction], it’s hard to learn to do the different voices… Fiction books are heavily character-based, so you’re going to have to handle [those] unless you’re hired to work with a group, but that’s not that common.”
The Challenges of Audiobook Narration
Some of the work involved goes beyond just recording the voice-over. “Especially if you work through ACX, you have to do the producing yourself,” Keppeler said. “[That’s] editing and mastering yourself. There’s a technical learning curve.”
Audiobooks require hours and hours of editing, making them much more labor intensive than a lot of other voice-over work.
“What I learned editing smaller jobs contributed a lot to being able to jump into audiobooks,” Keppeler said.
So you might consider starting small.
Search online for voice-over jobs — you’ll find promotional videos under five minutes or corporate training videos of five to 15 minutes.
Even online course videos requiring a few hours of voice-over are much shorter than most audiobooks, which run closer to 10 to 15 hours. Hone your skills on smaller jobs and work your way up to the lengthier projects.
What about contracting the technical stuff out to an audio editor? Keppeler says that for what you’re paid, it’s not usually worth it for an audiobook.
You’re expected to record, produce and deliver a finished product. Any additional help you bring in will cut into your pay. Keppeler says you’re better off just learning to do it yourself.
The Creative Penn also offers a few editing tips:
- Avoid page turning noises — read from a tablet, Kindle or other electronic device.
- Turn off any devices’ Wi-Fi connections and set them to Airplane mode to avoid static noises. (They may be there, even if you can’t hear them.)
- Each ACX file needs to be a single chapter of the book. It’s easier to record these as separate files rather than cut it up later.
- The ACX technical requirements mean you have to add a few seconds of Room Tone at the beginning and end of the file.
How Much Money Can You Make Reading Audiobooks?
ACX doesn’t set or recommend rates for producers to charge.
But it does point out many narrators are members of the SAG-AFTRA union, which lists minimum rate restrictions.
These guaranteed rates vary by publisher/producer. Author Roz Morris tells authors to expect to pay around $200 per finished hour for audiobook narration.
However, Keppeler says most freelance audiobook work will be paid in royalties. As you might guess, this reduces an author’s upfront cost — as well as their risk in hiring you.
While ACX may be a good place to find the work, the pay is usually lower, especially compared with freelance broker sites that aren’t dedicated solely to audiobook narration.
When you record an audiobook with ACX, you’ll choose between setting your own per-finished-hour rate or splitting royalties 50/50 with the rights holder (usually the book’s author or publisher).
If you charge a flat rate, you’ll be paid upon completion of the book. Royalties are paid monthly based on sales from the previous month.
Mostly, Keppeler focuses on short books she can quickly complete. And she gets paid a flat rate of about $100 per finished hour, rather than royalties.
“I have done royalty deals but only on ACX with short books,” she said.
“I don’t want to tie up my time, because you [typically] make very little on royalty books… I have four royalty books [on ACX], and about $20 trickles in every quarter.”
Whether or not a royalty deal pays off is largely based on an author’s platform, The Creative Penn points out. Research an author before signing an agreement.
If you’re just looking for a quick job and aren’t concerned with long-term sales, you can work with an author regardless of their audience. Set a flat rate, and get your money when the job’s done.
But if you want to develop a long-term relationship with an author and you’ve found someone with a sizable audience, you may be better off with the royalty deal.
Long term, you could make much more money in sales royalties. Your working relationship with the author also will be strengthened, because you’ll be invested in the book’s success.
Where to Find Audiobook Work
As with any freelance work, booking a gig directly with the client in your network allows you the most autonomy in setting your rate.
Bidding through an exchange site like ACX offers the lowest of both.
“I only go out to ACX when I don’t have other paid work,” Keppeler said.
ACX also makes it difficult to achieve one of the staples of successful freelance work: repeat clients.
Keppeler said the platform isn’t really set up to connect authors with narrators long-term. Instead you audition for each job. It eliminates a huge opportunity for narrators to work with an author on a series or future books.
Directly connecting through a freelance broker does offer that opportunity. Keppeler said it’s how she found the author of this series of books on Wicca, which offered her ongoing work.
What ACX is good for, she said, is building your portfolio.
If you’re just getting started, the platform gives you an opportunity to hone your chops.
Practice your narrating and editing skills through auditions, and improve from author feedback. Once you land a few gigs, use those as samples to land clients elsewhere.
As audiobooks increase in popularity, Keppeler is seeing more audiobook work appear on Upwork. Freelancers, she says, tend to be better for general voice-over gigs, but not audiobook narration.
Audiobook Narrator Must-Haves
Keppeler’s top tip for anyone getting into voice-over work is to invest in a good microphone and headphones.
Early on, she says, “I lost out on work because I didn’t have a really great pair of headphones, and there was background noise that I wasn’t hearing. If you send something out that’s not good enough, they will never hire you again.”
Eventually, she hired a professional to help improve her set-up. She says she wishes she had done it up front, instead of DIYing.
A good pre-amp or audiobox can also help clean up your sound and eliminate background noise. But Keppeler warns against buying a cheap one — it’s a tool worth spending money on.
Finally, “You have to have a desire to learn the technical part of it,” she said. “You can ruin an audiobook with bad editing.”
How to Get Started
ACX offers comprehensive guides and FAQs for authors, narrators and publishers, so review those before you get started.
Here’s an overview of how it works:
Create a profile to detail your experience.
Upload samples to your profile to showcase your various skills — accents, genre, style, etc.
Determine whether you’ll always want to be paid per finished hour or by royalty agreements, or if you’re open to either.
Search for books authors/publishers have posted, and record a few minutes of the manuscript to audition for the gig.
When you’re chosen by the author/publisher, they’ll send you an offer. To take the job, accept the offer. All of this should happen through ACX (not over the phone or via email) to ensure the contract terms are on record.
Record and edit a 15-minute sample for feedback before recording and editing the full project. They’ll also have the right to approve or request changes once you’ve submitted the full project.
You’ll be paid a flat rate upon completion and approval of the project or monthly royalty payments based on book sales.
If you’re just getting started in voice-over work, try browsing Upwork for smaller projects you can use to find your voice, build your technical skills and grow your portfolio.
Or reach into your network, and get creative to find freelancing gigs on your own.
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a former branded content editor at The Penny Hoarder.