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Voice acting choice for audiobooks

Audiobooks or stories in spoken word format have been around since the dawn of humanity. Recordings of stories for children have been around since the phonograph probably, but at least since the 20th century. And Radio presents audio stories, both narrated and as dramatic presentations, and has done since the 19th century. Now we’re living in the privileged future, we can access audiobooks while travelling, working and trying to sleep. This new commodity presents new concerns for independent authors working to provide their books in all the formats their fans desire.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I started in the naughties, they were utter shit back then, stopped, then started again a few years ago. These days I’m listening to them more and more.

I have some thoughts on things to look for and pitfalls to avoid. This isn’t complete. Later I hope to host a panel where independent authors discuss the process from experience.

Audiobook principles and pitfalls

I wrote these points in response to an author asking for audiobook making advice on facebook. Then I copied it here to share with the world. The author in question had specific questions about accents, gender of narrator and so forth.

  1. Some listeners prefer the author to read their own book but this presents pitfalls, not least of which is reduced production value (quality) of the audiobook. For example, Inga Simpson read her own book, Nest. Although Simpson is a highly literate person with a pleasant speaking voice, to my mind she included some (consistent) pacing flaws, like failing to pause before announcing a new chapter (like announcing a new chapter?) then pausing after announcing the chapter. In contrast, David Wenham’s narration of Favel Parrett’s Past The Shallows is flawless, enhancing my appreciation of the novel. Moral of the story: hire a professional. If you can.
  2. The best choice of “gendered” voice and accent for audiobooks will be different for different people. In a perfect world I’d recommend getting a couple of different voices to do different versions but that is expensive. Listen to the narrator and ensure the narrator is competent, nay excellent, without flaws. I listened to three of the Raven Cycle books by Maggie Stiefvater, read by Will Patton. At times he whistles through his teeth. At first I thought this was his “tell” for a particular character. It’s not. The middle book was particularly bad. I only persevered because I purchased all three before starting. I won’t ever willingly listen to another book narrated by him again. Generally my rule is that if I pay for a book I don’t review that book. However, I was particularly interested in Stiefvater’s books due to their representation of disability. After listening to the books I cannot give an objective review. I loathed the narration that much. If the later books were with another narrator, I would try again. She stays with Patton.
  3. My FAVORITE voice actor is January LaVoy who narrated The Change by Kirsten Miller and LOADS of other books. The reasons she’s my favorite is her pleasant narrating voice coupled with EXCELLENT cast voices. She has a range of voices for different characters and she doesn’t confuse them. LaVoy’s presentation is almost that of a quality dramatization instead of a reading.
  4. I’ve been listening to Ali Hazelwood’s novels. So far they’re all narrated by the same woman whose range is very limited. Hazelwood’s books tend to be a bit same-y, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a romance series. However, the narrator’s voice is the same for every book, emphasizing the sameness of it. Also the narrator only has about 2 or 3 different options for male characters, which can be confusing within a book and across a series.
  5. Some voice actors have their own sound booth so they can work at home. I don’t know if that’s industry standard. Investigation is wise because you don’t want extra costs sneaking in.
  6. Accent is important. I recently listened to Reluctantly Charmed by Ellie O’Neill, with Kate Rawson narrating. Kate has a lovely Irish accent. Her accent was perfect: appropriate but not so difficult it was too hard to interpret. To be honest, I don’t recall much else. I can’t recall her range of voices for other characters but I think, perhaps, her range was ok but not LaVoy’s. The book was pleasant, an enjoyable romantic fair story adventure, but not memorable.
  7. If your main character is a woman, I think you should get a woman narrator. If your main character is a man, I think you should get a man. Others will disagree.
  8. Some men will only listen to male voices. And some men will only willingly read books by men.
  9. I am 100% against having 2 voices reading. I listened to one book – The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary – where a man and a woman did every second chapter. This messed up the book, especially when the man used his voice for the woman character and vice versa. AVOID. I would prefer to read paper than experience that again. Both narrators are good. If I could choose, the woman would be sole narrator.
  10. Americans can be very … hmm… very much against non-American accents. I’ve watched American videos with perfectly legible accents AND THEY STILL INCLUDE SUBTITLES. So, if you have a pleasant Kiwi voice narrating, you will probably lose some people. You have to weigh the benefits of atmosphere, integrity and appealing to local audiences against the cost of possibly losing some people. Who is your audience? Answering that question is crucial. I think TO A POINT Australian accents appeal to Americans because so many Aussie actors are Hollywood stars. However, listen to Australian actors in Hollywood movies. They often mask their natural accents.
The wrap

I’m sure I have more to add, I’ll have to ponder.

For more information on voice acting and directing, see these videos that are also available as podcasts, at the links and on all good podcasting platforms. One is voice director Kristi Reed talking about voice acting and directing, and the other is both Kristi and actor Mela Lee (The Owl House and many others).

Voice Actor Mela Lee from The Owl House and many other productions

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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