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What makes a good narrator? Audiobooks explosion means readers get more picky.
21 February 2015

What makes a good Audio book narrator?


I don’t know about you but I listen more than I read (long journeys) and find a good narrator can make or break a story. Whilst a great story can be ruined by a bad narrator, a fairly good tale can be ramped up to heady heights of greatness by a superb narration. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, narrating the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaranovitch is one such genius in my opinion, and every character or accent is done in such a way as it seems like you’re listening to an audio drama.

According to the Wall Street Journal as long ago as 2013, audiobooks are exploding in popularity and you may know that Amazon are now able to provide you with a platform to create not only your own eBook (kdp,) and paperback (createspace,) but also via ACX, a route to your own audiobook version of your latest masterpiece too. If you get as far as this stage, then, you may need to carefully consider your choice of narrator. And believe me there are some easy mistakes to make.

For instance, a pretty successful author who mentors indie authors too, recently had to swap to a better narrator; despite interviewing her for a podcast, and hearing all the usual spiel about how to narrate well, the job this narrator did was filled with enough irritating idionsyncracies that I found it impossible to listen to. Fortunately the author agreed, though surprised as the narrator claimed to make a living out of it so seemed promising – but couldn’t deliver what was on the tin. Always get a trial sample of at least the first chapter and ask your Beta Readers (assuming you use them) for their opinion too, before you commit.

So what makes a good narrator? See if you agree with my summary – a good narrator will:

-          always read through the story thoroughly so that their narration, once recorded, does not sound like a ‘first read.’ This avoids cutting sentences in half, changing the meaning completely. A ‘Sunday Times top ten’ female author’s book suffered from this all the way through – it was infuriating. Great readers make it sound as though someone’s just talking to you in a natural way.

-          difficult words will be competently delivered, as opposed to sounding like a teenager trying to cope with Shakespeare. Cloud Atlas was ruined for me by the first narrator having terrible problems with the 1700’s words! Thank goodness they’ve issued another version now, after the success of the film.

-          a sing-song voice will NOT be a feature! If I find myself mimicking the narrator as I drive along, having to rewind as I’ve missed some of the plot, that’s a signal to stop, and find a different book! Good narrators won’t end nearly every sentence with the same ‘tune.’

-          Great, well-practised accents are a joy to hear. Davina Porter, reading the famous Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, is superb at the various Scottish accents, English ones and European ones. A couple of less than perfect Irish and Americans are excused since her delivery of the main story is fab.

-          Good narrators will deliver clear differentiation of voices without the need to resort to extremes. They will not take me out of the story for instance by giving them speech impediments. AAAAAARgh! Typically, I hear female narrators doing male voices badly by hollowing out their throats to give their males some sort of middle England bullish bluster – one narrator sadly did that on a title from a successful commercial women’s fiction author in such a way that each male character got successively more rounded, then she added a sinus problem for good measure. I actually find I am most pleased by men doing women (Lee Child novels by Jeff Harding; Kobna Holdbrook Smith again) than by women doing men, although there are notable exceptions – eg Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy read by Samantha Bond is superb.

-          And the main one would be that a great narrator makes me forget everything but the story itself.

If you have any others, do let me know! And who knows, one day I might be brave enough to practice what I preach and narrate my own and upload them, once I find the right studio producer to work with (I use pro editors/proofers/cover designers too so I expect I’ll use a pro producer for the best quality audio book too.) Although it probably won’t be me if I ever produce an audio version of any of my steamy romance novels – that’s another topic entirely! Even if they’re only a few shades, I’d still rather they be black than grey!

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Author of the Hawaiian Trilogy on Amazon, being published by Choc-Lit end of 2015.




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