Karen Commins is a professional audiobook narrator in Atlanta who thinks of herself as the listener’s tour guide to another time and place. She has given voice to over 50 audiobooks in a variety of genres. In addition to earning a BA in broadcast journalism and MS in computer information systems, Karen has completed extensive specialized training in voiceover and audiobook narration technique, as well as digital audio production. She has written numerous articles about audiobooks for Digital Book World and InD’tale Magazine. I heard Karen’s narration of the sweet romance Fooling Around With Cinderella written by Stacy Juba, whom we interviewed last week. With two sides to every story, I wanted to get the narrator’s perspective in this interview.
How did you get started doing audiobook narration?
I did a TV PSA in 5th grade and knew from that point that I wanted to be a voiceover artist. I went to school in journalism and worked a short while in radio before putting the dream on the shelf for a higher-paying job as a computer programmer. That job turned into a new career in information technology (IT) positions!
In 1992, while still working full-time in IT, I started volunteering for the Georgia Radio Reading Service for the blind and print-handicapped. I loved reading the novels out loud!
In 1996, I contacted Frank Muller, one of the industry’s star narrators who sadly passed away a few years ago. I asked him a few questions about audiobook production, which he graciously answered. Upon reading his reply, I knew I wanted to narrate audiobooks!
I did a few audiobooks early in this millennium but couldn’t get established since most production occurred in other cities, mainly New York and Los Angeles. It’s only been in the past few years that narrators with home studios are cast for audiobook projects.
How long have you been narrating audiobooks and how many books have you performed?
I continued to volunteer reading through 1997. I took a voiceover workshop the next year and started my business in 1999. I performed my first commercial audiobook in 2002.
I was able to leave my IT career at the beginning of 2012 to devote myself full-time to my voiceover business. I now concentrate solely on audiobooks and am proud to have given voice to more than 50 of them.
You have a B.A. in broadcast journalism and an M.S. in computer information systems. How have both degrees helped your career in audiobook narration?
Oh, gosh! The answer to this question could be an entire article in itself!
Every moment has meaning. You don’t leave knowledge or skills behind; you take with you everything you know and can do.
My journalism studies helped me with far more than the obvious skills of speaking into a microphone and/or on camera. I learned to present facts with clarity and concision. I gained confidence in contacting people with cold calls and later interviewing them. I improved my research skills. I remember one professor who drilled us on correct pronunciation, and I continue to be meticulous about pronouncing words.
I minored in marketing. Like any other self-employed person, an audiobook narrator must constantly identify prospects and promote herself and her abilities to them in order to attract work. I’m almost always wearing my marketing hat and get excited when I conceive and implement a clever promotion.
While at times I felt that my whole foray into IT was a huge detour, I’ve discovered that it was critical in developing some extremely valuable skills that I need in my business. Technology is my friend! First, the knowledge gained from both my degree and my job aids me in researching, buying, installing, and troubleshooting software and equipment in my studio. I actually had a home studio in 2002, long before most people even considered such an option.
I quickly learn new software and can apply concepts from one product to another. For instance, I found I am adept at and enjoy using desktop publishing software, which has enabled me to create an incredible array of creative marketing materials. I even developed my first web site.
Do you have a favorite genre to narrate?
I adore cozy mysteries and sweet romances! They usually have a lot of humor, which makes the recording sessions even more fun. It’s also a special thrill to narrate history and biographies as those tend to be the genres I read for pleasure.
Some people tend to think of narration as just reading a book. How do you respond to that?
“Reading a book” is only the first step to being a good narrator. We must read the entire book before ever uttering the first word in a recording session. We have to understand the author’s arc and flow so that we can tell the story.
Lifting sentences off the printed page and breathing life into them so that they flow effortlessly while maintaining the author’s perspective and acting the part of every character in the book is definitely an acquired skill!
Audiobooks are an intimate medium. A good audiobook narrator can make the audio version of a book seem like a movie, where someone who is merely reading the book can ruin the experience for the listener.
A good narrator will make the performance transparent and seem like the easiest thing on earth. . . just like talking or “reading a book.” However, good narrators usually have completed professional training and also have thoroughly prepared the material they are reading by researching pronunciations and determining characterizations before they ever walk into the recording studio.
How much interaction do you have with the authors of the books you are reading? How much do they influence your choices of inflections, etc?
In most cases, I have no interaction with the author while I’m recording the book. Audiobook narration is a performance art based on the narrator’s interpretation of the author’s words. I’m happy to have input such as character notes before I start recording. During the recording, though, I rely on my director to assist me with my acting choices, including character voices and inflection.
How do you prepare, as far as reading through the book before starting to record? Do you read the whole book out loud first to practice? In one whole or piece by piece?
I do read the entire book before starting to record, but I rarely read anything out loud until I am in the booth. The author leaves clues about the characters throughout the book. I take notes every time the text says anything descriptive about each character, including things the character says about himself and what others say about him.
I create a new notebook in Evernote for each book I perform. Within the notebook, I create a new note page for each character. As I read a description in the manuscript, I copy and paste the info from the book into the note for that character. I end up with a complete profile on each character. With the profile ready, I mentally cast each person in a book using people in my life or actors to play the roles. It makes it easier to become each character when they are anchored in a real person.
I also keep an Evernote list of pronunciations and sources that I share with my editor. Most fiction books don’t require much pronunciation research, but non-fiction books are often overflowing with one unfamiliar word after another!
Finally, I review the chapters for each day’s recording before I step in the booth. I record the book over a series of days and send the files to my editor. My editor will make adjustments for pacing and remove extraneous sounds for the whole audiobook. He then sends me a list of pick-ups, which are the passages where I made errors such as a misread. I re-record those sentences, and he inserts the new recordings into the original audio files.
Tell me about your recording space.
Thanks so much for asking about my studio! It’s a dream come true to work in this beautiful room!
I live in a very noisy area, so we custom-built a room on our house using soundproofing treatments and techniques. It has 2 layers of ceilings, 2 sets of doors at each entrance, and no windows. I have a 6’x8’ WhisperRoom sound booth in this outer room. You can read more details about my noise problem and the studio construction in this article.
As you can see in the pictures, the outer room is decorated with numerous pieces of art showing Parisian scenes and more than a single Eiffel Tower, which happens to be my favorite thing in the world. Inside my booth, I have an Eiffel Tower table and a small painting of the Tower that I got on my last trip to Paris.
Do you do all the digital engineering for your recordings? Is that the reason why you earned an M.S.CIS?
While I record in my studio and have done the engineering on some books, I now gratefully outsource all of the editing and mastering to another person.
When I put my voiceover dream on the shelf, I had been hired in a programmer job. However, I didn’t have any hands-on computer knowledge. My employer realized I had the strong analytical and logical aptitude to learn the technical aspects of the job.
I enjoyed it so much that I began to think I should’ve been in a computer-related career all along. I decided to return to school at night to earn my MS in Computer Information Systems because I was working full-time in increasingly more complicated information technology positions and wanted to deepen my understanding of the field.
I recently reviewed a book that you narrated, Fooling around with Cinderella, and really enjoyed your performance. My description of your part states,
The audio version of this book is narrated by Karen Commins, whose reading makes this fun book even more enjoyable. She adds a touch of twinkle to this book and adds to the sense of fun between Jaine and Dylan.”
This may be hard to answer, but how do you put the sparkle in your performance?
First, thank you so much for the kind words about my performance! Author Stacy Juba wrote a terrific book. I loved her story and am delighted that you enjoyed the audiobook.
I think what you described as “sparkle” is my ability to convey the underlying emotions in the text. As a narrator, I read between the lines and figure out the character’s motivations for saying and doing the things they do. I want to be true to the author’s intent and vision while making acting choices that allow the characters to sound like believable, real people.
After she heard the audiobook, Stacy told me that I made her laugh. I consider that comment to be the highest praise since she wrote the book and knew what was coming!
Vicki, thank you so much for the time and space that you devoted to this interview and for your interest in my work.
Want to learn more from Karen? Visit her web site KarenCommins.com to hear demos, see her titles and reviews, read an abundance of helpful articles for authors and narrators on her blog, and sign up for her mailing list.
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My audiobooks on Audible: http://j.mp/KarenComminsOnAudible
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Here’s a sample of the Cinderella audiobook: