Interview with a Narrator: Steven Barnett

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Steven Barrett

I recently reviewed the book Murder on the Mind by L.L. Bartlett. The audio edition is performed by Steven Barnett, about whom the author had amazing things to say. I agreed, writing in my review:

Steven Barnett does a fantastic job of narrating this book. He makes the book enjoyable to listen to and creates believable voices and depictions of the narration. His performance was truly excellent.

Steve is here today to answer some questions for us about his role as an audiobook narrator.

How did you get started narrating audiobooks?

I got started narrating audiobooks thanks to one of my author friends, Jonathan Fore (for whom I narrated his Lexicon Chase books). In 2013, he was looking for different ways to get his novels out and he stumbled on the Audiobook Creation Exchange, or ACX, where authors can list their books and narrators can audition to record them. He passed it along to me and off I went!

Do you do all the digital engineering yourself or just the reading? Is this standard for all narrators?

As an independent narrator who works via ACX, I do all the engineering as well as the reading. It’s pretty standard for someone who works outside of a studio with a dedicated “stable” of performers.

How long does it take to record a single book, say, one that plays for 6 hours?

It’s really quite variable, depending on the process one follows for recording/mastering. In my process, it takes about 12 hours to record the raw audio and then another 3-4 hours to edit and master the tracks for review and approval.

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? What kinds of notes do you make in the text to alert you to things you want to remember?)

It really depends on the book length and genre. For most books, say 8 hours or less, I generally tend to just record and work the characters and pacing out as I go. It’s easier to do when you’re working on a series because you become better able to switch between characters. For longer books, I will generally read at least the first half of the book to get a sense of the characters and to make sure there are no surprise “gotchas” like characters who are described in greater detail later on in the story. I did one novel where I had recorded several hours of the main character’s narration, only to find out several chapters in that the character had a very thick Mexican accent. For science-fiction and fantasy novels, I generally do a pass for odd terms or made-up languages and character names. I don’t really do a lot of note-taking as it’s hard to go back and refer to notes as you go and stay fluid in your narration, but for books with lots of characters, I will create a character sheet with details about how the character voices should go.

What about audio narration do you enjoy?

I enjoy the performance aspect of it. I’m a storyteller and a performer at heart, so working on a project where I have an outlet to stretch my legs with voices and accents and such is a real treat!

How do you decide what kind of voice to give a character and then keep all the voices straight as you read?

I generally look to the narration to give me the first cues as to the kind of character and style to perform. It’s also great to be able to work with the author and get their creative input into the characters and the performances. For one of the books I did, I ended up doing upwards of 10-12 different accents and dialects along with multiple male and female voices of varying ages. I couldn’t have kept all this together without great feedback from my author on how to make these things cohesive.

How well does audio narration pay?

Pay depends on the job being offered. You can either contract with the author on what’s called a “Per Finished Hour” (PFH) basis or as a Royalty Share agreement. PFH means that you agree to work based on a certain hourly rate that then gets multiplied against the finished runtime of the audiobook. So, if you have an audiobook with a final runtime of 10 hours, and you are working for 150pfh, you would then multiply 150 times 10 to get 1500, and that’s your pay for that project. PFH projects are one-time fees, so no residuals. Royalty Share agreements are where you agree to contract with the author and split the royalty percentage with them, which works out to about 20% per copy. This may sound like a lot, but if the book doesn’t sell well, you might be doing hours and hours of work for only a few dollars return, so there is some risk involved.

How much interaction do you have with the authors? Do you generally enjoy working with them or wish to be left alone to do your job?

It honestly depends on the author. I personally prefer to have an author who’s engaged and involved in the project. They’re the source of information and detail for the characters, and so it just makes sense to work as a partnership to bring the book to life for the readers.

Is there a difference for you between working for a major publisher and an indie one?

I honestly can’t say, as I’ve never worked for a major publisher.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get into the field? Should they attend specific type of schooling (i.e. acting school)? What specific skills are crucial for anyone wanting to be an audiobook narrator?

For anyone who wants to do this independently, as I do, there are some things to keep in mind. Remember that you are doing this project entirely yourself, from start to finish, so you will need to have some knowledge of audio processing and editing in order to bring this over. Have a great mic and a half-decent workspace that you can be comfortable in for hours at a time. Nothing irks me more than hearing an audiobook with a lot of breathing sounds and room noise, because I work very hard to make my books as high quality as possible. The most important thing is to remember that you are, at your core, an actor, a performer. Learn and hone your craft. Experiment with different voices, accents. Don’t be self-conscious; be bold, as it’s ultimately just you in a room with a mic, and no one will ever know enough about you to be critical of you in any sort of personal way. As far as the craft goes,the International Dialects of English Archive is an invaluable resource for learning and mimicking different accents. Also, Dee Bradley Baker, a fantastic voice actor, has put together a wonderful site that gives you any information you could possibly want about voice acting, how to do it, how to be better at it, and how to be successful. The site is found at https://iwanttobeavoiceactor.com/

Steven Barrett can be found at www.facebook.com/letmetellyouastory and http://twitter.com/PlasmatixUltra on Twitter.

Click here to read my review of Murder on the Mind

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