An audiobook narrator for authors like Margaret Atwood and Elena Ferrante says any self-starter can break into the field and make a lucrative living — but the work can be draining
- Hillary Huber has narrated almost 700 books after starting out in commercial voiceover work.
- She says the hardest part is not mixing up complicated sentences or character voices.
You may not know Hillary Huber's name, but if you're an audiobook fan, chances are you'd recognize her voice. Her catalog of almost 700 titles spans genres and includes beloved books such as Annabel Monaghan's "Nora Goes Off Script," Margaret Atwood's "My Evil Mother," and Elena Ferrante's "My Brilliant Friend."
Before bringing novels and nonfiction narratives to life, Huber spent a decade doing commercial voiceover work. "When I moved to LA, my husband was in advertising, and I'd be around all these people who'd say, 'Wow, listen to your voice. You should do voiceovers,' and I thought, 'That sounds fun,'" Huber told Insider.
Though Huber said she had a "pretty great run for a while" as a voiceover actor, she recalled seeing older women at commercial auditions and watching their opportunities evaporate: "I thought: 'I've got to pivot. I need to do something that I can do forever.'"
Over the past decade, audiobook sales have surged. A recent survey conducted by the not-for-profit Audio Publishers Association and InterQ found that audiobook revenue swelled to $1.6 billion in 2021, which represents a 25% annual increase and marks the 10th consecutive year of double-digit growth.
Huber shared what goes into cultivating a career as a successful audiobook narrator.
Narrating can be just as mentally draining as it is physically draining
Huber said there's a lot more to the job than simply reading aloud.
"It's not about the voice — it's about the acting skill," she said. "A lot of people get into this because someone told them they're good at doing funny voices or because they love reading. A love for reading is important, but it's about understanding the literature and connecting to the material in a meaningful way, and then getting out of the way."
Once she's secured a project, Huber reads the book carefully, keeping a notebook by her side. "I write down every character and everything that describes them, either physically and emotionally," she said. "I love things that other characters say about them — anything that can inform what they sound like. I also write down any words I may need to look up."
Huber added that she learned the hard way that there are no shortcuts. "I narrated a book and I read about three-quarters of it, and then I was like: 'You know, I'm good. I know where this is going. I've been introduced to every character. I'm just going to start.' I got to 80%, right past where I'd read to, and they mentioned one of the characters grew up in London."
Huber needed to go back and rerecord to give the character the proper British accent. "That's why you need to read the entire book," she said. "But more importantly, you need to know how to wind the story. I want to know who the bad guy is so that I can highlight the red herring."
She divides her time between California and New York and spends most of her working hours in a 4-foot-by-4-foot recording booth. To keep her vocal cords in the best shape before recording, she said, she avoids alcohol, as it's dehydrating, along with loud restaurants that would force her to shout to have a conversation. Additionally, she does vocal exercises.
By the third day on a project, Huber said, her voice is at its peak, but her voice isn't her biggest concern. Instead, it's the focus required to keep characters' voices straight and execute tongue-twister sentences flawlessly. "After five or six hours you're like: 'Whoa, I don't even know what I'm saying anymore,''' Huber said.
In addition to the mental exhaustion, there's also the physical limitations of spending lengthy stretches in a small recording booth.
"You learn the mechanics of your body like no other job I can imagine," she said. "You're literally locked in there for hours, sitting for long periods, and you are hearing every single rumble, so you learn what you can and what you can't eat. The effect on your body is exhausting."
Climate presents another challenge. Air conditioners and fans or anything that creates background noise isn't an option. Huber said each June, narrators take to social media to commiserate by sharing posts saying things like "I've got an ice pack around my neck" or "I'm narrating in my bra."
The work can be done from home — if you're willing to shell out money for a proper studio
Huber works and records from home. While it has its perks — she can save on commuting, for instance — having your own studio comes with its own costs.
Plenty of people, especially those in quiet, rural areas, make do by transforming a walk-in closet, but Huber said there were two things you have to deal with: keeping sound out and treating the sound within. "You can't just walk into a closet and record, because sound waves will bounce off the walls and you get this echoey, hollow sound," she said. "So a well-treated closet in a quiet area is great. If you're in the city or in a noisy urban area, then that's a different story."
But equipment, including a computer, an interface, and a decent microphone, can be found for under $1,000, Huber added. "I would not recommend using a USB mic," she said. "That's not going to cut it. You need a proper microphone that creates a digital signal to get into your computer, and there's tons of editing software that's free."
For narrators seeking a top-of-the-line experience, the booth du jour is by StudioBricks. "It comes from Spain, and it's sexy and it's beautiful," Huber, who estimates the cost at approximately $10,000, said.
Getting an editor to check your computer, your mic placement, and your levels annually is also a wise investment. "I say spend the $100 that it would take to get an editor to FaceTime with you," Huber said. "I've been doing this for how many years, and I always rely on the experts."
Salaries vary greatly for audiobook narrators
Similar to the cost of an in-home studio, the amount a voice actor can earn varies greatly as well. "A lot of people do start out as a side hustle," Huber said. "Some are doing it for a royalty share through ACX, which is for self-published authors. Basically, those narrators are recording for free and then editing and mastering on their own or paying someone to do it." While it's a lot of work without the guarantee of making a set amount in return for their efforts, Huber added, it is a way for newer narrators to gain experience and build a portfolio.
More-experienced narrators like Huber are paid by the finished hour. "If you're paid $200 per finished hour and the completed project is 10 hours, then you'll be paid $2,000, even if it took you 30 hours to record," Huber said.
A 300-page book, roughly the average length of a novel, takes about five days to record, Huber said. Narrators send the files for quality control and then receive their "pickups," or lines that require retakes. "You do those, and then you put in your calendar when it's coming out so you can promote it and follow the author," she added.
Rates also vary widely depending on the publisher or production company and, of course, the narrator's experience. "So it ranges from working for free to the low $200s for a finished hour," Huber said. "There's this idea among newer narrators that seasoned narrators are getting $600 an hour, and that is not the case. Celebrities may be getting more, and, of course, you can ask for whatever you want."
It's possible for an experienced audiobook narrator working full time to earn in the low six figures, Huber added. Seasonal professionals may also supplement their income by offering coaching or classes.
The most successful narrators are self-starters
When many people think about making it as an actor, they imagine an agent is involved. That's not the case with audiobook narration. "We do it completely on our own," Huber said. "Every audiobook narrator is a total self-starter. It's about forging relationships with publishers and production companies."
The rise of virtual events during the coronavirus pandemic has made it much easier for narrators to connect with companies looking for talent, but that also means the field has gotten a lot more competitive. With that, many voice actors are required to audition, which Huber fully supports. "I'm a firm believer in having the author solidly behind who's reading their book, so I think having auditions is a great idea," she said.
Like any freelancer, Huber said, she's always on the lookout for her next project. While she says she tends to take any book that comes her way and has a "low bar," she draws the line at projects she finds objectionable and recommended that new narrators do the same if they're not comfortable with the material.
While authors dream about a top-notch narrator bringing their characters to life, voice actors also hope to work with some of their favorite storytellers.
"I would love to work with Kristin Hannah," Huber said. "She's a dream catch for me — and Gillian Flynn. I also love a memoir about a girl going off the rails."
"Some of my favorite books have been about women who have gone through some pretty taxing trials," she added. "That's something to connect to that just feels really juicy to me."
Huber, who studied acting but prefers to remain off-camera, offers the following advice to would-be narrators who haven't had any theatrical training: "Go take a community-college acting class or even an improv class to understand contextually how an actor connects to the material."
But even before considering that step, Huber suggested reading a book aloud for a long stretch. "Spend three hours at a time reading out loud and see how you feel about that, because it's not for everybody," she said. "When a lot of my commercial-voiceover colleagues found out I was doing audiobooks, I can't tell you how many of them tried it and said: 'No effing way. Give me a 30-second spot.' It's really hard. It's not like reading to your kids."
- JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon says he isn't afraid of China, but would leave if the US government told him to
- Charlie Munger once said he and Warren Buffett weren't interested in emulating Elon Musk: 'We don't want that much failure'
- Instagram's crisis highlights the bigger issues the entire ad industry is facing
- From Tata Punch EV to Lamborghini Revuelto, cars set to launch in India in December
- Climate Finance Top of the Agenda at The Second Edition of R.A.C.E. Sustainability Summit Held on the Opening Day of COP28 in the UAE
- Tesla launches Cybertruck at $60,990, delivers to 1st batch of customers
- GDP reading, exit polls push Nifty to record high; Sensex jumps over 400 points
- Plan your year-end – Banks shut for nine days all over India in December