by Richard Aspel

My journey into narrating audio books came about in a rather round about way.

Twenty-five years ago when the industry was still in it’s infancy, my older brother developed a malignant cancer. Towards the end he was so sick that one of the only comforts he had left in life was to listen to audio books. So our family brought as many as we could. At that time audio books were generally regarded as for the visually impaired, the aged and the infirm. I had never listened to one.

How times changed when I had the opportunity to audition as an audio book narrator. I jumped at it. In honour of my late brother and because as an actor it offered a challenge.

Twenty-five years later I’ve recorded over 120 titles and the market share has grown to 30%. Audio books are now far from being for the visually impaired.

What makes a good narrator? It’s hard. Your first book is like trying to ride a motorcycle. You just hop on and learn.

And there are many pitfalls. But in essence, it’s all about being a storyteller.. Regardless of whether the title is a racy novel , a romance, a biography a self educational book or a children’s book, you’re still telling a story. Timing is everything – and pacing and intonation.

Having worked voicing characters in animation helped me; colour and shade, fleshing out characters, hitting the right points, which is why actors make good narrators, We are also storytellers. Radio plays – a lost art – also helped. But does this mean that people can’t narrate their own books? Of course not. Many do. Some are successful and some less so. There will always be some listeners who just don’t like your voice!

But to the author determined to self record – listen to yourself. Is my voice pleasing to the ear? Will people listen for hours to my tones? Listen to other experienced narrators. Practice – record and listen back to yourself. Work on pacing, emphasis and intonation. You are telling a story –  not just relating facts. Make it interesting to the reader. And always prepare; for hours of preparation before recording is 90% of success.

There are pitfalls and challenges. My proudest moment in the industry was narrating ‘Money can’t buy me love – a history of The Beatles’ – for which I won an international award. It was difficult; the narration was interwoven with a dissection of Beatle’s lyrics and musical structure. Tough, challenging but we pulled it off.

My worst moment was recording a 600 page novel where one recurring but rather anonymous character was revealed at the end to be a woman and not a man. Eeek! I’d prepared 100 pages in advance for each recording session but I still got caught out and we had to re-record many hours of narration. My lesson. Read the whole book first and I have ever since.

Are all narrators suited to all books? Of course not. As in any area of performance, you will be typecast. I tend to be offered Thrillers, Histories, Biographies and Educational books. Friends get offered Romance novels and Children’s books. Your voice has to fit the market.

Are all books suitable for recording? Most certainly not. I once had to turn down a well paid narration job because the project was simply unrecordable. More than 50% of the content was schematics, pie graphs and diagrams. You can’t record that. But most books do lend themselves to audio format.

Interestingly, only 3 times out of 120 plus titles have I recorded an audio book with other actors. Generally, the listener will prefer the consistency of a single narrator.. There is a special bond between the narrator and the listener. You have the responsibility of painting a picture in their mind’s eye.

Twenty years ago truck drivers only had talk back radio. Now they have audio books for long hauls. Every major service station now has an audio book stand. Commuters, busy workers, multi-taskers, those who rarely read a hard copy book… Audio books are burgeoning.

Where to from here?  Well. I’m no technical wiz, but I’ve seen the industry go from cassettes to CDs to CD roms to iPods and online all in the past 25 years. The sky is the limit.

Imagine if you’ve written your memoirs. A great achievement, but difficult to get published. Now you can record it, hire a narrator and editor and get it online for posterity. And all for a song.

All I know is that I’ve been the industry for 25 years and have seen it flourish and grow every year. Because despite technical advances, it’s about telling a good story. And everyone loves a good story.