Book Industry Peeps: Karen Chilton, Audiobook Narrator On How Audiobooks Come To Be

KAREN CHILTON headshot[1]And now beloved Litjuicers, the time has come to have segments about the industry lads and lasses who enhance every litjuicer’s audio reads experience. Today’s guest is Karen Chilton. Karen Chilton is a renowned audibook narrator. I first came across her name on the novelist Hugh Howey’s blog. He could not stop raving about her skills for the audio version of his book Sand!

Name: Karen Chilton

Litjuice Occupation: Audiobook Voice Artist/Book Narrator

Favorite Read: My list of favorite books and favorite authors is quite long—everything by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin—but one of my all-time favorite novels is The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker. It was the first book I ever read that once I finished, I turned to page one and started it all over again because I didn’t want to let it go. As a narrator, I’d have to say I’ve Got A Home in Glory Land by Karolyn Smardz Frost was one of the most challenging and most rewarding works I’ve recorded thus far. Also Trade Wind by M.M. Kaye was a mammoth undertaking—an ancient story in a foreign land with varied characters, dozens of dialects, classical writing. Narrating the book I authored on jazz pianist Hazel Scott wasn’t a bad gig either.

How did you get interested in audio book narration?

I’m a professional actor and writer. Narration is an extension of my work as an actor (the majority of narrators are seasoned actors). When audiobooks became popular, casting directors cast actors in the same way they would cast a play. They’re looking for great storytellers. It is a niche business for many actors; a unique way of stretching the acting muscle.

You are approached by an author or a publisher or other entity about providing the narration for a book. What usually happens next?

I work through an agent and with several major audiobook publishers. So, I’m either auditioning for a publisher who is listening to several voices to find the best match for a book, or I’m offered an audiobook the project by the one of the publishers that I have long-standing relationships with. I’ve been narrating over ten years, so at this point, I am usually contacted directly and offered the project without an audition.

When the actual recording is taking place, do you re-read the book, or do other sorts of preparation?

Preparation is vital to great narration. You read the book in advance, make notes regarding tone, character voices, pronunciations, accents, foreign definitions, etc. During recording you typically record a couple of hours per day until the project is complete. A standard novel could take a week or two to complete. Nonfiction depending on the density of the subject can take a month. There have been occasions when I’ve had to complete the entire book in a day which is less than ideal since the work itself is physically taxing. Too many hours in the booth can make the vocals weary and strained, and that comes across in the sound production. The whole idea of audiobook narration is to sound as if you’ve read the book in one setting. So from day to day, you have to match your tone, energy, style, cadence, etc. This is achieved through not only the narrator’s talents, but also those of the sound engineer who is acutely aware of every breath, every swallow, every nuance.

What should authors look for when choosing a voiceover artist?

Authors should consider the style and tone of their book and then consider how that style and tone can best be expressed audibly. If it’s a mystery novel, for example, you may want a narrator who has an intriguing vocal quality; if it’s a romance novel you might go for a deep, sultry sound. If it’s a novel full of colorful characters, you may choose a virtuosic narrator who has a pocketful of wonderful character voices. If authors approach the choice from the standpoint that narration is a performance and not simply someone with a nice voice reading their book out loud, it will give them more insight into what vocal qualities would best enliven their work.

And for those who’d like to get started in the field, what sort of advice would you like to give them?

For actors who want to break into audiobook narration, I would say analyze your vocal qualities and pinpoint what kinds of books would make a good fit for your voice. And what turns you on as an actor. Is it children’s books, teen novels, romance, sci-fi, spiritual/personal growth, nonfiction? Then produce a demo tape with a two-three minute sample and submit it to audiobook publishers.

For people outside of the business, it’s a little tougher because first you have to determine–and then prove—whether or not you’re a natural storyteller with the ability to produce a performance out of the written word. I would suggest taking a class or attending a seminar where you could learn not only how to create an interesting read but also how to work with a sound engineer, the basics of working in the sound studio. It is a technical craft as well as an artistic one.

At the end of the day, narration is taking words from the page and animating them in the imagination of the listener. You’re essentially taking the listener on a journey, so every description, every character, every locale, every plot point, etc. has to come alive through the sheer strength of your vocal performance. It’s gratifying work but it is also very demanding. Any audiobook that has you riveted, totally captivated, where you can imagine every scene and every character, that is evidence of a narrator who has poured plenty of skill and talent into many, many hours of physically-demanding recording in order to make that happen.

Please visit her website BY CLICKING HERE.

Photo Credit: Hoebermann Studio NYC

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