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Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Audiobook Narrator

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Audiobook Narrator

September 27, 2016

Karissa Vacker
Audiobook Narrator and Actress

First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you’ve been at it.

I am an audiobook narrator. I narrated my first book in late 2014 and have recorded about 15 books since then.

What drove you to choose your career path and how did you go about getting your job?

Becoming a narrator was a completely unexpected stop on the path of my career and I’m so very lucky for it! I am an actress and have been acting professionally in theatre, tv, and film for several years. An actress friend of mine told me she had begun narrating audiobooks in between acting gigs. She loved it and thought I would be great at it also. She recommended me to the folks she was working with at Deyan Audio, which is an amazing recording house in Los Angeles. Publishers hire them to record and produce audiobooks. I was lucky enough to sit down with the immensely kind and generous owner of Deyan Audio, Debra Deyan, and she and I mapped out a plan for how best to begin my career as a narrator. They had me in to audition for a few books, and I began recording my first book through them a few months later. Several months after that, I began recording through Penguin Random House as well. I’ve been recording books fairly consistently ever since.

What kind of education and experience did you need?

You need strong acting and voice chops. I think theatre training is beneficial because you learn how to do voice and character work. You learn how to breathe in certain ways to quickly produce an emotion. You also learn the basics of accent work. I use all of these every time I begin work on a book.

As for me personally, I have my BFA in Acting from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. I also studied classical theatre at the British American Dramatic Academy in Oxford, England. I travelled around the US performing in top regional theatres before I began working in TV and film in Los Angeles, which is where I also began my career as a narrator. I listened to lots of audiobooks before I became a narrator myself, and I still do. Learning from others is key!

When you narrate a fiction book, you get to play all of the characters, no matter their gender or age, or the accent they may have. It is a juicy job for an actor because you get to play the whole story, not just a single part as you generally do in TV, film or theatre. There is also the responsibility of really tuning into the author’s vision for the book and making sure you are doing their work justice in your portrayal of it.

You also need the ability to be by yourself for long periods of time in a small space! Recording a book requires hours of sitting very still in a windowless sound-proof booth and being tremendously focused and present. If your mind wanders it is likely you will mess up a sentence or not capture the author’s meaning. If you physically move around too much, the powerful microphone will pick up the sound. It can be a very immersive experience, which I find fun, but can also be isolating. I recommend lots of breaks to stretch your legs, drink tea, and chat with others so you remain fresh and clear.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

When I get a book, the first thing I do is research the author and see what other kinds of books they’ve written. I go to their website and try to get a feel for their style.

Then, I begin the first read of the manuscript I’ve been given. I take notes on specific character descriptions, such as: If so-and-so is described as having a “gruff” voice, or if on page 235 you learn a certain character actually has an Irish accent! Oftentimes I also “assign” characters from my own life as inspiration for voices. That can be really fun.

I look up any words I am unfamiliar with, both for meaning and pronunciation. I research any accents that come up. I highlight different characters with different colors so I’ll know visually what’s coming up ahead of time.

Usually I only have time to read the book once before I’m due to be in the studio, but if possible, I’ll go back to certain sections I’ve marked during my first read where there is a particularly heightened emotional exchange in the dialogue, or perhaps an accent I want to drill a bit more.

On my way to the studio to record I do a vocal warm-up in the car. I bring along lots of hot tea, water, and snacks to keep me going for the day!

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

Perhaps that I’m reading the book for the first time when I get into the studio to record it. I know some narrators who are very busy/highly experienced that do this, and do it very well. While I have the time, however, I really like preparing the book and challenging myself to get better and better with each title.

What are your average work hours? Typical 9-5 thing or not?

When I’m prepping a book I read as many hours a day as I am able so that I can get into the studio as soon as possible. When I’m recording I work from about 9am to 2pm. I can record longer hours than that, but my voice suffers the next day for it. I try to keep sessions 4-5 hours, max.

What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?

Highlighting the characters in different colors helps me to deliver a smoother read with fewer mistakes. I am such a visual person that that small visual cue enables me to tell the story well. Otherwise, I just play, have fun with the story, and trust myself. I also tend to be a fast reader, so I’m sure that helps as well!

What do you do differently from your peers in the same profession?

I’m sure I do lots of things differently than my fellow narrators! It is an art and a skill and I know each narrator has their own take

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

The worst part is getting a cold the week I’m due to record. If my voice is sounding hoarse or nasally I have to postpone recording. I have become vigilant in taking my vitamins!

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

I am such a lover of books that sometimes I pinch myself when I remember that reading is my job! The books I am hired to read are not always ones I would pick up myself, but it is always fun to find my way into the story.

Is there a way to “move up” in your field?

I think like most of the performing arts, when you do your job well people begin to know you better and you get more work. Awards help, too. 🙂

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

If you are a trained actor and a book lover, connect with the publishers in your area or contact your union to learn more about finding work as a narrator!

To find out more about me and my work go to: www.karissavacker.com, or find me on Twitter (@karissavacker) or Instagram (@karissavacker), or “Like me” on Facebook.

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