Imagine you are listening to an audiobook. The story takes place in the South, and you’re immersed in a scene of intense action. Suddenly, you hear the voice actor say “you all,” rather than the “y’all” you have been hearing up until this point. You pause, and suddenly you’re not thinking about the story. You’re removed from the world you spent the past half hour in, and now you’re thinking about the actor, maybe picturing them in front of a microphone, watching them as they make the fatal mistake. It takes you a few moments, and maybe a quick rewind, to get back into the story.
How do publishers avoid these mishaps in an audiobook recording? They do so in the earlier stages of the project, by choosing the right voice actor. But how do they choose the right actor? What characteristics make our favorite narrators so effective?
Making this casting decision can be a complex endeavor, but it could be said that, ultimately, publishers look for four main things: preparation, intonation, precision, and heart.
One of the most obvious factors in the decision-making process is the level of preparation on the part of the actor. At the first recording, publishers generally want to know that the actor has read the entire book, annotated their script, learned pronunciations of names and odd words, prepared any accents, and submitted any questions to the publisher in advance. The level of effort in preparation can be a reflection of the author’s drive and interest in the project, which we will touch on later.
Intonation is just as vital to the casting decision. An actor who is native to the area the story is set in will have an undeniable advantage over an individual who has to manufacture the appropriate way of speaking. Authenticity is one thing publishers will look for in a voice actor to ensure a smooth delivery. Aaron Blank, a producer for Random House, said in an interview that the narrator should be someone who “can hold my focus, and not try to sell me a car.”
Precision is also key. A mispronounced word can pull the reader right out of the story. A 100 percent accurate reading of the script will do for an audiobook what editing will do for a manuscript—improve and perfect, and be completely invisible when done right. If the narrator has done their job, readers will be able to immerse themselves completely in the world of the book, without surfacing at all due to a misstep in pronunciation.
The final, and perhaps the most vital, factor in a casting decision is the answer to this question: Does the actor have heart? An actor who connects with the story—whether that means they are knowledgeable about the subject matter, have direct experience with it, or just have an affinity for it—will read differently than an unaffected actor who is removed from the topic. In addition, an actor with a heart for the book or related material will generally possess a higher level of stamina for long hours of recording sessions. This is especially important for longer texts, as actors will have to record for longer periods of time to meet deadlines.
By looking for preparation, intonation, precision, and heart, publishers can make casting decisions with confidence that the actor will create something that will make whatever is on the reader’s mind disappear as they are pulled into the story.