Sneak Peek into Audiobook Narration

Photo courtesy of Basil Sands


Debbie Burke


Jim Bell recently wrote an excellent post about doing his own narration for his audiobook. With training as an actor, attorney, and experienced public speaker, he’s a natural for his craft books.

For memoirs, the author is often the default choice as long as s/he has a good voice. (See recording artist Juni Fisher’s tips for DIY narration at the bottom of this post)

What narration styles do readers prefer for fiction?

In the 1990s, my husband and I browsed racks at truck stops for Books of the Road cassette tapes with great selections of mysteries, thrillers, and historicals. Listening to books made the hours and miles fly by. Several times I really hated to leave a compelling story, even for a dinner break!

Back then, most narrators were male. I recall being annoyed every time a man adopted a falsetto tone for a female character. It totally jerked me out of the story and had a ridiculously comic effect, not the best mood for a tense, life-or-death scene.

Conversely, the female narrator of an early Sue Grafton book sounded so silly when she attempted a phony deep voice for a male character, we ejected the tape.

Audiobooks have grown up a lot since the days of cassette tapes. With their increasing popularity, I went in search of the tastes of today’s listeners.

GoodReads featured a discussion on audiobooks prompted by a two-part question:

In general, would you say you read more books written by male or female authors?

Would you say you listen to, or prefer listening to, more male or female narrators?

Responses were evenly split on whether they read more female or male authors and not necessarily along gender lines.

Many reported they didn’t care which gender as long as the narrator knew what s/he was doing. Quality of performance made the strongest impression.

Several said a book written in first person point of view should be read by a narrator of the same gender.

A number cited irritation with a male narrator who made female characters sound like “bimbos” or a female narrator who sounded “dopey” trying to fake a baritone.

Some respondents had trouble hearing higher-pitched female voices and therefore generally preferred male narrators or females with lower-pitched voices.

A few mentioned preferring a male narrator for male characters and a female narrator for female characters. But a surprising number would rather listen to a single, skillful narrator throughout the whole book, regardless of gender.

Narrators develop their own fan bases. One fan said: “I can fall in love with narrators and try an audiobook simply because they narrated it, even if I’ve never even heard of the author.”

British accents entranced many fans.

Quite a few cited Davina Porter as a favorite. She narrated Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

Others said they would listen to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith read the phone book.


To learn what happens inside the recording studio, I reached out to two well-respected audiobook narrators, one male, Basil Sands, and one female, Marguerite Gavin.

Photo courtesy of Basil Sands

Basil Sands has narrated numerous novels by TKZ’s own James Scott Bell and John Gilstrap. Basil is also the author of the Ice Hammer series. He has his own studio in his Anchorage, Alaska home where he narrates and does post-production editing.

DB: Basil, would you give us an overview of the process of creating an audiobook?

BS: Writing a novel has a great many complex parts and narrating a book into audio format is similar.

The rights holder (author/publisher) contacts the narrator community for auditions. Once the narrator is chosen, contract and script are sent. The narrator should read through the entire text at least once. There will likely NEVER be time to read a book twice, or enjoy a leisurely read ever again. Time crunches may mean cold reads so improv skills are a must.There is literally no time for rehearsing.

In order to make a decent living, a narrator has to do two to four books a month or more.

DB: Do you ever consult with the author?

BS: In most cases, [publishers arrange contracts and] authors are off-limits to narrators. If I can, I love talking to authors to get their take on their characters.

Years ago, I recorded back-catalog books for Piers Anthony (sci-fi/fantasy author with unusual names and spelling). I emailed Piers (now 85). He had no idea his old books were being recorded and was delighted. He gave me free rein to perform as I pleased. I had a lot of fun with his series.

DB: How do you handle female voices and dialogue?

BS: With a fairly deep, resonant voice, I never go falsetto. My tactic is to soften my voice, slide up an octave or two, and give a less masculine impression.

Basil’s summation: Narrating is far from the easiest of acting professions but is one of the best ways an actor can really sink their chops into their trade. Every book is a marathon, playing all the parts, knowing all the details, in full control of the entire show. Did I mention I love my job?


Audiobook narrator Marguerite Gavin

Marguerite Gavin has narrated 600+ books and won multiple awards. She lives on the Delaware shoreline with her 19-year-old daughter. She likes to say she and author Dana Stabenow grew up together since Marguerite narrated Dana’s first Kate Chugak thriller and they’ve worked together for 22 books. Marguerite also brings to life Liam CampbellDana’s male protagonist.

During our phone conversation, when asked how she handles male voices, Marguerite says she narrates many thrillers where, inevitably, “five male cops all from the same hometown with similar accents wind up in a car chase. How do you distinguish among them?” She then demonstrated several voices with slight but distinct differences in tone, diction, and speech patterns.

In addition to narration, Marguerite is an actor/director and jokes, “Audiobook narration supports my theatre habit.”  She also teaches and coaches students “to understand the actor’s instrument of voice and to understand their own range.

If the character is a hulking male truck driver who smokes, “I throw air over my cords. It’s not always about pitch.”

She believes it’s easier for a woman to do male voices because women have more range. “I’m not afraid to sound like a man.” She suspects men have more trouble making the leap to sound feminine.

Marguerite loves to narrate series, watching characters evolve over time. She also enjoys collaborations with authors.

Her enthusiasm for her profession comes through with every word. “I’m fortunate to have the balance of financial stability with my passion. It’s important to keep your joy in your job.”

“The skill is to be inside the story as much as possible. You don’t want people listening to an actor act rather than getting lost in the story.” She always asks, “What makes a good reading experience? What is the feeling?”

Thank you, Basil and Marguerite, for giving us a peek inside audiobook narration! It’s always enlightening to talk with artists whose passion for their profession shines through.


Recording artist Juni Fisher’s tips for DIY narration, quoted with her permission:

  • Print script in 14-16 font, double-spaced, and make notes.
  • Recording can be done a few lines, a paragraph, a page at a time.
  • If you make a small error, clap your hands to make a “mark” so you know where to go back to re-record, and keep going.
  • Use your eyebrows when you read. Be more enthusiastic than you think. The engineer will have you back off if it’s too much.
  • Advice from the music recording industry: “Nice, but do it now so I BELIEVE you.”
  • Sip room-temperature water or warm water (never cold) every couple of pages or paragraphs.
  • No dairy and no sugar.
  • Use sugar-free throat lozenges (not numbing type).
  • Speak as you’d speak to someone you adore, sitting right next to you.



Do you have a preference for audiobook narrators of one gender over the other? If so, what are your reasons?

What audiobook quality is most important to you as a listener?





Debbie Burke’s new book, Stalking Midas, is FREE on Kindle today through November 2.  Here’s the link. 



All Aboard!…

…well…not allaboard. Many are called, some will enter, and a few will be chosen. Am I talking about heaven? No. I’m talking about Amtrak. We all know what Amtrak is, but how many of us have ever taken a trip by passenger train? Not me; the closest I’ve ever gotten to a trip by train have been rides around the parks on the choo-choos at the Columbus Zoo and Hershey Park. Amtrak, however, is sponsoring an “Amtrak Residency for Writers,” believe it or not. It is happening right now; you can apply here until March 31, 2014. The application includes the submission of a writing sample which will give you the opportunity to strut your creative stuff as well. Amtrak representatives will start selecting winners on March 17 and keep doing so through March 31. Amtrak will choose twenty-four winners. The residency will be for six months…I’m kidding about the duration: if you are one of the very lucky winners, the terms of  the residency will be two to five days, and it appears that Amtrak will select your destination. You will be provided with a private sleeper car with a bed, a desk and a window. Gamblers need not apply (again, just kidding. I can’t resist. Hope you’re not, um, keeping track.). I do regret to note, however, that Brother Basil Sands is not eligible; please read the contest rules carefully to see why.
This contest looks as if it would be just the berries if you are looking to jump start your next (or even your current) writing project via exposure to inspiring scenery in an environment removed from your normal distractions of daily living. I have submitted an application, and while I would love to be one of the winners, I’d like to see at least one of you, our loyal and wonderful visitors to The Kill Zone, listed as a winner as well. Should you be selected, all I ask in return for alerting you to this wonderful possibility is that 1) you dedicate your completed novel to me and 2) you insist upon a clause in your ancillary rights agreement that I am to be given a featured role in the film version of your work. That’s all. Wink wink.
Good luck. And if one of you should be a winner, please let us know. For now, however, please tell us: if you are selected as one of the winners, where would you like to go? And how would you schedule your daily writing activity?


Reader Friday: Meet our Muses

Last Tuesday we put out a request for pictures of your muses–we asked to see the people, spirits, or things that inspire you to keep filling the blank page with words.

We received some great results! Here they are, in no particular order:

Dave Williams: Twin Muses

Dave writes, “Besides my dog Merry Christmas, I can’t forget Davyn and Claira, our new twin grandbabies. I don’t get much writing done when they are here, but watching them study the world around them, stare wide-eyed at new things, and grin from ear to ear every time I see them inspires the heck out of me. Everything is new, everything is an adventure, and everything is grist for their little mills.And they make me want to write books that I can read to them as they grow up, so I can pass on my love of books and storytelling to them.”
Wait…you have two precious little angels to inspire you, and a dog named Merry Christmas? Major cuteness, Dave!
BK Jackson: Sunrise in the Desert 
BK sent us a spectacular photo of his desert-spirit muse. 

“My muse, Arizona, has many wonderful facets,” he wrote. “Here’s just one example of her splendor.  No wonder she inspires me.”
Donna Galanti: Star
Donna snapped a photo of her muse, Star the cat. 
“He must write with me every day,” she wrote us. “Star whips his tail at me to write if I stop typing. He even has the nerve to chew on my reference books as I write reminding me to write better. Plus he steals the best window view to stop me from daydreaming. But he keeps me here with my butt in the chair, where I should be. And that is a good muse. (plus see what good company he keeps next to my go-to writing resource as I fast draft a new novel!) 
Basil Sands: All in the Family

“Everyone joined in for the fun,” he wrote. “My wife Mia and my two younger boys.  The two lovely virtual muses settled their differences for long enough to smile for a snapshot, it’s slightly blurry but they are after all imaginary friends who primarily reside in my mind.” (For the back story on Basil’s virtual muses, see Tuesday’s comments!)  

Terri Lynn Coop: Scruffy

Terri sent us a picture of her canine muse, Scruffy. 
“This is Scruffy after a hard day of being my amusement, inspiration, first reader (he’s a great listener), and getting me out from behind the computer for walks,” she wrote. 
Sounds like Scruffy earned his nap, Terri!  
Clare Langley-Hawthorne: Hamish
Clare’s muse is her elegant collie, Hamish.
Joe Moore:  Patio the cat
Joe’s muse is Patio, who is “determined to sleep his life away,” according to Joe.
James Scott Bell: John D. MacDonald
Jim has an illustrious muse: the writer John D. MacDonald, shown here typing away at his desk.
Nancy Cohen: Items of Inspiration
Nancy sent a photo of her collection of things that inspire her. 
“There are troll dolls for my current series based on Norse mythology, a porcelain head of a lady supposed to look like my hairdresser sleuth, a Bad Hair Day mug, and assorted computer oriented knickknacks,” she wrote. “I keep CDs up there but don’t play music when I write. I like silence.”
Jordan Dane: Sancho 

“This is ONE of my rescues – Sancho,” she writes. “We have two dogs and two cats, all from shelters. But this guy makes me laugh every day. He loves sprawling on his belly and ‘snakes’ off the sofa.  Epic cuteness.”

Thanks everyone for sending in your pictures, and feel free to add more about them in the comments. And let us know if we missed anyone’s photo.

Reader Friday: Where do YOU write?

Last Friday we shared some pix of where the TKZ bloggers write. This week, it’s your turn. A number of readers responded to our request with some great photos of their writing spaces. Here we go!

Basil Sands:

Basil is a self-described “on the go, write-where-you-can” kind of guy.

“I have three primary butt parking spots where my literary juices tend to spike highest,” he says. 

I vote for #2, the comfy, cozy chair.

John Gilstrap:
Blogger Emeritus John Gilstrap sent in a view of his office as you come in from the front door. I have to say, John’s writing space comes closest to my ideal vision of a bestselling author’s writing space!

Mike Dennis:

OK, forget the office–just look at Mike Dennis’s place (I think it’s hidden behind the palm trees). It must be great to work in paradise! 

And here’s his office…
Mike Jecks
Mike from the UK accused us of cleaning up our desks for our photos last week. Guilty as charged, Mike! He included a photo of his office and canine muses.

“As you can see, British writers don’t tidy up the desk before wandering off to pointlessly take photos, even leaving both dogs in the shot to prove we’re not idly ambling around the lanes instead of working,” he said, with lovable British sarcasm. “No. We’re sitting indoors pretending to concentrate on the next book, while actually taking photos of the ‘workspace’ instead. Work displacement activities are a wonderful thing! Hope you like the way I took one photo, didn’t like it, so took a second while leaving the first on the screen … yeah, I forgot.” 

Oh, and the second dog? If you look under the desk, you’ll spot a nose.

Zoe Sharp:

Zoe gets her creative juices flowing in an unlikely spot–her car. 

“I get a lot of productive work done in the car on motorway journeys,” she says.

Seriously, Zoe? Be careful doing that in Southern California–they hand out tickets here for texting and using a cell phone, much less tapping out the Next Great American Novel! 

Michael Harling:

Michael is shown working in his office.  

“This is me, our dining table and, yes, that is my permanent ‘office.’  It is where I work when I am not writing on the bus or a train,” he says.

I’m a dining room table writer too, Michael. Thanks for sharing!

Richard Mabry:

Richard Mabry sent us a photo of his office from his iPhone. Very cool! 

Mark Terry:

“My office used to be in the basement… and my youngest son wanted to move down there so I switched with him,” Mark says. “I rather liked the solar system hanging from the ceiling, so I left it up.” 

The acoustic guitar provides an additional outlet for creative expression.

Terri Coop:
Terri describes her office as “very much my cocoon.”

“This is my little corner of the world where I write and run my business,” she says. “It is in a free-standing apartment built inside my warehouse. I rescued the desks and wall mount cabinets from the alley behind an insurance agency (there is another on just like it to the left holding all my graphic design printers). Then I decorated the office around the desks.”

I love the HOPE sign on top of the cabinet. Every writer needs one of these!

Thank you! 
Sending out a big thanks to everyone who shared their pictures and stories about their writing spots this week. Hope we didn’t overlook anyone. Please share your story today in the Comments!

Will Livable Advances Be the First Casualty of the Publishing Revolution?

By John Gilstrap

Before getting to the meat of this week’s blog entry, I wanted to share a bit of very cool news. As every TKZ regular knows, Basil Sands is a frequent and entertaining participant here. A year or so ago, when my fellow Killzoners and I published Fresh Kills: Tales From The Killzone, Basil volunteered to produce audio versions of the book and podcast them. If you’ve listened to his narration, you know that he’s very good at that sort of thing.

A few weeks ago, during a routine email exchange with the folks from, the people who publish the audio versions of the Jonathan Grave series, I mentioned to them that they might consider adding Basil to their stable of narrators. I’m not sure of the details that transpired between Basil and at that point, but I am thrilled to announce that Basil Sands will be the narrator for my next Jonathan Grave novel, Threat Warning, which will be released on July 1.

Having heard the great job he did with Fresh Kills, I can’t wait to hear his take on Threat Warning. For the second week in a row, then, here’s to serendipity! Way to go, Basil!

We now return to our original Blog programming:


New York publishing went Hollywood back in the mid nineties, throwing high six-figure and even seven-figure advances at first time authors. It’s a shame that so many of the authors who received such largesse didn’t know that the big money would ruin their writing careers.

A million dollar advance puts a writer in the position of having to sell something like 300,000 copies in hardcover for the publisher just to break even, and 350,000 for the writer to start earning a royalty check. Those are hard numbers to achieve even for established authors; for an unknown rookie, the odds are one in thousands. Whereas in a normal world, rookie sales of 75,000 or 80,000 copies would be the stuff of cork-popping and the terrific launch of a career, those same sales for the anointed and overpaid were a source of embarrassment for the team that forked over the cash.

But the big advance was only part of the problem. In order to have a chance at recovering their investment, publishers had to throw another couple hundred thousand bucks at marketing and promotion. Back then, when a “big book” failed, it failed big. If the disappointment was public enough, no other publisher would touch the author, who would forever join the ranks of one-hit wonders.

First lesson of New York publishing: The bad stuff is always the author’s fault.

Meanwhile, because all the marketing dollars were going to the big books, the midlist authors who were lucky to be pulling in $30,000 advances got squat in promotion. Their success (or failure) was driven largely by efforts of independent booksellers to hand-sell. Back then, even if a midlist title didn’t earn out, the independents would still order the next title of an author whose work they liked. There was a tacit agreement between publishers and booksellers to “grow” and author over time. That was before computers started running the business.

Now the indies are virtually all gone, and the hundred-year-old publishing business model is in turmoil. Virtually all of the legacy houses are stuck with bazillion-dollar contracts that have virtually no chance of earning out, and to cover their downside (backside?), many are establishing eBook lines that will provide a steady stream of revenue against greatly diminished costs. Among the diminished expenses are the size of authors’ advances.

This is a game-changer for writers who make their living exclusively through writing. A reasonable advance (pick your own number to define reasonable) keeps the lights on and the kids in shoes during the period after a book is bought and before it is published. The advance is what writers use to pay bills while writing the next book. If advances implode, I’m not sure how full-time writers will make ends meet.

Self publishing will become the solution for some, I suppose, but I continue to believe that the only writers who have even a remote chance for success via self publishing are those who have already established their names via traditional means. There’s just too much noise out there for newbies to have a real shot.

While my crystal ball is notoriously cloudy on all things, I’m confident that there’ll be a solution to all of this that will keep publishers in business, and will continue to make mega-selling authors mega-wealthy. But if publishers have a brain in their collective head, they’ll have to find a way to pay less up front in advances, and more in royalties that are distributed more frequently. That would be the everybody-wins solution, I think.

What about you, dear Killzoners? For those of you who dream of canning the day job and writing full time, do you see yourself rolling the dice on self-published sales, or on royalties alone, or is an advance a critical component of your plan?