A cry of frustration which is often heard is “how do I get started in audiobooks? I love to read aloud and I’m good, but I’m not a big name and I’m not famous, all the big audiobook companies demand experience, but how do I become experienced if I need to be experienced in the first place before I can get that experience? It’s a Catch-22!”
It reminds me of a similar Catch-22 which used to frustrate young actors in Britain at the beginning of their careers. Up to around the 1980’s, to be allowed to appear professionally, they had to be members of the actors’ union Equity. And to be a member they had to have - you guessed it - professional experience of appearing. So how on earth could they get that experience?
There were a few workarounds, but an important part of them was to be an angel - i.e. do voluntary acting (there's another kind of "angel" in the theatre world but never mind about that!). This wasn’t quite the same thing as amateur acting. They had to appear for free, but - if you see what I mean - as professionals. So up and down the country young actors popped up on makeshift stages in pubs and clubs, struggling to make themselves heard over the jukebox and the roar of alcohol-lubricated conversation. If they were good they were cheered to the rafters and might get to pass round a hat. If they were bad they were booed off the stage in a hail of beer and pork scratchings. That didn’t matter, they were clocking up the hours and in due course would be able to make their Equity applications.
So what has this got to do with today’s new voice actors and audiobook narrators? The answer is - why not be an angel too? Just like those pubs and clubs providing a stage for struggling young actors back in the day, nowadays there are organisations looking for volunteers to read audiobooks. And just as it’s easier to get voluntary work than paid work, it’s generally a lot easier to get into voluntary audiobook narration - all you need is talent, some decent equipment, and the willingness to put in the necessary hours of unpaid work.
I will mention two voluntary audiobook producers, since these are the ones I’ve done some work for, though I’m sure there are others. One is Librivox, who specialise in producing audiobooks of works which are out of copyright, some very obscure but all extremely intriguing. The volunteers themselves suggest the books they wish to read, and these are then set up as projects. Different volunteers may read different sections of the books, and when complete the audiobook is made generally available on the internet free of charge. A great feature of Librivox from the narrator’s point of view is that before starting to read, the narrator can send in a one-minute test which is checked over for quality by Librivox’s technicians. So it’s a great way for new narrators to check that the quality of their equipment and recordings are good enough. If you can’t meet Librivox’s standards, you certainly aren’t going to get far in professional paid narration.
Another is Learning Ally, which provides audiobooks for children with dyslexia and learning disabilities. The audiobooks are educational, but not necessarily simply textbooks. To be offered an audiobook the volunteer narrator does have to provide a demo and be selected by a project manager as having the right voice for the job. They’ve got a terrific team of technicians and managers to help the volunteer along the way.
Volunteering is therefore a great way for new narrators to get that valuable experience which can go on a CV and help to get those much-desired paid jobs. But it’s much more than just a selfish means to an end. As an angelic volunteer, you also have the pleasure of knowing that you are enabling people who might not otherwise be able to afford it to experience the joy of storytelling, or introducing children who would normally struggle to the magical world of books. Or you simply have the pleasure of knowing that you may have helped rescue a lovely old book from being entirely forgotten.
And although being an angel means you won’t be passing round a hat, there’s no danger of anyone throwing a pint of beer over you either!