Over the past year I’ve become obsessed with audiobooks. They’re a great way for someone with a busy schedule (i.e., me) to enjoy books on the go. Whether I’m walking around town or brushing my teeth, I’m almost always listening to an audiobook on my iPhone or Kindle Fire HD, through the Audible or Overdrive apps.
Audiobooks are a magical form of entertainment because of the narrators that read them. These men and women are legitimate actors that breath life into the stories they read with a variety of intricate character voices, accents and dialects. The right audiobook narrator can make a mediocre book good and a great book excellent.
One of my favorite audiobook narrators is Dick Hill. Most famous for being the voice of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, Hill has nearly 500 audiobooks on Audible – including classics, sci-fi and fantasy, mysteries and thrillers, you name it. Hill is one of the most prolific audiobook narrators in the business and his ability to turn words into theater for the ears is impressive.
I recently had the honor of interviewing Dick Hill, and I hope the questions and answers below provide you with a greater understanding of this interesting profession. Enjoy!
How did you get involved in narrating books?
A friend of mine, Brit actor, was narrating for Brilliance Audio. They were looking to cast a WWII combat novel, and he suggested I get in touch. I did, recorded a couple pages of something similar I got off the supermarket shelf on a crappy little recorder and sent it to them. (They weren’t looking for audio quality, they’d provide that, they wanted to hear me read). Booked the gig, and knew I’d found my niche. Never looked back.
On average, how many hours does it take to record a book?
Depends on the length of the book, type of text etc. Generally I finish an hour of recorded book in around 75 minutes.
Do you read chapters straight through, or do you stop and start and edit the pieces together later to establish a seamless sound?
Susie is upstairs engineering and directing, and whenever I stumble or miss a word, we stop, roll back to a likely spot, then do a punch edit. She plays back for me to hear a lead in, then does an on the spot edit and I come right in and do it right. Generally.
How many audiobooks do you narrate each year?
I’d guess around 40 a year now, give or take a dozen.
From a business standpoint, do you have long-term contracts with publishers where you have to narrate a certain number of books a year, or are you hired on a book-by-book basis?
I’m paid per finished hour.
How are audiobook narrators compensated? Is there an upfront payment, a monthly retainer, royalties based on sales, or a combination of all three?
There are some works being done through ACX on royalty share, but I work strictly for fee. If Lee wanted to do a royalty share, or Stephen King, I’d be happy to, but those are not the kind of authors hoping to get someone to narrate their book on spec.
How do you make sure your recordings don’t include any background noise from inside the studio, like turning pages?
I’m quiet. I’ve developed a technique for moving from one page to the next that’s mostly soundless. If I do screw up, we just do an edit.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job and what is the most rewarding?
I find all the aspects I deal with challenging, but in a very good way. I relish the challenge of presenting the listener with the best, most compelling delivery I can achieve. It’s of the moment work, which I love doing. I don’t pre-read things, with a few exceptions. Susie preps the books, makes a vocabulary list to check, and gives me a character sheet noting gender, age, any accents mentioned or implied, etc. I use those to guide my performance. Since she’s prepped the book, she can alert me to any potential traps (e.g., don’t make the mystery caller too this or that) so the voice seems reasonable to fit the character it turns out to be. She generally doesn’t tell me just who those people are, or really, anything beyond performance guidance. I like to discover what happens right along with the listener. I love flying by the seat of my pants, doing cold reads. I’m good at them, and I think the sense of discovery helps with my work. Most rewarding?…pretty much all of it. Plus the checks. Getting paid to have fun, in large part.
Without naming it, have you ever had to narrate an awful book? If so, did you have to work harder or approach it differently than a book of higher quality?
Yes. Harder work. A couple were so bad I felt like a five dollar whore faking passion. I turned down any more work from those authors. Pretty lucky now, the publishers I work with most often have a very clear idea of the sort of things I like to do, and I’m seldom offered work I’d find offensive.
I’ve noticed that some of your books feature interesting audio effects to immerse the listener in the story. For example, Jack Reacher might be talking to someone on the phone and the voice on the other end is altered to sound as if it’s coming through a phone line. How is this done?
Those were probably earlier books. I prefer eschewing that sort of thing myself. If you’re gonna’ have a phone effect, then how about ambient noise, traffic, door slams, gunshots? I don’t include any effects or ask for any. I’m not aware of any publishers adding them any longer, though I’m not sure. I don’t listen to audiobooks myself, my own or anyone else’s. It’s immensely pleasurable to record books, but once I’ve done that why would I want to listen to them? Been there, done that.
What kind of personal preparation goes into getting to record an audiobook and how do you preserve your voice?
Occasionally if Susie gives me a heads up about a particular accent, I may go online to find samples of 15-year-old Malaysian girls with lisps raised in Irish Catholic orphanages till age ten then indentured as servants to a family of Germans with a Spanish head of the household. Other than that, I pretty much have a handle on how I approach accents, etc. Might not be Meryl Streepalicious, but then she has to perfect an accent for several hundred lines in a few projects per year. I do many more characters, many more books, so while I do try to do a good job with accents and dialects, my primary concern is to create characters and narrators that feel well motivated and interesting and further the author’s intent.
Recently, three of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, Die Trying, Tripwire and Running Blind, were rerecorded by another audiobook narrator, Jonathan McClain, and released on Audible. There was a backlash from fans for you not being the narrator. Do you know why your versions of these books were replaced and will you continue to be the voice of future Jack Reacher audiobooks, including Never Go Back, which comes out in the fall?
Yes, I’ve heard from a number of concerned folks. I think what that is, audio rights for the UK are issued separately, and Mr. McClain has been doing those. I will be doing the latest Reacher, and unless something happens I expect to continue doing so. Folks just have to look carefully to ensure they’re getting the reader they prefer, I guess.
Aside from narrating books, what other kinds of acting have you done?
I’ve worked regionally in live theatre, onstage. No film, some commercial video, ads and the like.
You and your wife have extensive experience in the audiobook industry. How did you two meet, and have you had the opportunity to collaborate on a project?
We met when she played Guinevere and I played Arthur in a production of Camelot. In addition to our work onstage, once we entered the audio world I directed her several times, she’s engineered and directed me on lord knows how many projects, and we’ve recorded a number of dual reads, one of which won us both Audies, the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar or a Tony. Or a Westchester Kennel Club best in show I suppose.
What projects are you currently working on that fans should look out for in the months to come?
Expecting that Reacher script soon, think there’s a fall release. Doing the last of the Stephen White series about Dr. Alan Gregory, which is heartbreaking for us. Love his writing and character insight, and one supporting character, Det. Sam Purdy, is one of the characters nearest and dearest to my heart. Susie’s prepping it this week, and is raving about how good it is and wailing about the fact that it is the last.